How to Make a Roll of Paper Towels Last a Year

What’s the secret to extending the life of paper towels? Not using them when you don’t have to.

It takes me forever to use up a roll of paper towels. I wish I’d written the date inside the cardboard tube of the roll currently in my kitchen. It’s been there at least a couple of years. Even though I’ve been traveling a lot, that’s still a long time for one roll to have been operating.

It’s not that I’m particularly neat. It’s that I see no reason to use paper towels when I have plenty of rags.

Sure, paper towels are convenient. But they’re expensive too. Why use and toss wads of paper when I can use a piece of cloth, launder it, and use it again? And if you’re just draining salad greens or wiping up spilled water, you don’t even need to wash the cloth – just hang it up to dry.

Call that eco-friendly if you like. I prefer to think of it as common sense.

Maybe you do too. But you’d be surprised how many folks don’t wash mirrors with vinegar and water and squares cut from old flannel sheets. Or who drain the romaine on paper towels rather than worn-out dish towels. Or who actually buy sacks of “shop rags.”

I have a theory: The reason so many clothes end up in thrift stores is that not enough people have rag bags.

Old diapers, trashed T-shirts

My cleaning-cloth collection includes sheet scraps, old washcloths, bits of terrycloth towels, and pieces of worn-to-death blouses, T-shirts, and flannel pajamas.

The rags are battle-ready when I need to wipe up spills, wash my stovetop, or do a bit of freelance cleaning in the apartment building that I formerly managed. (They still hire me for odd jobs here and there.)

For quite a while, my cleaning rags of choice were old cloth diapers. Believe it or not, most were “slightly irregular” and therefore cost only $2.99 per dozen. (I couldn’t make that up.) I was still using the last stubborn survivors when my baby girl went off to college.

Don’t use cloth diapers? I bet you have at least one of the following…

  • Old sheets: Flannel ones in particular are soft and absorbent.
  • Trashed T-shirts: But only the ones too holey even to wear while gardening or painting.
  • Shirts or blouses: Long-sleeved cotton or flannel shirts worn out at the elbows, or whose cuffs are irreparably frayed, can be cut up and bagged. Save their buttons for future repair jobs, though.
  • Worn-out bath towels: Their job is to be absorbent so these are great for cleaning, or for draining freshly washed grapes.
  • Old pajamas: We all know how cozy a pair of often-washed flannel PJs can feel. But when they’re too threadbare to keep out the draft, scissor ’em up.

What if you’re more of a rayon-and-silk kind of person? Or you don’t wear T-shirts? Or you don’t expect your sheets to wear out for years? Round up some rags at:

  • Thrift stores. I bought a big bag of towels and washcloths for $3.99.
  • Rummage/yard sales. These are where marathon T-shirts go to die. I’ve also seen bath towels for as little as a quarter each.
  • The “free” box at yard sales. I’ve seen old towels, washcloths and T-shirts there.

Incidentally, my rag bag is actually a white plastic bucket in the entry closet. But “rag bucket” isn’t nearly as much fun to say.

Green twice over

It’s not that I’ll never use a paper towel again. They’re great for jobs such as cooling off bacon. But it seems wasteful to use a paper towel every time I spill something.

I also don’t want to use one every time I eat something. A guy I know calls paper towels “bachelor plates.” I’ve been in homes where paper towels were used instead of napkins. That use-and-toss habit just makes me wince. I’ll stick with a regular plate and one of the cloth napkins that were six for a quarter at a rummage sale.

Not only am I saving money by not buying paper towels and paper napkins, I’m being green twice over: By not adding more than my share of paper to the landfill, and by giving worn-out fabric one more use before discarding it.

Generally that means really worn-out. The T-shirt I’m wearing right now is a good example. I know how old it is because it bears the legend, “1998: 75 And Still Alive! The Historic Fairview Inn, Talkeetna, Alaska.”

It’s developed holes that cannot be repaired. But going on 14 years of age, this shirt doesn’t owe me a thing. Time to give it a decent burial – or, in a manner of speaking, a new life. After its next washing, into the rag bag it will go.

And now I know what souvenir I want to bring back from Talkeetna when I attend the bachelor auction later this year. Hint: It’s not a bachelor.

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

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  • Chris Ramsey

    Is it really ‘green’ if you are doing all the additional laundry which increases water & soap product usage?

    • I thought I was the only one that felt like paper towels was a waste of money. I use them for greasy bacon and fried chicken, WHEN I cook them and that is not very often. I throw the rags right in with my towels and sheet load OR my dark levi, jean load, depending on what I have used them for, so it doesn’t cost anymore. Oh and by the way, I make my own laundry soap (green) and wear my clothes twice if they are not dirty after one day, so my husband and I only have 2 or 3 loads of clothes every 2 weeks. So how green do you want to go?

      • Chris Ramsey

        Just asking the question…I have not fully integrated my house to be very green.  But with the claims in the articale that the process was better for the environment, I just had questions on thinking it fully through.

    • Donna Freedman

      It’s not a lot of additional laundry, for a couple of reasons:
      1. If I’m using a rag to wipe up spilled water or a towel to drain lettuce or grapes I just let it air-dry and use it again, as noted in the piece.
      2. These rags aren’t exactly huge. They’re washcloth-sized or smaller so I, like Jimee, just toss them in with existing laundry.
      I appreciate your asking the question, because I expect other people wondered the same thing.

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