Over the past year, I have had a great journey going green except for one issue. Until very recently, I struggled with my desire to have a paper-free kitchen. I wanted to rid our home of so much throwaway paper, but I wasn’t sure it was possible. How can you run a kitchen with no paper napkins or paper towels?

I understood the environmental benefits and the financial merits of not wasting this paper, but I still wasn’t sure it could be done without it being too complicated. But I have finally evolved a system that’s working great for my family.

As of today, I have been effortlessly paper-free for over a month. But before I jump into the how, I want to focus on the reasons behind why I had such a struggle  evolving this system. It seems that once I had solutions to each of these problems, I had created a rather EASY paper-free system at my home.

Here are some of my reasons why going paper-free in the kitchen was difficult.

1. “I just didn’t realize.”

Sadly,  I have used paper for so years that very often I failed to realize I was reaching out for the paper towel roll. A habit is a hard thing to break. As we get busy with work, kids and the rest of life, habits created for our convenience are even harder to break.

Solution: To create a paperless system in your kitchen, keep a LOT of cloth at your disposal.

And keep that paper roll stashed away. Today, in our home, we have enough cleaning and utility cloths to last us a whole 10 days.

2. “Where, oh where is the cloth?”

This is something I often heard from my kids and husband. If the cloth is hard to find, the family will not use it. And unless the whole family is on board, going paperless is impossible.

Solution: Be sure to make cleaning and utility cloths accessible to you, your spouse, kids, babysitter, and anyone who comes by.

In our home, we have a drawer full of cloths for kitchen use and a labeled basket with a pile for kids. You could have multiple drawers, but having very distinct places for the cloth works really well, even with my  two-year-old.

3. “I have NO idea which cloth to use for this or that.”

A few months ago, I experimented with a system with three colors of napkins — all the same kind, for various purposes in the kitchen. This system failed immediately because none of us could remember which color was for what purpose.

Solution: Create CATEGORIES — not just categories of form, but also of function. Now, we have different kinds of cloth based on what we use them for.

I’ll go into each type in a minute, but this system works well, because each category is easy to recognize and works for its intended function.

4. “The kids, the dogs… they’re way too messy.”

I really used to think that some messes created by my dogs and kids absolutely needed paper — it wouldn’t get clean otherwise.  But I really haven’t seen such a need in over a month (and in case there really is a need, there is always paper hidden away). It seems like this fear was just in my head — such exceptions are really no reason to not go paper-free.

Solution: Change your perspective. Once you start using cloth regularly, you will also start to dispose off older cleaning cloths regularly. Such messes are good opportunities to get rid of old rags. And if you have no cloth you can use, there is really no problem with using a little paper, is there?

5. “The guests need paper.”

This was yet another excuse I gave myself. The fact that guests ask for paper napkins does not mean they need paper napkins.

Solution: Take pride in what you’re trying to accomplish. When I got excited about not having used paper in over a week, my guests got excited about it as well. They wanted to now how I was doing it. They seemed much more sensitive. All I had to do was get rid of my guilt of depriving them of paper.

Organize for going paper-free

Photo by Jill Doughtie

I have an extremely simple setup in my kitchen, with just four distinct categories of cleaning and utility cloths:

1. For deep cleaning

This category is cloth used to clean dirt, sticky stuff, grease, and pretty much all kitchen dirt. I invested in ten really good industrial strength static cleaning cloths.

I think everyone serious about using cloth to deep clean should invest in them. They’re great, and I go through one cloth every two or three days in my kitchen. The cloth takes stains away on the stove, stickies out from the dinner table, and just about everything else. If there’s a mess that is both deep and wet, I will use the cloth and throw it straight into the washer. They also work wonderfully to dry dishes, clean mirrors and shine surfaces.

2. For the kids

As I put the kids’ old clothes away, I discovered a number of washcloths and burp cloths — some even unopened. I put all of these into a little basket and my girls have that basket of napkins all to themselves for anything they like. They use them at the table, to clean their messes, and even use them while they cook with me.

3. The exclusive

This is the pile of napkins for the guests. A little nicer, these are mostly put away until the guests arrive.

4. The everything else

This category consists of about 20 very generic napkins. This is the critical pile that we use for just about everything else — when in doubt, we just use these napkins. I bring one of these out everyday to use to wipe my hands in the kitchen. If there is a mess that’s too wet to waste a static cloth, we just use one of these.

I have been using this system for over a month, and it’s been working like a charm. I  have yet to find something that I absolutely need paper for. All I had needed was a flexible enough solution, a huge change in perspective and a lot of pride in my efforts.

Are you paper free in your home? I would love to hear what works for you!