A couple of years ago, we were primarily using disposable products at home.  Lots of paper towels, one-time-use “sweeper” cloths for sweeping floors and dusting, sponges for scrubbing, tissues for nose-wiping, and paper napkins at mealtime. This is probably common for many households, and while it sure is convenient, it definitely contributes to all sorts of environmental problems.

Whether you’re talking about deforestation, filling up landfills, toxic waste in our water systems from the bleaching process, or even the energy needed to create all these products, disposables are a problem.  Fortunately,  it is easy to make changes in this area, and every little change can actually help make a great difference.

We still use some disposable products, but we’ve transitioned away from many of them, and are getting to ready to say good-bye to a few more.  Here are a few simple ideas for switching to cloth around your house, and making the transition easy.

Cloth Napkins

This was one of our first transitions: replacing paper napkins with cloth napkins.  When I first considered this, I remember thinking cloth felt too “fancy” for everyday meals. But we purchased some really basic napkins and now they just feel normal to us. Our napkins are actually bandanas from Hobby Lobby (without the Western pattern) – they were regularly priced at $0.99 each, but I got them half-off – $0.50 apiece!  I bought twenty for ten bucks.

Our cloth napkins, a.k.a. bandanas, that match our blue and white dishes.

A friend of mine actually inspired this idea – she had done the same and I would have never guessed her napkins were bandanas.  I am looking forward to eventually buying more napkins in different colors and maybe some patterns, too – it’s a fun way to dress up your table for holidays and special occasions, too.

You can also sew your own cloth napkins; buy some fabric you like or re-purpose some old fabric, cut into squares, and hem the sides. If you need some inspiration, just do a search on the web for “tutorial cloth napkins.”

Here are a few tips for cutting back on dirty napkin laundry:

• Re-use your napkin for a few days, or a week, until it really does need to be washed – there’s no need for a clean napkin at each meal. (Guests are the exception, of course!)

• Distinguish whose napkin is whose by leaving the napkin at the table after each meal in each person’s place.  Alternately, if you use your table for other purposes between meals, use a specific napkin ring for each person in order to designate who that napkin belongs to.  Or, use different color napkins for each person, or embellish napkins with embroidery, etc.  Get creative with it!

Cloth in the Kitchen

Paper towels are a basic household item, and I still use them sometimes.  But we’ve cut way back by stocking up on a bunch of basic cotton kitchen towels, and reaching for them first. There is very little that you can’t do with a cloth towel, and you will find you need paper less and less.

We were at Ikea one day, and noticed that they had simple kitchen towels for $0.50 per towel.  Again, we stocked up and purchased about twenty of them, for a grand total of $10.

Our kitchen towels, folded and stacked in the drawer.

Tips for Making the Transition:

Put away the paper towels so that they’re not out in the open. If you can’t automatically reach for them, you will think before using them.

Hang the cloth towels you are currently using on a hook where you will see them, or in the handle of the refrigerator – somewhere visible and accessible.  Keep the rest folded in a kitchen drawer.  You can use these for all sorts of basic spills and clean-ups in the kitchen and around the house, as well as drying your hands after you wash them.

• Keep the hand-drying towel separate from the spill towel.  You can re-use these both for quite awhile; the hand towel will stay clean for some time, since it is only used to dry clean hands.  The spill towel can probably be rinsed, wrung out, and re-used a few times before washing.

Blowing Noses and Drying Tears

Before there were tissues, there were…handkerchiefs!  How quaint and old-fashioned!  Yet how very green and modern, too.  Handkerchiefs are making a comeback. Tissues are one of the worst offenders when it comes to deforestation, bleaching processes, and even hormone disrupters like parabens. (Yes, have you ever read the ingredients on your box of tissues?  There are often other things besides paper in there!)

Handkerchiefs went out of vogue when our society became germ-phobic; tissues seemed like a sanitary solution.  But handkerchiefs are perfectly sanitary when you know how to wash them. Honestly, if you have a washing machine, detergent, and hot water, that’s really all you need to wash the average hanky.  If you’ve been sick, you might want to soak them first with a little Bac-Out


Hankies are also softer on the nose – nice!  We haven’t switched to hankies yet, but we are about to do so.  We have some friends who keep a few baskets around their house with cloth hankies in them, so they are always handy.  You can tuck one or two in your bag before you leave the house, and you’ll be good to go.

Photo by Lene, also called Manisha

If you don’t want to buy handkerchiefs, you can cut up some old flannel baby blankets, or buy some flannel fabric and cut it with pinking shears – no hemming necessary.  That will make for a nice, soft, thick hanky.  You can also use plain white cotton weave fabric, like your grandmother probably used.  And again, here’s a fun opportunity for personalization – embroider your hankies, get different colors for different family members, etc – make it fun and make it your own.

Cloth for Cleaning House

We have switched to cotton microfiber cloths for cleaning house.  Whether I’m cleaning the bathroom sink or the baseboards, they will do the trick. You can use them dry as dusting cloths – lint and dust (and hair!) will stick to them like glue, much more effectively than the old disposable sweeper cloths I used to use.  You can use them wet with your cleaner for scrubbing the bathroom sink, and for getting up those spots on the floor that dried before you got to them with your other kitchen towels.  (Hey, I have a toddler! It happens.)

Our microfiber cleaning cloths, stacked neatly on the washing machine.  No, they don’t stay like that.

Cloth Wipes for the Family Bathroom

One other area where cloth can be used at home is in the bathroom, as an alternative to toilet paper.  You can wash these just like cloth diapers, and save lots of money on toilet paper, as well as saving virgin forests.  We haven’t gone there yet, but we’ve considered it.  Simple Organic contributor Megan wrote about her family’s switch to cloth in the bathroom; you can read about it here.

Areas For Improvement

We still use sponges for washing dishes and the occasional clean-up job in the kitchen.  I’m not even sure what the average sponge is made of, but at the very least it’s creating more waste.  I know you can now purchase biodegradable sponges, but we haven’t made that leap yet.  We will look into this area more closely this year.

We also find it challenging to completely abandon our paper towels. The two main ways that we still use paper towels are to absorb the grease in bacon or sausage, and to wipe out our cast-iron skillets after cooking.  Does anyone have ideas for alternatives to paper towels in these circumstances?  I’d love to hear them!

How do you use cloth at home?  Do you have other ideas that I didn’t mention? Please share!