Country Living Series

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

America's weird paper towel obsession

Here's an interesting article I came across recently: Americans Are Weirdly Obsessed With Paper Towels.


People, it seems, are insanely devoted to paper towels.

I didn’t realize this until I put a blog post in 2014, asking readers what kinds of reusable items they’ve embraced. The biggest conflict, I found out, was giving up the ubiquitous paper towel.

I was entirely unaware of this conflict because we seldom use paper towels in our house. Needs are taken care of 99 percent of the time by either dishcloths or rags.


About five or six years ago, we "inherited" a 12-pack bundle of Costco paper towels. I keep a roll in the pantry for certain purposes (draining bacon grease; cleaning up dog vomit) and go through about one roll of paper towels every two years. That bale will last me many, many years.


Let me digress for a moment. When I was growing up, my mother kept a kitchen drawer full of plain white terry dishcloths. They weren’t decorative and neatly folded; they were practical and tumbled into the drawer. She had those dish towels in constant use. A dishcloth always hung near the sink, and when it got damp or soiled (four or five times a day), she’d toss it in the washroom. She probably had fifty dish towels on hand. Old dish towels were, of course, recycled into rags.

We do the same thing in our house. I keep one kitchen drawer dedicated to a jumble of clean dish towels.


A towel hangs from a holder attached to the cabinet door in front of the kitchen sink for convenient hand-drying. I change the dish towel anywhere from twice a day (for light kitchen duties) up to four or five times a day (for active kitchen projects).


My kitchen is not a place of calm beauty and matching d├ęcor; it is a place of practical food production. It would never occur to me to use a paper towel merely to dry my hands; that’s what dish towels are for.

I buy white terrycloth “shop rags” in a 60-count bale from Costco. A bale will last me for 10 years or more of hard use before the towels become ratty or worn enough to recycle into rags.


So, with dish towels so inexpensive and versatile, why are people so devoted to paper towels?

I think I got my answer many years ago while visiting a friend. I needed to wash my hands at her kitchen sink, where she kept a dish towel hanging from a hook. Naturally I reached for the dish towel to dry my hands ... and was so revolted I had to re-wash my hands and use a paper towel for drying. That’s because the dish towel was greasy, rank, and damp. It was one of those pretty decorative towels that evidently never got washed.

I’ve since learned that having decorative towels in the kitchen is fairly common for a lot of people. Decorative towels are expensive, so folks don’t have 50 or 60 tumbled in a drawer. They don’t change them or wash them on a regular basis. As a result, the towels are either (a) never used, because they’re so pretty; or (b) used so heavily that they get greasy, rank, and damp. No wonder paper towels are so popular.

What's the consensus here? Are paper towels worth the cost and waste?

36 comments:

  1. I use both. We have dish cloths (wash cloth size) and dish towels in constant rotation (ie washed every day) and use paper towels for messes and grease, to save on washing. It's a toss-up to me, which is more wasteful. My dad and I have both worked at a pulp and paper mill that produced TP, paper towels, tissues, and paper napkins. While you're absolutely right that we (culturally) overuse disposable products, it's worth considering that many of those paper products are made out of wood (a renewable resource) that isn't suitable for lumber, wood chips, and recycled paper. We're lucky where we live to have fairly cheap hydroelectric power, but in other areas the cost of doing laundry in power and in water usage is higher than it is in the PNW. Just something to consider :D

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  2. We use a lot of paper towels, I'm not a big fan of the cost but I don't mind that they are renewable/degradeable. I like the suggestion of shop towels, and simply have a washable glut. Our laundry room is small and poorly laid out though, and with 6 people we tend to do alot of laundry all ready. Something to work on in the new year!

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  3. I gave up paper napkins 100%. I keep a roll of paper towels for the same uses you do- but the roll is tucked away and not convenient. I have a basket on top of the microwave with cloth kitchen towels and dish rags. Some days, the entire basket of towels and dish rags end up in the washer. I like to clean my sink and change the towels when all the dishes are done for the evening.
    I'll be looking into the shop rags from Costco. Thanks for sharing that. I've found most of my towels at the thrift store where they'll bundle about 20 assorted towels and washcloths together for $5.
    SJ in Vancouver BC Canada

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  4. I detest paper towels and use as sparingly as possible. Mostly they are used for wiping gobs of grease from equip because containers are rarely available and take up to much room in the garbage. I don't have a burn barrel to use. I prefer shop towels for shop use cause they are washable. and plain old wiping towels for in house dusting etc. cause they are washable as well. The best thing I can think of to use paper towels for is to, once used, start fire in the stove with them. But then I'm not only frugal, I'm cheap.

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  5. Food spills, especially on the floor are a perfect use for paper towels.

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  6. I too use both. Icky things like bodily function accidents (dog, cat or human) get paper towels.I also use paper for bacon and any other greasy blotting of food. A single roll lasts me about three weeks.

    Most everything else gets cloth. I have dishcloths, only used for washing dishes, tabletops, stovetops, etc. I have dish towels, good old fashioned cotton flour-sack ones for drying clean dishes and NOTHING ELSE. I have terry kitchen hand towels that also double for quick grab hot pot holders and kitchen counter top slops and oops's (these tend to get greasy that won't adequately wash out so they get trashed and replaced about every two years). All towels get swapped out for fresh ones daily unless they get into something extra.

    Finally, I have rags for floors, and washing anything NOT dish, food or food prep surface.

    Also, for some future we all hope never happens, I have a good supply of "Potty cloths" stashed away along with cloth diapers and the supplies that will be needed for decent sanitation in case the Slop ever Hits The Fan.

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  7. I read yrs ago about giving up paper towels. I bought some cheapo dish washcloths from walmart, and popped them into a basket on the counter, where my paper towels used to sit. The family knows the rules....the cloth gets rinsed after every use, it gets tossed into the dirty clothes if it touches the floor, and I change it out every morning. I make my own dish towels with a pretty patterned cotton on front, and white muslin for the back, approx 15"x21". I change it out every am. It is for drying hands....NOT cleaning up messes. I pull a fresh one out if I need to dry dishes. I like pretty fabrics, and habe a wee fanric addiction, so I get to make pretties to hang from my stove handle....which we then use daily.

    I get grossed out by others' dish cloths...or worse, sponges, ewww....and by their dish towels.

    I make my own pretty cloth napkins! Double-sided pretty fabrics, cut out at 8.5"x10.5" , sewed right sides together, flipped, and topstitched. Then fold in half to use.

    I buy a three pack of paper towels about once a yr...we take them camping with us. Though we also take dish washcloths, dish towels, and cloth napkins. I keep one roll in the house for pukey issues. But we rarely get through 2 rolls a yr. I used to spend $14-16/month on paper towels.....now I spend $3/yr....we save a bit of $$$....

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  8. Ditto to Blue. I run my household almost the same way. We don't have a dishwasher, unless you count me, so I go through plenty of dishcloths and dishtowels. I pick up linen towels at thrift stores for pennies and love them! As towels and cloths, napkins and tablecloths wear out I use them as cleaning rags around the house. I look for 100% cotton, or linen to use as they are the best for me, and they make the best rags.

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  9. My husband buys shop rags by the pound....50 pounds or more at a time. That's what I try to use around here most of the time. But there are some things I don't want to "pick up" or wipe up with those. So, there are some paper towels in my kitchen, too.

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  10. Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Consuming paper towels is my vice! (that and a little rum in my eggnog during Christmas). I can always point the "but they're worse than me" finger at the disposable diaper crowd to ease my conscience.

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  11. We use paper towels exclusively in the kitchens and baths. My husband insists on paper towels as they are more sanitary than using a cloth that someone else has dried their poorly washed hands on. Few people spend the full 20 seconds washing their hands with soap, including between fingers and backs of hands.

    As a household with a member with a weak immune system, we are very careful about spreading germs from outside public places around.

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  12. We seldom use them. My very first financial adviser spoke to a college business class once and said "If you buy paper towels, you deserve to be poor." I didn't know that until years later than I wish I did, but his point wasn't just paper towels. The sad part is we are raised knowing no different until taught. I'm grateful I finally learned- better late than never. (Been using cloth for 6-7 yrs?)

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  13. I've got a tiny euro washer and i have to do at least 2 loads a day to keep up, so yeah, paper towels. They're compostable!

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  14. Paper towels torn in half are very good for cleaning swords after Iai practice. The cloth will retain the polishing stone residue and oils.

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  15. I have a combination of towels in my kitchen. Terry hand towels for hand drying, linen towels for dish drying and terry kitchen towels for most everything else. I've purchased linens at auctions which included huge brocade linen table cloths that I cut and hemmed into dish towels. I love them! I keep a roll of paper towels for grease clean up and don't use them for anything else. I probably use 4 rolls per year. I change my dishcloth at least once per day but usually don't change the towels more than twice a week. Of course, I'm the only one in the house so I know no one has used them to mop a spill off the floor! I have a lot of rags available for messes and keep a clothes basket at the bottom of the basement stairs for dirty rags. I toss the dirty ones from the top of the stairs and have to brag I'm pretty accurate at making the basket! I only wash rags with rags not with towels or clothes and I don't want the basket of dirty rags in the laundry room as I wait for a full load to wash.

    I haven't bought a paper napkin in over 20 years. Originally I made my own, but quickly realized they were readily available in thrift shops much less than the cost of fabric so I now have a drawer full of all kinds and colors of napkins for very little cost. When I was still working I even took a cloth napkin in my lunch box.

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  16. I love them for anything greasy, especially cleaning cast iron or wiping up in the oven. Probably go through too many, despite having a towel draw. This post will hopefully motivate me to cut back on the paper towel usage, save them only for oily things!

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  17. Good article, good points...like other commenters I use paper towels in the bathroom and kitchen for various sanitary reasons. Of course, I have a bundle of rags and towels that get changed out regularly. I like paper towels and do not see the need for paper napkins. Although, my cousin, did the math on boxes of tissue for colds, etc. versus napkins and determined that napkins are a far less expensive way to go. You will always see a pile of napkins on her coffee table to pamper your nose. Ha ha!Since the making of paper towels are from renewable resources and provide a livelihood for many people, I am all for them. When considering your home budget I think it wise to buy the least amount necessary. As stated above by another commentator, one must also consider the electricity and water usage to clean the rags and towels. Thanks, Pat...because your article made me think deeply on this issue, I can now stand firmly in the pro paper towel column. :)

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  18. I buy a big pack of microfiber towels in the car care section of walmart or target and use those to clean with. I also demote wash cloths to cleaning cloths as they wear out. We do use paper towels occasionally when it come to cleaning up animal messes in the house (our elderly Lab eats first and asks questions later, throwing up what he can't digest) but they are certainly not my go to.

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  19. I just want to add another two cents worth here. I think the opposite obsession is weird also. The obsession with "not cutting down trees". Paper towels, and most other paper products are made from trees grown in managed tree farms where the trees are replaced/regrown consistently. Think of the implication to the "farm" economy if all (or most) paper usage was stopped. If it was not financially advantageous to grow trees for paper pulp, the farmers would cut down the trees and grow something else that would be financially advantageous! Contrary to popular myths, we are not cutting down virgin forests to make paper towels. Deforestation happens in third world countries where political policies and corrupt governments keep the populace poor and prevent cheap, reliable energy from being produced, hence the need for cutting down trees to survive. It's a complicated problem for which there aren't simplistic answers.

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    1. Yep. From planting to harvest is 20 - 25 years here for the pines.

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  20. Thank you for this post
    The same is done at our house. Rags are used, not paper towels. I have just started my third package of costco paper towels since 1995. Waste of money , trees and earth's resources to use paper towels.

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  21. I use them primarily to keep grease out of the septic system, cleaning mirrors and for icky things. Dish rags are for counters and stove scrubbing. My husband is harder to train. He tends to forget to use the nice hand towels in the kitchen and goes right for paper. I salvage what I can for reuse. A roll lasts us 2 to 3 weeks. We use floursack towels in lieu of paper napkins for everyday, nice cloth napkins for special occasions.

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    1. Coffee filters are great for glass. No streaks.

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  22. I have not been able to find a suitable substitute that will get our mirrors and windows streak free. That's why I buy them.

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  23. I use paper for Grease or very Nasty things...my daughter bought me a supply of Bar towels !! for a Christmas present and they are VERY good for cleaning and spills .At 60 it is funny to realize I ONLY had fabric handkerchiefs , towels , napkins , rags for spills , growing up , now NO ONE seems to know how to use them , and a young person complaining about the high price of diapers said she couldn't even begin to think how difficult cloth diapers had to be to use ...it seems we have trained ourselves to use paper products. I use cloth for about everything , but I have a home washer , and everything gets changed at least daily .

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  24. Yes, we like Karen, use bar towels. I love that they can be bleached and last a couple years. We purchase them from a restaurant supply store for a pittance. Still use paper for grease and icky cleanups.

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  25. We stopped using paper products sometime ago. Wash cloths for cleaning and drying. I use inexpensive wash cloths to dry hands in kitchen after washing hands. They get used about 4-5 times before put into get washed. I made my own 2 ply Kleenex from flannel, so much softer. I also use family cloth for #1 in the bathroom, it's made from flannel also, so much softer and cleaner.

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  26. My "big" washer in the UK held a maximum of 8 kg of clothes and took roughly four hours to do a double wash-rinse run, and the dryer only grudgingly held that much and took about an hour and a half to plough through that load.

    Anything more than what I could reasonably expect to wash in a week required a special run to the laundrette where I could expect to sit about three hours waiting for everything to get done.

    Given that the washers would cost me from £3.20 to £4 per load and the dryers would cost 20p in three minute increments, using cloth towels was a complete non-starter there as well.

    The local council also recycled paper waste, and any paper towels that weren't completely soiled with grease or food were acceptable.

    This apparently included the paper towels that were used as over-sized tissues -- nobody from the local council told me to stop recycling those "bogie bearers". :-)

    I could switch to cloth towels in the US since my washer and dryer here hold over a half cubic metre in volume each, but old habits are hard to break ...

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  27. I buy dish cloths, bar wipes, hand towels and paper towels. We have a septic system so the paper towels are used to wipe out pans/skillets with grease, dough, or food that can't be scraped which would clog the septic. Paper is also used for dog barf and cat yak. I bought a warehouse size carton of paper towels 2 years ago on sale and still have rolls yet to use. The dish cloths, bar wipes and hand towels are bought in bulk at the warehouse store when they go on sale and last around 2-1/2 years.

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  28. 100% adore cloth dish towels and napkins. With napkins, it's a great way to use small yardages of cotton prints I like to look at, but don't need clothing out of. And kitchen towels, basic ones, are one of my favorite "affordable luxuries"---so much more versatile and useful than paper toss-aways!

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  29. Don't use paper towel. Free newspaper wipes out grease, dog barf, and cat yak. (!! lol) Then that goes into the compost. No pretty cloths, so those hang on a towel bar under the sink. ;) Neva.

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  30. I really do like them for draining bacon and sausage.

    That's about it.

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