Updated: Dec 7, 2020
I don't know about you, but I used to be addicted to paper towel. I used it for everything; cleaning around the kitchen, wiping up spills and gross messes, cleaning the windows and mirrors, etc. It seems there's no job paper towel can't handle! Along with paper towel (wrapped in plastic), I also liked paper napkins (wrapped in plastic), paper tissues (in a box, with plastic, in a large pack wrapped in plastic), and toilet paper (wrapped in plastic). It's a lot of work to go out and purchase all of these disposable items, and if you get the extra large packages from big box stores, they're even awkward to carry!
My husband and I made the switch away from paper towel years before I had even heard about zero waste living. He was actually the one who thought using paper towel was ridiculous. I scratched my head, feeling like paper towel was harmless in the matter, and wondered:
"WHAT?? WHY CAN'T I KEEP PAPER TOWEL! I LIKE PAPER TOWEL! IT DOES SO MUCH WORK IN OUR HOME! ALL THE WORK."
Yes, my immediate response was definitely child-like, but we slowly made the transition. Eventually, with the right tools in our home, it became normal not to have paper towel. It's about switching your mindset and creating new habits. Instead of reaching out for paper towel, I would reach for a reusable one instead and throw it in the laundry pile when it needs washing. My only thoughts looking back on this? I wish I had started sooner!
Clean your Home with Towels or Rags
Instead of using paper towel in your home for every job (and it can do pretty much anything!), use old rags. You can cut up old t-shirts or towels to do the job. In our house, many old t-shirts get relegated to the garage to live out the rest of their lives. If you don’t have any kicking around, there will be plenty of options at local second hand shops, or you can buy a pack of cleaning towels from your hardware store (and online).
Once you have the tools you need, it’s best to set up systems in your home that will work well. Maybe you want to colour code the different towels for different uses (kitchen gets white, bathroom gets grey, for example). That way, you don’t have to worry about wiping your toilet with the same cloth you’re wiping your kitchen sink! Although once you wash all of your cloths, it shouldn’t matter – but it’s all about making it work best for you.
Keep a clean pile, and make a designated location for the dirty ones. To make it convenient, you may want to create two baskets in the kitchen, one for clean cloths and one for dirty. This system is useful wherever you tend to use paper towels, such as the bathroom. If they are easy to grab and use, you’ll make the transition that much quicker.
Against the minimalist mindset – more is better (in my opinion!). Make sure you have plenty on hand so whenever there’s a mess to clean up, you’re always ready to go!
Use Cloth Napkins
This feels like such a luxurious swap! But it doesn't have to be costly. While it might be easy and inexpensive to grab a pack of paper napkins wrapped in plastic at the store, it will save you time and money to invest in real cloth napkins instead.
You can make them at home, find mix-matched ones second-hand, or buy a matching set at the store. The best material for napkins is always the natural varieties, like cotton or linen, because they absorb better. To avoid worrying about stains, it's best to pick a slightly darker colour (I've never noticed any stains on grey!). It's easy to wash them with your towels, so there's no excuses like 'well it would require more washing...'
Although this might (again) go against most minimalist mindsets, I bought the maximum amount I thought I would need for hosting a big dinner party. I would rather have more napkins than trash (mind you paper napkins can be composted!). Having more also helps you make it to your next laundry day! Aside from the zero waste benefits, real napkins will make your dining experience feel like real adulting (no matter how old you are!), in the best way.
Wipe Messy Noses with Handkerchiefs
Anyone else remember your grandma placing a hanky up her sleeve? My Nana always seemed to have a tissue or hanky up her sleeve, prepared at a moment’s notice for a runny nose. So when we made the switch to handkerchiefs at home, I couldn’t help but think this was a throw back to the old days before tissues were a thing.
Similar to using reusable washcloths, it’s great to have a system for clean and dirty hankies. Make sure you have enough for all the noses in your home, too! Some people cut up old t-shirts to do this messy job, or even round up whatever could serve as a hanky from second hand shops (e.g. bandanas). Do whatever suits you best, if you know you’re more likely to use them if they are fun colourful bandanas, go for it, but if you want a nice matching set, that’s okay too!
Want to create this new habit in your home? Get the handkerchiefs ready, and let the tissues run out. It’ll be a new habit in no time!
Try Family Cloth or a Bidet in the Bathroom
Okay, so I really can’t speak to these from experience (well, not completely, anyway). My husband draws the line at family cloth. We’ve chosen to continue buying toilet paper, but instead of getting the packs wrapped in plastic, we’ve opted for more sustainable options wrapped in paper.
But wait, what is family cloth you ask?
Family cloth is probably what you’re imaging in your head! Instead of using toilet paper, use cloth instead. You can designate a specific colour for each family member, and create a system for clean and dirty cloths in your bathroom. If you’re interested in this idea, you should totally check out this video from The Fairly Local Vegan on YouTube.
A bidet on the other hand, uses water to wash your bits instead of toilet paper. This is actually quite common in many parts of the world, but less so in North America. I grew up with one in our bathroom because I lived abroad growing up, although I never used it for its actual purpose – and hopefully I don’t offend or gross anyone out here, but it was REALLY convenient to wash dirty little feet in (oh well!).
Anyway… these are really great options if you’re looking to forge ahead and ditch toilet paper in your home. They’ll take some time to get used to, but they save resources by using less trees, energy, and water to create, package and ship toilet paper. Ultimately, you do you.
Create New Habits
These swaps are about creating new habits in your home. The best way to create these new habits, especially for family members who might not be as interested, is to make systems that work in your home. Make it easy, and make it more convenient to grab the reusable option. Also, if you stop buying the disposable version, people will have to use what's available! That or you'll run out of toilet paper really fast...