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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The thing that I am content to live without: paper towels

I did buy a roll of paper towels . . . about 3  1/2 years ago. A few friends from the neighborhood were over to take on a messy craft. And I thought some of my friends would be more comfortable using paper towels than rags, even my nicer rags. I did set out a stack of my nicer rags, just in case someone would prefer to use those instead of paper towels. The rags sat side by side with the pristine roll of paper towels. Well, guess what? Not a single paper towel was used. Every one of my friends chose a rag to wipe up their messes with! What a great bunch!

So, that lonely roll of paper towels sat on the top shelf of the pantry for 3  1/2 years. Occasionally someone would tear off a sheet and use it. I would use them myself, to wrap salad greens in, before storing in a plastic bag in the fridge. And I used a few paper towels to drain some fried foods at the stove.

About a year ago, we finally ran out of that one roll of paper towels. I thought about buying more. But, you can probably guess this about me. I find myself too cheap to buy even one roll of paper towels when I know there are so many alternatives to them. That's right I'm just a cheap old bird!

So, here's my list of what I use now, that I would have used paper towels for, years ago:

For draining deep-fried foods 

I use brown paper bags, torn into 10 inch squares. I like to top a few layers of brown paper bag with a single take-out napkin, unfolded.

The take-out napkin helps pull the oil away from the fried food. When I don't use a take-out napkin, the oil tends to pool on the brown paper bag pieces, leaving the fried food to sit in the oil. Our supply of take-out napkins is hit or miss, and depends heavily on someone going through the take-out restaurant drive-thru, but bringing the take-out home and using their cloth napkin at the table. The leftover paper napkins get squirreled away for future use in frying.

For washing windows

I am addicted to using newspaper for windows. I use the store circulars, printed on newsprint, that come in the mail. They leave my windows squeaky clean.

For greasing baking dishes

In the early years of living away from home, I used a corner of paper towel, dipped in butter to grease my baking pans. It's how my mom always did it. Then I realized that the waxed papers that butter come wrapped in make excellent pan-greasers. As it turns out, almost everyone else already did this with butter wrappers. So no great revelation on that front. I just wonder why my mom always used a paper towel to grease a baking pan?

For cleaning up ordinary spills

We keep a stack of rags in the laundry room cupboard just for this. These rags are old dish and hand towels, and are just the right size for this sort of clean-up. I also use these rags on my Swiffer mop. They wrap around the mop head, and are secured with two fat rubber bands.

For cleaning up disgusting messes or really filthy ones that may not come clean in the laundry

We keep a second stash of disposable rags, cut from extremely worn t-shirts. You know those shirts that are so thin you can literally see right through the fabric. Most of these rags were previously pj tops, worn until they're indecent in mixed company.

I cut these very worn t-shirts into pieces about the size of a paper towel. After using, we throw them out.

Examples of disgusting things I've had to use these for include cleaning the shower drain (you know that thing that looks like a moldy mouse that you pull out of a shower drain that 3 women in the family, 2 with very long hair, have used on a regular basis), cleaning up after a sick cat (both ends of sickness are too disgusting to use a washable rag on), wiping off the dipstick for the oil reservoir in the car's engine, and wiping up oil-based paint or varnish and cleaning the brushes.

I sometimes have a difficult time remembering what I used to use paper towels for. If I were to buy another roll, it would likely be for the exact same reason as the last time, to make someone visiting my home feel more comfortable about cleaning up after a project. I "get" that other people may simply prefer paper towels over rags. We all have certain things that, to us, just feel normal. But for me, for now, paper towels are something that I am content to live without.


  1. My mom always used the inside of a paper grocery bag to put baked cookies fresh out of the oven on. I continue to do so. I think it absorbs any excess oils and they don't sink through the slats like on cooling racks.

    We always used a paper towel to grease our pans, too, so you aren't alone there!

    We do use paper towels but go through them more slowly than most people do. I find them helpful when we camp and have limited space to deal with messy rags.

    1. Hi Kris,
      You just reminded me of how my mom used to cool cookies, on a paper towel. We didn't have cooling racks, so I always thought it was just a clean place to set the cookies. But maybe it was also to absorb some extra butter. Interesting, I never thought about why she did it that way. I should ask my sister what she does?

      Growing up, it seemed like we went through a lot of paper towels. For cleaning up spills, kitchen prep work, draining anything fried, cleaning windows and mirrors, etc. But I remember my grandmother using paper bags and newspaper instead of paper towels. Anything fried was drained on newspaper in her kitchen.

      I can understand how paper towels would be much more convenient for camping. When we take a picnic someplace, we often grab a couple of the take-out napkins, if we'll be eating outside the car. (Don't want someone throwing out a cloth napkin.)

  2. Like you, I have a big (almost too big) supply of rags for spills. Who needs kitchen roll (as we call it over here!) ?

    1. Hi Sarah,
      those rags multiply over time, don't they? We keep the oldest most torn up ones in the garage. I think that's where the largest pile is.

      I wonder if paper towels (or kitchen roll, as you call it) are a more common item here in the US, than across the pond, where you are?

  3. I lost my comment somewhere. It's probably just as well because I did a bit of complaining in it (Not about you.) Let's just say that you write a nice and clear post of how you do without paper towels.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      Now you have peaked my curiosity!!!! But I'm glad that you had an opportunity to air some complaints, even if it got lost in the blogland vacuum.

  4. Love this post! I had almost gotten to the point of being paper-towel free, and then we hit sick kitty land. When one has a urinary problem, and the other a GI issue... well, let's just say the frequency of disgusting messes far outpaces the ability of the disposable rags to keep up!

    Since the kitty issues have resolved themselves, I'm back to using them much less frequently. But there's still one thing that I have trouble with - and I can blame this one on the cats too.

    CatMan and I love to make buttered popcorn when we have movie night. The problem is that even a freshly cleaned cloth napkin around here has a certain amount of cat fur on it... it's just unavoidable. And there's just nothing worse than getting cat fur stuck all over your fingers when you're trying to enjoy popcorn! (OK... there are plenty of worse things, but you know what I mean.) Got any suggestions for that one?

    BTW, using newspapers to clean glass is a stroke of genius... I'm gonna have to give that one a try.

    1. Hi Cat,
      pet sickness is one thing that I don't want in the laundry, hence the disposable rags for that. And I don't think anything less of someone wanting to use paper towels, especially for THAT!

      Our cat died many years ago, and you know what? I keep finding little tufts of her hair. I found one in the folds of a book recently. Cat hair just winds up everywhere.

      I will say this about cloth napkins -- most of ours are a cotton/poly blend or all polyester. Those hang onto lint and stray hairs like crazy, especially if run through the dryer. But I have 4 cloth napkins that are all cotton (why I only have 4 when there are 5 of us eludes me). They look wrinkled all the time, but they are relatively lint-free. All cotton napkins might work for eating popcorn better than poly blend ones. But I do admit to using a take-out paper napkin for really greasy stuff, as cloth doesn't seem to take the greasiness off my fingers as well as paper. So, I say just use the paper towel for what you really need, then use a rag for what you don't. It's kind of like eating well and rules like 80/20. If 80% of the time you do what feels right, then the other 20% of the time you can cut yourself some slack.

  5. first thing I thought of was cat sick! But I guess I could set aside some really thin rags for that.

    1. HI Jess,
      I guess it would depend on a couple of things, with regards to cat sickness. How sick is and how often your cat is sick? Like for Cat, above, she had her hands full with cat sickness for a long spell. She would have burned through every scrap of fabric in her possession, if she tried to use only disposable rags. The other thing, how plentiful is your rag supply? If you're like us and you have a steady stream of very worn t-shirts, then you might have enough disposable rags for such needs. I probably wouldn't want to be throwing away thicker rags on a regular basis. They'd take up too much room in the garbage, and I'd feel it was being more wasteful than just buying paper towels.

      I will say this, I am happy to buy tissues. We'll use hankies for light dabbing of the nose. But when someone in the house has a full-blown cold, I want those tissues in the garbage, and out of contact with anyone else. I'm germ phobic that way.


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