Reusable Paper Towels

Reusable Paper Towels: The Definitive Guide

June 12, 2020
A set of blue cloth paper towels in a basket
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Are they worth it? After this guide, you’ll know everything about these trending kitchen cloths and whether or not they are right for you!

With growing concerns for the environment, people are examining their lifestyles and how they may be contributing to climate change. Many handmade sellers and businesses are now offering a solution to paper towel waste.. Reusable paper towels are specifically constructed for durability and absorbency. This can make them a wise swap for families.

I’ll dive into all the details of what these cloths are, the reasons why people love them, how to use them (and wash them), and, of course, how to find the best quality set to match your home’s style.

What Are Reusable Paper Towels?

These towels have multiple names: “Unpaper towels”, “paperless paper towels”, and even “non paper towels”. They all describe the same item. Reusable paper towels are meant to be a replacement of single use paper towels. Some people keep a roll or two as an occasional supplement.

What are Unpaper Towels Made of?

Most commonly, they are made from diapercloth (otherwise known as birdseye cotton) and flannel fabric. Diapercloth earned their name for a reason. They are extremely absorbent! Flannel fabric is soft and somewhat clingy. They make for a nice absorbent pairing with birdseye cotton.

Less commonly, you’ll see these towels made of other materials. For example, some are made of a bamboo fabric alternative or terry cloth for more scrubbing utility. Their main properties are that they are absorbent, soft, and cut to a manageable size. Most people prefer their unpaper towels to be cut to a size similar to or smaller than the paper towels they are used to.

Other Features

These kitchen towels have been made with various features in an effort to mimic the paper towel experience. We are all trained to pull a wipe from the paper towel roller. The clinginess of flannel (especially after multiple washes) makes it a good substitute to wrap around your paper towel roller. Some makers add additional support to help them stay together in a roll. These may include button snaps or velcro. They will stick to the roller shape in this case.

In our biased opinion, we think trying to force unpaper towels to be just like paper towels is unnecessary. To make a swap from a product you’ve used for a lifetime can be difficult. Eco Local advocates that behavioral changes like this need to require minimum effort and management. As a personally lazy woman, I do not want to replace a chore that takes a few seconds long to something I have to actively roll and snap together. That is why I design my collections around a basket. I call it no-fuss habit adoption. You wash it, fold in half, and toss in the basket. Easy!

What Does One- or Two-Ply Mean?

You’ve probably seen these terms but may not have known what they mean. One-ply refers to a towel that is made with one sheet of fabric. Two-ply means it is two fabrics (of the same or different fabric type) sewn together. Both ply towels will be absorbent. However, two-ply will be more durable and more absorbent, and are possibly designed to be more aesthetically pleasing.

If you want a large batch of towels to go through and not wash as often, you may be fine to go with the cheaper one-ply. If you are looking for a premium quality reusable paper towels, two-ply will be a better choice.

A paper towel roll next to a set of unpaper towels

Why Switch From Paper Towels?

I’ve written to answer this question before. I’ll recap what that article says and add some more points to complete the scope of this guide. Reusable paper towels are a “buy once to last” item with many benefits. They are meant to last a long time so you don’t need to keep buying them over and over again. They don’t support mega corporations but instead handmade sellers. You’ll also save money in the long run.

A More Sustainable Option

If you live in America then this will be surprising. We spend more on paper towels than any other country in the world. And it’s not just because of our larger population since we spend more than any other country combined! With that in mind, consider that it requires 17 trees and polluting 20,000 gallons of water to make a ton of paper towels. Americans consume more than 3000 tons of paper towels a year alone.

This doesn’t complete the picture either. I have never been able to find data on this but I can only imagine what else it takes to produce paper towels. I imagine the loggers tearing down trees for production, loading them into gas guzzling trucks to carry them off to a polluting factory. This factory could be in a small town where the community has no choice but to live with whatever outcomes from a life of breathing in this air and drinking the polluted water.

Once the paper towels are made, they’re wrapped in plastic. Can you imagine the amount of plastic wrap it must take for one shipment? They are then transported by another large truck to our grocery stores.

That’s a lot of production, waste, and pollution for single-use products.

Paperless paper towels skip all of this with fabrics made to last a very long time with minimum upkeep.

The Frugal Choice Over Costly Convenience

In my research, the best numbers I could find were these: an average family (which I take to mean two parents and 2.5 kids) can save up to $200 a year by not buying paper towels. That’s nothing to sneeze at. You could use that same money to buy something extra special for the holidays or put that in a college fund.  It adds up. In 5 years that yearly $200 saving becomes a thousand dollars in savings. Not bad!

Hallway table with an eucalyptus plant

Simple Living

There is a simplicity in reducing the amount of things you have to buy and limiting your use of single-use products. Being a conscious consumer means thinking about what is necessary and valuable, not just to you but to your family, community and the Earth.

I personally love cutting down my list of things to buy regularly. Just like when I quit buying bottled water and plastic razors, I saved money and didn’t have to worry about always having them on hand. There’s an underrated freedom in minimalism and intentional living.

Have a Non-Toxic Family Home

I wrote previously about what it takes to create the crisp white paper towel. Think about it, trees don’t magically turn white on their own. Most paper towel brands bleach and treat their product with chemicals. They do not have to disclose what chemicals they are using. They may be harmless, but maybe not. We do know two chemicals used are formaldehyde and BPA. These are known carcinogens and hormone disrupters.

I don’t mean to be an alarmist. I like to see the studies of what things like this mean first. But the problem is there aren’t really any studies about paper towels and if there are enough toxins to cause concern. We can assume it’s safe, minimal levels since it’s a regulated industry and are allowed to be sold in stores. However, I understand people prefer to take extra precautions, especially with products used multiple times a day. It’s a choice families must make for themselves.

A Quality Investment

Sometimes when we look at the alternatives, we’re disappointed because there is something you’ll be giving up in order to make the switch. The substitute may be less convenient, less effective, or costly. But the only ‘cost’ besides money I’ve found with this zero waste product is that you have to throw them in the wash on laundry day.

I’ve found that reusable paper towels are a sound investment. You will likely save money, limit toxins in your home, and minimize environmental impact. Swapping to these towels surprised me. I initially believed that these towels couldn’t be as absorbent as paper towels, that they couldn’t be that durable with continual use in the kitchen and multiple washes, and that they certainly couldn’t improve with long term use. I was thankfully proven wrong on every count!

Most users, myself included, find well-made unpaper towels are just as absorbent (if not more so) than paper towels. I even made a test with my mother in her kitchen. We poured the same amount of water on her counter and wiped with a fresh towel and paper towel. We compared performance and consistently found our unpaper towels outperformed the paper towels!

What makes them even more exciting is that they DO become more clingy and absorbent with every wash. Handmade sellers will sew their sets with durability in mind. There are sewing methods used to accomplish this: double (or triple) sewing, sergers, or sewn once inside out and sewn again outside in.

Less Important But I Love This Part

I love how beautiful fabric cloth wipes can be. You can choose prints that truly match your kitchen’s style and complement your decor rather than being an accepted eyesore. The different patterns to choose from are exciting. I can’t wait to build my collection for holidays and special occasions. You could even buy sets for parties and get-togethers as they can double as dinner napkins.

How to Use and Care for Paperless Paper Towels

Trust me, its easy!

Best ways to store them

This mainly depends on whether or not your sets have velcro or snaps on them. If they do, you can keep using your paper towel holders as their “clinginess” will improve with time and washing. You can even try using the holder without the snaps or velcro.

If you don’t want to deal with “rolling” them into your holder after washing, you may want to consider using a basket or a kitchen drawer. This is an opportunity to totally replace your paper towel holder with something more aesthetically pleasing. It also will require less work as you’ll probably only need to fold and toss them in the basket once washed.

I also keep a small basket in my pantry for my dirty towels so they are in one place when I’m ready to wash them.

Is there a “wrong way” to use them?

Unless your set is white, you probably won’t want to use bleach to wash them. Otherwise, you can use them to wipe spills, act as napkins, clean your countertops, dust, or any other tasks for which you’ve previously used paper towels. They are meant to be tough and durable enough to withstand normal use, so let your kids put them to the test.

How to Wash Them

I actually have an article on the basics of upkeep. To recap, be sure your set is pre-washed before using it the first time. Wash with like colors on cold to medium temperature and use a dryer or hang dry in the sun as you would other laundry for sanitation. Easy-peasy!

Paper towel with spray bottle

Frequently Asked Questions

Are they sanitary?

Yes, if you use clean properly. Being reusable means they need to be regularly washed. The good news is, you probably already are doing the following with dirty clothes and towels anyway. As this article in Time magazine explains, “It’s the dryer—not the washing machine—that lays waste to harmful microorganisms. High heat drying for at least 28 minutes is the most effective way to kill viruses…”

If you are particularly concerned, you can use bleach or another disinfectant when you wash. If you want to skip the dryer, you can hang dry outside where the sun’s UV rays can help with killing harmful bacteria.

Why not use rags or tea towels?

You absolutely can. However, unlike rags and tea towels, reusable cloth towels are made for the specific purpose of cleaning spills and messes. They are made with flannel cotton, terry cloth, or birdseye fabric meant to be absorbent and clingy. You may notice tea towels do a poor job soaking liquid and rags will always look dirty or worn out. Unpaper towels are meant to get the job done while looking stylish.

Who are they best for?

Anyone looking to:

  • Have a cleaner (less toxic) home
  • Adopt a low or zero waste lifestyle
  • Reduce household costs
  • People concerned about the environment
  • Be intentional, conscious consumers
  • Live a simpler lifestyle

Do they make good gifts?

Yes, especially if the person fits the above list criteria. Even if they are not, they can make for a decorative napkin or cloth for special events. Who doesn’t like a nice set of napkins, especially for when the in-laws visit? They can make great housewarming gifts, as well. Sets with holiday- or seasonally-themed prints are a unique way to decorate. They can also create an extra-nice touch when having people over and for dinner parties.

Reusable paper towels

Where do I find the best reusable paper towels?

Things to Consider

You have four main things to think about when searching for your first set of towels. If you are just trying it out or only want a decorative set, you will probably want a set of at least eight. Larger sets can certainly be more cost-effective.

There are different materials you’ll come across. Diapercloth (or birdseye fabric) is extremely absorbent. It is typically available in white. Flannel fabric is clingy, absorbent and soft. They can usually have prints, colors and patterns. Terry cloth is the same material as your bathroom washcloth and offers a level of scrubbing power. Linen and hemp are known to be quick-drying and environmentally friendly.

How do you want to store them? You may prefer to keep your paper towel holder and will need clingy flannel or a set with snaps or velcro. If you want to use something else instead, like a basket, you’ll want a set without the snaps or velcro. You’ll probably want to buy the basket with a set since they will be sized to fit that basket.

One- or two-ply? For a lower price point or if you want to buy a large bundle, one-ply will be a good choice. Two-ply offers improved quality in terms of performance and durability. You could always buy a mix and see which one you like best.

The most fun part is finding a style and color to match your home!

Where to find your set

If you are a do-it-yourself person with sewing skills, you can make them yourself. It will require sourcing your fabric, cutting to size, and either using a serger or sewing machine to make them. You can search Google for various tutorials or patterns ot follow.

Since these towels are not being mass produced, you can support small, handmade businesses instead. Amazon Handmade and Etsy will be your best bets in your search.

What to look for

On Etsy, look for a seller with good ratings and reviews. Etsy, like other marketplace websites, has high standards for their sellers. They are known to remove disreputable shops that provide poor customer service.

If the towels are sewn, it will be preferable that they are double-sewn for durability. This isn’t necessary for towels made with a serger.

Does the listing include or offer a storage unit? Be sure they are not cheaply made if you opt for it.

If it’s a gift, see if the seller does any gift wrapping or notes for recipients.

Be sure to look at our latest collections featuring handcrafted unpaper towel sets. They are highly rated and double sewn with trendy prints. Sets include baskets and free shipping! Visit Eco Local on Etsy!

Rounding It All Up

Unpaper towels are an essential tool for anyone wanting to live a more conscious, sustainable lifestyle. Even if that is not your concern, they can be preferable over paper towels for their durability and aesthetic. I believe you are not sacrificing anything when making the switch from paper towels for their many benefits to your home and the environment. This is a worthwhile zero waste item anyone will appreciate and find useful!


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[…] I hope these tips help you all in having a fun Halloween! I wish every a safe, spooky, and zero waste Halloween! For more awesome guides, check out this guide on reusable paper towels. […]

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[…] Use your new all-purpose spray in the kitchen with your set of reusable paper towels. The two make a perfect marriage of natural ingredients and low waste living. You can read my guide on reusable paper towels here. […]

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