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Zero Waste Cloth Paper Towels Tips

Zero Waste Kitchen

Last Updated on July 19, 2022

Making an easy switch to cloth paper towels is a great way to put in the effort to go zero waste. They are much better for the environment and actually do a better job of cleaning too!

Choosing a paper towel alternative will keep waste out of landfills. Plus, using washable paper towels that have a long lasting life will also save you money.

tips for switching to cloth paper towels

cloth paper towels

Paper towels were invented in the early 1900s by accident.

A railcar full of paper was too tightly wound to become toilet paper as intended. Instead of sending the paper back, they cut it into sheets roughly 18″ x 13″ to make paper towels.

Then, they launched a marketing campaign to make sure that everyone knew they needed paper towels. Rags were deemed unsanitary to make way for the new and improved paper towel. 

It took a long time for paper towels to become a more permanent object in the home. People were not used to throwing things away. But eventually, we bought into the marketing hype. 

While I fully believe sanitary disposables have their place in life (medical, science, etc.) I don’t feel as though the home is one of them. I will go into detail to help you decide when paperless paper towels are the way to go versus the regular throw away paper towels.

washable paper towels: 

I have tried lots of dishcloths, and most push water around instead of absorbing it. Paper towels are EXCELLENT at absorbing water. So are microfiber towels, but microfiber comes with a whole slew of other problems. Every time a synthetic fabric is washed in a washing machine, it releases thousands of microplastic particles into the waterways and eventually the ocean. This is a huge issue, which we will get into at another time.

I have tried huck towels before and was highly disappointed. However, I recently got these towels from Sur La Table as a paper towel replacement and have been thrilled by the results. They absorb water like nobody’s business. I can highly recommend these cloth paper towels.

using a paper towel alternative: 

paperless paper towels for after meal clean up:

This seems like the silliest and most frivolous use of paper towels. After you’ve finished making a meal, there are probably some crumbs on your counter. There’s no reason to reach for a paper towel.

Brush all the crumbs into the sink or the palm of your hand. If you have a particularly sticky mess, dampen a paper towel alternative cloth and wipe it up. 

paper towel replacement for windows and glass:

You don’t need paper towels to get a streak free shine. I have had excellent luck with the cloth paper towels I linked above. You can’t swipe once and expect it to be perfect. It takes a little bit more effort to make sure the surface is dry.  

But, I hear that newspaper works well in a pinch! 

paper towel alternative

washable paper towels for drying your hands:

I lied; this is the most frivolous use for paper towels. 

Seriously, there is no reason why you can’t use a paper towel replacement instead of drying your hands and tossing it in the trash!


When I cook meat for Justin, there’s typically grease left in the pan. Depending on how much there is in the pan, I’ll either sautee with it or store it for sauteing later. If there’s not enough for either of those things, take a piece of bread and use it to absorb the grease.

You can cut it into chunks to make croutons or give them to the dog as a treat. Just don’t overdo it, because grease isn’t that good for your furry friends. 

If you have something like bacon that’s exceptionally greasy, lays the strips over a draining rack and place a plate or baking sheet underneath. See…no need to even use a paper towel alternative here!

cloth paper towels for drying produce or meat:

After you wash your produce, dry it with one of the paperless paper towels instead of a paper one. Now, meat is a trickier subject. Often times you’ll hear chefs tell you to pat your meat dry before cooking it. The only time I really deal with this is holidays. 

Instead of patting it dry, I put it naked on a drying rack on top of a baking sheet in the fridge for at least a couple of hours, but preferably overnight. Super crispy skin and no worries about a paper towel replacement. 

vomit and other gross stuff:

This is the one thing that Justin would like paper towels for, and I get it. But I don’t at the same time. If something happens, just wipe it up. Rinse the towel in the tub or sink or with the hose outside. Then throw the towel in the washing machine.  

I haven’t used paper towels in years. I tried to think of everything you could possibly use them for, but what did I miss? What are some other tips you have for avoiding paper towels? 

This post may contain affiliate linking you can read more on my disclosure page.

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  1. I’m really interested in the towels you mentioned but your links aren’t working. It takes me to the Sur La Table site where it says the product isn’t found

      1. We sometimes pour the leftover fat from cooking into a cup with a piece of string dangling out of it and add seeds and raisins to make a bird cake. Chill in ‘fridge until solid then carefully take out and tie to a tree to give your wildlife a helping hand.

  2. Ditto to what Amelia said. I’m very intrigued to see the towels you recommend!! Also, I believe the recommendation nowadays is to NOT wash meat. I grew up with my parents rinsing chicken breasts in the sink before cooking all the time, but lately I’ve been hearing that washing meat spreads bacteria easier on countertops, etc. As long as you are cooking things properly, you shouldn’t need to wash them at all. Added bonus being- no need to worry about needing paper towels for drying (or calculating in drying time).

    1. I fixed the link! People used to wash meat? Like under a faucet? Hmmm… I guess that makes sense if you were used to doing it with vegetables. Meat is just naturally damp, I just know most chefs on TV suggest patting the meat dry before cooking it.

  3. I have successfully eliminated paper towels from almost everything but keep a backup roll under the sink "just in case". There is one thing though that I’m not sure what to use as a substitute. I love my cast iron. And when there’s grease in it, or when it needs conditioning, you’re supposed to apply oil or rub the grease in a little with a paper towel. Using fabric for this is a problem because it tends to not wash out or cause oil stains on other things in the laundry. And just washing large amounts of oil down the drain with hot water is also a horrible thing to do for the environment, fatburgs and whatnot. So I’ve been using salt to absorb some of the grease and then washing the oil/fat soaked salt down the drain with really hot water. I’m not sure if there’s a better option. Do you have any suggestions?

    1. I had this same question. I now exclusively use a reusable paper towel for mine. The towel (or whatever you would use) will be full of stains and eventually oil, but I think it gives it character. I think thrifting for your cast iron cleaner might be in store. Just wash it and keep it as the pan’s companion.

    2. @Meg, what about having 1 designated towel for that purpose? You could keep it under your sink on a hook or something.

      1. Growing up in another country we didn’t have paper towels and never missed them! I do remember the cleaning lady cleaning the windows with newspapers.

      2. Yes! I keep a small mason jar above my stove in which I pour the leftover oil into. Its a tasty bread dipper after the spices (oregano, rosemary, sage, etc) meld flavors with the oil. I still would recommend a companion cloth to a cast iron to wipe off resulting crumbs.

  4. We really need to work on this area, as we still are in the habit of using paper towels and paper napkins. With a toddler who has perpetually sticky hands and smears food all over, we go through rags soooo quickly. But that’s definitely not an excuse! Thanks for the reminder. I’m going to hide our paper towel roll for the next week and see how we do.

    I recommend flour sack towels – I started with microfiber towels from Target’s auto section, per many online recommendations, but over time those have become raggedy and lost their absorbency. Flour sack towels were a staple in traditional American homes and are easy to bleach and keep looking new. I’ve found a few different types on Amazon, and we’re happy with all of them. Here in Texas, they also sell them at H-E-B for wayyyy cheap.

  5. When we [I] decided to embrace zero waste, one of the first things I did was to stop buying paper towels. Simple. Using them became ‘not an option’. I have used torn up old t-shirts, linen towels, sponges, and my favorite: "unpaper" towels/napkins made of diaper material (from Etsy).
    If we have pourable leftover oil, we pour into a jug and eventually take it to the recycling center where they accept household oils for repurposing into biodiesel. Lesser amounts we do as you do! Cooking minimal amounts of meats means oils, etc. are not as "nasty", BTW.
    Thought provoking post. Thanks!

  6. Great tips as always! 🙂

    The most useful thing I did when making the switch was to identify additional places for/categories of rags that I needed. I realised that part of my concern was using towels or rags for specific ‘icky’ jobs like spills on floors, pet accident clean up, vomit etc etc. Even though I wash my rags thoroughly and of course use separate ones for completely ‘clean’ areas such as kitchen counters, in my mind each of these types of mess is a different level of ‘dirty’ for me psychologically and so I didn’t like using the same cloth on the ‘cleaner dirty’ messes and the ‘dirtier dirty’ ones. I realise this is mainly in my own head BTW.

    As such I designated particular sets of rags as floor, pet, etc and then felt much more comfortable utilising the cloth versions instead of yearning for a paper towel. When I wash them each category goes in its own cotton mesh bag so they’re easy to separate. Sometimes just knowing your own mind so you’re more effectively able to trick it works a treat!

  7. I don’t use paper towels anymore, but my fiance likes them for absorbing the residual bacon grease. Are there ANY tips for absorbing the residual bacon grease without using paper towels? I personally don’t mind my bacon being greasy, but it bothers him, so I’d like to strike a balance without continuing to use paper towels!

    Also, there are some 100% cotton dish towels we got at Target that absorb really well. You can kind of feel the ones that tend to absorb better (they’re usually fluffier and softer). I also SWEAR by cotton wash cloths. We use these around the kitchen for spills, other things we don’t want to use our dish sponge for, and cleaning. We bought a 6 pack at Target for maybe $4-$5 dollars, and we just throw them in the laundry when they get dirty. They absorb SUPER well and they are a nice alternative to dishcloths (since we only have 3).

  8. If I have a greasy frying pan, I use some newspaper to give it a quick wipe down before washing. Its a great way to wipe off the grease without using a paper towel. Or my husband brings home a weekly flyer from the grocery store, I’ll use that.

  9. One additional thought: If you are concerned about sanitation with cloth wipes, ironing at the hottest temperatures will undoubtedly kill most germs found around the house.
    I wouldn’t recommend ironing fabric with oil contamination since you might start a fire -same reason they tell you not to put [potentially] oil contaminated cloths in the dryer.

  10. I got some awesome bamboo ‘paper’ towels from a vegan fair last year. 20 in a roll, they are super absorbent, and each one can be used over 100 times! That saves 2,000+ paper towels! Just use it like you would a paper towel, rinse, and pop it in the washing machine, they can be composted at the end of their life too so its a double whammy 😀

  11. As my flannel sheets wear out, instead of throwing them away, I cut them into paper towel size pieces with pinking shears. They are super absorbant and if you have a really nasty job to clean up, it isn’t a sacrifice to throw it out.

  12. Here in the UK we don’t use paper towels for everything! But lots of people use them draining oil or fat from bacon and roast potatoes, chips or other fried food.I cut up old teeshirt and they work just as well.I wash in a hot wash and if they don’t come clean religate them to yukier jobs before binning them.If they are 100% cotton they go in the compatible.

  13. A word about absorbency: If your towels just seem to push water around, it can be because of laundry detergent/softener buildup. My flour-sack towels get this way from time to time, even using a homemade grated soap/washing soda/borax detergent. In a regular American-style washing machine, you’d want to wash them once with a cup of vinegar, then again with 1/2 cup of baking soda. You’ll be amazed at how fluffy and absorbent they are after doing this.

  14. I love this! I have almost completely eradicated paper towels but I still use them for absorbing blood water when I thaw frozen ground beef. Otherwise the beef is too watery and will turn into nasty mush that is inedible. I try not to freeze beef too often but sometimes it can’t be helped and I opt for an occasional paper towel over food waste.

  15. For drying meat, fish and poultry before frying I cut out a worn out sheet into squares. Likewise a torn pillowcase or the back of the worn shirt of my husbands. Rinse it in cold water (to get the blood out), and wash it next time I have a hot wash. It is not just for the environment. Paper towels will stick to the meat and is a nuisance to get off.

    When I have the time I’ll knit kitchen rags out of cotton (8/4 yarn). They. are durable, wipes up anything and can be washed on hot. I also use old t-shirts for that (back and front).

  16. I’m trying to reduce my paper towel use, but one thing I can’t think of is how to cover food while heating in the microwave, aside from a plastic cover.

  17. I actually never used it, until someone told me it was weird that I didn’t have it.. so now I have it and I do use it from time to time, reading this, I’ll immediately go to my old ways 🙂 <3 thanks for the tips!

  18. My parents and husband just "cannot do without paper towels to dry meat" so I gifted them paper towels made by Who Gives a Crap and they pretty much only use them for this one purpose so go through their supply relatively slowly. It’s not ideal but it’s better than before and they’re really trying which makes me so happy/proud =)

  19. I have some flat terry nappies and muslins left over from using cloth nappies on my kids. They make great alternatives to paper towels. I’ve virtually eradicated them. I still have a small supply left from the last load I bought – made from recycled paper anyway – but haven’t bought any in a long time and won’t again.

  20. Since body towels tend to be really absorbant after taking a shower, we’ve taken a few that we rarely use (as we have too many) and cut them into miscellaneous sizes. Also we buy body wash cloths and use them specifically for the kitchen. I can’t reiterate enough how absorbant those types of cloths are. Thanks for this article!

  21. Not only does newspaper work in a pinch – it is excellent. Apparently the chemicals in the newspaper actually help with streaks, so all you need to do is dampen a scrunched up piece of newspaper and rub down mirrors or windows with it till the glass is dry. My dad remembered this from his mother as a depression era tip and now we use it for ecological reasons (but it doesn’t hurt that you’re also saving money)!

  22. Hi! I really enjoyed this article! I’m just now beginning to take small steps toward lower waste, and in some ways I already do things that reduce waste just because it’s cheaper or how my mother taught me! One thing I would to add is about cleaning windows & glass. I’ve used this E-Cloth all of my years here at college for cleaning my mirror at the bathroom sink/vanity. It literally only takes a spray of water on the mirror where you would like to clean, then wipe it down and it cleans the mirror with no streaks! E-Cloth has so many other great products that clean with just water, and they are all about eco-friendly! Love it!

  23. It is kinda funny for me to read this. I’m from Brazil and here we only use paper towels for food stuff. All the cleaning is done with really old shirts that arent good even for donations or things like that. We also line dry our clothes and using a dryer is a "rich people" thing. I hope we keep doing those things.

  24. Great article–very insightful. However, the links to the towels you recommended don’t work. Would you be able to link them again?

  25. A Paper Towels is an absorbent towel made from tissue paper instead of cloth. Unlike cloth towels, paper towels are disposable and intended to be used only once. Paper towels soak up water because they are loosely woven which enables water to travel between them, even against gravity (capillary effect). Paper towels can be individually packed (as stacks of folded towels or held coiled) or come in rolls. Paper towels have similar purposes to conventional towels, such as drying hands, wiping windows, dusting, and cleaning up spills.@

  26. Just a tip, if you’re looking for an absorbent rag rather than looking for "dish cloths" search for "bar rags". They’re woven looser with a striped texture that catches the liquid and meant specifically to clean up spills.
    Just a little trick I learned when I was bartending and I’ve never looked back.

  27. Hi, I like the tips uve given above to replace paper towels. But how about the bathroom counters, wash basins, bath tub, and bathroom floor. I would not wanna use a cloth napkin there….? Any tips or suggestions

    1. Hi Radhika! I get what your saying, bathroom germs and all that. What I do is have a different color of towels for using in the bathroom, then they get washed separately from the kitchen ones. Easier to keep track of that way!

  28. I live in a house with two other roommates who use so many paper towels in a day. They are pretty stubborn too- any suggestions on converting them?