Most homes with a washer and dryer can completely live without disposable paper towels. Cloth towels with do the same job – you just need a larger-than-usual supply. Many such options are available and when comparing them, some interesting questions pop up around how green our choices truly are since it requires the understanding of a very big picture of sustainability. For example, we are playing with samples of Bambooee paper towels made from 100% organic bamboo fiber. A small roll costs about $12 and you only get 15 sheets. The difference is, each sheet is fully reusable for up to 100 washes – so it is essentially a roll of 1500 paper towel sheets.
We are testing these for home use only since they don’t make any sense for professional use. We do use paper towels at A Cleaner Image (which are also 100% bamboo and from a great fully sustainable company), but they are the traditional disposable type. Why? Because they’re disposable. When cleaning toilets, ovens, and other very dirty, unsanitary things, we wipe them up with things we can throw away – it’s just essential healthy and safety protocol. As a green company we don’t love having to do this, but better safe than sorry. However, for most of our cleaning, we use microfiber cloths, which have a lifespan of many hundreds of washes.
Here reusable paper towels find themselves in a very funny in-between space of disposability and reusability. They’re basically cleaning cloths that aren’t particularly durable. Which raises the question: when going green and shifting away from disposable towels, why not just take the leap all the way into a stack of high-performance cleaning cloths?
As far as absorbency, efficiency and price-performance is concerned, microfibers can clean circles around paper towel or any of its green counterparts like Bambooee. They can hold at least 7 times their weight in liquid, require minimal (and sometimes zero) use of cleaning products, cost very little, and boast a truly athletic durability. Estimates on household paper towel spend per year vary (often depending on what the stat-provider is selling), but it’s generally north of $100. A pack of a 3 dozen microfibers can easily be found for less than $20 and will manage all of your cleaning needs for at least a year.
You can replace your paper towel roll with a stack of cheap, effective towels without even having to change any of your cleaning practices. You can use them just like you would use disposables – just instead of tossing them in the garbage, redirect your aim to a designated laundry bin. Professional chefs figured this out long ago. During my years in the restaurant industry, I would find stacks of cloth towels in their personal homes since they had already habituated this efficient and economical cleaning practice.
Now although this is a more economical system, things get tricky when you begin to ask whether this is the more environmentally-sound practice (even though more economical is in some ways greener since most money-making practices leave a carbon footprint…but that’s a whole other discussion).
Bambooee towels are made from sustainably sourced, biodegradable materials, whereas microfiber towels are born entirely of petroleum products. So while not as durable or effective, Bambooee towels aren’t laid to rest with any unfinished business. This is one of many complex questions that pop up around modern cleaning technologies and their green ramifications. Although they are more efficient (and in that respect “green”), the materials of the technologies themselves aren’t green.
Actually with any non-reusable cleaning cloths, you will find yourself obliged to far greater laundry duties, which means more detergents flowing into the water supply (but eco-friendly ones free of phosphates and other nasties would make this less of an issue) and more petroleum-dependent energy being spent to fund the whole process. Numbers would have to be run on total-energy-spent per day to use each system (that means tabulating the carbon footprint of the start-to-finish production of everything used).
In making such choices, don’t let your head spin too fast. Just make sure you are doing the following:
1) Increasing your use of recycled, sustainably-made, or highly-durable cleaning towels.
2) Cleaning with products that are as simple and green as possible (for example, you can use soap nuts to handle all that extra laundry you will be doing to clean all your new towels).
3) Increasing the efficiency of your cleaning practices such that you don’t need as much of anything (chemical-free cleaning articles are to come).
And remember: green is a journey not a destination. You can guarantee some know-it-all has heard something you haven’t about the negative ramifications of a green practice near and dear to your heart.