Making the switch: Ditch your paper napkins and paper towels!

Posted January 12th, 2012 by Aimee in Entertaining, Green, Living

About three years ago I stopped buying paper towels and paper napkins and I’ve never looked back! If one of your goals or New Year’s Resolutions is to go green or to cut down on household expenses, this is a great way to do it. I haven’t added a mega-pack of paper towels or a 500 count package of napkins to my cart in over three years!

Instead, we have a large supply of cloth napkins, dish towels and rags that we use every day.

Yes, I did receive some criticism and push back when this all began. My husband looked for the paper towels for weeks. My mom threatened that if we stopped buying tissues she’d stop visiting. My father-in-law, I swear, didn’t use a single napkin during one entire visit because he just didn’t know what to do with the cloth napkins at his place during dinner!

I know you might be thinking that this is crazy or totally impossible for your family. But hear me out! After three years I can’t imagine turning back from cloth to paper–my son and I even take cloth napkins in our lunches and even our 2-year-old is used to wiping his hands and face with a cloth napkin!

You can do it, too! I believe in you!

You need to start by building up your supply of cloth napkins, dish towels and rags. The rags are the easiest and cheapest: we have rags made from old flannel PJ bottoms, from cut up bath towels and old t-shirts. I keep them heaped under the sink in a bin.

I’m sure you already have some dish towels and maybe even some cloth napkins (did you use them for a fancy holiday dinner?). Now is a great time to find them on sale–in fact, they go on great sales after every holiday. Yes, I use heavily-discounted Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day dish towels all year! Flea markets and antique stores are fantastic places to find inexpensive cloth napkins. Never know what to ask your in-laws for on your birthday or for Christmas? Dish towels and cloth napkins are always the right size!

Second, stop buying paper towels and paper napkins. Just stop cold turkey. It’s tough at first–you’ll be reaching for the paper towel roll all the time! But just start using those rags for wiping the counters, cleaning up spills. Get used to going through one or more dish towels every day. Some families have each person keep their cloth napkin and re-use it for several meals. We use a new one for each person per meal.

Third, come up with your system for laundry. I keep a re-usable canvas bag hanging on the door to our basement. When a rag, towel or napkin is dirty, it goes right into the bag. The bag is taken to the laundry room in the evening and goes into the next load of laundry. I don’t care about stains on our everyday napkins and dish towels but do keep an unstained set or two set aside for times when we have guests. As for the rags? They’re stained like crazy, but who cares?

I’m sure you’re thinking: I have enough laundry already! I promise that you won’t even notice a difference. What we use in a day or two always fits into the next load or two of laundry. Even when we line dried all summer, I never minded the cloth towels, rags and napkins. (In fact, they were the easiest things to pin to the line!)

Give it a try! You might just fall in love with cloth!

In order to assure you that she is not trying to be holier-than-thou, Aimee happily admits that she has a deep weakness for clearance-priced fancy paper cocktail napkins and currently has a small supply of them in her cabinets! You can read more about Aimee’s crazy life with her crazy boys at Smiling Mama and about family-friendly activities for getting out and about in Prince George’s County, MD, at Out by Ten.




12 Responses to “Making the switch: Ditch your paper napkins and paper towels!”

  1. Dawn Mooney

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot, actually, and I think you might have been the push we needed. I’m going to check for some sales and start building our supply. We have a while to make the switch, since we have a big supply of both paper towels and napkins right now due to our Costco shopping. But it might be nice, for both our wallet and the environment, if that’s the last purchase we make! Thanks, Aimee!

  2. Amy

    We ditched the paper napkins around the same time you did, and typically keep 1 napkin per family member for a few meals, then get new ones. We still have paper towels in the house, but only because I still have a supply from when we used to make our own baby wipes. I love my rags for cleaning. We used a bunch recently for a painting project. They got paint on them, but who cares!?

  3. Lydia

    We ditched paper towels and napkins years ago and don’t miss them at all…

  4. Jill

    We haven’t completely ditched paper towels – very handy for cleaning up chunks of dog vomit from the carpet – we are really good about using cloth for nearly everything else. I bought nicer kitchen towels cheap/on sale and that’s what we use for our daily napkins. Nice and big, and very absorbant on little faces and hands.

  5. carolyn

    We ditched the paper towels and napkins several years back as well and we keep a stash of miscellaneous rags under the sink, like you. Did take a while for the family to adjust, but they eventually broke the habit of looking for them. The only time I miss them is when I cook bacon, for absorbing all that grease! I was stuck on that one for a while and eventually started broiling the bacon on a rack on a cookie sheet, or broiling pan so the grease can drip away.

    • aimee @ smilingmama

      Carolyn — bacon is also my big challenge! We don’t make it often but whenever we do I desperately wish I had stashed away one roll of paper towels!

  6. Diego

    Your proposition is admirable and I largely support it, however do your calculations right! If you use your cloth napkins only once and then wash them, you end up using a lot of water, soap and energy each time, which might very well have a larger environmental impact than using paper. So please consider using cloth napkins several times before washing them! Same goes with dish towels…why do you need to go “through one or more dish towels every day”? Aren’t dish towel just used to dry dishes? If so, they will dry overnight and be ready for use the following day!
    Keep up the good work!

  7. Evelyn

    My husband works at a hospital and brings home the opened, unused surgery towels that would otherwise be thrown away. We Jane been using these as napkins for several years. I do buy cheap papertowels occasionally to use for things like lining a platter to absorb bacon grease. What a difference this has made in our grocery bill!

  8. Laura

    I paid almost nothing for my napkins when we switched over. Often I could find them looking brand new at thrift stores and garage sales for a quarter or less each. Some are so large that I use them as rags/towels when I need those. I only keep paper napkins to put in kid’s lunch boxes (and those are extras from drive thru meals), and a few paper towels for the occassional grease or gross clean up. After using the paper towels, I will add them to my compost pile so they don’t end up in the landfill.