8+ Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Paper Towel That Will Save You Money

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8+ eco-friendly alternatives to paper towels for common uses, reducing waste and expense and promoting sustainable living habits.

bucket with cleaning supplies and paper towel

I’m going to start with a story: I went 25 adult years without buying any paper towels.

Then I started writing this article a whole year ago, and it made me want to try paper towels. To see what I had been missing.

Are they any good? Turns out they can be pretty handy for some things.

So I shelved this article because, despite the 25-year run, I felt like a fraud.

But it can be exhausting trying to do everything perfectly.

So, nowadays, I mostly use the reusable paper towel options I share below. But sometimes, for really gross stuff, I use paper towels made from recycled paper or non-tree alternatives.

I gave up on perfect and accepted ‘good enough’.

Reducing how much paper towel you use has two benefits: it is better for the environment as fewer trees are cut down and it reduces waste and saves you money –  a win-win!

In 2015, the US disposed of about 7.4 billion tonnes of paper tissue products (this also includes toilet paper). That’s a lot of deforestation and a lot of landfill.

And when it comes to the cost, according to an article in the Atlantic, in 2017, the global household expenditure on paper towels was $12 billion, with the US making up nearly half of the market just on its own. 

So, if you’re looking for ways to reduce your household expenditure and live just a little bit greener, here are some paper towel substitutes.

Alternatives to Paper Towel By Use

I could write a long list of things to use instead of paper towels.

But because it’s handy in a variety of specific circumstances, I thought it would be more helpful to consider each circumstance and how you can do the same job without it.

1. Cleaning Without Regular Paper Towel

making and using knitted dishcloths

The most common use for paper towels is wiping up spills.

The alternative is to use reusable cloths for benches (colour coding is useful to prevent cross-contamination) and old rags for the floor. Although for really gross stuff, a bit of toilet paper or a bit of paper towel makes this job easier nowadays.

Knitted dishcloths (along with homemade all-purpose spray) are great because their texture helps with cleaning, especially when something has dried on. Knitting a few in different colours allows you to separate them for different cleaning jobs.

After use, we rinse them and let them dry out before putting them in a bucket in the laundry with tea towels and rags to be soaked/disinfected and washed with the towels.

Swedish dishcloths are another alternative. They are made of cotton, are super absorbent, can be cleaned and used over and over, and can be composted at the end of their life. We get ours from Who Give a Crap.

For messy jobs, rags work well. We use old washcloths; again, the texture helps with the cleaning. 

If you like to be creative, you can make your own reusable paper towels from upcycled fabric. And if you like the convenience of storing your paper towel on a holder, then the tutorials below show how to make fabric cloths that snap together and roll into tube for convenience:

If you prefer not to make them yourself but would like to support small home businesses, you can buy unpaper towels like these from cottage industries on Etsy.

For more information about how we use and clean our cloths check out:

Knitted Dishcloths: Making them and keeping them clean

2. Draining Fatty Food Without Paper Towel

bacon draining on rack

The best way to drain fatty food without a paper towel is to put it on a cake rack over a tray. 

It can be helpful to line the tray with old paper to soak up the fat. This helps you to dispose of the fat, which shouldn’t be poured down the drain.

What do I mean by old paper?

If you still get the newspaper, you can use that; otherwise, junk mail, school papers, or any other paper that was going to be recycled can be used. 

Let the fat cool and harden on the paper and then throw it out. 

3. Wiping and Cleaning Vegetables without Paper Towel

Vegetables like mushrooms are better if they are wiped over rather than washed in water. Instead of using a paper towel, you can use a clean cloth or tea towel. Then just wash the cloth in the washing machine with your regular load.

4. Covering Food in the Microwave

Covering food in the microwave prevents splatter mess and saves you time and cleaning hassle. 

To be honest, I’m not sure which option is better: a dedicated cover or just using paper towels. I don’t actually own a microwave, but my mother has one, and she is still using the microwave cover she got when I was a kid—and I’m over 40 now. 

It is plastic, though, so eventually, it will not decompose in landfills. Maybe we can discuss this —would recycled paper towels be a better option?

4. Longer Lasting Herbs and Vegetables 

A common kitchen hack is to wrap herbs and vegetables like lettuce and celery in a damp paper towel to prevent them from drying out and so that they last longer in the fridge.

This works well, but you don’t need to use a paper towel. A clean tea towel or a cut-up clean tea towel works just as well for small items. Afterwards, wash the tea towel in the regular wash and reuse it. 

5. Straining Stocks etc.

A common suggestion I see is to line a sieve with a paper towel to strain out fat from stock or soup. 

There are two alternatives to using a paper towel. The first – if you have a bit of time – is to refrigerate your stock until the fat rises to the top and solidifies. This allows you to skim the fat off the top.

A quicker alternative is to line your sieve with muslin or an old tea towel and strain through that instead of a paper towel. Wash the muslin and reuse it.

6. Napkins

There’s no doubt reaching for a paper towel is convenient when you need a napkin.

Alternatives to paper napkins include using cloth napkins that can be washed and reused. Not only do cloth napkins produce less waste – especially if you make them yourself from upcycled fabric, they add a bit of sophistication to the family meal.

A less sophisticated version, but one we used when the kids were young, was a damp face washer. A damp face washer is quick and effective when you have squirmy toddlers. Now the kids are older, they go to the bathroom to wash their hands after a meal (and before of course), and that does away with the need for napkins at all.

This brings me to the third option, which is to eat with a knife and fork (or chopsticks), and then any type of napkin becomes unnecessary. 

8. Patting Meat Dry Without Paper Towel

One way paper towel is often used in the kitchen is to pat meat dry before cooking. It’s a great option because you can dispose of it straight away, reducing food cross-contamination.

So what are alternatives to paper towels in this situation?

The first is to not pat meat dry. It’s not necessary for most cooking situations. People pat meat dry because it helps brown the meat more quickly when searing it, and less moisture means less steam. 

You don’t need to do this for most meals. For things like roast pork, when you want the skin to crisp up, you can leave the pork on a rack and uncovered in the fridge overnight to dry out. 

On the rare occasions when you do want to pat meat dry, an old clean tea towel works fine. In fact, it can work better because it doesn’t tend to shed fibres on the meat like many paper towel brands do.

I soak the tea towel after use (to sanitize) and then wash it with other towels. One of THE BEST sanitizers is direct sunlight. It’s free, it’s natural, and it doesn’t harm our water ways with chemicals. So, if you are able to hang your tea towels in direct sunlight (weather permitting), it’s one of the best ways to dry them.

old tea towels drying on line
I use ‘old’ tea towels for some things

9. Other Random Ways You Could Use Paper Towels and Eco-Friendly Alternatives

When I was talking to friends and reading up about paper towel uses (hence me wanting to try them), I found many other random ways people used paper towels. So, I thought I would list them here and give a paper towel alternative.

Cleaning a Can Opener

This was a surprisingly common way people use paper towels!

I just wash my can opener up in the sink with the dishes. If you have an electric can opener, you can wipe it over with a damp dishcloth.

Lining Fridge Shelves

I’ve never lined my fridge shelves; I guess it reduces spill cleaning. Alternatives to paper towels include old tea towels. Or just wipe up spills as they occur.

Preventing a Cutting Board from Slipping

Use a thin, damp tea towel or cloth under your cutting board to prevent it from slipping around while you’re cutting.

Alternatively, a piece of thin Chux cloth can be reused many times. Dampen it and place it under a clean cutting board, then hang it to dry before storing it for later.

Buttering a Cake Tin

I sometimes use my (clean) finger to butter a cake tin if it’s just around the edges, but you could also use a pastry brush and some melted butter.

Another alternative is to line your cake tin with baking paper and use an off-cut baking paper to smear the cake tin with butter.

Last of all, you can use the paper your butter comes wrapped in! My nanna would keep the empty butter papers in the fridge and use them to butter her cake tins.

Oiling a Cast Iron Pan

To be honest, I think this is one job I prefer to use a paper towel.

An alternative, however, is to use an old cloth or tea towel. Put a few drops of oil on a corner of the cloth, wipe the pan, and then clean the cloth in the wash with other items.

For When You Really Need Paper Towel, What’s the Best One to Buy?

There’s no doubt that paper towel is handy and there are times when you want some.

Travel might be a time when it’s more convenient to use disposable paper towels.

If you hate the idea of washing cloths you’ve used to pat dry meat, then that’s another.

So, if you’re going to use paper towels, how do you do it in the most environmentally friendly way possible?

The first is to use it as little as possible. Opt to use more reusable options first. 

The second is to choose unbleached paper towels made from recycled paper over traditional paper towels. The fewer trees we are cutting down for disposable products the better.

We get tree-free paper towels from Who Gives a Crap. It’s made from bamboo and sugarcane. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s better. And if we keep the use to a minimum, for only the really gross jobs, then we save money too.

If you have a compost bin and you haven’t used paper towels to clean up meat, grease, or chemicals, composting them will also reduce waste. 

This began as an article sharing all the ways I avoid using paper towels, and it’s still mostly that, but for the sake of transparency, I do now use paper towels occasionally for some things like cleaning a spill off the floor where the dog has licked some of it up. I’m not eco-perfect, but we endeavour to reduce how many disposables we use and, by doing so, also save money in the process.

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