The Greener Option That Saves You Money: Paper Towels vs. Rags

iStock_000004027458XSmallPaper towels have become a must-have item in many kitchens throughout Canada, the US, Europe and Australia. They have proven to be very useful for cleaning up spills, absorbing oils and grease and generally helping out with the cleaning around the home and office. Their main advantage is their ease of use – they are disposable; they don’t need to be rinsed out after use, they don’t need laundering and don’t get smelly. However, these advantages don’t necessarily make them a very green option, so let’s look at the green credentials of paper towel vs rags for household cleaning.

When I started to consider this comparison, I first thought about the processing required to make the paper towels and the fact that they will inevitably end up in landfill; surely that meant they weren’t particularly environmentally-friendly. Then I considered the amount of energy and water needed to rinse and launder cloth wipes and rags and wondered how green these processes were by comparison.

The argument in favor of paper towels includes the fact that many brands are now made from recycled paper waste, which is good for the environment. This means that there is less waste going into landfill across the country. Also, most paper towels are biodegradable, meaning that they break down when they do find their way to landfill.

Unfortunately, the fact that paper towels are a single use product does go against them in the green stakes as does the fact that paper originally comes from trees. Then there is the huge amount of water used in the manufacture of all the paper products we use around the home, not to mention the extra packaging that the paper towels come wrapped in. Many paper products manufacturers in Canada and the US use virgin wood pulp, which means trees are cut down especially for this process.

Of course, the big factor in most people’s lives is cost; you need to continually buy paper towels if they are your cleaning cloth of choice, so they do represent an on-going expense. Have you ever stopped to think if the convenience is worth the cost?

When you opt to use cleaning cloths or rags for household cleaning, you are helping the environment in several ways. Firstly, cleaning rags are a great way to recycle and reuse worn-out clothes, nappies, towels and other cloth products. By giving these items a second life as cleaning aids, you are keeping them out of landfill for longer and avoiding having to buy manufactured cloths for cleaning.

One of the biggest advantages of cloth rags over paper towels is their multi-use ability. Paper towel is definitely a single-use item but rags can be rinsed out and laundered for use many times over. Some people say that having to wash the cloths makes them less environmentally-friendly because of the water and power used but only small amounts of both are needed to keep your cleaning cloths fresh and clean.

Cleanliness is another big issue on the debate of paper towels vs cloth rags. It is often stated that paper towels are more hygienic because you throw them away after just one use. They don’t have the opportunity to collect germs and bacteria and they don’t get that dirty rag smell. The fact is that rags do a better job of cleaning surfaces than paper, removing more germs and bacteria, especially if you follow a few basic tips. If the rags are rinsed out after use or laundered with other rags, they are clean and ready for the next cleaning job. It is a good idea to keep a collection of cloths for use in each room so that bathroom ones are not then used on food surfaces in the kitchen. For messy spills, if you wipe the bulk of the mess with one cloth, then use another with hot soapy water to wipe the surface over and dry with another cloth, you will have not germ issues. When it comes to cleaning up really icky messes, if you use your oldest rags for these jobs, you can then throw them away and avoid any cross-contamination.

Of course, when it comes to the saving money part of the comparison, using old rags for cleaning costs you nothing. You are using items you would have thrown away and you don’t have to be continually buying new ones like when you rely on paper towels.

So, it would appear that rags represent a greener option that also saves you money, when compared to using paper towels. So, help the planet and your pocket by switching to rags for your cleaning jobs.


The Greener Option That Saves You Money: Paper Towels vs. Rags — 19 Comments

  1. We’ve been using cloth towels for a while now. We can save a lot of money because we just need to wash it and we can use it again.

  2. I will admit to using paper towels – but I try to use rags when I can. For some things – like cleaning bird poop off my car – it’s paper towels, cause I don’t care how many times I wash the thing, I don’t want to reuse a rag that had bird poop on it. 🙂

  3. Great post. We actually use both. A roll of paper lasts about a month, perhaps more for us because we use them for some food related things and the like. The rags are used for spills, stains and most other cleaning chores. Decluttering the closets of unused clothing sure does make a lot of rags!!!

  4. Cloth towels all the way! I just keep the used ones in the laundry room until I wash a load of towels. I hate wasting paper towels!

  5. As my old bathroom towels wear out, I repurpose them as cleaning rags. One advantage rags have over paper towels is that they are thicker and more textured, making them much better for scrubbing. But I do still use paper towels for some jobs because they honestly are preferable in certain situations – the bird poop example above is one.

  6. Cloth definitely comes out ahead if you use old T-shirts and socks. It may NOT come out ahead if you use special-purpose bought rags.

    I worked in a paper mill for a summer. Pretty much ALL paper has some recycled content–what you want to look for is POST-CONSUMER recycled content. 🙂 Basically, if a batch goes wrong, it gets repulped and remade, which is recycling. Also, there are systems in place to catch pulp that is in the system but doesn’t manage to make it to the paper stage the first time.

    Paper is a product like any other farmed product. If the land isn’t being used for paper production, it’d be used for houses and farms. So if you want a place for deer and wildlife to live, a properly managed forest used for lumber or paper is a thousand times better than a corn field. And all the forests in the US that are used commercially for paper and lumber are now properly managed–it’s WAY too expensive not to manage them!

  7. I’ll occasionally cut up my old worn out white t-shirts to use as rags, good way to re-purpose them. Sadly though I still use alot of paper towels. For somethings they are just easier, and even though they are single use, they also don’t require using water to clean.

  8. Okay, here it is. I am so bad. You know at work how the handtowels are so thick in the bathroom and kitchens. Well, I wash my hands a lot, so I usually just carry the towels back to my desk and yes, I use them again! I know, gross, but I have to tell you, I keep a stash and they are just mine, I am the only one that uses them. So I recycle my papertowels at the office. I am sure it grosses some people out! LOL

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