Decide To Make Your Own Paper Towels (aka Rags)
Problem: Paper towels are single-use and inherently wasteful. A tree needs to be cut down, shipped, turned into the paper towel, packaged, and then shipped to the grocery store. All of this occurs before you pruchase it and bring it home. Even recycled paper towels only cut a couple of steps out of the chain.
Solution: Make your own paper towels, also known as … rags. I recently made mine out of used tee shirts, sweatpants, and an old tablecloth. Note that I am NOT a Pinterest mom (although I am in awe of those who are). I have never had the time or, more importantly, the interest in DIY. This project, however, was very quick and easy.
Creating rags is not a new idea. Last weekend, over brunch with a few other families, we talked nostalgically about how our parents weren’t wasteful and found second uses for various household items. Before the term, ‘circular economy’ existed, my family was drying our freshly-washed cars with old tee shirts.
By taking old tee shirts and other items that are too worn out to go to a charity shop, we’re giving them a second life. While I enjoyed the KonMari process of cleaning out my closets, not everything in which I was finished was suitable for a charity shop.
Not shockingly, rags do not break apart while you’re wiping down the kitchen, and they’re much more absorbent. Rags for the win. What you need:
old tee shirts or other used pieces of fabric
fabric scissors (or other sharp scissors)
five minutes of time to physically cut the shirts
a drawer or jar to place the clean squares
a jar or bag to place dirty rags
If you’re like me, you’re thinking, ‘but we still need to wash the rags, and that’s got a carbon footprint.’ Aside from being a tidier chef (hell might freeze over sooner) or getting my children not to slop food at mealtime (a battle I continue to lose daily), we are still going to need to wipe stuff up.
An Energy Star washing machine uses 35% less water and 20% less energy than a standard washing machine. I’ve include a number of links below that include ideas on how to conserve energy (and money) by using your washing machine efficiently.
Calculating this in monetary terms, I currently use recycled paper towels from Waitrose consisting of 60 sheets per roll at 0.80 pence per roll. This comes to 0.013 pence per sheet. According to an article I found on a website called Money Crashers, the cost of running a load in a front-loading, energy-efficient machine ranges between 0.16 pence ($0.21) and 0.93 ($1.22) per load.
However, I am able to fit a lot more than 60 rags in a single load. Piled together, they only appear to have the bulk of about two tee shirts. Conservatively, let’s say I could fit six times as many rags into a load as there are squares in a roll of paper towels. This yields 360 rags at between 0.0006 and 0.003 pence per load.
Catherine Mohr did a TedTalk in 2010 where she highlights the embodied energy calculations of using a paper towel, recycled paper towel, sponge, or cotton kitchen towel. I am mostly interested in the energy, rather than water, that goes into the use of each rag, as it more directly relates to greenhouse gas emissions.
Even with her data from nearly a decade ago, the cotton towel comes out ahead. Where it doesn’t is in water use. So fill up your loads, and use an Energy Star appliance. Feel free to follow some of the tips in the links below.
Resources For Curious Minds
Americans Are Weirdly Obsessed With Paper Towels (The Atlantic)
Laundry (Department of Energy)
9 Ways to Save Energy Doing Laundry (Consumer Reports)
How to Save Money on Laundry and Reduce Your Cost Per Load (Money Crashers)
Catherine Mohr builds green (Ted Talks)
If you’ve got additional data or analysis to share on this or any of the topics I write about, feel free to reach out and provide me with more. We’re all on spaceship Earth together, and I’m committed to doing better. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.