Paper Towel Alternatives You'll Actually Want to Use

It’s easier than you think to go paper-free for clean ups.

swedish dishcloth with purple flowers
Photo: Courtesy of Package-Free Shop

We reach reflexively for a paper towel for every spill, splash, and drip. But with a little adjustment it's possible to switch to more sustainable alternatives. Small changes can make a world of difference to, well…the world. Plus, it's easier than you think. Disposable paper towels have an inherent drawback. "For single-use paper towels it's important to think about the fact that they come from trees," says Lauren Singer, founder and CEO of Package Free, which vets and sells products that help reduce daily waste. "Trees take a lot of time to grow and take a lot of water and energy, including the paper towel packaging. It takes so much energy to make them."

Singer suggests the best thing to use is something you can reuse—and it's something you probably already have. "There's a great alternative—a reusable towel," she says. "I haven't used disposable paper towels in eight years." Most of us have standard towels on hand, but consider reusing other things that might not be as top of mind as well. She says a lot of people reuse makeup towels and wipes for cleaning after they're done with their beauty routine.

The most sustainable thing is using what you already have, she emphasizes, but she also features products that are a positive part of the solution for those who need them. "I started Package Free for people who didn't feel like they wanted to make their own products, but still wanted an easy, sustainable alternative," says Singer.

To replace single-use paper towels, she recommends the eco-friendly, reusable Swedish Dish Cloth ($7,, which is made from FSC certified cellulose and cotton and water-based ink. They can be washed in the laundry or the dishwasher, and also microwaved when damp. Air drying, rather than drying in the clothes dryer, does the trick. And they can be composted in backyard composting when the time comes. Plus, they're available in a range of cute patterns, which makes the process of making the switch even easier.

When choosing your own towels, consider the material. "For people who have the means for a change right now from paper towels, look for organic cotton and hemp ones," says Singer. Reusable alternatives to paper towels come in a range of styles and thicknesses. Organic Cotton Kitchen Towels ($16 for two, and Unpaper Towels ($19.95 for ten, are both made from 100 percent Turkish cotton. The Unpaper Towels are smooth on one side and lightly textured on the other; they also carry the STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® label, which means the textile has been tested and certified free of a list of substances harmful to humans and the environment. For those who like the feeling of terry cloth, Sticky Toffee Cotton Terry Kitchen Dishcloths ($13.99 for eight, are thick and made from 100 percent OEKO-TEX® cotton.

Many products, including one-time use paper products, often come in wrapping and packaging that isn't compostable and become ultimately landfill hogs. In addition to thinking about what is reusable, Singer says also consider what is compostable. "Backyard compostable [products] are things that can break down in the heat with insect life and time," she says. "It's speeding up a natural process. I look at it from an individual perspective. I do love compostable. You can start to compost pretty easily and small scale—even in an apartment. It's my most favorite way to reduce waste and keep methane emissions lower."

Even if you do use paper towels, you can still up your sustainable game. "Most people don't know that paper towels can go in the compost," says Singer. You can also recycle the cardboard tube with paper recycling.

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