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Mar 20, 2012 07:42 AM

Carbon footprint: paper towels vs. cloth?

Please forgive me if this is an old topic, but I couldn't find any previous threads on it: when is it better to use paper towels than a cloth one? Although I don't like throwing away so much paper, it seems that using a lot of water to wash off honey, spilled messes, etc. is a bigger waste of natural resources. Is there a break-even point between the two? TIA.

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  1. I think there are some debates on this topic on internet. I think it can be tough depending how much you are willing to reuse the towel to wipe thing. If you are going to change to a new towel everytime you wipe something, then you can easily go through several towels in one evening, and paper towel is the way to go. If you are willing to use the same cloth towel to wipe multiple things, and wash these towels all together on the weekends, then it is not that bad.

    1. Depends on how many you use and where you live. The debate is the same as the diaper debate that parents have...

      If you live in a dry area like Vegas or anywhere where the water supply is tight then go with paper towels. If you live in a state where there has never been a water shortage then use cloth and wash as needed.

      1. Well, you really know how to ask tough questions don't you.

        There is a lot of energy and chemicals (nasty chemicals at that) that go into the making of a paper towel. Beyond that point, it's really not all that bad. There is a fair amount of energy and some harsh chemicals that go into the making of a cloth towel, so at this point the cloth towel probably has the advantage. But now you have to wash it and that uses electricity, water and more chemicals, although not a bad as they used to be and not as much water as it used to if you have a new front load machine. We use both cloth and paper and it depends on what we are cleaning up. You probably don't want to mop up grape juice with a cloth towel as it would take bleach to try to get it clean again and if you are trying to reduce your overall footprint not just carbon, the bleach would likely be a deal breaker in favor of paper.

        I don't really think there is an easy answer.

        3 Replies
        1. re: mikie

          Thanks, all - you've confirmed all of the suspicions I had regarding the pros and cons, and I'll continue to make the best judgment calls I can.

          BTW, mikie, there's a tougher question yet: What is the meaning of life? :-) (Other than food, but this being Chowhound, we can't go there...)

            1. re: Claudette

              "there's a tougher question yet: What is the meaning of life? :-)"


          1. Claudette,
            Out here on the west coast water is a very limited resource. You may live in an area that has water but generates a lot of trash... My point is that the average American creates a little less than 1,500 pound of trash a year so you probably should take that into consideration as well (That's from memory so don't quote me :-D).

            If I lived in NY city I would use more water and cloth - because I would like to lessen the amount of stuff in a landfill. Here on the west coast we have a little more space but not enough water, so paper towels and disposable diapers are usually the way folks go....

            Good luck!

            1 Reply
            1. re: slowshooter

              Your landfill refrence strikes a note. I don't know how many of you have been fortunate enough to actually take a field trip to a landfill and experience it first hand, up close and personal. But I can assure you, it's an eye opening experience. I've been fortunate enough to have had this experience on more than one occasion and it really makes you rethink and question a lot of what we do. A field trip to the local landfill should be mandatory in HS so kids understand the impact of how much is wasted.

              I don't think we will ever have sufficient data to actually be able to determine which has the least environmental impact, paper or plastic and I doubt we will ever really know if the paper towel is a life saver or distructor and which lowers our footprint on the earth, the paper towel or cloth towel. But a trip to the landfill will certianly make you think about everything you buy and use and discard.

            2. I sometimes quick-dry lettuce or greens, rolling in a couple layers of paper towels. But then... well, they're not really *dirty dirty* (just wet and bacteria-laden lol).... so they get draped in the kitchen to dry during dinner and get re-used to wipe grease out of a pan or absorb something in the trash. (If no grease, then compost bin.)

              I can't believe I mocked the husband's nutty Uncle Jack (RIP, Jack) for having a "paper towel clothesline" in his kitchen so many years ago.

              1 Reply
              1. re: DuchessNukem

                Mom, is that you?

                Oh Duchess, how your post warms my heart! No one can reuse a paper towel like my mother. She gets at least four, sometimes five uses out of the same paper towel and has a set drying and placement system to ensure proper and maximum usage. (my family also washes out ziplocs but that is another post.....)

                The paper towel thing blew my husband's mind the first time he saw it.

                In our house, I keep stacks of white bar towels instead of paper towels. We would go through rolls a week if paper towels were available. In addition to the cost and waste, I don't have the space to store them. I do keep a few rolls on hand for draining bacon and really gross jobs.