Should You Use Paper Towels or Dish Cloths?

The easy, disposable nature of paper towels are a draw, but should you be using reusable dish cloths for kitchen cleaning instead?

Woman Cleaning A WindowAndersen Ross/via getty images

As trends move toward reusable, green options in our daily lives, single-use products like paper towels are falling by the wayside. But there are many instances where the convenience of single-use items takes precedent.

Take our poll to vote for which cleaning method your family uses, paper towels or dish cloths.

Our fast-paced lives often leave little time for thoughtful, environmentally conscious decisions. Our schedules dictate our lives and it trickles down to our everyday, mundane decisions.

There’s no denying the convenience of paper towels. And some brands work nearly as well as a much heftier cloth dishtowel. It’s easier and quicker to wipe up a microwave or counter with a paper towel and throw it away. No wringing it out with hot water. No bringing it to the laundry room and sending it through the wash. But what is the environmental impact? How much does it matter?

Sure, individually, paper towels are small. But when you consider all that goes into their creation, their impact is significant. From the trees harvested to the transportation and distribution costs to the chemical and biological considerations during production, paper towels have a bigger economic impact than we realize.

Americans use 13 billion pounds of paper towels each year — the equivalent of 51,000 trees each day. When we consider we use paper towels so often — drying our hands, cleaning the counter, wiping out the refrigerator, shining our stainless appliances and windows, even for automotive work — this becomes more evident.

The disposal of paper towels has an environmental effect, too. Paper towels fall into the paper and paperboard category of waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this category accounts for the largest percentage of waste products in the U.S.

Dish Cloths

A first glance, using a reusable dish cloth is the better environmental choice. Dish cloths are highly prevalent in our homes and can be made from just about anything.

Any old fabric can ostensibly be made into a dish cloth. Just cut it to the desired size and use it. But the absorbency (and cleanliness) of an old t-shirt might fall short when cleaning countertops or surfaces we eat on. More often we opt for store-bought dish cloths with the explicit purpose of cleaning and wiping up messes.

Many people are wary of cleaning up with dish cloths because they can harbor germs. A new study indicated multi-use kitchen cloths carry a cornucopia of germs, including e-coli, staph and other bacteria. But that study looked at dish cloths that had not been cleaned in a month. Who does that? In most situations, people wash dish cloths much more often than that.

The optimal cleaning frequency for kitchen towels depends on what they’re used for. If you’re wiping up grease spatter after cooking bacon, you might want to run the towel to the laundry quicker than if you’re wiping up toast crumbs. Still, cleaning experts recommend replacing your kitchen cloths once each day.

Sure, there are impacts with reusable dish cloths — water and energy used to clean them, production costs during their creation and their eventual final home in a landfill. But there are ways to reduce these costs, like doing only full loads of laundry in high-efficiency machines with environmentally friendly soaps. You can also purchase biodegradable dish cloths, typically made from bamboo.

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Shay Tilander
Shay Tilander is a senior editor at Family Handyman. When he's not enjoying family time with his wife and three boys, he loves tinkering with projects and geeking out on electronics.