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The Recyclist: Tea towels vs. paper towels

March 25, 2010 |  7:14 am
Tea Towel stack

Turns out I'm doing something right. Sometimes this experiment -- sorry, life change -- seems to only shine a spotlight on what I do wrong. But I've got the upper hand on towel use.

Take paper towels. According to The Green Book -- the bestselling guide to greening the planet -- we are a paper towel-loving nation: "A decrease in U.S. household consumption of just three rolls per year would save 120,000 tons of waste and $4.1 million in landfill dumping fees." The guide suggests buying the kind of paper towel rolls that come with smaller size sheets. That is a terrific suggestion.

But I have one that's even better: You can replace most of your paper towel usage with tea towels and cloth napkins. Bar keep towels are also great for kitchen clean-up.

Now, do not get me wrong: I always have a roll of paper towels on my kitchen counter. That's really the only option for, say, wiping out the pan frying bacon,  or cleaning the bottom of the kitchen trash can after a bag leaks. But for run-of-the-mill kitchen and dining stuff, I use tea towels and cloth napkins. It's really not a hassle at all, and I ultimately save money. Read about how after the jump.

Carroll 232 The key to my approach is having lots of tea towels and cloth napkins. This way, you only have to do the laundry every other month or so. I get the cheapest lint-free cotton I can find at Target, Kohl's, and dollar stores. (I don't care if they match my kitchen colors, or if I'm using Christmas towels in June.) Same thing with cloth napkins. I have nice, matching napkins for guests to use. But my husband and I use bargain bin cloth napkins for everyday.

I recently bought a batch of bar keep towels at Sam's Club: 24 towels (each about the size of a large wash cloth) for about $10. The 12-pack of paper towels I usually buy at another big-box store is roughly $15. But I get to use the bar keep towels over and over again -- plus, there's nothing going into the landfill.

My cloth towels go anywhere a paper towel will: I use a damp tea towel to wrap herbs to keep them fresh in the crisper. I stretch a tea towel out on the counter so that wet dishes have a place to air dry. (I oppose hand-drying dishes. My time is much better spent watching Timothy Olyphant in "Justified.") I use them to  wipe down the kitchen counters, or scrub down the fridge.

Personally, I put all my dirty napkins and towels into their own hamper in the garage and wash them together every six to eight weeks. Nitpickers might ask whether it wastes more energy to generate the hot water and laundry soap needed to wash all those towels... blah... blah... blah.... The whole point of this exercise -- I mean life change -- is to stop throwing stuff into the garbage.

To further reduce my itch for paper towels, I've recently started draping the paper towel holder with tea towels, and stack more tea towels in front of it. I'd have to scratch my way through a forest of tea towels in order to get a paper towel. I've made it easier to reach for a tea towel -- and put my own laziness to work for me.

And that's the best kind of progress.   

Please let me know any places where I can find cheap tea towels and cloth napkins. I'm always on the lookout for more.

-- Rene Lynch