My biggest pet peeve is? Paper towels! Why? Because we are buying something we know we are going to throw out and it's a major stain on the planet. Not don't get me wrong: I know how challenging it is to make the switch. But hopefully, my tips plus these 8 paper towel alternatives will set you up for success.
This post contains affiliate links. We earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. We only share brands we truly believe in.
Why consider switching to paper towel alternatives?
Paper products that we use in the kitchen (and a zero waste bathroom) like towels and napkins have a massive environmental footprint. First, there are the resources needed to produce them, which involves cutting down old-growth forests. Then there's all the water and bleach it takes to actually manufacture them. Then they need to be shipped all over the country (or the globe). Hopefully, you get the point.
I get it. Paper towels are cheap and disposable, making us use them up pretty fast. Then when we are done, we rush out to buy more, and the cycle just goes on and on.
Choosing eco-friendly paper towel alternatives is better for your home, your pocketbook, and the planet. Make sure to read to the bottom of the post for tips on how to break your paper towel habit, plus a breakdown of the cost of conventional paper towels vs. zero waste paper towel alternatives.
1. Best Reusable Paper Towels: Swedish Cloths
I am going to show you a wide range of options you can use in your home, from Swedish Sponge Cloths, to Unpaper Towels to Huck cloths and even DIY reusable paper towels.
Ten & Co. is a Canadian brand that I love. I've used most of their products, including the Swedish dishcloth. Just one Swedish dishcloth will replace 17 rolls of paper towels!
What is Swedish cloth? I am sure you have heard of them. These sponges have been a staple in Scandinavian homes for over 60 years. They are made from cellulose fiber and are fully compostable, quick-drying, and naturally antibacterial. AND you can use them to clean absolutely anything!
It's the quick-dry aspect that is a real game-changer for me and it will be for you, too. Think about that damp, stinky yellow sponge you've used over and over! Lots of germs and bacteria sit on those sponges. #gross
You can also wash these paper towel alternatives in the dishwasher or washing machine. They are also very versatile, so you can use them in the bathroom or for washing windows or mirrors. Use them to dry your pet's feet, take off your nail polish, wash your face, clean your kid's hands—you name it!
I keep my paper towel replacements color-coded: dark ones are for the kitchen and lighter ones for the bathroom. Because they are so soft and easy to use, you can actually end up replacing napkins, sponges, and even dish towels.
Another really great feature of these is how absorbent they are. They absorb 15 times their own weight in liquid, which is ¾ of a cup! Think about how much paper towel you would use to clean up a spilled glass of juice. So. Much. Waste.
They're super easy to wring out completely (and I mean completely!) after each use. When they dry they do harden, but you can just add some water and they will be back in action.
Ten & Co. sells a variety of sizes. The regular sponge cloth is 17 cm x 20 cm [6.75" x 8"] and is perfect for all the things I mentioned above. You also have the option of a large sponge cloth mat, which is perfect for bigger messes and for use as a dish drying mat. It's not recommended you wash these in the dishwasher or machine, but instead, hand washes them with a natural cleaner.
Your cloth's lifespan is dependent on how you use your cloth and your personal preferences. Typically, they will last 2-3 months with average wear and tear, but these cloths can be used up to 6-12 months or 200 wash cycles.
One sponge will cost you $6. The patterns are simply adorable — you will have a hard time choosing. I love how thick these are as well.
Ten & Co. was founded by Christen, who takes sustainability into account in every aspect of her business. These frugal living paper towel alternatives are designed in Canada but manufactured in Sweden, a country known for its sustainability. They also make beeswax wraps with 100% organic cotton and ethically sourced beeswax. Find other goodies like trivets (handmade in Toronto) and tea towels.
KLIIN is not afraid to get dirty! Their adventure began with their famous "rags." Innovation in cleaning, they are more effective and can completely replace conventional paper towels and cleaning rags. Over time, its product line has expanded, keeping with its mission to offer efficient, quality, eco-friendly products.
This is another Canadian company based out of Quebec. I had the chance to meet the owner, Marie-Pierre, a few years back at the Green Living Show, and she was kind enough to gift me some of her amazing cloths. I was hooked right away. Now I think I have at least 10 of them! I love to clean, can you tell?
Things I love about these clean environmentally friendly paper towel alternatives:
- They absorb all household spills
- They get windows sparkling in no time — no streaks here!
- They clean everything, everywhere, inside and out — the kitchen, bathroom, garage, patio, car, boat, and more!
And after they've soaked up, wiped up, and cleaned up everything including the kitchen sink, you can toss them in your compost bin. They will take about 28 days to break down, and then you've got the perfect fertilizer for your garden!
You can buy three sizes: small, medium and large. What I really love is the roll. Each roll comes with 5x 9.5'' x 10'' sheets that are thinner than the regular KLIINs, making them a very close replica of the conventional paper towel. You can also choose from a great selection of drying mats, which you can use to dry lettuce and ditch the paper towel for good! I didn't think I'd need one until I used it. It's super convenient to have if you just need to wash one glass and dish. All the colors and patterns are just so cute.
You can machine wash these up to 300 times and they will still work as well as the first day you got them. A pack of three small ones will cost you $9.99. So affordable.
When KLIIN ships your goodies, they will arrive in a compostable mailer from noissue. They are always coming up with more products, so stay tuned!
The Original 100% Biodegradable Reusable Paper Towels is an Ontario manufacturer that has been around since 1946 and is available in many stores across Canada (and hopefully in the U.S. soon!). These are thick and will absorb 20x their weight. They are perfect for bigger cleanups. I love that they are color-coded: blue for all-purpose, yellow for a zero waste kitchen, and green for tub 'n tile.
These are easy to wash, too — simply place them in the washing machine or in the top rack of the dishwasher up to 300 times. The company has actually tested this!
I love that you can find these at places like HomeSense, Well.ca, and Whole Foods. Accessibility can be hard for some, so this makes it easier for people to find sustainable swaps like these.
These are synthetic-free, made from natural wood pulp, and will break down in active microbial soil (your garden) within 12 weeks. The one thing I will note is they do come in reusable plastic bags and that's because the towels are packaged damp (which gives them a soft, cushion feel), whereas the others are dry. These are durable and can handle the messiest of messes. These are actually paper towel alternative that is thicker, which I love.
The brand's parent company, Canada Sponge & Chamois Ltd., does produce some synthetic products, but we've included this product because it's available at many large retailers at a more accessible price point (a package of 10 towels retails for between $9.99 to $13.49 depending on the retailer). Plus, they're manufactured right in Toronto!
2. Best paper towel alternatives: Unpaper Towel
So Swedish Cloths are amazing for cleaning up and they are just one option you can choose. There is also something known as Unpaper Towel. These became super popular a few years back and can be used to clean just about anything. One of the major pros is that they can be placed on a paper towel rack and be pulled off in the same way. So you won't even notice a difference.
Unpaper Towels are either smooth on both sides or smooth on one side and lightly textured on the other; making them a great dual-purpose clean-up cloth for your home.
These Etsy reusable paper towels have soft cotton on one side and super absorbent terry cloth on the other. I use these in my home for dusting and on glass and mirrors. Just be careful, there are snaps on each towel, this keeps them tied to each other, that can scratch your TV, this happened to me. So best to use something else to dust the TV. For other dusting jobs, they are perfect.
Another adorable Canadian Etsy Shop that sells a huge range of the most environmentally friendly paper towel alternatives. These do not have the terry cloth on the back, but will still do a great job at cleaning up smaller messes. These are great for kids' hands, small spills, drying dishes, and streak-free cleaning. Great for travel and on-the-go. These are also double-ply, so you get double the absorbency.
Cheeks Ahoy is a family-run business where all eco-friendly items are handmade in Peterborough, Ontario.
Marley's Monsters is one of the biggest eco-friendly online zero waste shops. They have so many products to choose from like reusable sponges, reuseable toilet paper (yep you read that right), and of course the best reusable paper towels! They even have a reusable garbage liner.
They have a range of sizes, colors, and patterns, so it will be hard to choose one. The towels are SO useful and durable! I've already used them to clean up all sorts of food-related messes and they've handled every job perfectly! They are beautifully made. Very functional and they stick together really well when rolled up. You can even get them on a cardboard roll, just make sure to recycle it when you are done!
3. More paper towel alternatives for cleaning home
I've touched on two alternatives to using paper towels, Swedish sponges clothes and unpaper towels. These are not the only options.
Tea Towels can be used in the kitchen to clean up after cooking, I bet you have a ton of these! Ideal for drying hands, glasses, dishes, and cutlery. Have at least 8.
Rags. Use what you have, cut up an old t-shirt, and towels, these are great if you have a baby or a messy pet, and mopping up messes. Cut them up into sets of 12. These are frugal living, paper towel alternatives. Reuse. Reuse. Reuse.
Huck Towels are another really good substitute for paper towels. Have you ever heard of them? They are actually surgical towels that are 100% cotton, super-absorbent, and are very low lint, which makes them a great choice for clean sterilized surgical instruments and of course cleaning windows and glass.
I love them because they are so durable. They can be washed over and over again and will retain their absorbency and softness.
You can use these to dry off raw meat and clean up after using meat in the kitchen. Once used rinse with super hot water and toss in the wash. You can basically use these for most cleaning jobs in the house. Have at least 24 of them.
I am giving this as an option because I know how hard it is to make the switch. If you absolutely can't part with paper towels at least opt for something a little more sustainable. These are reusable bamboo paper towels. Caboo tree-free household paper products are made from renewable bamboo and sugarcane – not trees! Caboo brand is fully FSC and ISO 14001 Certified. These do come wrapped in plastic, which I don't love. But it's better than buying tree paper in plastic though!
Cost analysis of paper towel vs. reusables
Going green doesn’t have to be expensive. Let’s get a close-up on the savings to your wallet AND the environment by going green: Paper towels vs. Unpaper towels!
COST- Paper Towels for a family of 4:
Financial Cost: At $1.57 per paper towel roll and using 1 roll per week (a very conservative number), this home accessory would annually cost you $81.64.
Environmental Cost: Paper towels are made from a combination of wood fibers and water combined to produce a pulp. Wood fibers can come from trees or recycled paper. A peroxide-based bleach is used to brighten and whiten, a “wet strength agent” that makes it more water-resistant. Machines (powered by oil) are used to roll the pulp out, removing excess water and creating each ‘ply’ of the paper towel.
Machines are also used to test the strength, emboss the pattern, apply a coat of glue that sticks the two-ply together, perforate the sheets, wind the towels around a tube, pack the rolls in printed plastic and get the product to you. All for an item destined for a landfill after a single use, generating methane as it decomposes.
SAVE- UnPaper Towels (DIY or Purchased) for a family of 4:
Financial Cost of DIY: Cut up an old t-shirt or bed sheet to an 11x11 inch square. The environmental cost of the fabric has already been spent, so by repurposing, you are diverting textiles from the landfill.
Financial Cost of Purchased: Unpaper towels cost $45-$55 + the cost of laundering at home, so you would be saving $25-35 annually.
3 Environmental Bonuses: 1-Fabric towels are more absorbent and resilient than paper towels. 2-After the initial purchase, you never have to re-stock: just launder and put them back in the kitchen. 3-The purchased ones can even be wrapped to fit on your existing paper towel rack!
Total Cost-Save: Going green with un-paper towels (DIY or purchased) can save anywhere from $25.00 to $81.64 annually! Keeping in mind this is for 1 roll when you multiply it by 8 rolls, it is almost $1k a year in savings.
Common questions I get about using reusable paper towels
What happens if you have to clean up grease on the counter?
Easy, simply sprinkle some baking soda onto the spill, it will absorb the grease and then you wipe it clean it using any of the alternatives I have mentioned above. Rinse and then launder the cloth. I keep old rags and cloths under the sink specifically for these kinds of messes.
I have a cat, how can I use a cloth to clean up gross vomit?
If you use paper towel you know you have to use more than one piece off the roll. Most paper towels I have used can't aboard the mess and it ends up getting on my hands, am I right? Using a cloth, wipe up the mess, shake off the bits that get stuck on the cloth, then rinse and toss the cloth directly into the laundry. Simple.
TIP: Keep a bunch of rags for dirty jobs like cat vomit, bathroom stuff, and oiling cast iron, write the name of the mess in a permanent marker of the rag so you can easily identify the right one for the job!
Won't I have more laundry and isn't using the washing machine bad for the environment?
No, I have been using mine for 20 years and have never noticed a massive difference. If you have a huge family and use dozens per week, then you might have one extra load. But when you compare the carbon footprint of pricing paper towels vs. washing them at home, the latter is the better option.
What about draining oily food?
Use a baking sheet that has a rack on top of it. This will actually drain more oil than paper towels. I keep the excess oil to oil my cast iron pot. If you have lots of oil leftover, you will need to cool it completely then pour it into a compost bag and place it in the green bin. In Toronto, where I live you can put cooking oil in the green bin. Make sure you check with your local municipality. If you are not able to put the oil in the green bin when it's cooled put the oil into a cardboard milk carton and place it in the garbage.
Can I compost the leftover oil?
I thought paper towels can be composted? Doesn't that make it eco-friendly?
Well, it's complicated.
What should I use Instead of Paper Napkins?
Cloth napkins are the most obvious choice. These from Your Green Kitchen are so cute! I keep at least 12 of them on hand all the time. They can get a little drab, but they do the job just fine! They will get stained so choose a darker color. You can find some pretty cute ones at your local thrift store. Try to choose natural fibers if you can.
What about microfiber?
If these are all you have, then go ahead and use them. But microfiber cloths are normally made from synthetic material and are contributing to the problem of microplastic.
Can't I compost paper towels? Isn't that eco-friendly?
So you can compost paper towels, if they are clean and used lightly can compost them! That sounds as silly as it is, but some people use paper towels to dry counters tops, or their hands and then simply toss them in the garbage. It's another reason why alternatives to paper towels are a better option!
If you are using toxic chemicals to clean your house along with paper towels, I'd avoid adding tat to your compost as the chemical can harm the macro and microorganisms. Here is a list of what's not compostable at home and what worms can actually eat.
If you are cleaning up plant-based messes, dirt, or water, then compost them. As you can see it's pretty complicated and it's why most people just end up throwing it in the garbage!
How do I actually get started with switching to reusable paper towels?
Finish up what you have before you even consider purchasing anything new. Most people have a ton of dish clothes stacked away, use those as well.
HOW TO MAKE THE SWITCH! I am not going to lie, paper towel is one of the hardest habits to break!
Do a paper towel audit, take a moment to think about how you are currently using paper towels in your home.
- Are you using it to clean the sink or other surfaces like glass or mirrors?
- Do you use it when cooking to absorb grease? (like bacon)
- Are you using it to wipe up gross messes from kids and pets (hello fur ball)?
- Do you dry your dishes with it?
- Do you use it to clean a mess on the dining table or a spill in the kitchen?
Out of sight out of mind. I want you to move your roll away from where it's easily accessible. Put it in the pantry, or under the sink. The point is to get it out of arms' reach.
Set yourself up for success, which means having the right tools to help you get the (cleaning) job done.
I have baskets in key areas of the home, one labeled clean and one labeled dirty, this way your family knows exactly what to do with the dirty ones. I keep a small, mesh bag in the bathroom and place the dirty ones in there.
I have applied this same principle to my dirty clothes. I have a mesh bag hanging on the inside of my cupboard under the sink for my dirty clothes, then I toss the bag in the washing machine.
For more soiled, greasy cloths, I soak them in baking soda, then toss them in the wash!
How to make reusable paper towels?
There are many ways to make your own paper towel alternatives. You can make them using old fabric you have laying around the house. If sewing is not your vibe, then you can make then with this no-sew method.
A Final word on Paper Towel Alternatives
I hope this post has given you enough information on how to ditch paper towels once and for all. Keep in mind Rome was not built in a day. Change takes time, but I know you can do it!
And with stats like these, it's a no-brainer:
- To make one ton of paper towels 17 trees and 20,000 gallons of water are polluted.
- As many as 51,000 trees per day are required to replace the number of paper towels discarded every day.
I'd really love to hear from you. Have you broken up with a paper towel? Are you trying too, but have no idea where to start? Drop a note in the comments below.
If you found this post helpful, please help someone by sharing this article – sharing is caring 🙂 ! Looking for more paper towel alternatives, take a look at the zero waste section in the brand directory.