Reduce Trash and Use Less Paper Products

“Wait a minute… where did the forest go?”

This was the question I posed to Matt as we viewed large breaks in the forest during our recent fall color tour in the upper peninsula of Michigan. His explanation about logging (and the bare spots in the landscape) reminded me that living without dependence on paper products is a more sustainable way of life… and easier than you might think! Check out my rant on the side of the road as I considered this thought.

(If you do not see the videoΒ click here to view)

I bought my last roll of paper towel about three years ago after a challenge from Matt to stop using them. It wasn’t an instant transition to washable rags, microfiber cloths, and sponges. In fact, I kept hidden rolls of paper towel around the house for a few months because I didn’t think it was possible to go completely without this clean, white, easily disposable companion! The ban on paper towels was just the beginning for us, leading to a host of other reusable products making their way into our lives.

How to reduce trash

Alternatives to paper products

Paper towel

In the kitchen we use dish towels, microfiber cloths, sponges, and hand-knitted washrags (learn how to make your own here). For cleaning and other dirty jobs around the house we use microfiber cloths, cellulose sponge cloths, old t-shirts cut into rags, socks that are beyond repair, and washcloths that are no longer making the cut in the bathroom. These all end up getting laundered and reused.

Napkins

It feels very fancy and fun to use cloth napkins at every meal! We had a drawer full of cloth napkins that were only being used a few times a year until we stopped buying paper napkins. Cloth napkins last a long time, are more absorbent than their paper counterpart, and won’t shred when you’re wiping that red spaghetti sauce off your face. Hint: Many times you are only blotting your face or wiping crumbs from your fingers, so you don’t have to wash them after every single use. We keep our napkins at our respective spots at the table and family members are responsible for throwing napkins into the laundry when they need a fresh one. Guests always get a fresh one. πŸ™‚

Tissues

When Matt started using handkerchiefs I thought it was disgusting! However, I became a believer after one extremely drippy-nosed cold. They won’t leave your nose raw, and they hardly take up any space in the laundry. We still keep tissues out for guests, but haven’t purchased any in over a year.

Paper plates

I’m irritated at the price of paper plates and would rather spend a few minutes washing real dishes or loading the dishwasher than throwing money away buying these.

Coffee filters

Reusable coffee filters can be purchased for most coffee makers. We found one a few years ago and no longer need room in our cupboards, our grocery budget, or our trash for disposable filters.

Brown paper bags

Instead of “brown bagging” my lunch, I opt for a sturdy, cute, reusable lunch bag/tote. These can last for a few years if taken care of, protect your PB&J better than the brown bag, and usually keep things at a more desirable temperature.

Paperless and happy

Not only are we saving TONS of money in our grocery budget by using these paperless alternatives, we’re also loving that we no longer rely on products once viewed as necessities. After making the switch, we could never go back to the throw-away mindset we used to have.

Now when I stumble upon one of my leftover stashes of paper towel from three years ago, it’s like seeing an estranged friend. We had a good time while it lasted, but the relationship has definitely run its course.

Are there any paper products from my list you could live without? Challenge yourself and see the difference it makes in your budget, your beliefs about consumerism, and the amount of trash you have at the end of the week!

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photo credit

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Comments

  1. hi – thanks so much for re-inspiring me to go back to the basics – i loose track of life every so often with all the demands put on you and take the easy way out and slip into old habits of buy and easy disposal – i am now back into having my rag bags – one for dusting/wiping – one for the toilet – one for the bathroom and one for the kitchen – they dont take up much room and it is a whole lot easier than running around wondering what cloth/chemical to use. Am going the hanky way – will have a grossness to overcome coz me and phlegm dont see eye to eye but a soaking bucket and separate wash will help. As for no paper kitchen towels – thats going to be a continual challenge especially with my husband. Have used home knitted dishcloths for ages – love them. Make my own furniture polish from and 1860’s recipe and its wonderful. I just love this kind of lifestyle and going to fully embrace it once again and try not to get distracted – once again – thanks for waking me up

    • Try Gerber diaper flats for unpaper towels. They work really well, suck as diapers but a great replacement for paper towels. There is also a lady who makes unpaper towels on etsy that snap together so they come off of the roll just like paper towels. I prefer to fold or stick them in a hanging bag (like the ones used for grocery bags).

    • Liz – so glad you were re-inspired! I definitely know how challenging it can be to stick to your guns on some of these habits when life gets busy! Sounds like you’re on the right track and working hard to make changes. πŸ™‚

      • whats gerber diaper flats???? i live in new zealand and have never heard of them – in my day you used cloth nappies and a nappy soaking bucket to place and soak the cleaned nappy in before washing in pure soap flakes

        • Ever heard of Gerber baby food? Same company. I dont know what is available over there. They are usually sold in stores with other baby items but they are horrable for diapers. Im in the US. You should look up modern cloth diapers, soooooo many more options and not anymore time consuming than disposables. Save tons of money. They have more of an early learning curve but the benifits really outweigh that. They also are stored in a dry bag (called a wet-bag) or dry trash can till wash day (every 1-4 days up to 7 in dry areas)
          You can look it up online (diaperjunction.com or cottonbabies.com are great places to start.). Their is also mama cloth (reusable pads) and all kinds of other stuff that tend to be available from those retailers.

  2. Ok, my one place i feel i have to use paper towel is when i am cleaning my toilets. They are gross and germy and i don’t think i should reuse anything i put on them, even after washing. Am i being ridiculous? Any suggestions?

    • I spray my cleaner on and allow it to sit and do its job for a while, so that the germs are taken care of before I start wiping the toilets. Then I use a toilet brush to clean and a microfiber rag to dry.
      I have two distinct sets of cleaning rags. One for cleaning normal things like kitchen, windows, spills, etc. The other set is for the really gross jobs…toilets, bathroom floors, etc. I wash these on the hottest setting and always keep them separate from other rags…even though I’m pretty sure the washer does the job of killing all the germs. You’re not ridiculous at all! It took me years to get comfortable with the system I have now. πŸ™‚

  3. I am very selective about what I print and also try to save ink by the following. After selecting ‘print’, I click “quality and media’ from the print menu and then “grayscale printing’ from the drop down menu. This is on a Mac. don’t know if PCs are the same. I also save discarded sheets of printer paper and mail, tear in half and staple together for note pads. I always think “what would grandma do?’ She lived through the depression and always maintained her frugal ways. I reuse everything I can and donate unneeded items. I know granny approves and I feel like I am honoring a worthwhile tradition.

  4. I have made the switch to reusable mentrual products and reusable toilet paper. My next task is to go paperless in the kitchen. It was recommneded to me to use cloth diaper flats in place of paper towel (the cheap ones, not the diaper service quality ones). Perhaps that would help someone else. Thanks for the excellent post!

  5. I live north of Houston Texas and recently made 2 great finds…at Dollar General, they started carrrying white cotton ladies hankies, 2 for $1.00… I don’t like that they’re made in China, but the price was unbeatable, and they’re actually pretty nice hankies. Also, I just got on Crate & Barrel’s website and found 17″ x 17″ cotton cloth napkins for 95 cents each…they had 2 colors that price – an icky lavender and an icky avacado green, but for the price, I could deal with the ugly! With tax & shipping, I got 24 napkins for about $1.30 each…I could find them on Amazon for less than $2.50 each.
    BTW, my dad has always used cloth hankies (big man-sized ones, though). I used to have to iron them for my mom! Once you get past the ick factor (which isn’t as bad as you’d think) they are great!

  6. Thank you for reminding me of an area of excess in my life! I do use old washcloths for cleaning (ironically, it’s the white ones that get designated for cleaning, colors are for bodies!), and an old kitchen sponge that has been microwaved for sanitation so many times it’s falling apart makes the BEST tub-scrubber ever. No elbow grease needed! But I’m a huge kleenex user–allergies to air mean I go through a box every couple weeks, even more if I get sick. It seems like I would need 50 hankies to take up the slack–I don’t do laundry but maybe every 10 days or so. And I love the idea of phasing out paper towels, but I’m curious what your storage method for the pile of rags might be? How many do you have? I love that the paper towel holder takes up so little room on the counter..

    • Some use baskets under the sink.
      I use a little hanging cloth tube about the size of a roll of paper towels (a bit thinner) that is open on the top and the opening on the bottom has elastic. I stuff the clean ones in the top and pull them out the bottom when I need one. Basically a smaller version of the plastic grocery bag holder. Just hang from a hook under your cabinet it beside your sink. No extra space needed.

    • We store our rags in a basket in the laundry room (right off the kitchen), and I also keep some in a drawer in the kitchen. I always have a wet kitchen rag and 2 dry hand towels in the kitchen, and wipe up spills and messes with the cleaning rags when it’s too much for the small wet rag to handle. I think we have about 20 microfiber rags. I usually don’t go through them all before laundry day (once every 2 weeks)…but we don’t have kids either. πŸ™‚

    • I use a laundry bag to keep our rags in.I’m lucky enough to have a closet in the bathroom plus I have a cupboard over the washer for cleaning rags.Maybe there could be a odd spot in your home for clean rags and a bucket for dirty ones?

  7. Another happy result of having a reusable coffee filter is that all those yummy oils in the coffee grounds make it in to your cup instead of getting stuck to the paper. My coffee tastes SO much better since we switched. We’ve never really used paper towels, plates or napkins so I guess I wouldn’t know how hard it is to switch away from them. One issue we have now though is junk mail. We don’t get magazines really, but flyers, envelopes, tons of stuff! Does anyone know of a way to reduce junk mail? I wish there was a Do Not Mail List!!!

  8. Thank you so much Betsy, that is very informative, I have an almost new composter out back that my grandfather left me and needed the last push to get off my hiney and use it! I found your site last week and next week I am making an immediate change…no more purchased soaps, shampoos, detergents, hand sanititizers, (or vanilla extract!-yummy!), etc. As a funny little bonus to that, I will no longer need the ‘coupons’ for those items and I will save more paper by not printing them…mwah ha ha ha ha! Bless you for your help to the environment, and to my pocketbook!

  9. I have a question. I am feeling convicted (this is a good thing, to me) about using too many paper products, especially when it comes to Printer Paper!!! In the interest of being financially responsible and frugal, I have taken up couponing for the products I must buy, and many coupons I use an online resource to print, and after I cut them out, it wastes *tons* of paper. (I thriftily refill my ink cartridges for 1/2 the cost of new and they work great, and I only re-purpose a fraction of the paper clippings for reminders, lists, and note-writing since everything is digital now. Blank white wrapping paper is not my cup of tea, and I don’t send many packages or give many gifts to use it as padding…Does anyone have anymore ideas on how to re-purpose this paper other than just recycling it? Can it be composted? :S

    • Great question Heather! The answer is YES…paper can be composted! As long as you break the paper down first by shredding (either by hand or with a commercial shredder), it can be added to your compost—and it’s a good carbon source in spring and summer months when dead leaves aren’t as plentiful.

    • One option that I have implemented at my work (a fortune-500 company that wastes A LOT of unnecessary resources, IMO) is to be more choosy on what comes out of the printer. If I need just part of a page, I highlight it with my mouse, then right-click and select print. In the print options you will see “Print selection” which allows only what you have highlighted to come out of the printer. Another option is to right-click on images or text and “copy” them, then open a Word (or similar program) document) and “paste” all of these things to a document, then moved around as you need them, and print all at once. When I print large documents that MUST be printed, although I know nobody will read the silly things, I choose the option in my print settings to print two pages on one sheet of paper. Since nobody will read it, it doesn’t need to be big and it’s available for anyone online as well. Cuts my paper usage literally in half!! Also, it keeps me out of trouble because, hey, I DID print it, and I DID save some resources for the company… haha

      • I have come across a website–Print What You Like.com and follow the instructions. I hope this helps on cutting down the waste of printing things that you don’t want.

  10. Right on, Betsy!
    I have never heard of baked bacon before, but I imagine using the cooling rack for sauteed bacon would be similarly effective.
    The family cloth does seem like a decent alternative, but especially for those in a situation with convenient access to a washing machine, so this will have to be a future prospect for me.
    -db

  11. David,

    Bacon: My hubby likes to lay bacon on a cooling rack set on top of a cookie sheet and bake it. While baking, the grease drips off the bacon & collects onto the cookie sheet which can be easily cleaned. It’s the best solution we’ve found & makes for great bacon!

    Toilet time: Do an online search for “family cloth.” You will be surprised at all the people who are loving this alternative to toilet paper & have come up with some pretty great systems!

  12. Great article Betsy,
    Even as an environmentalist I need reminding sometimes that I can be doing more. Since reading I have been thinking deeply about ALL of my paper usage and it is extensive. Some I have solutions for, some I haven’t brainstormed a good idea for yet.

    Taking notes in class: As a college student, I go through a ton of notebook paper. I am even going to have to start onto a second notebook for one semester of Chemistry. Solution: Taking as much of my notes as possible on my laptop is the only way I have come up with to cut back on this. Of course it will mean increased energy consumption for charging my computer and it can be inconvenient/bad for my back/risky(if it’s raining it could get damaged and carrying it all the time would increase the likelihood it get stolen by the off chance I get mugged).

    Post-coitus cleanup- This sticky situation can lead to a lot of wasted paper towels or tissues. Similar to your other sustainable solutions, an old t-shirt or designated fabric towel is a much more economical decision.

    Here are a couple situations I can’t brainstorm a solution to:

    Bacon: After cooking the occasional bacon with breakfast, it has long been my family’s technique to lay out the strips on an ample mat of paper towels. Considering this is done to separate the bacon from grease and that you are going to want to eat that bacon (i.e: not lay them on a nasty, reused grease rag), I can’t think of a good substitute. Grease can be hard to machine wash and re-using the same cloth for this task would certainly get foul. Perhaps suspending them somehow over a metallic grease trap?

    Toilet time (#2): Just can’t think of an appropriate substitution here; perhaps to live is create some unavoidable quantity of waste. Any ideas?

  13. We have drastically changed our use of paper products since my daughter was born 7 months ago- we switched to cloth diapers, reusable wipes, unpaper towels, cloth napkins, I just bought some reusable pads, we haven’t bought paper plates or plastic cups in years, and my husband has always used handkerchiefs. The transition has been pretty easy, although I do use paper towels for grease issues. It was much easier than I thought it would be- I don’t even miss using the paper products. Everyone has their limits though- we have discussed using the family cloth- it’s just like using reusable wipes for the baby right?- but we just haven’t gotten past the ew factor.

  14. I don’t have a problem with using built in coffee filter and other alternatives to paper products. I have one question though. We do tend to fry foods at times and I use paper towels to drain the grease off of the food. Yes I know I could not fry food, but what could I use instead of paper towels to drain the grease off of the food. I really love your blog and it has helped my journey to becoming green. Thanks, Samantha

    • We love our bacon in this house, and this is probably the only time I miss paper towel. I always save paper napkins that restaurants throw in the bag when you get takeout. We don’t get takeout often, but they always throw in more napkins than necessary and I have a substantial stash of these since we use our cloth napkins when we bring the food home to eat. Just one idea…maybe it will help you think of more. πŸ™‚

      • You could use a cake cooling rack over a plate which will allow the oil to drip leaving it crispy and not soggy on the bottom. BTW… I’m from the south and we love our fried food!

      • I use to save any black and white print newspaper or brown grocery bags to drain fried foods on.I am 56 years old but I can remember times before plastic garbage bags,presoaks for laundry,paper towels and the such.My kids wore cloth diapers most of the time.I would wet a washcloth and used a sandwhich bag for keeping their faces and hands clean.Good for adults too.They didn’t have wipies when my kids were young.I grew up using hankies and would take my lunch box to school.Sandwiches were wrapped in wax paper.I have always used dishcloths and rags.My mother used vinyl bowl covers,which she cleaned after each use and they were ready for the next time.My grandmother would use a plate to cover a bowl of leftovers or jello.Bread bags were put to use.I even try to use the bags cereal comes in.
        I caught a show on T.V. where a young housewife was so into debt that she and her family used old washclothes and rags for toilet paper and put them in a bucket.When it was getting full she would wash them.Don’t know if I can go that far but it’s a thought.My husband and his family had a outhouse and used newspaper.Don’t know what it would do to modern plumbing.I’m always trying to remember how to reduce my garbage even more.They even come around and weigh our garbage before they take it away ! We have to pay for garbage tags ! I don’t expect the price to go down anytime soon either! We do recycle ,compost and use cloth bags for shopping.Maybe it’s time to bring finger bowls back?
        I use cotton non-terry dishtowels for drying all glass.They don’t leave lint behind and cut up t-shirt material for drying our eyeglasses.Those dishtowels also make great pressing cloths when dampen at the ironing board for pressing pant creases in dress pants.When my rags finally get a couple of holes I give them to my husband to use outside of the house.I have to laugh-I can remember my grandmother using a old towel to put on her clap style mop and mopping the floor with it and using newspaper to soak up the liquid in the bottom of garbage cans that leaked out of the brown grocery bags she put garbage in.Boy ! Garbage sure did smell back then but then it was suppose to.Everyone did these things.
        When my husband and I were going together in our teens,I was surprise a little when he used a damp wash cloth as a napkin when they had chicken for dinner.I bought a cheap set to use at the table for informal times.
        Speaking about ,,,,,,typing about fried food here is a tip my daughter-in-law gave me.We love BLT’s.She fries her bacon in a deep fryer.She said ” The bacon doesn’t get any greasier” True,it doesn’t.We now will cook up several packages for a few seconds in a deep fryer a few strips at a time.Let it cool and store in a plastic bag in the freezer.We reheat in the microwave how ever many strips we want.Our own ready made bacon ! And even the ends of the bacon are cooked nice.Great on busy mornings.You can re use the grease and keep it in the refrigerator a few times and add some bacon flavor to any frying you do or to grease your bake potato.It’s good to see some old ways coming back.I guess the “old-timers” are right.Some of the time? Have a chat with a older person and enjoy ! We could learn a thing or two.It’s true,old is new again. ;0)

    • Another idea is to put a cookie sheet under a cooling rack and let the fat simply drain off. I cook the bacon in our home and I just shake it off when pulling it out of the pan… then I save the bacon grease and use it to flavor and cook other dishes. πŸ™‚

    • You can also use newspaper. Keep an old rag specifically for this, place newspaper down with thin cloth overtop. This way you get the absorbency without the newsprint on your food. Soak the cloth in hot soapy water, and when its dry keep it for next time you want fried food.

  15. ok, i’m SOOOOOO guilty of this! we use paper towels and kleenex like it’s our job. i’m going to talk to bob about it. i’m intrigued by the idea of using hankies, but i do use a LOT of kleenex. Do you feel like you use less when they’re not disposable?

    great video, but i think i would have taken you more seriously if you had used the “ew” voice. πŸ™‚
    xoxo

  16. Our family of 9 (seven of us kids plus our parents) has been paper product-free for nearly a decade. The only time we use paper plates and paper towels is maybe at parties once in a while, and I would have it no other way!

  17. I am buying a house and considering the on the toilet bidet, which is cheap (less than 100) and would go instead of toilet paper. I have been learning to crochet to make wash rags for cleaning. We are using cloth napkins, and I bought my first feminine reusable pads. I am used to clean cloth diapers, so the rest is easy..;)
    I have not bought any paper towels in 4 months.. yeah!!

  18. Growing up.. We always used cloth napkins, towels .. and carried lunch boxes. So when my own children were growing up. I found that using cloth napkins at the table.. sent a little message to their brains.. to behave at the table. (Side blessing I guess πŸ˜‰
    I guess what is old is new again… πŸ™‚

  19. No one wants to talk about toilet paper, eh? That’s one place we’re not reducing, but we don’t buy kleenex, paper towels, coffee filters, lunch bags, paper plates or napkins, and we’re doing just fine!

      • Oh, and feminine hygiene: there’s no excuse for using paper/plastic disposables when everything is available in a reusable form.

      • Yes! I left behind toilet paper when I got pregnant four months ago–I just couldn’t justify the environmental or financial waste when pregnancy makes water run through you so fast! I cut up old T shirts and long underwear and keep a small trashcan (with a lid) lined with an old pillowcase next to the toilet. Then I just tie the pillowcase closed and toss the whole thing in the wash! So easy, not gross at all, and no toilet paper for me, though my husband still uses it.

        In the same way your article said you were surprised at how much better cloth cleaned your house over paper towels, cloth leaves me feeling MUCH cleaner than toilet paper! πŸ™‚

  20. I stopped buying paper plates and utensils because they were so high. And we don’t drink much coffee so the filters take up pantry room. Beside, the leave-in filter is easier and you don’t have to worry about grounds escaping. I will have to try the napkins, I have 3 kids and one is quite messy. But I’m sure syrup will wipe off a lot easier instead of sticking. Thanks for the tips.

    • You’ll be amazed at the functionality of the cloth napkins! Maybe you could even moisten cloth napkins for your kids when syrup is being served. Instant wet wipes! πŸ˜‰

  21. Instead of paper napkins, we use bar wash cloths. In the past, we have also used terry dish towels. I cut them in half and sewed a hem in it. I found them more absorbant for little ones and cheaper than “regular” cloth napkins. Of course, they were for everyday. We bought some very pretty ones at a thrift store very inexpensively. And they had no stains on them! πŸ™‚

    • Awesome ideas Marilyn! I might have to try the terry dish towel idea…cloth napkins are very expensive to purchase. My mom has made several for me out of scrap fabric & we don’t have to worry if they get ruined. πŸ™‚

  22. I have at least reduced my use of paper towels. Not because I’m concerned for the trees but I’m concerned about the economy and increase in cost of groceries. I bought a big pack of those Handi-wipes at the wholesale store for less than the cost of a small pack of paper towels and have still not used the whole pack of them yet. It’s been a year I think. I still use paper towels but no where near the amount i used to use. Honestly, cleaning the windows with a cloth rag and windex leaves little to no streaks; much better than paper towels. I like the idea of using cloth napkins. I may give that a try next. I already make my own laundry detergent so why not go a step further.

    • Right on Danielle! Reducing our consumption of these things has many positive effects…on our grocery budgets, the environment, and the amount of trash we’re producing! The convenience of paper towels was nice, but I too am always impressed at the better results I get when using cloth rags for cleaning. If you have cloth napkins you should definitely try using them for a change!

      • Newspaper also works wonders on washing windows. I read all of my news online, but somehow my mailbox always seems to get stuffed with several ‘free’ newspapers. Rather than just dump them directly into the recycle bin, I grab a few pages for all of my window cleaning needs (newspaper also makes great wrapping paper and packaging material (no Styrofoam peanuts please!!!). Which also reminds me, when you get unwanted magazines in your mailbox, call the phone number and ‘unsubscribe.’ Reduce, re-use, then recycle. Thanks for letting me chime in!

        • In the ‘olden days’ my mother used popcorn (popped of course) for packing material when she shipped packages.

    • Did you know that paper towels have fabric softner in them and that is what causes the streaks in glass? To get those streaks out we use more cleaner and more paper towels.Which leads to buying more cleaner and more paper towels.They work very hard to get our dollars.