Updated: Jul 23
A ragman, sometimes called a rag and bone man, was a person who drove a horse with cart or a small van down neighborhood streets, looking to collect various items to sell for profit. I have some memories of men traveling down the alley behind my grandparent’s home delivering milk or produce or collecting items. The ragman’s occupation was made more familiar by the Kirk Douglas autobiography, The Ragman’s Son. The ragman took old rags and clothing to resell and often left clean rags for the homemaker.
Everyone I know has at least a small pile of rags to use for dirty chores. My pile includes old towels and t-shirts cut up in various sizes. I use them for dusting and mop up jobs. However, many times it is easier to grab a paper towel to clean counter spills, dry fruits and vegetables, wash windows, get grease out of pans, dry poultry, clean up dog messes and wash windows. They are also useful in the garage for greasy messes. It is also easy to dump them in the trash.
So, why not use them? Well, they are expensive and they are not good for the environment. An “Eco Family Life” article published in October, 2018, estimates that the average family of four uses 1-2 rolls per week.
The first paper towel was invented by Arthur Scott from a bunch of rejected toilet papers. Scott introduced paper kitchen towels in 1931. These were 13 inch wide and 18 inches long. A paper towel is made out of paper pulp, which gets extracted from wood or fiber crops.
In an article by Gemma Alexander for Earth911, March, 2020, she states: "It’s common knowledge that Americans use more disposable items than the rest of the world. But according to data collected by market-research firm Euromonitor International, Americans’ use of paper towels is almost an obsession."
Americans spend $5.7 billion dollars a year on paper towels for home use — nearly half the global total, and nearly $5 billion more than each of the next four biggest paper towel spenders. Even taking population into account, it’s a lot. In 2017, the average American spent $17.50 on paper towels. That’s a full third higher than the next highest user, Norway, with an average of $11.70 per person. It’s not just because Americans are using paper towels as napkins either — Americans buy more paper napkins than other nations, too.
Thinking about saving the environment? Consider some facts. More than 13 billion pounds of paper towels are used each year in the USA, amounting to 40 pounds – the equivalent of 80 rolls – per person, per year. (That's one roll every four and a half days for every man, woman and child.)
Producing all that paper consumes a lot of resources, including 110 million trees per year, and 130 billion gallons of water. Comparably huge amounts of energy are required to manufacture and deliver it from the factory to the store, causing plenty of carbon dioxide to be emitted into the atmosphere. After a single use, it all goes into the landfill – some 3,000 tons annually – where it generates methane as it decomposes. Like carbon dioxide, methane is a greenhouse gas that’s strongly implicated as a cause of climate change. The convenience of paper towels comes with a heavy price far above what you pay in the store. (The Environmental Impact of Paper Towels durafreshcloth.com)
Paper production has also been claimed to kill “virgin” trees and is depleting the worlds resources one roll at a time. They also bring unwanted chemicals into our homes from the processes in which they are made.
By using less paper, you can reduce your impact on forests, cut energy use and climate change emissions, limit water, air and other pollution and produce less waste. Reducing your demand for paper will also help lessen the social impacts and human rights abuses linked to paper production.
In her article “Breaking America’s Paper Towel Addiction”, Gemma Alexander has some good suggestions for paper towel replacements. Also, “How to Break the Paper Towel Habit” by the same author is very good.
An article on the ecohomies.com web site, “TOP 10 ECO-FRIENDLY ORGANIC CLEANING CLOTHS FOR KITCHEN GREEN CONSUMERS WOULD FALL IN LOVE WITH” has some excellent suggestions for products to replace paper towels in the kitchen.
During the past year, I have cut my paper towel use to less than one roll per month. This has led me to explore some options, not all of which were totally successful in terms of saving the planet. I consider it a work in progress as I learn more about it.
Some of the solutions I have found for my cleaning are:
Rags The best ones are made from old towels or t-shirts. I use them for dusting, cleaning sinks, moping up spills on the floor, cleaning in the garage and outside. When they get too gross or threadbare, I toss them.
Cloth kitchen towels. I use a variety of towels for drying fruits and vegetables, wrapping lettuce and other veggies in the refrigerator (in reusable zip locks), drying hands, to cover bread rising, etc.
Dish cloths There are some excellent choices out there. The skoy cloth, for example, is an absorbent, biodegradable and natural multi-use cloth. It can be used on most surface areas. Skoy can be used in place of your sponge, wash cloth or paper towels. It's made from a natural cotton and wood-based cellulose pulp and is 100-percent biodegradable. After an independent composting test, skoy cloth broke down completely within 5 weeks.. The skoy cloth has an absorption factor of 15x its own weight. The cloth dries quickly, so it is not a breeding ground for bacteria. You can occasionally place the cloth in the microwave to kill germs. It is also dishwasher and washer and dryer safe. The skoy cloth is durable and can last for months. They are 7 by 8-inch and come in assorted colors.
I also use a Norwex sponge product for cleaning tougher spots. Some people use natural fiber brushes to remove food from dishes. I have not tried any of these products.
Bamboo towels Bamboo is one of the most versatile plants on the earth. It has many uses from a food source to building materials, musical instruments, fabrics and much more. Bamboo is a good choice to replace paper towels. Less water is wasted in the cultivation of bamboo than standard paper. Bamboo starts to regrow as soon as it is cut down, making it one of the most sustainable natural products on earth.
Bambooee, as seen on Shark Tank, is the original bamboo paper towel replacement product. It is stronger, more absorbent and more durable than regular paper towels. And they are machine washable up to 100 times.
Bambooee's tree planting partner now gives to over 50 countries and works with local farmers who help plant trees in an incredible range of environments, from coastal areas to mountains, restoring soil that had been unproductive for decades or even hundreds of years. But they not only plant trees, they give agroforestry training and technical assistance which gives farmers the means to have a stable life living off their land. With this program the lives of farmers, their children and their communities improves immensely.
Check out their impressive website for bamboo paper towels and other products: http://www.bambooee.com
Microfiber cloths I’m going to spend some time on this subject since microfiber cloths have been the best solution for me in eliminating paper towel use. These super-soft cleaning cloths are woven from microscopic fibers that attract dirt—and suck up germs and bacteria. Particles get caught in these cloths’ positively charged fibers, helping keep surfaces inside and outside of the home clean and free of debris—without damaging surfaces or involving any harsh chemicals.
If you use a microfiber cloth, there's no detergent involved whatsoever, so how is the dirt removed? Instead of detergent, they rely on millions of fibers that can sweep dirt away. The fibers are made of plastic and many of them attach themselves to each dirt speck. The many fibers apply powerful enough forces to dislodge the dirt (loosened with a small amount of water) and carry it away, leaving the surface naturally dirt-free. The dirt stays locked inside the cloth's fibers until you wash it in hot water, which makes the fibers uncurl slightly and release their dirty content.
The use of plastic brings up another question. Is microfiber bad for the environment? Short answer: yes. ... Emerging evidence shows that synthetic materials like microfiber cloths may release these tiny fibers into the water supply during washing. Scientists are finding tiny microfibers in our oceans and lakes and trace these back to our home washing machines. (Katie Wells, “Microfiber Cloths: Green Cleaning or Plastic Pollution?”) wellnessmama.com
I have been using Norwex microfiber cloths for about six months and have found them very useful in replacing paper towels. So, this information about microplastics contaminating the environment is a bit disturbing. Information from Norwex states “Because Norwex Microfiber is made from polyester and polyamide (both synthetic materials), any breakdown of these materials in the wash can cause it to shed. Norwex Microfiber is so tightly woven it actually sheds very little. In fact, testing shows that after 200 washings an EnviroCloth® loses only the size of an M@M in microplastic shed”. Our clothing probably does a lot more shedding since most new fabrics such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, rayon, fleece, spandex, etc. have plastic in them.
Another consideration is that microfibers are not recyclable. The microplastics used melt at a different temperature than other types of plastic. This early melt causes a clump and turns the entire batch of recycling plastic into an unusable clump that cannot be made into a new plastic.
However, Norwex has a recycle program as announced to their associates on their website: “Our Microfiber Recycling Program, launched at Conference, allows you and your Customers to responsibly dispose of your microfiber at the end of its life. In partnership with a company that handles our waste and converts it into renewable energy, we’re extending this process to include all microfiber products. With 20 million tons of waste processed annually into enough renewable energy to power one million homes, this safe and technologically advanced waste disposal method also generates clean, renewable energy; reduces greenhouse gas emissions and supports recycling through the recovery of metals.
Contact a consultant for more information about how to recycle our microfiber. In summary, the eco-friendly benefits of microfiber are:
- No pesticide sprays or synthetic fertilizers used in manufacturing - Less water used in cleaning and manufacturing - No deforestation - Fewer chemicals used when cleaning - Most durable and reusable - Recyclable With all of this in mind, microfiber is not the worst choice for a cleaning cloth and I will continue to use mine. In addition, there are some very good suggestions for reducing the environmental impact and extending the life of microfiber cloths. Consider the following in purchasing microfiber cloths: (“The Best Microfiber Cloths for Cleaning” by Andreana Lefton)
The smaller the fibers, the better the cloth. Look for blends of 80 percent polyester to 20 percent polyamide. Cheaper cloths may have a 90 percent to 10 percent ratio. Most microfiber cloths are composed of filaments that are 10-50 times smaller than a human hair. The highest-quality cloths, however, are made of fibers that are 1/200th the width of a hair. Microfibers can only pick up particles that are larger or the same size as each filament. This means that smaller fibers can suck up dirt, as well as bacteria and even viruses that cling to particulate matter. Microfiber does not kill viruses and germs, but it can pick them up and dispose of them.
Weave is also important when choosing a microfiber cloth. Microfibers are chemically split into finer and finer filaments that can be woven in different patterns. A loop weave can whisk away wet and dry messes thanks to microscopic looped “claws.” And these loops are so tiny, most looped-weave microfiber cloths won’t damage even the most delicate electronic surfaces, screens, glass, or mirrors. In contrast, a waffle weave contains larger patterns in the fabric surface, which make these cloths excellent for scouring, scrubbing, and tougher cleaning jobs.
Longevity Microfiber will definitely last longer than many cleaning rags, but how long should you expect your cloths to hold up? The answer depends on two factors. The first is the quality of the cloth itself. Higher-density cloths will typically last longer and maintain their dirt-grabbing abilities despite multiple uses and washes. The second factor is you. If you use microfiber for scrubbing heavily soiled areas, then throw them in the washing machine with detergent, your cloths won’t last as long. But if you follow care instructions, they should last a minimum of several hundred uses and washes.
Expense Norwex cloths and other products are sold on line and through Norwex consultants. They are excellent products but are on the expensive side. Among other microfiber cloths that are less expensive options are E-Cloths. E-cloth and Norwex are equally high-quality microfiber cleaning cloths that clean well with only water. The main differences are that Norwex cloths are softer feeling and contain silver, while E-cloths have been scientifically proven and are much less expensive than Norwex cloths.
An in-depth comparison of Norwex and E-cloth by Cindy Scott is available on-line: “E- Cloth vs Norwex: A Helpful, No-Nonsense Comparison” A summary of this article follows. E-cloth vs Norwex:
Norwex and E-cloth are equally good high-quality microfiber cleaning cloths.
Both Norwex and E-cloth don’t require additional cleaning products.
While Norwex might argue that their Baclock technology sets them apart, it makes no real difference in cleaning.
E-cloth is MUCH less expensive than Norwex.
Both Norwex and E-cloth offer warrantees, but E-cloths might be a bit better.
You can buy E-cloth at a variety of stores, as opposed to through Norwex consultants.
Caring for your microfiber cloth correctly can extend its life. Wash Microfiber Sparingly. With any synthetic cloth, most microplastics are released in the washing machine. The less I we wash them, the less we release into the water supply. Also, use cool or warm water instead of hot water when washing them, as higher temperatures seem to release more microplastics into the water. Never use bleach, heavy detergent or softener. Never iron them.
Can you give up paper towels completely? Probably not. I know that I have to use them for cleaning up serious dog messes. Nothing else will do for that job!
I hope you will consider using cleaning rags or cloths to replace at least some of your paper towels. One suggestion is to sort all of your cleaning cloths/rags and assign them to specific cleaning jobs. Mark them with a permanent marker to keep track (ex. for dusting, counter cleaning, bathroom, veggie dryer, etc.) Put them near the area in the house where they will be used.
Try some of the products mentioned in this article or online. We have so many more options than rags from the ragman to make cleaning easier while we treat our planet well.
“Breaking America’s Paper Towel Addiction”, Gemma Alexander, Earth911, March, 2020 “Americans Are Weirdly Obsessed With Paper Towels? Joe Pinsker, The Atlantic, December 10, 2018. “The Environmental Impact of Paper Towels” (durafreshcloth.com) “Microfiber Cloths: Green Cleaning or Plastic Pollution?” Katie Wells, March 21, 2020 “The Best Microfiber Cloths for Cleaning” by Andreana Lefton bobvila.com “E-Cloth vs Norwex: A Helpful, No-Nonsense Comparison” by Cindy Scott