Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Use Cloth in the Kitchen: Save Money and Trees!

Paper towels, paper napkins, and paper lunch bags. Most households go through huge quantities of these every week without questioning the cost and the amount of waste generated. Have a little spill to wipe up? Grab a wad of paper towels. Setting the table for dinner? Be sure to put a napkin at each spot. Packing everyone's lunch for the day? Fold it all into a neat little brown paper bag. The idea that there were any alternatives never occurred to me until we took a free series of Living Green classes while we were living in Spokane for a year. They taught us about everything from green homemade household cleaners to energy efficient light bulbs to worm bins in the kitchen. We made a lot of big changes in our home after that and I appreciate how much it simplified our life. One of the biggest ones was eliminating paper waste in the kitchen.

Rather than buying expensive rolls of paper towels with the weekly groceries, I turned a bunch of old cloth diapers and t-shirts into kitchen rags. I gave them their own drawer and began grabbing one when there was a spill or a counter top to wipe down. After using them, I put them all in a laundry basket and washed a load every couple of days. Since they're just rags, the clean dry ones were simply dumped unceremoniously back into the drawer with no sorting or folding necessary. Over the years, any washcloths with holes or stains were also added to the cause.

 I also invested in a few velcro closure cloth lunch sacks, and some drawstring cloth produce bags. My husband uses these re-usable bags to pack his lunch in every day, and I always try to grab a handful of the cloth produce bags when I'm going grocery shopping. All of these go in the kitchen laundry basket after use and get washed for the next time. They never seem to wear out, and just get re-used over and over again.

Over time I managed to gather a collection of cloth napkins from yard sales, thrift stores, and sometimes a kitchen shop for a really cute one with chickens, and started a drawer full of these to keep handy for setting the table at meals. It feels nicer to wipe your mouth with cloth, and it makes the meal feel a little fancier. I pack my kids lunches every day in baskets with a cloth placemat and napkin, an idea I learned from Waldorf kindergarten, and we aren't dealing with scrubbing out stinky lunch boxes anymore.

Cheesecloth and unbleached flour sacks are some other handy bits of cloth to have around the kitchen for everything from straining shredded potatoes and farmer's cheese to covering something that needs to culture on the counter overnight. It can just be re-washed and re-used until it disintegrates.

So, to get you started, here are a few important tips for switching over to kitchen cloth:

Keep dirty kitchen rags, towels, and napkins in their own separate laundry basket, and plastic is actually good in this instance. They can make your clothes stinky and sour smelling if they get mixed up and sit too long, and they might mildew a wicker or canvas laundry basket.

Be sure to wash them every couple of days so they don't go sour with all the food residues left on them.

Only mix napkins and lunch sacks with rags used for wiping up benign things. Keep your serious cleaning rags in a separate wash load, especially if you've wiped up something unpleasant or cleaned the house with them.

A package of those red shop rags will work great for kitchen rags, but wash them separately a few times or all your napkins will turn pink!


  1. I use my dish rag for wiping up any spills on the counter, but I do admit to using paper towels for draining fries on and such. I also use them for cleaning the bathrooms because it seems like cloth leaves lint everywhere, and I'm a bit of a freak. I really wish I could go totally without paper towels....perhaps I should try again. Do you use your cloth rags for draining fried foods? If you do, how do you get them clean? I only wash clothes in cold water to conserve energy and I'd imagine it would take hot water to get the grease out.

    We've always used cloth napkins and placemats, and I pack my husbands lunch in a coleman cooler every morning. We also don't use paper plates for anything, I don't even keep them in the house.

    You are right in that there is always more we can be doing!

  2. We use cloth towels instead of paper towels in the kitchen, but I'm still guilty of keeping plastic ziplock bags around for school lunches. I really like the idea of cloth for that. I don't have a sewing machine any longer :( do you know where I could buy some fabric snack bags? My kids always have used cloth napkins at school (Montessori) - I can't believe I haven't thought to include one in their lunch boxes!!

  3. I have seen Etsy shops with fabric snack bags for sale, and while I can't bring any specific ones to mind, I bet you'd find them with a search. I started using recycled waxed paper bags a while ago for those really pungent sandwiches (tuna, anything with my rather runny homemade mayo, etc.) and if it's pretty benign like PB&J, I wrap it in a cloth napkin. I think many of us still have our plastic vices and just make the efforts we can. Mine is that I still use Zip-loc freezer bags for all my berries as I have not figured out a way to pack them into the chest freezer in other containers. I just try to rinse and re-use them as long as I can.

  4. Goodwife, the draining of fried foods continues to be a dillemma. I grew up in a house where there wasn't a lot of frying, so I still feel I haven't mastered the art. Bacon, cauliflower fritters, and felafel are the things I usually fry, and I oftentimes don't drain them at all and forego the crispy texture, or snag a paper towel from our camping bin if there is one to be found (we still take recycled paper towels camping, but use enamelware instead of paper plates.)

    One of these days, I'm going to get serious and just buy a little deep fryer so I can make good felafel and donuts sometimes. Then I might try to rig up a draining system like a cookie cooling rack over a baking pan. I see potential for an invention!

  5. Hmmm, I think you may be right! Rigging up a draining "board" for lack of a better term is a great idea! I fry in my cast iron dutch oven, or else my cast iron pans. Now my gears are turning! ;0)