Sunday, December 20, 2009

Kickin' the Paper Towel Habit- For our Forests

I admit, I was a paper towel addict. It's so convenient... and easy... and disposable. In my family we always had huge rolls of paper towel, for toast, crackers, cookies, chips, cleaning up spilled things... even though we had the half piece option we used a lot of paper towel.

One of the first steps in my cleaning eco-fication was to switch to paper towel made from 100% post consumer recycled paper. If every household in North America replaced just one roll of virgin-fibre paper towel for 100% post consumer recycled we'd save 550,000 trees (Natural Resources Defense council as quoted in Ecoholic Home 2009).

Approximately 400,000 ha of Canada's Boreal Forests are harvested each year with most for paper mills (Ecological Assessment of the Shield Ecozone-Government of Canada). Seriously, I do not need to eat my crackers on material that was bleached and soaked in chemicals from our beautiful boreal forests.

Over the course of a year I noticed that we used less and less. Mostly because brown paper towel doesn't really suit food purposes, so I started choosing plates over paper for snacks. Also, they were more expensive, so we only bought one or two rolls at a time. It got to the point that we only ever used the paper towel for cleaning the bathroom. I honestly didn't think I'd be ready for using cloth only to clean the bathroom. Really- for some strange reason I thought that my cloth 'lavettes' would leave streaks on the counter and mirror and be too gross to clean the toilet.

Then, a few months ago we ran out of paper towel. I looked at the bathroom and it's glorified mess and went to the drawer filled with dish cloths (we sadly do not have a dishwasher in our apartment, other than one named 'Andrew' as it's his chore...). I chose the few that looked a little sketchy and on their way out, took a deep breath and gave it a go.

I needed a strategy. I wasn't going to clean pee off the toilet and THEN wash the sink- ew! SO, I decided that my plan of attack would be: mirror, sink, counter, bathtub and shower curtain and last toilet. I had also been using vinegar, water and tea tree oil for a few weeks on the counter, mirror and faucets. I assumed that it would streak and leave weird water spots since the cloth wasn't dry.

Black Spruce peatland (Hinterland Site)
I was so wrong. In a few minutes the bathroom was great! The faucets left NO water marks at all. I have to concede that vinegar-water really is perfect for those surfaces. I had long since given up on buying sponges, since those that aren't made from plastic are pricey, and washing the tub with a cloth was VERY weird and a lot trickier than expected. Vinegar-water and baking soda really doesn't work for my bathtub, so I keep a 7th Generation tile-tub spray that lasts forever and works amazing.

Now our apartment is paper towel-free. Since it's only the two of us I clean the bathroom (my chore since I'm picky!) about three times a week which results in three cloths to be washed a week. Which isn't a big deal at all. Now it seems strange to eat food on paper towel when there are perfectly fine plates or... our hands, to eat from. The only time we have ever missed paper towel is when (on rare occasions) we eat bacon... Last time Andrew placed the pieces on a cookie rack for the fat to drip into a plate beneath it... lol.

Really, switching to cloth wasn't as annoying as I thought it would be, and that's one less thing we have to buy each week. :)

Alright, now we're off to watch 'The Muppet's Christmas Carol' with friends where we will eat nachos, drink rum and eggnog and enjoy Yule :)


article copyright of EcoYogini at


  1. Weird. I would never have thought paper towels would be used for cleaning! We have a couple of rolls of paper towel (100% recycled) but I can't actually think the last time I used any.....

  2. I actually never bought paper towels until recently, when I think somebody pointed out to me how unsanitary and gross it is to use the sponges from the sink to clean up stuff I spill on the floor. Unless I spill something big, though, I don't generally use them for that either, but instead use this utterly filthy towel I keep balled up by the sink...hmmm, that's pretty gross, too, now that I think of it...but not nearly as bad as the one balled up by the sink in the bathroom...

    Nonetheless, disgusting as my lifestyle might be, I think I end up going through one or two rolls a year,and get the brown recycled kind from the co-op. Overall, the use of paper products for food is one of the most pointlessly wasteful habits around--I mean, I know people who eat off of paper plates and drink out of paper cups in their homes, so they won't have to wash dishes...

  3. I've always used cloth to clean, except for windows. I've just about kicked that habit, too. Like you, I'm now buying the expensive recycled paper towels and I would guess we used about 4-6 rolls this year, most of which were used by my son's friends when we weren't home. I think I will hide the paper towels now. ;)

  4. i use natural sponges for cleaning the bathroom - in pretty much that same order as you. Every now and then I put the sponge in a vinegar soak overnight which I like to think makes it clean again. I've been trying to wean the paper towel obsessed boyf onto cloth rags, but even I want to use paper towels for things like cleaning the everpresent mouse poop in the kitchen :-(

  5. We ran out of paper towels at Thanksgiving and I'm seeing how long we can go without...So far my big question is, how do you clean up grease without paper towels? Besides the bacon you mentioned, how do clean up the grease left in a pan after browning ground beef?

  6. I forgot to mention the use of paper towels to drain bacon on; I do that, too. However, I'm going to try what my *very green* daughter does. She cooks bacon on a rack on the oven so the grease drips off onto the pan underneath. I'd never used paper towels to clean the grease out of a pan, though. I either drain it into a container to refrigerate for future use or into the grease container I keep in the freezer. I save metal containers with lids (like what nuts often come in) and pour grease in it then keep in the freezer. When it's full, I throw it away. As for the pan, once the grease is poured out (do it before it congeals!) I just wash with hot, soapy water.

    I've never used sponges to clean as I believe them to be highly unsanitary unless thoroughly washed and disinfected after each use, something most people don't do. A fresh dish cloth each day for dishes and old rags for clean up, then washed on hot in the washing machine is my method. I also have some Skoy cloths now. I keep one behind the faucet to wipe up spills on the floor. It's also machine washable.

    For me, the toughest use to give up is mirrors and our glass storm door. But I'm working on it. ;)

    Oh, for really gross messes where one might be tempted to use paper towels, keep some rags that are really disreputable-looking (cut up hubby's old underwear, t-shirts, thread-bare rags) specifically for one-use purposes.

  7. A little tip for those who can't give up paper towels for windows and mirrors....newspaper!!

    I use a spray of half water/half white vinegar and then buff up the mirrors/windows with scrunched up newspaper - it's a little trick I learned when I ran a restaurant which had soooo many mirrors that were always smeary.

    It takes a bit of getting used to but it works much better than paper towel.

  8. Rachel: lol, yep I think I might be a little strange in using paper towel for cleaning...

    Dr. Jay- seriously, that sounds gross.... hah.

    Deanna: thank you for the wonderful suggestions- I really like the bacon-drip suggestion. I had asked Andrew what he does for burgers etc (since i don't eat them) and he said that he simply pours the grease into a container as well while it's hot and washes the pan in hot water...

    I also like the idea of using really gross rags for those yucky spills you need to pick up (like mouse poo!). Although sometimes I cheat and use TP... hah.

    something my parents do with the grease/fat- make bird treats by mixing nuts into the fat and putting in a netting...

  9. Okay, folks can get their rotten tomatoes ready.... :)

    While I *completely* agree our consumeristic disposable society needs to reduce it's [paper] consumption, I'm having trouble with some of your thoughts behind it. You discuss the harvesting of the boreal forest, then you show a picture of a stagnant spruce swamp. The two are mutually exclusive.

    Paper products are derived predominantly from aspen, balsam, spruce stands, which are a primary succession species and often established after fire. Here in the lake states - similar to the boreal forest - fire has been removed from the landscape and these stands, often aged 80-100 years (from the turn of the century fires) are now falling down from old age and disease. If not managed through harvesting, they revert to brush.

    Harvesting replaces fire in many forest landscapes. A multi aged forest is a healthy forest providing habitat for a wide range of wildlife. A young forest consumes more carbon dioxide than an old forest. A aspen/balsam/spruce forest (boreal forest) will naturally regrow all on its own. Very sustainable. Moose especially, but also deer, grouse, and rabbits require young forest for forage. When we removed fire from the landscape, we removed an important part of the food chain. Lynx, bear, wolves, fox, coyotes all need healthy prey and habitat as well. You can still hunt, snowmobile, ski, and hike in a multiaged forest.

    You mention using cotton cloths - a great way to use up old t-shirts for sure! I do it myself, but as I'm sure you are aware, cotton is a very labor intensive and chemical intensive crop to grow from the moment they plow that field all through the picking process. Cotton is a very herbicide and pesticide dependent crop and has no benefit in any way shape or form to wildlife. And you can't recreate in a cotton field.

    The only chemicals used in making paper products are in the factory.

    So given choices, I would much rather *wisely* use paper products than buy cotton products when the circumstances are appropriate. As you've noted before, bamboo isn't much better. It's too bad we moved away from the use of wool.

    The tomato throwing may commence....

    Wait! Wait! Coming back to add - I was wondering what to do about cleaning up particular messes with out paper towels, such as dog barf in the house, and someone suggested having some old cut up undies on hand for one use purposes. Thanks! Great idea!

    Okay, throw your tomatoes....

  10. LOL Kristin! Alright, so no tomato throwing but clarification. The picture of the 'swamp' is actually a peatland... and not stagnant at all. This peatland is considered part of the Boreal forest and my bad- I thought the picture was a beautiful example of a different and equally important part of the Canadian boreal shield.
    So not stagnant. :)
    I actually got the data regarding the harvesting info from the Canadian Government website... which discusses at length the different harvesting processes of paper in the Canadian Boreal Shield (which does not dip into the states as you can see from the map).
    I'm assuming that USA forestry management is different than Canadian (as laws and regulations would be different).
    Re: cloths, I never actually said 'cotton', I use cloths that were given to us as gifts... my mother hand knit several dish cloths and gave them to us.
    Of course, you could most certainly purchase organic cotton cloths or other materials that are less chemically intensive to produce.
    Further, as forestry regulations in Canada continue to be frought with problems, I only trust paper products that are FSC certified. Which I can shell out the money for those paper towels.

    I really like the idea of using old shirts etc as cleaning cloths. :)

    so no tomatoes, just a misunderstanding. Thanks for pointing that out Kristin :)

  11. have you ever seen those stickers in public restroom that say something like "paper towels come from trees" or something really simplistic like that? they also have a statistic on them about how much waste it saves. im a big fan....



  12. I can't speak for others but in my case, I don't buy cotton (or any other material) cloths for cleaning. I simply use my old washcloths, dishrags, towels (cut in pieces), etc. when they are no longer good for their original purpose. There seems to be a never-ending supply for us and I like knowing I'm using something that might otherwise simply be thrown away.


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