November 3, 2009

November baby steps challenge: paper towels

It's a new month, and time for another baby steps challenge!

Back in April, I wrote this post about how I wanted to make some simple changes to incorporate more "green" behaviors into our lifestyle. So far we've tackled: stopping junk mail and catalogs, air-drying laundry, composting, switching to natural cleansers, and using less water. Hooray.

Now, I don't mean to imply that all these behaviors are taken care of, they're still a work in progress. I air dry the laundry most days, but not always because of our schedules. I'm often doing laundry in the evening and don't want it to sit overnight. We're about 50% switched over to natural cleansers, but it's going to take some coaxing to get my husband to let go of his practically lifetime supply of Clorox (he buys in bulk). And I compost basically everything that can be composted, but I'm not sure what's going on in those bins because I still don't see any worms. I may have to go on a worm search soon.

So I'm far from perfect, but I feel pretty good about the changes we've made so far. This month we're going to tackle the last of the challenges I set back in April: deal with our paper towel usage. I struggled to even come up with a title for this post, because I hesitate to say "give up paper towels." I just don't think we can do it. But I'm going to make an effort to use a lot less. Here are the steps I've taken to help us out:

1) Cloth napkins: We're using some we already had, plus some hand-me-downs from a friend. I had no trouble making this switch, but my husband seems to have a hard time with it. He still prefers using a paper towel, and I'm not sure why.

2) I tore up more rags for cleaning. We're lazy about grabbing paper towels for cleaning, when it's just as easy to use a rag if it's available.

3) I bought a couple of "dish rags" to use in the kitchen instead of paper towels for all kinds of minor things. This is what we used during my childhood, so I don't think it should be too difficult to get back into that habit.

A few steps we've already taken are that my husband is buying the paper towels that separate into a much smaller section, and he also bought a plastic contraption to use in the microwave that you place over plates instead of a paper towel.

I know for some people they could just give up paper towels entirely, cold turkey. But I'll be happy if we use a lot less and go from there.

Please share your tips and suggestions in the Comments section. And let us know if you want to join in the challenge!


CB said...

So here is my questsion - what exactly do you use paper towel for? I've never been a paper towel user (I think my roommie and I have gone through maybe three roles since moving to our current appartment two years ago). I just rarely find any need for them.

Angela said...

See, I should hang around you for a day or two. Actually, I should write down when I feel the need to use one. I think it's mostly in place of a rag, but for example: to kill a moth on the wall (a tiny pantry moth, not a big moth- gross).

Good for you that you just don't see a need for them- makes it easier! We call that a "gimmee" in yoga- something you're naturally, effortlessly good at...

annet said...

Things we use paper towels for: draining bacon (we eat about 3 pounds per year) and then it's one towel over some newspaper; to deal with something really gucky when newspaper isn't flexible enough.

We use old newspaper, rags, sponges, and microfiber cloths for things we used to use paper towels for long ago. Microfiber clothes are the best for cleaning glass and mirrors, dusting, cleaning anything -- and a lot of the cleaning jobs with them can be done without using soap or cleaners. Then just wash the cloths to reuse. We use newpaper for dealing with things that are not water-soluable (and we trying to ease those out of our life as they are usually derived from petroleum).

Good luck and keep plugging away at it!

WilliamB said...

@Annet: if you cook your bacon on a roasting rack in the oven, the grease drips down into the pan and you don't need to drain it.

Angela - your stuff will compost even if there's never ever a worm in your bin. I promise.

Angela said...

annet- what exactly is a "microfiber" cloth, how is it different than say a rag made from a cotton t-shirt, and where do you get them?

williamB- thanks for the encouragement- I look in the first bin, and it almost looks like there are cobwebs in there...

Thanks for your comments!

Carla said...

Excellent beginning! We keep paper towels but a roll will last for several months, typically. Practically all our married life (nearly 37 years) we've used cloth napkins and nearly feel insulted if someone offers us a paper one, LOL.

Non-Consumer Girl said...

Hi Angela,

I use microfibre cloths too. You can purchase them at the supermarket in the cleaning section.

They have special fibres which are extra clever at picking up what ever you are cleaning.

There are different ones for different surfaces/ area of your home. eg one for glass surfaces, one for the kitchen, and different ones for the bathroom.

Then you just put them in the washing machine and line dry them and they are as good as new.

The advantage over rags, is that sometimes rags aren't as efficient at "pick up" when you wipe over a surface and can leave residue.

WilliamB said...

Angela, you might well be seeing things that look like cobwebs. Some of the "herd" - the microscopic critters that help decay - create a net-type structure. If you dig in your compost, the structure will stretch like the marshmallows in rice crispy treats. Always looked cobwebby to me.

Angela said...

WilliamB- I don't know what I'd do without you! Thanks a lot for the reassurance.

Non Consumer Girl- That might be the "dish rags" I bought, but I'll check the next time I'm at the market.

melissa bee said...

i gave up paper towels about six months ago, and it hasn't been that hard. paper napkins were a little more challenging, but we've done that also. i use rags for most cleaning, although i haven't been able to give up a sponge in the kitchen. does anyone have a good alternative for the scrubby side of a sponge?

i am inspired by your composting, which is my next challenge - i've been a little intimidated by it. i just joined a CSA though, so that will be good motivation. i'm wondering if composting is any less efficient in cooler weather .. anything harder about starting in november versus june?

Betsy Talbot said...

We use paper towels, but sparingly. A roll will last us a very long time.

We can include food-soiled paper towels in our compost bin, so I am more likely to use a paper towel for a messy food spill because of that. For everything else, I use a towel. (A microfiber towel is great for cleaning glass/mirrors.)

We switched to cloth napkins a few years ago. The funny thing is that we started doing this back when I felt like we were living a disposable existence and I just wanted things to be a little bit more special. So no more plastic cups, paper plates, paper napkins, etc.

It is just a bonus to me that it is also greener and saves us money.

WilliamB said...

Harking back to a previous baby step, using less water, read this article from The Economist about water & water politics in California.

Among other things, note that my data about agricultural water in CA were indeed very out of date: "Whereas agriculture used to consume 80% of the state’s water supply, today 46% of captured and stored water goes to environmental purposes, such as rebuilding wetlands. Meanwhile 43% goes to farming and 11% to municipal uses."

Jazzgal said...

Microfiber cloths have changed my life! They come in different sizes and different densities. I use the thinner ones in the kitchen instead of cloth rags. Wet them, squeeze them out and they will clean spills much better than cloth (they absorb more liquid) -- then when they get smelly, you just throw them in the washer! I use the larger, thicker ones dry for dusting (without furniture polish)just about EVERYTHING -- including the fabulous job they do on computer monitors! Also for mirrors, glass and washing our car. I bought a large pack of the thick, high-quality ones from Sam's Club (also available at Costco). Melissa Bee -- as for an alternative for the scrubby side of a sponge -- you can wad up the net material that fruit and poultry come in, and make a dish scrubber out of it!

Kristen said...

I am slowly starting to try to wean myself off paper towels at least some. It sounds like I need to get some microfiber clothes (we have them for our mop but not for the rest of the house).

Melissa Bee-Instead of a scrubby sponge I have a "pot scraper". It is plastic and is the perfect shape and size to get the gunk off your dishes with minimal water and residue. I think I got mine at Bed Bath and Beyond but here is a link to a similar one. Hope that helps!

Angela said...

Wow- I am really sold on these miracle "microfiber cloths!" I didn't know there was a special kind of cloth. I'm definitely going to get a few different kinds.

Betsy- I agree, I love it when changes we've made for other reasons also turn out to be green and frugal. For that matter, I love it when green and frugal are one and the same- not always true, as in the splurgy "eco boots" I was drooling over in my Yoga Journal last night. $165 for these gorgeous vegan boots- made out of some non-leather material. It reminded me of one of our funny family stories- when my brother bought a leather bag called a "Sir Lawrence" bag and it turned out to be pleather and he was so mad- we never stopped teasing him about the Sir Lawrence bag...

MelissaB- Maybe WilliamB will chime in, he's the compost expert, but I don't think it would make any difference when you start. it might just be a little harder for you to bring things outside while it's cold out. The composting was actually the baby step that most intimidated me, but has actually turned out to be incredibly easy. As soon as you start doing it, you won't want to throw that stuff in the trash. And with a CSA, you'll be generating a lot more of it with stems and carrot tops, etc. that you might not have gotten at the market, so you'll have an extra incentive. Good luck!

WilliamB- Thanks so much for sharing that article!

Jazzgal- Thanks- that is so inspiring, and sounds so simple. I am definitely switching over- it seems everyone knows about these cloths but me!

Once again, I'm learning so much from my brilliant readers. Thank you all so much for commenting.

Angela said...

Kristen- Thanks for that link. I must admit I hadn't really even thought about the sponge since we only use about one per month.

Anonymous said...

We use holey white socks for cleaning in the kitchen & bathroom instead of paper towels.

tammy brackett said...

Angela! I started using cloth napkins at the beginning of the year but trying to switch BF to them is a task.
I make rag cloths from old tee shirts. Blue rags are for the bathrooms and white rag cloths are for the kitchen.
I also use these in my garden.
I never use a paper towel and am mystified that I ever did.
Try the rag trick. It really works!

WilliamB said...

Melissa Bee - You can start your pile whenever you want. Whatever doesn't decompose before it gets close to freezing, will decompose in the spring.

Longer answer available upon request.

Angela, I'm glad you're finding it easy after all. You'll know you're a true convert when you find yourself wondering if you should take your food trash home to put in the pile.

Angela said...

Thanks WilliamB!

Angela said...

I checked the "dish rags" I got recently, and they're microfiber cloths! They're working great so far! Just need to get into the habit of using them for everything I would normally grab a paper towel for. This morning I had a mess that was going all in the trash, so I used a paper towel for that.

Unknown said...

I've been using microfiber cloths for 99% of my cleaning for a couple of years---they are so awesome. The only thing I was using paper towels for was for my kitty--known around here as the Queen of Barf---when she leaves me little surprises. However, I recently started cutting up old clothes and using holey socks instead, since we can't recycle fabric anywhere. Well, my son (8) saw a piece of his too short/too small/holey knee pants cut up on the floor covering kitty's latest mishap (I have to leave the cleaner on for a few minutes so cover it so no one gets a nasty surprise) and he got so upset! He didn't want his clothes used for rags. Sigh. He's the most sensitive kid in the world, yet I had no idea that would bother him. So I got smart and turned the rags inside out and so far, he hasn't noticed. He should be used to having a frugal eco-freak for a mother!

Castal said...

If you are having trouble getting your man to use cloth napkins instead of paper towels, you can try to make them as easily accessable as possible. Put a pile of cloth napkins/towels where he would normally find the paper towels and keep it stocked well. Also, make sure to have a place to put dirtied towels nearby and easily visible or he won't touch them because the trash can is still easier.

Good luck! (and I still do use paper towels sometimes when I am frying things or for occasional jobs, but rarely)