Why Being “Paper Towel Free” Is Overrated

published Jun 22, 2009
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.

Back in our post about saving your butter wrappers, we mentioned off hand that we’re trying to be paper towel free. Well… that isn’t exactly correct. We figured it was better to be honest about our efforts to reduce our paper towel usage (not because we’re trying to be “green”), why we think they can still be essential in the kitchen and how to be ok with the stigma that surrounds their use. Hold on to your eco-friendly hats, you’re in for quite a ride…

(Please note that use of the word “we” in this post is intended to represent my husband and I. We share the same brain when it comes to the on goings in the kitchen, how socks get folded, however, is a different matter.)

Our Home
Before we start, I’d like to give you a little background on our kitchen. We take great strides to eat local, fresh, and in season. We use non-toxic (and usually homemade) cleaners to take care of spills and bring our own bags to carry things home in. We grow, can, pickle and try to only eat out when we can’t make it better at home. We are big believers in eating well, not to make less of an impact on the environment, but to fuel our bodies with the highest possible quality of food.

The Controversy
So why is there SO MUCH FUSS about paper towel use in the kitchen? It’s all the rage to say, “I’m paper towel-less!” like there’s a medal to be won or a badge of honor to wear because of it. On the opposite side, maybe you’re feeling the reverse effects of green goers around you. There can be a tinge of shame when you sheepishly raise your hand to admit you still use them in your home. Being green enough is a whole new way to keep up with the Jones’. Which ever side of the fence you’re on, it seems like a silly point to cause so much drama, like there should be other issues we might be able to make a bigger personal impact on.

On Facts And Statistics
Prior to writing this, we did a fair amount of research, to make sure we had our facts straight. We read a countless and mind numbing amount of posts from blogs and media sources about why we should try to eliminate the convenient roll from our countertops.
Long story short, no one can really tell us why. In fact roughly 95% of the articles we read started out saying paper towels were bad and then morphed into some long-winded tirade about completely different environmental things. Judging by the amount of information and fact based statistics out there, we can only assume the wishy-washy nature of the articles written, stems from the lack of data supporting the ecological impact that the average American household has, by purchasing this specific product.

Don’t get us wrong, there are tons of reports on paper in general, but most focus specifically on white paper used in offices (with toilet paper being the next runner up) and the recycling costs to businesses. Although many try to argue that paper is paper in any form and the numbers should still apply, it feel like arguing that because tigers have been known to kill people we must eliminate household cats because they are both felines.

Arguments Against Paper Towel Use
But in support of the general arguments most will try make, here’s the main issues:
• Using paper towels means factories causing pollution from their production and trucks to transport them.
• It has also been claimed to kill “virgin” trees and is depleting the worlds resources one roll at a time.
•They bring unwanted chemicals into our homes from the processes in which they are made.
• They don’t recycle well. (The pulp is so broken down after use they cling to other recyclables, making them impossible to sort out later.)
• There’s no real reason for them when you have towels and sponges.
• Americans are lazy and we lived without them for years, who need convenience, my Grandparents sure didn’t!

All of those sound like solid, viable points, but we’re not all that convinced; Here’s our take on why…

Why We Use Paper Towels In Our Kitchen
Paper towels in the kitchen. They’re the devil right? You can almost hear the baby trees crying and becoming more extinct as you wipe off a pan, or clean up a spill. And no one wants to hear baby trees cry, right? So why do we still use them? The answer is simple and a great premise for life and all projects, be it woodworking, under water basket weaving or cooking:

Use The Right Tool For The Job

Shocking, we know, but there are certain instances that they really are what the job calls for and do their part in our kitchen, time and time again, without faltering. Typically the jobs we have for them are those that involve grease, fat or slimy things in general.

• If we aren’t cooking our bacon in the oven, paper towels are almost a necessity for taking care of business with the microwave (without having one of those silly looking uni-tasker trays roaming around). A few layers of paper towels to catch the grease, hands down, make for the crispiest bacon, with little clean up or frustration.

• Likewise, they are also a great help with fried foods. Sure you can use newspaper instead of paper towels, but we don’t get the newspaper and neither does anyone in our building. We read all of our news online, so there’s never any around. But something is required to catch the grease or help soak what little is left on the surface of your foods when they come out of the hot oil, not doing so makes for soggy snacks and no one wants that.

• Although we do keep a small jar of lard or fat in our fridge from the rendering of other meats, there are still pans to wipe out, instead of sending that grease down your drains and into your pipes. Paper towels are perfect for removing all the little bits of “stuff” left in the bottom of your pan after cooking something tasty!

• The last reason we still keep a roll on hand is because of our 4 legged friend, Wilbur. Wilbur is a Boston Terrier with horrible acid reflux issues and what goes inside his body doesn’t always stay there. We could use a sponge cloth to pick up the slimy puke-y mess, but it just doesn’t stick to the sponge and we always end up with it on us, running to the the sink like a small child chanting, ew, ew, ew, ew, ew!

Most other things we really do rely solely on a giant stack of cloth towels or a sponge cloth to get the job done. We dry our hands, wipe down counter tops and clean up most messes just fine. But in sticking with using the “right tool for the job” idea, towels and sponge cloths also have the tasks they work best for too!

Now you know why we use them, but I’m sure you’re dying to know how we justify this greedy and gluttonous use of virgin crying trees for our own convenience, right?

Why We Think They’re Still Ok To Use
Despite all the criticism paper towel users receive, we still think they are a-ok in the kitchen. We will take this time to note they do make eco-friendly paper towels. They are starting to be carried most places and even in big box stores. They will help you feel better about the chemicals used in the bleaching process of the paper and allow you to use a product made from post-consumer waste and recycled paper.

We still use white, off the shelf, regular old paper towels and don’t bother with the eco-friendly version. Why you ask, when there’s other options available? Because they just work better. Plain and simple. It defeats the point of using paper towels at all, earth friendly or not, if you have to use 2-3 times as many to wick away grease or clean a pan. We’ve tested several different types of towels that claim to be eco friendly, and although they work out fine for small spills, when it comes to grease, they just don’t have the same absorbent properties.

We’re ok with a little convenience in our home and just because our Grandparents might have stuck with a sponge or towel doesn’t mean they don’t relish in a few modern day conveniences themselves. If you could only see the size of my Grandmother’s TV. In addition, trees for paper products aren’t depleting our forests as they are a grown crop in this country, just like corn and potatoes. We grow them for paper and we cut them down for paper. We might not be good at some things in this country, but I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if we aren’t great at growing trees!

Heck, we’re even ok with not recycling them. If you have a garden they are great for composting and can be mixed in with the rest of your kitchen scraps. Although this method is possible, in the end, we’re really and truly ok with just throwing them in the trash. They break down quickly and once wet, they practically disappear!

But the chemicals, what about the chemicals?! Paper towels are bleached out with chemicals at the factories. We’ll be more concerned with this point when they start making unbleached paper products that are absorbent and soft. We’re not so concerned with the softness of our towels, that’s just snooty! Buy we are concerned with the softness of our toilet paper. The day they start making a financially viable, unbleached toilet paper option that’s super soft and strong, will be the day they do the same for paper towels. It’s all the same factories and gets shipped on all the same trucks. Until then, my regular white paper towels will still be shipped along side their eco-friendly cousins, causing no more pollution from transportation or manufacturing.

This isn’t an issue of boycotting the big bad paper giant, it’s more a waiting game for technology and the science of manufacturing to catch up to the needs and demands of the people. Green and Earth friendly products are a huge corner of the money making market and it’s only a matter of days, months or years before a better product that’s pocketbook friendly appears and will become the main product found in stores. When that happens, you bet, we’ll hop on the eco-friendly bandwagon, because it will still mean we’re using the “right tool for the job!”

You’ve heard our side of the story, now tell us yours.
Do you still use paper towels in your kitchen?
Why or why not! Leave us your comments below.

(Images: too-hectic& Flickr members Dalboz17, ifijay, colinjcampbell, klynslis, swimboy1, nahlinse licensed for use under Creative Commons, Sarah Rae Trover & Elizabeth Passarella)