Throwing in the [Paper] Towel

Posted on May 10, 2012 by Stefanie

Image credit: milajake

I know we usually save the videos for A/V Fridays, but I recently watched a brilliantly simple TED talk that I think is worth sharing on a Thursday. If you’ve got four minutes and 28 seconds to spare, go watch it now. The gist is that if you use paper towels to dry your hands, you’re probably doing it wrong, and if you switch to Joe Smith’s “Shake! Fold!” method (which guarantees you dry hands using only ONE sheet of any thickness and size), we could save 571,230,000 pounds of paper a year. That’s no small figure. It is, however, a small change, and the small, easy changes that make a big difference have always been some of my favorite posts on The Greenists. So bookmark that for later if you must, but seriously, watch that video. You’ll hear Joe saying “Shake! Fold!” every time you wash your hands in a public restroom from here on out, and you will use way less paper as a result; I swear.

For the record, I do avoid using paper towels at all as often as I can, and I’m sure you probably do too. I keep a tea towel on a magnetic clip under my desk at work; I would never think to waste a paper towel to dry my hands at home; and it annoys me no end when people reach for paper towels in the gym locker room when they’ve got a washable cloth gym towel hanging out on a bench ten feet away. But it drives me crazy to leave a public restroom with wet hands (or damp jeans from trying to dry them on my legs), so I’ll admit that I cave to using paper towels outside the work/home/gym/friends’ homes venues. Now, however, at least I use only one when I do so.

Of course, people use paper towels for more than just drying their hands. I was guilty of using them as napkins at home until I finally cut up an old towel into napkin-sized rags a few years ago. And there have been plenty of times when I spilled something messy in my kitchen and decided grabbing a paper towel was just faster and easier than dirtying and rinsing a rag. But I have not used a paper towel in my house in over six months now, because of one ridiculously simple tip that I will now share with you. Are you ready? This is pretty earth-shattering, people. I merely have not refilled my dispenser!

I think the only reason I ever went for paper towels instead of a rag to clean up a spill anyway was that I’m lazy, but you know what? Climbing up on a chair to reach the spare paper towel roll in the cupboard above my fridge, and then taking the plastic wrap off the roll and properly installing it in the dispenser is actually a lot more work than grabbing and subsequently rinsing out a rag. Laziness has worked in my favor for once! And the planet’s favor too! Woo-hoo!

I’m sure eventually I’ll find some seemingly valid and worthy reason to open that spare roll in my cupboard and pull a towel off of it, but I’ve decided that when I do, that roll is going right back in the cupboard immediately thereafter. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s a trick that’s totally working for me.

So my best tip for cutting down on paper towel use? Simply don’t keep paper towels around (or at least within easy reach) at all.

Like I said, the simplest, seemingly-too-obvious-to-even-mention tips are some of my favorites. What’s a “Hi; call me Captain Obvious” tip you’d like to share?


  1. When we moved last summer, I made sure the new home for the box of cloth napkins was much more convinient to the dining room than the paper towels.

    My goal is to use rags for most cleaning jobs, with the exception of cleaning up after the cats when they make a mess. I want to be able to throw those away completely. Unfortunately I find myself reaching for the paper for quick clean up jobs too. I need to find a place for the rag bag that’s as convinient as the paper towel roll.

    May 10th, 2012 at 12:24 pm
    Comment by Jennythereader
  2. I also keep a small towel at my desk at work and just take it with me when I head to the restroom.

    Just recently I bought a 3-pack of paper towels, first time in years. I think the previous roll lasted maybe two years. The only reason I bought any at all is for wiping out my cast iron frying pan. I’d been using a cloth rag for that, but I spent so much time (and water) trying to get the rags clean I decided to just go back to paper. I don’t fry that often anyway.

    May 14th, 2012 at 5:32 pm
    Comment by mickey
  3. I just went paper towel free in my house. I bought 2 rolls of cheap dollar store rolls just to keep for animal messes and frying things. Otherwise the family seems to be transitioning well. It has been wonderful. I feel so good about the change. Going green is fun and so much cheaper. :) :) :)

    July 21st, 2012 at 5:58 pm
    Comment by Sherri

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Tip of the Day

If It Doesn’t Smell, Don’t Wash It


According to Real Simple, if every American made an effort to launder less — cutting out just one load of laundry a week per household — we’d save enough water to fill seven million swimming pools each year.

So if it looks clean, and it smells clean, call it clean and wear it again. Consider hanging worn clothes out on your clothesline to freshen them up between wearings.

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