Paper towels are just another form of non-recyclable paper waste, and you’re probably using them way more often than you need to. On average, according to the U.S. Census data and Simmons National Consumer Survey (NHCS), some 45.3 million Americans use eight or more rolls of paper towels a month. As a single-use product, paper towels are inherently wasteful (especially the more absorbent, multi-ply brands) and can contribute to deforestation. They’re also expensive—with the U.S. accounting for nearly half of the consumer market, according to data shared by The Atlantic—and unless you are composting them, using them when you don’t need to only adds one more piece of trash to our massive landfills.
Using a napkin or paper towel to clean up a spill or wipe of the sink may be a habit you fall back on when you could use a sponge. I personally was forced to reevaluate my paper towel addiction after surviving Thanksgiving at my sister’s paper towel-less home. As I cleaned up one spill or mess after another with a sponge or dish towel rather than a paper one, I began to ask myself why I use paper towels at all. Then when the ham started leaking all over the counter and floor, I remembered that yes, sometimes you do want to be able to mop of the mess and throw it in the trash.
I am not suggesting we abolish paper towels, but we could all probably stand to use them less often. Here are some examples of when paper towels are worth it, and others when you are probably better off grabbing something reusable instead.
Towels or sponges are more efficient on rough surfaces
Using paper towels on rough or textured surfaces like grout is a waste of time. The paper towels will rip or leave particles behind, adding to the mess you’re trying to clean up. For these tasks, use a sponge or scrubbing brush; it will stand up to the pressure needed to clean that rough surface, and you can use it time and time again.
Soak up spills on carpets with a towel
The same goes for wiping up carpets. A spill on the rug will come up better with a towel or washcloth than a paper towel. Paper towels do not have the absorbency of a towel, and if you press them into the rug (or, heaven forbid, try to scrub the spot), you will only add shredded paper towel fibers into the mix. Invest instead in more absorbent cleaning cloths that will better soak up the spill and leave no trace behind.
Use microfiber on glass, mirrors, and electronics
Your electronics generally require a softer touch than rough paper can provide—and the same goes for glass and mirrors. The tiny fibers in paper towels can scratch things like touchscreens and eyeglasses. Instead of reaching for a paper towel to wipe down your gaming controllers, tablets, cell phones, and other surfaces with microfiber cloths instead.
Use a cloth for small spills and messes
It can be hard to wean yourself off of thoughtlessly using a paper towel to clean up minor messes and spills, but these are just the times when you’d do the most good by picking up a reusable cloth instead. Paper towel commercials constantly remind us how absorbent they are when it comes to spilled juice and milk, but you can use a washcloth or a sponge to clean up the orange juice just as easily and probably more efficiently—Swedish dishcloths are a nice alternative; they are reusable and absorb many times their weight.
Wiping your hands
You most likely don’t use paper towels in your home bathroom to dry your hands (that would be a huge waste of paper!), so there’s no reason to use them that way in the kitchen while you cook. The sink is right there; rise any food off of your hands and then dry them on a dishtowel. Speaking of which: Definitely don’t use paper towels to dry dishes.
Do use paper towels for grease
Grease clean-up, on the other hand, might totally be worth a paper towel or two. Grease and oils like olive oil, butter, bacon fat can all stain cloths and make them very difficult to reuse. Use a paper towel to clean up excess grease or other substances that may render a cleaning cloth unusable. And you can still vary your habits to use them less often (for example, by placing greasy bacon on a metal rack instead of onto a paper towel).
Do clean up pet messes with paper towels
When your puppy has an accident or the cat coughs up a hairball, it’s challenging to think of grabbing the washcloth and then reusing it later to clean your countertops. Just use a paper towel and throw the whole thing away. We’re looking to reduce here. You can go as hard as you like—just keep in mind that while you can launder and disinfect washcloths often, the amount of water used to do so may negate some of the environmental benefits of avoiding using paper towels.