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Go Green and Save Green: Swap Paper Towels and Napkins for Cloth


I’m excited to be participating in the Go Green & Save Green Series with several other green bloggers this week!  We’ll be talking about different areas of green and natural living, showing you how to go green while saving money at the same time!  Be sure to check out the great links at the end of this post!

How To Switch From Disposable Paper Towels and Napkins to Cloth

One way that I’ve reduced spending and waste in our household is to replace disposable paper towels and napkins with cloth.  Here’s how you can switch from disposable cleaning items to cloth.

  1.  Go to a store and buy the cheapest dish cloths/ wash cloths you can find.  I usually use white ones, but you can get whatever colors suit your fancy. If you are really industrious, you could knit or crochet yourself some. You don’t want to be worried about messing them up, though, because you are now going to be using them for almost all of your needed clean ups in the house.  So, I have certain wash cloths for the kitchen and clean up and I have much nicer ones that we use to wash our face.  I’ve also “downgraded” the face wash cloths when they become too worn into dish cloths. I use my cloths for everything from washing dishes, wiping down counters, wiping up spills, washing walls, and wiping grimy little hands and faces.
  2. Put your paper towels away and make the dish cloths  and towels as convenient as possible. I think putting the paper towels away is really important because if they are sitting out on your counter, they are so much easier to use than the dish cloth. I have mine under the sink, so they’re still convenient if I need one, but they are not in my (or my family’s!) line of vision. I’m at the point now where I only use a paper towel for greasing my iron skillet and for really gross clean ups around the house (read: vomit).  I’ve finally gotten our system set  up where my husband and kids go to the dish cloth drawer before they go to the paper towels and that makes my little crunchy frugal heart happy.
  3.  Figure out how your system for washing the dish cloths and towels. I go through 3 to 4 dish cloths a day. I’m admittedly a little Type A about them, so I use a new one for my kiddos’ faces and hands after every meal. We dry our hands on a dish cloth, so I have one for drying hands and another one for drying dishes. I change both of those daily. (Again, a little Type A.) I just toss all of these cloths in with my regular wash. I do a load of laundry almost every day, so I just put them in with that. If you don’t like that idea, perhaps you could put a bucket under your sink and toss the used cloths in there to be washed once or twice a week. I used to do that, but it was too inconvenient for me, so I switched to my current system.
  4. Streamline your process.  I know that if something takes too much time or effort with stuff like this, I just end up not doing it. I’ve streamlined my process of putting everything up by not folding the dish cloths. It saves me some time and they are just going to get pulled out and used again, so I don’t waste my time folding them. Besides, its kind of nice to have permission to have a drawer where you can just shove stuff in and close it without a second guilty thought. (I know. I’m Type A about replacing the cloth items in the kitchen and not about how the drawer looks. Chalk it up to my idiosyncrasies.)


Photo Credit: The Felt Mouse

As for napkins, I looked for cloth napkins at yard sales and second hand stores and picked them up there for pennies. They don’t match, but that’s okay, because then I don’t stress about getting them dirty or stained. (And my kids like the variety!) Cloth napkins are super easy to make too. I have a drawer in our dining room right next to the table filled with cloth napkins so they are convenient and close to hand. Those also go in the normal wash at our house, but you could throw them in with the dish towels and cloths if that’s what you prefer.  I don’t even buy disposable napkins any more.

How Much Can You Save?

I’m going to do a quick cost comparison. I know there are many different factors, using coupons, buying in bulk, etc. I’m going to make these calculations based on the kind of paper towels I buy on the very rare occasion that I buy them.

A 12 roll package of Bounty paper towels  at Sam’s Club is $19.48 right now. At Wal-mart, you can buy a pack of 9 “utility” white wash cloths for about $4.00.

Okay, here comes the math, so skip skip this part if this isn’t your “thing.”

One roll of paper towels costs $1.62. It’s Select-A Size paper towels and there are 154 sheets per roll. In my mind, one sheet is equivalent to 1/2 of one paper towel . However, that makes it a bit confusing, so we’ll stick with the 154 number. That means for every little rectangle you pull off, use, and throw away, you are spending roughly one cent.

Based on the figures given above, one wash cloth costs $0.44. So, I’d have to use each wash cloth 44 times to make up my costs. (I realize I’m not accounting for water to wash it, gasoline, energy needed to produce it, etc. I can only do so much math at a time!) That sounds like a lot, but when you think about over the course of a day (since I got through 3 0r 4 dish cloths a day), over the course of a year or more, the savings really start to add up!

Not Only Frugal, But Green Too!

Besides the cost savings involved, by switching to cloth, you are also saving a lot of waste from going to the land fill.  Not to mention saving trees from being cut down in order to produce paper towels. Did you know that paper towel usage accounts for 254 million tons of trash every year? Here’s another startling paper towel statistic:

If every household in the U.S. used just one less 70-sheet roll of virgin fiber paper towels, that would save 544,000 trees each year. Change that to using three less rolls per U.S. household per year, and that would save 120,000 tons of waste and $4.1 million in landfill dumping fees.

Switching from disposable paper products to reusable cloth is one way you can save money and be a good steward of our planet at the same time. Sounds good to me!

Check Out These Other Great Posts in the Go Green & Save Green Series:

Stacy at A Delightful Home — 5 Natural Cleaning Tips

Michelle at Open Eye Health — Less is More with Natural Cleaning

  1. LindaBranam permalink
    09/13/2011 6:26 am

    I was taught by a depression era (and poor) mother……we never used paper towels except for bacon grease! Soooo I don’t use them either. It’s fun to watch you young(er) girls learn what our mothers (your grandmothers) taught us.

    • Kate permalink*
      09/13/2011 6:44 am

      My grandma laughs about that too when I tell her about all of my crunchy escapades. She’s been doing most of this stuff for years. :)

    • 09/13/2011 11:09 pm

      I mostly use them for bacon grease, too. :)

  2. Erin permalink
    09/13/2011 9:58 am

    I came over here from Stacy @ a Delightful Home and now I’ve added you to my google reader. I’ve thought about switching to cloth napkins and more washcloths. I never thought about the savings. With four kids we go through a lot of paper towels. Now that there are more garage sells going on, along w/some estate sales, I’m going to keep my eye out for cloth napkins. And there are plenty of places I can get washcloths for cleaning up in the kitchen, kitchen table and bathrooms.

    • Kate permalink*
      09/13/2011 12:41 pm

      Welcome, Erin! Thanks for stopping by! It really is easier than you think it will be. And the good paper towels are expensive!

  3. Mamabellum permalink
    09/13/2011 10:17 am

    I was just thinking as I was cleaning yesterday and using a lot of paper towels about how wasteful it is! I may as well get a little hippier and add cloth napkins/paper towels to the cloth diapers and vinegar cleaning:)

    • Kate permalink*
      09/13/2011 12:42 pm

      Everybody’s doing it, Sara. :) Although you should wait until your daughter stops being sick. I most definitely break out the paper towels when I’m dealing with a sick kiddo.

  4. 09/13/2011 12:25 pm

    A “twofer” – that is, two blogs in one week (or really, two days!). Now you are really putting my blog to shame. Maybe I will have to give it some lovin’ again this week just to keep up. And your cruchiness puts my lazy butt to shame. When (IF!) we ever have our own place again, I might have to institute some of your rag ideas. I’ve always admired you for this one b/c I love me some paper towels.

    • Kate permalink*
      09/13/2011 12:44 pm

      I’m bringing it, Rachel. I’m going to try to post two more days this week, so watch out! :)

  5. 09/13/2011 2:33 pm

    Wow! That statistic is pretty awesome. I started using cloth napkins this year and I’m thrilled with the switch. Hubby not so much. :)

  6. 09/14/2011 9:14 am

    I love that you did the math! Math hurts my head. Great article

  7. Jessy G. permalink
    09/14/2011 11:25 am

    I work for a green housecleaning company and microfiber cloths are what we used to clean and dust rooms. I love microfiber cloths over paper towels anyday. At Costco or any wholesale retailer, it’s cheaper to buy bright orange “shop towels” that are microfiber over going to fred meyers or wal mart for “speciality cleaning cloths.”

    • Kate permalink*
      09/19/2011 9:32 pm

      I have some of those shop towels, but I bought the neon green ones. They are great for dusting and soaking up spills!

  8. 09/14/2011 12:10 pm

    Wonderful post with so many great tips! I especially like the idea of just putting the paper towels away so that they aren’t easy to use … and I agree that the system has to be easy to make it a habit. We gave up paper towels/napkins years ago. I use old clothes (ones with rips & holes that can’t be worn any longer) and make cleaning clothes out of them. For napkins, I keep my eye open at second hand stores and collect them … they are always cheap and almost never used. I’ve acquired quite a stack of both napkins & cloths which is convenient because I don’t have to wash them often … I just toss the dirty ones in with another load of laundry … so I don’t even spend any additional resources to wash them. And I love having a variety of colors and designs on my napkins … it makes for a pretty table!

  9. Jim permalink
    09/14/2011 2:51 pm


    Aren’t you discounting the cost and impact on the environment of the increased loads of laundry that it takes to wash all of the dish clothes you use. Although you recognize that, I think it bears talking about. It would be a conservative estimate to guess that over the course of a year, there would be dozens of loads of laundry just from all of the cloths you use, no? You’re not counting the cost of the laundry soap and the electricty to wash and dry them. There are also gallons and gallons of water part of that process as well.

    Just a thought…


    • Kate permalink*
      09/19/2011 9:36 pm

      Good point. I have thought about that. However, since I throw them in with my regular laundry any way, its kind of a moot point for me (I’d be doing a load anyway), but it might not be for everyone. I also usually line dry my clothes, so the dryer costs also aren’t figured in for me. It actually might not be cheaper to do cloth if someone has to wash clothes at a laundromat.
      I have no idea how to figure out environmental impact from washing clothes, though. I do use environmentally friendly washing detergent and no fabric softener….
      I do think its more environmentally friendly to reuse instead of buying and throwing away, even though I don’t have exact numbers to back it up. However, even if it ends up being equal, I’d still do it because that is less money coming out of my pocket on a monthly, which at this point in our lives we are trying to cut every cost possible so I can continue to stay home with my kiddos. :)
      Thanks for stopping by Jim!

  10. 09/15/2011 1:05 am

    Hi..this is Gr8..i also repurpose old sheets pillow cases etc..

  11. 10/01/2011 2:53 pm

    Great post. I LOVE cloth and use cloth everything. Thanks for great tips. Will be reading through your blog. Love the way you write and your ideas. Will be back.
    I wrote a post on cloth too please check it out on:

  12. 10/03/2011 2:42 am

    Good grief! 21 comments here! Although it looks like some of them are yours, Kate. :-P So . . . what I want to know is: is cloth “toilet paper” next for you!?? How about reusable/washable feminine products (gasp!)!?? Just curious!!

  13. Roberta permalink
    09/27/2012 8:02 am

    Our Walmart in Yelm sells washcloths 18 for 4 dollars so I bought three bundles and use these for family cloth. I bought a cute basket at the Goodwill with a 30% of coupon then went to my favorite thrift sore and bought several cloth napkins for 35 cents each and placed then in the baskets which sits right on my table.


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