Guys, my 5 year old forgot the word for paper towels this week. Literally, didn't know what they were called. About twice a year, my husband has a project that he insists requires paper towels. Last week was one of those times, so we had a roll in our kitchen. As I was making some lunch for my 5 year old, this transpired:
5-year-old: Mommy, can I have one of those white rags?
Me: What white rags? (none of our rags are white)
5-year-old: Those rags that you tear.
Me: A paper towel?!
5-year-old: Oh yeah! A paper towel rag!
If at this point you have read a little about zero waste/less waste, take a deep breath. If you are anything like I was, you are overwhelmed and feeling like a failure before you even start. When I first read Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson, I looked around and started mentally calculating how much I needed to spend to make my home green and zero waste. It was enough to make me quit before I started. My best advice - start small, and start with one item as you run out of what you currently use. A couple of ideas to which my resistant husband and kids adjusted easily - napkins and paper towels.
We made this change about 7 years ago, before my youngest was born. We have a napkin drawer and a rag drawer in our kitchen. With the exception of this week's request from my 5 year old, the kids never bat an eye at our system. Current paper napkin/paper towel junkies - you can make this change! Zero waste changes often feel financially overwhelming (like replacing all plastic with stainless steel?), but this one is fairly low cost upfront and crazy low cost in the long run. Here is how we did it:
Cloth napkins are more expensive to purchase, and, when we started, money was very tight. My budget didn't include an extra $25 for 12 napkins when I could buy 200 paper napkins for $7. What was a girl with finite resources to do? As I shopped, I kept an eye out for cloth napkins for a low price. Disclaimer: I did not buy organic and sustainable cloth napkins. Remember, this was in my early days, and I didn't have much in the way of a network or guidance here in Richmond. I know now of a few shops where I could make a greener purchase (which I will do when my current napkins are no longer usable). Anywho, I would buy 4 napkins at a time. I could usually manage a few dollars for this purchase, and we would use the cloth napkins at dinner, throw them in the wash, and use them again when they were clean. While I was building our set, we continued to use paper in between washes. However, over the course of a few months, we had enough cloth napkins that I was no longer buying paper. Ever. The cloth cleans our faces better, protects our laps better, and looks nicer on the table. The kids know to toss the napkins in the mud room hamper when they are soiled, so it is super easy to toss them in the wash. I cannot overstate the ease of this switch. If you are ready for only one change, this is it.
Are you ready for more - get ready. I'm going to suggest you wipe out your paper towel habit, too. "No no! That's too much!" you say. You can do it. For real, you can do it. While we were still using paper towels, we had a drawer of dish towels that we used to dry our hands after washing. Some were pretty pathetic looking, so we didn't hang them out. This is where I started: instead of letting the yucky towels sit, I started to use them for clean up. Wiping down the kitchen table? Grabbed an old dishtowel instead of a paper version. Spilled glass of water? One towel instead of 10 paper towels did the trick. Messy baby faces? A moistened (sorry if that word makes you cringe) dish towel was so much better! I was convinced immediately. Because we were not minimalists, I didn't need to purchase but one pack of actual dish rags on this one. We have old dish towels, burp rags, and gifted dish rags from my grandmother that we use in our kitchen. Soiled rags go into the mudroom hamper, just like the napkins. Our nicer dish towels get to hang on the handle of the dishwasher and isn't used for colorful messes.
A few of things to mention:
- When we have company, the rag situation can be confusing. People are really really used to having paper towels, and we recognize that it can be awkward for a guest who wants to clean up a drink spill or something similar but can't find paper towels. Our regular visitors have gotten used to our system, but new company can be thrown off. We just introduce them to our rag drawer and assure our guests that we use them the same way we would use paper.
- There are some cutesy un-paper towel sets you can purchase. These may work well for some! To me, setting up the rolling system, spending extra money, buying extra packaging was unnecessary and undesirable. Although, as you can see here, an official system is probably a lot cuter than my rag drawer. :)
- Pinterest is full of ideas for homemade rags/napkins, if you are a big DIY-er. Hand sewn napkins could be so nice, and lots of green families use old cut up t-shirts for cleaning rags.
Have you made the switch? Let me know how it went for you!