Where’s the Ragman When You Need Him?

Updated: Nov 23, 2020


The Rag Man - Wikipedia

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.

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.