Cutting Down on Waste in the Kitchen: Tossing the Paper


The kitchen is probably my favorite room in my house. I spend a lot of time in there every day. After all, with four kids, I have a lot of meals to cook, meals to eat, dishes to wash, and tables and chairs to wipe down. But one day a few years ago, I realized that food was not the only thing being consumed in my kitchen. With all that cooking and eating and washing and wiping, we were also using up a whole bunch of disposable paper goods!

To me, it just seemed to make sense to get away from using disposable paper goods because it would save a lot of money. (Have you seen how much paper towels cost?!) But eventually it struck me odd that our family used and threw away that much trash when there is a perfectly reasonable and easy way to avoid it—using cloth instead of paper. So, a couple of years ago, our family made the “conversion” to have a paperless kitchen. It was a process. I didn’t switch everything over in one day, but once I saw how easy it was, I was eager to adopt more non-consumable alternatives to paper.

There are many ways to cut down on waste in the kitchen. Here are two of my favorite!

Use Cloth Dishrags Instead of Paper Towels.

My husband I both grew up in families where the weekly grocery shopping trip included buying a huge package of paper towels. And if you have grown up in a Western culture, chances are that you did, too! So, I thought that when we switched to cloth dish rags for washing dishes and wiping everything down, that I would find it very inconvenient. And I was sure that I would hear protests from my husband, as well. But I found out that using cloth rags is actually very easy as long as you have a good system for keeping up with them.

Our dishrags have come from all over. Some are old wash cloths from the bathrooms. Others are our daughter’s old (and well cleaned!) cloth wipes from when we used cloth diapers. I have also knit and crocheted a whole bunch of dish rags in fun colors and designs. It just spruces up the dish washing experience.

I have a whole bunch of them, and I try to have enough so that I can use several per day and not have to constantly wash them or be tempted to reach for a paper towel. I keep them all in a pretty little basket under the kitchen sink. When I need a new rag, I just reach for the basket instead of the paper towel roll. So there is no extra effort needed.

When I am finished with a rag, I put it in a bowl that I keep on top of my dryer. All the dirty kitchen cloth items go in that bowl. Whenever I do a load of laundry, I just toss the contents of that bowl in the washer, too. (Note: This is okay for me to do because I use gentle, natural cleaners that won’t hurt my clothes. But if you use harsher chemicals or anything with bleach in it to clean your kitchen, you’re going to want to wash your rags separately!) It is really easy to keep up with cleaning my rags, and as a mother of four, I always have enough laundry to do, so I’ve never had to worry about the rags sitting for long periods of time and mildewing.

As a side note, I do still keep a roll of paper towels out for guests that come over—especially those who come over to babysit. A lot of people still feel insecure about using rags to clean up instead of paper towels, and I want to make them feel welcome. But, they are the only ones that use that roll of paper towels, so it takes us months to finish the roll. But I have felt that I didn’t want to sacrifice hospitality just to prove that we could go completely paperless in our kitchen.

kitchen rag

Photo credit: evilmidori

Use Cloth Napkins.

Again, this was something that I never grew up around as a child. For us, cloth napkins were for fancy restaurants and Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. But someone gave us a set of cloth napkins as a wedding gift, and that’s what got the ball rolling. Whenever we were first married, I would lay out the cloth napkins whenever I would make a nice meal. All other nights, we would just use paper napkins.

But it was a lot of fun using the cloth napkins, so I ventured out and bought some more. I am ashamed to say, but I probably paid way too much for some fancy cloth napkins. But as our family has grown, I’ve started to understand that we don’t all need matching fancy napkins to have a good meal. Now, I am always on the lookout for good napkin deals. I buy them on clearance, after holidays, at the Salvation Army, or wherever I can find a good deal.

I have lots of different patterns for our every day napkins, and I do have some nicer matching sets that I save for guests and holidays. We keep them all in a drawer next to the table, and when my kids set the table, they always compete to get their favorite patterns. I think it makes for a memorable family tradition. And when dinner is over, my five year old son’s job is to clear off all the napkins and put them in the bowl on top of the dryer. It’s as easy as that!

And I love cloth napkins because, not only does it cut down on trash and wasted money, but it adds color and love to our family table.

What ways do you try to cut down on waste in your kitchen?

Photo credit: Sklathill

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  1. I actually grew up using rags and cloth napkins, as well as being cloth diapered. But my mother came from a very poor family, and my Dad was raised by parents who lived through the great depression during their early marriage, so that probably has something to do with it!

    I have cloth napkins that I get from all over for every day. They do not match. We have a set that we use only for company. I also cut up everything that doesn’t have any more life in it for rags. The only thing is, that I find cutting up old flannel sheets and old towels, is that they frey. THen all that lint and stringy stuff comes off in the wash, and with certain fabrics, it sticks. Not fun. Anyone have a similar problem and experience in fixing it…I know I could hem them….but who has time for hemming rags? LOL….not sure what to do. I don’t want to just waste those rags. The dishcloth or washcloth idea sounds good but I don’t have much worn out from only 5 years of marriage…I got my rag material from an older woman who had lots of worn out stuff she gave me to cut up.

    1. Just do a quick machine zig-zag stitch around the edge (or serge the edge). It is much quicker than a regular rolled hem and effectively keeps the edges from fraying to much. The zig-zag is usually less time consuming than picking all that lint.lol It is definitely not pretty but it works.

  2. I have loved switching to cloth. A good place to buy napkins is a warehouse like Sam’s or Costco. In the restaurant supply section you can get a lot of quality, white napkins.
    We had family come a few weeks ago and they brought paper towels (!?). Guess I should keep some hidden away, too. Since all 3 rolls they brought are still under the cabinet I will jsut use those, I guess. Good tip!
    .-= Michelle´s last blog ..I Love Lists =-.

  3. I try to use dish rags as much as I can but they always smell. Even after I wash them, they still smell mildewy. Any suggestions on how I can cut down on the odor?

    1. @Kalyn, I have found some success with adding a splash of vinegar in with my rags, but the most success came when I started using powdered hydrogen peroxide (mine is marketed as Safe Bleach by Soap Works, there is also other brands of things similar like Oxybleach I believe, by Nature clean, and one by Ecover…my friend uses a “green” bleach she gets at the normal store since the label says its just hyrdogen peroxide.) I like the Safe Bleach one best by Soap works since I also use it for stain removal, its cheap for me, and it works well for me. I add a few tsp to the dish towels and rags. Let it sit to soak for a bit in the washtub, and then let it wash. Works even better than the vinegar. Also works for other stubborn smells and bath towels etc.

  4. I use Norwex clothes for all of my cleaning around the house. I have been using them for a year now. There is an investment to get started but you only need to use water so when you consider the cost of not buying cleaners and not having to use chemicals. If you rinse them after use, you don’t have to worry about them smelling, wash about once a week.

  5. Great post! I’ve got Unpaper Towels in my Etsy shop, if any one is interested.


  6. Great article! For anyone who enjoys simple sewing, cloth napkins are super simple and fun to make. You can find tutorials online, it is very uncomplicated and you can choose such fun fabrics in seasonal or food-y prints. I have a fun coffee print for my breakfast napkins, for instance! (the prints also solve the “stain” problem, if there is one, not as noticeable as on plain fabric)

  7. I’ve also had problems with mildew smell with dish rags. I will try washing them more often. I also wonder about stains with the cloth napkins? The rags get stained, but I don’t mind too much. But I would like to keep the napkins nice. I can just imagine what they would look like after a meal with spaghetti sauce! 😎 Any suggestions?

    1. <I made the sugggestion about sewing cloth napkins, for my tomato based meals (such as spaghetti sauces, homemade pizza) I've made some napkins that have a very dark background……colorful red cherries on a black background, for example. No visible staining :o) I really enjoy sewing these napkins, I keep joking that I have seasonal napkin disorder, I've made them for any and all occasions! Hope this helps! Marie

  8. I love using cloth napkins, they are so much fancier, and handier. Plus all I have to do is throw them in the washing machine when we’re done. 🙂
    .-= Laura @ Rejoicing Evermore´s last blog ..Blogging Bee #1 =-.

  9. I, too, have a basket full of rags under my kitchen sink. About five years ago, I bought a 24 pack of white “bartender” rags from Amazon.com for about $10. Over the years, some have disappeared, some have been thrown away because they got so ragged or grimy. I just bought another 24 pack a few weeks ago to replenish my supply. Not bad for over 5 years worth of “paper” towels!

  10. Whenever my mom visits, she buys at least one roll of paper towels the first day she’s here. Cracks me up- I’d rather use rags because they don’t shred and sop up more messes.

    Great tips about napkins. I haven’t found ones I like yet; the ones I got for our wedding didn’t absorb anything, and the ones I made wrinkled so bad that I never used them. I’m going to try a restaurant supply store or second hand and see what I can find.

    Oh, and Beth’s blog link is broken, just a head’s up
    .-= Cara @ Health Home and Happiness´s last blog ..Cod Liver Oil & Giveaway! =-.

  11. I, too, grew up using cloth everything. We even had a “rag closet” that was often overflowing – with 10 kids we always had plenty of worn out clothes to cut into rags!

    As long as I rinse my washrag out very well (with water) after doing the dishes/wiping something up, and let it air-dry, I don’t have any problem with it smelling and I use it for a couple days before I toss it in the dirty laundry basket. If I don’t get it rinsed, or just leave it in a wet heap, it does get to smelling funky.

  12. I switched to using cloth several months ago, although right now, nothing fancy, just old wash cloths or even hand towels. I plan to make or buy some nicer ones soon, though.

    Another way I save on waste in the kitchen is to reuse plastic storage bags a few times. I just rinse them out, let them air-dry and reuse them. Also, I like to keep glass jars to use for storing leftovers and other food in, like nuts and other snacks, because I’m slowy trying to phase out using plastic containers. And since glass lasts forever (or until it gets broken, that is), I don’t have to keep buying more like I used to with plastic containers that would wear out.
    .-= Angela´s last blog ..Five Top Reasons I Love Homeschooling =-.

  13. About 12 years ago, I made some napkins that our family loved because they were the same size as regular paper napkins – about 6 in. square. They were super easy to make – cut 6×12-in rectangles, fold in half, and sew around with edges tucked in. Unfortunately, they disappeared over time (like socks? lol probably company that was confused!) and in the meantime my sewing machine died, 🙁 so we are back to paper napkins.

  14. I have used old baby washcloths as napkins and they work very well. The size is perfect.

    I have been meaning to cut up an old sheet to use as napkins, but wondered about it fraying in the wash. Has anyone tried using a cut-up sheet?

    1. My Mom used cut up sheets. Yes they will fray unless you finish the edge. You can do a regular rolled hem (either hand or machine stitched – pretty but time consuming), a machine zig-zag edge (not pretty but functional) or a serged edge (fast, nicer than zig-zag but not as fancy as rolled hem).

  15. I have found this post absolutely fascinating and I’m wondering if the use of paper products is a cultural thing.

    Most of my fellow Aussie housewives (the ones I know anyway!) use some type of reusable sponge or cloth. I switched to cloths that could be washed and reused, rather than sponges that would be disposed of after a week. I find if I rinse them well in hot water after each use and hang them over the tap to dry, they are fine and I will use them for a couple of days, easily. They mostly get smelly from wiping up milk spills without proper rinsing afterwards.

    I also don’t use napkins. In fact, I don’t see many people who do that here either. When my children were small we had a damp face washer within reach for messy fingers, but for the most part we don’t get messy fingers….or faces. On the rare occasion that we do, the kids simply go and wash their hands. I have but one friend who will grab a tissue sometimes, but she’s the only one I know who does.

    My SIL lives in the US and she made an interesting comment during Christmas when they were over. She uses heaps of paper products, but admitted if they’d stayed in Australia she wouldn’t have dreamed of doing so.

    I am completely fascinated, and can’t wait to see what it looks like in practise when we visit there in a few months!
    .-= Tracy´s last blog ..‘Heart of Stone’ by Jill Marie Landis =-.

  16. We are slowly moving to less paper. When we moved in October, I pulled out a couple different sets of napkins we were given for a wedding gift 9.5 yrs ago. They had never been used. I have yet to buy paper napkins since the move. I’ve found that we don’t use a napkin as often when there isn’t a paper one handy, and the cloth ones are there when needed.

    We do have paper towels, but they are mostly for the ‘gross’ jobs that it’s just easier to toss than wash. I think we’ve gone through a roll and half in 3 months? And that was after using 1/2 a roll to do a quick wipe down before moving in. Not too shabby.

    I grew up using paper products galore, and my mom still does. But I worked for a family that used cloth everything, and it showed me how easy it was to do. They’d even wet cloth napkins and put in plastic bags (usually bread bags they had shaken out) and took those along for picnics! Since being introduced to their life style, I’ve found myself reducing and reusing in so many more ways!

  17. When I was a kid i remmeber my mom switching to cloth napkins. She cut up a punch of fabric and surged the edges. We had at least 3 different patterns and got a pretty basket to keep them in. That basket spend a lot of time on our kitchen table. With lots of kids and snacks there we used napkins often. In my house I picked up a bunch of kitchen washcoths on clearance that are different colors than my bathroom. We use a different one for each meal. I wipe faces and hands and trays with it as well as my hands and the table and the counter. I rinse it often. Then i though it in the wash bucket with other cleaning rags, bibs, towels, and anything else that needs to be washed in the next load. We do a load or two everyday so they don;t have a chance to get really smelly. Plus, I add half a scoop of Sun oxygen bleach to my loads. Only the adults use our napkins (which are red) and we do use paper for Pizza since we eat it during a movie.

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