a peek inside the fishbowl

29 Apr, 2014

Pitching paper towels: part one

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Oh! Things!|Yaktivism

When I was a kid we always had a decorative napkin holder on the kitchen table. It was there when we ate, and even when we weren’t. There was always a tidy pile of clean white paper napkins waiting inside the napkin holder. Everyone got one at every meal – tucked under the cutlery of course –  and if you needed another one while you ate you just took it from the holder. Sometimes extracting one from the holder would be tricky, because there were so many crammed in there.

I think we may have used cloth napkins for special occasions, like Easter and Christmas, but I can’t quite remember. It is likely that the pile of white paper napkins got switched out for special-edition paper napkins that had prints of holiday greenery on it instead. It’s also quite possible that for special occasions we swapped out the regular napkin holder for a fancier one. But that is neither here nor there. It was what I knew, so when I started my own household I took this practice with me. Paper napkins were always on the table, in a napkin holder.

At one point, several years ago now, I had a bit of an epiphany. I wondered why we were wasting our money on these things when we could easily use cloth napkins. And so we replaced our paper napkins with cloth ones. It was not hard to do. Some of our napkins are ones I’ve sewn, and others are ones I’ve purchased. Every once in awhile I buy and use paper napkins (such as cocktail napkins for a party), but these occasions are few and far between.

The cloth napkins are pretty low maintenance. Everyone gets their own and uses it for a couple of meals, at which point they get tossed in with the other laundry. They don’t even need to be ironed either. Easy stuff really.

But once again I got to thinking about all the paper products we use.

According to Wikipedia, a 2007 study shows the consumption of paper towels and other tissue products is highest in the United States, at around 24 kilograms per capita, with consumption higher than in Europe, and more than 500 times higher than in Latin America.

Why are we using so much? I hate that it’s been drilled into us by marketers that we can’t get by without paper towels, and we have grown to believe that paper towels are a critical component of every day household life. They’re made to seem indispensable, which is simply not true. Commercials show a mom wiping up a kitchen spill in the kitchen, and I wonder… can’t she just use a sponge? What did my grandmother use to wipe things up?

We live in a time and place in which convenience trumps everything else. And that’s not sustainable. So we are going to try to drastically reduce our use of paper towels here at Casa Fishbowl. But as we launch into this I have to ask myself, what are we using paper towels for right now? When I really think about it I realize that we’re not exactly paper towel addicts, but they do get used.

  • If a spill happens on the kitchen counter, we are likely to clean it up with the cloth we use for washing dishes. This cloth is washed regularly, in the washing machine and in the dishwasher.
  • If someone spills milk on the dining room table, I think the kids are more likely to make a dash for paper towels instead of the kitchen cloth. I’m more likely to go for the cloth.
  • Most cleaning is done with different cloths, except in the bathroom. Mirrors are cleaned with window cleaner and paper towels, and most other surfaces are cleaned with multipurpose spray and paper towels. (Both are from terra 20’s eco-bar.)
  • Kitchen uses for paper towel also include, wiping out greasy pans before putting them in the sink for washing, and microwaving bacon.
  • Dog barf is mopped up with paper towels. (This is going to be the toughest one for me.)
  • Killing centipedes.
  • The inside of the car is cleaned with spray cleaner and paper towels. (Although we’re moving away from that too.)

All of these things can be done with cloth; with cloth rags or cloths bought for a specific purpose. For example, our granite counter is cleaned with a pair of granite-polishing cloths (also from terra20) and occasionally with Method brand granite cleaner.

One of the things that tends to use up several rolls of paper towel around here is window cleaning. I’d be lying if I said that window cleaning is a regular chore around here. It gets done once a year, if that, but we were overdue, so I dropped by terra20 to see what they had in the way of window cleaning cloths. (I should mention terra20 is a Fishbowl patron, but this post was not prompted or sponsored by them in any way.) One of the sales people suggested I try the Wipe and Glow cloths. It was $5 for a big one; much cheaper than paper towels, and reusable! I thought I’d give it a try.

It’s not very fancy. In fact, the texture was a little startling. I don’t know what I expected but it was a little stiff. As per instructions, I filled a bucket of water, and swished the cloth around to get it wet.

Bucket of water

I should point out that there was nothing added to the water. It’s just a bucket of ordinary hot water. I wrung out the cloth and started wiping down our family room windows, starting from the outside where they face the deck and the street beyond. They were filthy from winter weather, construction dust (of which there has been plenty), and Piper’s nose prints. I didn’t use any window cleaner. And guess what? They came sparkling clean. I could hardly believe it.

Washing windows without a cleaner is tough to wrap my head around. How can this be possible, given that SC Johnson has been telling us for years that we need Windex, and that our windows can’t possibly be clean and streak free without it? (Answer: just because a product manufacturer tells us we need something doesn’t make it true. They just want to sell more product, and there’s no better way of doing this than by their product becoming a household habit.)

So this aspect of paper towel usage has been solved. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to using paper towels and cleaner on our windows.

Next up, cutting down on paper towel usage in the place we use them the most…

13 Responses to "Pitching paper towels: part one"

1 | LorrieD

April 29th, 2014 at 1:03 pm


Paper towel is usually a verboten item here. My husband like a few on hand for the wayward litter box bomb and I like them for the odd time somebody gets the barfs. Thankfully a roll lasts us a looong time.

I saw these cloths just this weekend, now I’m wishing i’d left the store with some. I just may have to go back. :) darn

2 | Jen_nifer

April 29th, 2014 at 1:14 pm


I believe most of our paper towel use is for windows/mirrors and to prevent splatters by covering food in the microwave.

I’ve seen others use plastic covers in the microwave to prevent splatters, but I’m not comfortable with plastic in the microwave. I’m curious what others use outside of these two options.

3 | Tudor

April 29th, 2014 at 1:39 pm


For ages now I’ve cleaned our windows with straight vinegar poured into an empty Windex spray bottle (the bottle must be ten years old by now!). I use a micro-fibre cloth (you can get them in the cleaning aisle at Loblaws) for the first pass to remove dirt, grime, etc., then I buff with a cloth diaper. The diapers are like magic – super-soft and don’t leave streaks.

We buy a six-pack of green (recycled) paper towels about once a year – and I definitely use them for squishing centipedes!

4 | Misty

April 29th, 2014 at 2:36 pm


I was just gifted one of those window cleaning cloths! That’s really the only place we use paper towels too, unless we’re cleaning up dog vomit (blech). Can’t wait to try it out!

5 | Greasy

April 29th, 2014 at 2:57 pm


All our paper towel use is linked to bacon (greasy bacon pans and greasy bacon). Hm…maybe SC Johnson invented bacon to create a need for paper towels?

6 | Harry Nowell

April 29th, 2014 at 3:09 pm


We haven’t bought paper towels for years but we do have a big drawer of T towels, cloths, etc. All the uses stated above?
We go to this drawer of cloths.

After washing we hang them on the clothes line, winter and summer. UV from the sun is a great stain remover/disinfectant:

7 | Brenda A

April 29th, 2014 at 7:23 pm


Good for you all for getting rid of paper towels! My super-user father stresses out when he is in my home because we have not purchased or used paper towels in over 10 years. He literally cannot fathom how lives can be lived without paper towels. Kleenex are also well on their way out the door. Lovely hankies and baby blankets cut up make wonderfully soft snot wipers.

8 | Rebecca

April 30th, 2014 at 8:21 am


love this post! We aren’t 100% paper towel free but go through so many less now. I use clothes/tea towels/napkins for almost all my spills – the rest of the family is still learning.

I love the wipe and glow cloths! They get softer each time you wash them too. They can be cut into smaller sizes if need be but are great on appliances, windows etc.

Great tips!!

9 | Mimi

April 30th, 2014 at 1:49 pm


I haven’t used paper towels for at least five years, and probably a lot lot lot longer than that. (I used to by ’em for use in the baby’s diaper for the solid stuff that I could just peel and drop into the toilet). We got to using face clothes for everything from faces to kitchen duty. To me, they’re all wash clothes, and cloth napkins are what the kids use all the time …

re windows – soapy water, wash, rinse, repeat, and then for streak free, polish with newspaper!

Now if you need to use soap, try Purple Urchin (LOVE LOVE LOVE their products, especially their hair soap … easier living with a house with a lot of boys …)

10 | Lisa from Iroquois

April 30th, 2014 at 5:41 pm


I keep paper towels around but most often they can used for cat accidents and draining bacon (which we don’t have often either). So a package of paper towels can easily last a year or more. For cleaning windows it’s vinegar and water and newspaper. Something about the newspaper makes the difference. Don’t know if it’s the paper fibres or the ink on the paper but definately gotta use newsprint for the windows around here. Same thing when I take our fireplace apart to clean the glass. As for paper napkins I guess we gather them up during trips to McD’s etc. They only come to the table for finger foods like wings, or messy stuff like spaghetti.

11 | Delta

May 1st, 2014 at 10:25 am


This post has got me thinking. I’ve never really questioned our paper towel use. I don’t we think we use them excessively – one roll seems to last us for quite a while. But why not just use cloths (at least for non pet related messes – we have a cat). As for windows, having been using vinegar/water and microfiber cloth for while now – works great!
Thanks for the food for thought:)

12 | Melissa

May 1st, 2014 at 9:26 pm


I grew up in a developing country, so never really had access to paper towels. For windows and glass, we used crumpled newspaper and water, just as you would use a paper towel or a cloth. The results are great (literally no visible streaks on the glass), however, there is some ink transfer to your hands.

We also used the husk of coconuts as scouring pads for dishes – haven’t been able to find a good substitute for this.

13 | Pitching paper towels, part two >> a peek inside the fishbowl

May 20th, 2014 at 4:18 pm


[…] back I wrote about our family quest to remove paper towels from our lives, and I’m happy to say that we have been on track and things are going […]

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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