My 3 basket, non-paper towel system.
Several months ago, I decided we had to stop using paper towels in my house. Between myself, hubby, and all the kids, we were going through about a roll a week. I could go through a roll a day if I started cleaning mirrors and windows! Rather than contribute to more trash, we needed to switch to a paperless system. I pondered my options, which narrowed down to cut up old clothes into rags, or buy new cloth. The idea of buying new stuff to then use seemed frivolous, but hubby had a strong reaction to using old clothes. I guess a childhood of cleaning windows with your dad's old underwear leaves a mark on a kid! That meant I needed to buy something new, but buy individual cloths or buy fabric in bulk and cut and stitch it into smaller pieces. OK, I realized as soon as it went through my head that the second idea would leave me with a giant bolt of fabric stashed in the house, uncut, unstitched, and making me feel guilty for A) not completing my project as planned and B) continuing to use paper towels until "I got around to that project." So, buy individual cloths it was! I decided on flat, birdseye cloth diapers. Like most parents, we had a few hanging around from the kids diaper days and once they are no longer needed for spit rags, they do make great kitchen towels! I found a place online and got 3 dozen for about $16 a dozen. ($1.33 each) They routinely run about $18-20 on ebay and most online cloth diaper stores.
Once the initial buying was done, I knew I had to come up with some sort of system to keep the towels contained and not lost in the chaos of my household. In the spirit of "A place for everything, and everything in its place" I organized a system of 3 small baskets.
One basket, holding the clean, folded towels, lives in a cabinet in the kitchen. One sits like a dirty clothes hamper near the trash can, to catch dirty towels. The last one sits atop my washing machine, to catch the stray towels that end up mixed in with other laundry as they come out of the dryer. When the dirty basket in the kitchen gets full, I carry it upstairs and wash the towels, usually with a load of socks and underwear to save time and water. I put the now empty hamper basket on the washer to become the 'orphan' basket, grab the basket of accumulated orphans and bring it back to the kitchen. I grab the few remaining clean towels from the clean basket, and drop them on top of the orphans and tuck that basket in the cabinet, and put the now empty clean basket on the floor to act as the hamper. In a few small moves, the cleans are refilled, the dirty hamper is empty, the orphan basket is empty, and the dirty one are washing. Simple!
I love our new system. The towels are handy, more absorbent and while I may have needed several paper towels during the typical dinner prep, to wash a pan, wipe the counter, dry my hands, then clean up after dinner, I can use one cloth as an apron to protect my clothes, dry my hands and the assorted dish, then when I'm done cooking I pull it off, wipe the counters and clean the stove with the same towel! I can throw a folded towel on the counter as a trivet, I can use a dry folded one as a potholder. When there is a spill on the floor, I can grab one or two out of the dirty hamper and use those again! I never run out!
Now, is it worth it? At my grocery store, name brand paper towels are $10 for a 8 pack, or $1.25/roll. At a roll a week, we're using about $65 in paper towels every year. I do have to drive to buy them, using gas and putting miles on my car, but realistically, I'm going to the store anyway so that isn't much to affect the outcome. Of course, there is an opportunity cost to running out of paper towels and having to drain your bacon on your kids old homework papers! 3 dozen cloth diapers cost me $48, and the baskets were $1 each from Dollar General, total of $51. That's already a $14 savings just in purchase price. Granted, I do have to wash them, but I usually wash them in with other laundry so I'm not running the washer more, or using more soap than I might have. It may use a little more water, but it's a front loader, so the difference there may be equal to the 'driving to buy the paper towels' spending on the other side. Also, consider that the cloth diapers will last more than a year. Some estimates say a good quality cloth diaper can last 2-5 years depending on use and washing. If I'm tearing them up and only get 2 years, I've saved $79. If they last a good long 5 years, I've saved $274! Even using the bargain paper towels brand, which run $0.65/roll at my store, or $33.80/year, I would lose $17 the first year, but save $16.60 by year 2 and $118 by year 5. Not to mention what we've saved the planet by NOT putting 52 rolls of paper towels into the landfill this year!