Paper 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.