A lot of household waste can be traced to disposable paper products. I’ve already mentioned buying compostable paper plates if you have to, but of course dishware that you wash and reuse is best. This same principle applies to all your paper products (expect toilet paper, I’m not about to re-use that). I would like to note that I have not completely replaced my paper products. While I try to use cloth whenever possible, there are certain situations that I just really want to throw away or would ruin the cloth, such as pet messes or nail polish remover (although I don’t paint my nails anymore due to the chemicals involved). However, there are ways to clean these and if you have enough old t-shirts lying around, you could use a scrap of that and throw it away. You will still be saving resources. It’s okay to start out slow and work your way up as the “ick factor” goes down.
To experiment beyond the basics I present, check out this site. So many ideas!
Paper Towels: Paper towels seem to be a staple in every kitchen. They are just so handy for wiping up messes! But if you look online (here’s a search on Etsy), there are all sorts of people with absorbent cloth paper towels and even have fancy snaps so your can make it look like an actual paper towel roll! I think this is so cool. If you’re the sewing type (unlike me), there are many tutorials out there on how to make your own. I’d give you a link, but I wouldn’t know what a good pattern is (just being honest). Just use these as you would a normal paper towel to wipe up spills. When it’s dirty, throw it in with your normal laundry. Just make sure you wring excess liquid out first.
Cloth napkins and Handkerchiefs: Maybe you can get behind paper towels. So the next step is cloth napkins and handkerchiefs. There are many places to buy them and they are easy to make. While these are directions for making handkerchiefs, cloth napkins are made the same way, just larger. I also found some thin, soft bandanas that I’m using for handkerchiefs (they feel so nice!). I’m actually kinda excited to test them out during cold season. Since it’s cloth and not dried, chemically treated paper, they won’t irritate noses so badly. That’s the worst when it’s the third day and you’re leaking but you don’t want to stop it because the outside of your nose hurts so bad! I know handkerchiefs have kind of an ick factor, but as long as you move onto new ones, wash them well, and don’t share, they are quite hygienic. Same goes for cloth napkins. For these, I would recommend something that won’t show staining unless you really want to put the work into making your white napkins pristine (I try to avoid bleach, so that’s not happening for me).
So, here’s the question with going cloth for your paper towels, napkins, and tissues: how many do I need? Well, that depends on your family’s habits. How much do you normally use and how often do you do laundry? You should only be washing your cloth items in full loads, so maybe if you normally do two loads one day a week (aka, if you’re a college student with no children), do a load every 3-4 days and wash your napkins with each load. I don’t use up a handkerchief in a week, but I still stocked up for cold season when I’ll need a lot more.
Also, even if you have a full load of laundry every 3 days, a family of four probably uses at least 8 napkins a day. You don’t want to have to buy or make 24 napkins! Plus, there are times when I’ve grabbed a paper product and then felt guilty because I used such a small part of it. So, if you can get past the ick factor, this is a good idea I’ve seen: reuse your napkins. If all you’re doing is wiping a bit of milk off your face, that napkin is probably still pretty clean. Same goes for a paper towel that was used to wipe water off the stove. So have a basket for “in use” napkins and towels. Reuse them until they are truly dirty, then wash. Sometimes, especially for kids, this might be after just one use. But sometimes you may be able to stretch it quite a few meals. I would recommend color coding your napkins for your family members, though. I know I would not want to use my brother’s used napkins!
Another thing that Will’s family does to conserve waste and wash less is to have two towels hanging from the oven. I don’t think they intentionally plan this, but I like it so I’m going to discuss actually having a system for it. This might be hard to implement, but try it if you’re feeling ambitious! After hand washing dishes (this happens every few days, you’ll want to adjust this if you hand wash every day), the rag used to dry is hung on the oven. This towel is then used to dry hands on. The next time dishes are dried, that towel gets hung on the oven door and the old towel moves to the side. This towel is now available for people to wipe their hands on as they are cooking, say if they just get a little bit of butter on their hands. At the next towel rotation, this towel gets thrown into the laundry. It saves napkins and paper towels from being used for teeny messes. Just make sure you don’t wipe hands that have raw meat or egg on them!