Living Without Paper Towels

cloth napkin

As I started reversing the process and started getting the factory out of my pantry, I started to think about all the things in my kitchen which people didn’t have before my grandparents were alive. Coincidentally, as I was having these thoughts, I happened to see a documentary film called Greedy Lying Bastards which connected the Koch brothers with commonly purchased products like paper towels. These two diverging trains of thought finally pushed me over the edge and made me give up paper towels.

That was more than a year ago but I’ve done it. I’ve completely given up paper towels and here is what you need if you want to do the same.

Stop buying paper towels.

You can’t stop until you stop. I tried minimizing the use of paper towels, but the household dependency on them didn’t end until I stopped buying them.

Buy more kitchen towels.

If you want to live without paper towels, you are going to need more kitchen towels. They don’t have to be expensive, but they should be 100% cotton and if you want to maximize absorbency, you should stop using fabric softener. You may want to keep two kinds of towels, one for cleaning and one for everyday use, but I didn’t do that until after the first year or so. Now, I keep one stack of older, more stained, cleaning towels, and one stack of newer, less stained, kitchen towels for every day use.

Create a place to hang towels in use.

This should be near the sink or near wherever people will reach for when they would reach for a paper towel. I have hooks for three towels which are in use and one is generally sitting on the counter below, ready for easy access and use during miscellaneous kitchen tasks.

Create a place to hang dirty towels where they can dry before laundering.

If you don’t want smelly laundry, you need somewhere to hang towels which are too dirty to use, but too wet to put in the laundry. You will need to train the people in your kitchen to put the dirty towels in the right place where they don’t get used again until clean. Towels which have touched the floor, have cleaned up raw meat messes, or which have been used a lot should be hung to dry but should not be used again. I have three hooks in a prominent location for towels in use and four hooks for dirty towels in a more out of the way location.

Buy cloth napkins.

You may want to buy one kind for every day use and one kind for more formal dinners, but either way, you will need enough to replace paper towels or paper napkins at every meal. How many you will need will depend on the size of your family and I recommend 100% cotton napkins for their more natural feel and for their better absorbency.

Use cookie sheets and cooling racks for draining bacon and fried foods.

I didn’t think of this until I stopped buying paper towels, but a cooling rack on a cookie sheet is actually better for draining fried food than a paper towel on a platter. It prevents condensation and keeps the food much crisper than the paper towel alternative you are used to. I tried newspaper once, but the chemicals on the print grossed me out.

Buy cotton and silk bags for storing produce in the fridge.

I used to store lettuces, herbs and produce wrapped in paper towels, in plastic bags. Over the years, I learned that plastic was death to vegetables in the fridge, but paper towels were my saving grace. Eventually, I found the kootsac etsy store where you can buy the best cotton and silk bags for produce storage. Esty store owner Morgen sells the silk bags for bulk dry goods, but I recommend them for lettuces, greens and herbs which are best stored in the crisper. For sturdier produce, like broccoli and scallions, I use the cotton bags, also purchased from the kootsac etsy store.

Use terry cloth towels for washing windows and mirrors.

Wash off the dirt and mess with a wet cloth and buff dry with a dry terry cloth towel. You can’t get a streak-free clean with a damp towel, but you can buff a mirror or window streak-free with a dry terry cloth towel. You don’t need paper towels or newspaper, and you don’t even need window cleaner.

Use kitchen towels for patting dry meat.

Anyone who cooks meat well knows a dry muscle is necessary for a good sear. So, pat your meat dry with a kitchen towel, just like you would with a paper towel. Hand wash the towel in the sink with some dish soap and hang it to dry with the dirty towels. Red meat will stain your towels but you can keep two kinds of towels to contain the staining.

When you make a horrible mess, sacrifice a towel or two.

Sometimes, you make a horrible mess, and sometimes that means you have to throw out a towel or two. My first real mess after giving up paper towels was a quart jar of sugar-mint syrup dropped from waist-high, right in front of an open fridge. It was horrible, and there was glass everywhere, and there was a house full of people waiting for dinner when it slipped out of my hand. The first words out of my best friend’s mouth were, “I bet you wish you hadn’t given up paper towels now!” I swept up the mess, broken glass and all, with a couple towels and threw them away without a second thought. I did the same when I dropped a jar of honey and I am sure there will be other horrible messes in my future.

Good luck!

Giving up paper towels is a relatively big adjustment for any household, but it is possible. It takes a certain amount of retraining, but humans lived for thousands of years without paper towels, just like they lived without pasteurization and microwaves and saran wrap. You don’t realize how many times a day you reach for a paper towel until you actually stop buying them, but there is something so gratifying about not putting them in your shopping cart ever again. Since I gave up paper towels, I have also given up plastic storage bags and saran wrap and I’ve never owned a microwave. You’ll be surprised what you can live without if you try.

More about Wanda Shapiro • Novels by Wanda Shapiro


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