How to Break the Paper Towel Habit

In almost every American kitchen, you’ll find a roll of paper towels. They have the coolest commercials, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say every girl had a crush on the Brawny man at some point. But why do we have them? Why are they viewed as a necessity? Why do we have washcloths and hand towels everywhere else in the house but the kitchen?

I gave up paper towels about a year ago. Well, I shouldn’t say “gave up” so much as I avoid them when I can. Like wet wipes, they aren’t good for the environment. When I started researching the zero-waste life, I was surprised to learn how integral every type of towel was to the cause. I watched people strain nut milk, wrap Christmas presents, clean their house, and keep their produce fresh, all with reusable towels. I thought that it was impossible and crazy expensive. I was wrong.

The biggest hardship I have had over my paper-towel-free year has been laundry. I live in an apartment without a laundromat or washer/dryer hookups. I can’t wash a load quickly or cheaply. I have to pay $5 to wash and $2 to dry every time something is dirty. So to me, adding more volume to my laundry wasn’t enticing. But when I thought about the environmental impact, I forged ahead.

Because I was hesitant and in case you are, too, here are my favorite tips that helped me break my dependence on paper towels.

4 Tips to Stop Using Paper Towels

1. Buy cloth towels

I know purchasing a bunch of towels seems expensive, and if you’re reading this while standing at Crate and Barrel, you are correct. I first purchased a couple of inexpensive sets from Target, but because they were cheap, they didn’t last long and weren’t worth the price. I soon realized that Goodwill and other thrift stores sometimes have handkerchiefs and old kitchen towels for cents. Best life choice ever. If you see a sale on small towels, buy them even if you don’t need them just yet — one day you will.

2. Any absorbent fabric works

Your toilet, your stove, and that weird-smelling produce drawer in your fridge aren’t going to clean themselves. I used to use paper towels to get the job done. I don’t want that gross smell or contamination getting onto any of my clothes. I don’t want the new, nice white towels I just bought to be stained with creepy smudges.

That’s where old T-shirts and socks with holes come in handy. I have a little crate in my closet to collect all these unwearable yet incredibly useful items. Every time I do laundry and find a sock that’s past its prime, a bedtime tee that has seen better days, or a standard white tee that looks more canary than eggshell, I throw it in the crate. If I need to clean a less desirable area in the house, you bet I’m grabbing a rag over a cute little towel. I hand-wash the grimy rags and then throw them in the laundry and reuse them again. Upcycling for the win!

3. Remember, cloth towels are more durable

You can reuse a cloth towel so many times before it needs washing. If you are just drying dishes or wiping up a small mess, go ahead and hand-wash it a bit, and throw it on your oven’s handle to dry. The number of cloth towels you need to replace your paper towel addiction is surprisingly low. Especially if your cleaning products are natural, you don’t have to worry about contamination. If you wipe down a counter or your bathroom mirror, you can always leave the towel out to dry and use it again before needing to wash it.

4. Tea towels can save your produce & your sanity

The main reason I used paper towels was to keep my lettuce fresh. I would buy a head of lettuce, cut it up ready for my salad, put it in my Tupperware, and fold a paper towel over the top to extend the life of my green gold. This was the last thing I gave up, and the only time I occasionally still slip up and use a paper towel. This is where tea towels come in handy. They are usually very thin and smaller than a hand towel. You can fold this puppy up in any Tupperware and keep all leafy greens fresh without creating any waste!

Pro tip: Only hand-wash a fancy tea towel. The ones I have are super delicate and I ruined a couple by machine-washing them with my other laundry.

Tea Towels Worth Trying


I hope these tips keep you away from plastic-wrapped paper towels and on the right path to sustainability. I know things that are so commonplace are the hardest to give up and the weirdest to explain to family and friends, but soon you won’t even notice a difference. Your normal will always adapt to your life, and knowing you’re helping the environment just a little every day makes you a cloth-towel-using superhero.

What tips do you have to stop using paper towels?

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock.com. Originally published on January 30, 2017, this article was updated in November 2020.

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