Itty Bitty Bonzai #8

July 2nd, 2009 - filed under: Furthermore » Itty Bitty Bonzai

Itty Bitty Bonzai is a collection of tiny tips and tricks for living a life more mindful. Small actions, collectively and compounded, become a powerful force of change.

#8 So, we’ve all agreed that wasting paper is bad. We’ve canceled our newspaper subscription and we recycle all our mail and our ‘brown bag’ lunch comes in a canister. But unfortunately, 90% of our households are still reliant on one of the worst wasters of this limited resource: napkins.

It’s time to end it, guys! Paper towels and their ilk account for 3,000 tons of landfill waste each year. That’s millions of trees – trashed. Is it really worth the perceived convenience?

Instead of traditional paper products, try using dishrags around the kitchen. Rip up old towels for dirty cleaning jobs. Dine in style with cotton napkins. Stash a hankie in your satchel (or your back pocket, for fashion and for function!) so you won’t ever get caught unawares. Add a small cloth to your packed lunches (or your kids’), and keep a supply in the glovebox, too. It’s so easy to cut out unnecessary paper, and once it’s habitual, you’ll wonder why it took you so long.

And just in case you’re wondering, it takes less than half the energy of paper production, to fabricate and then re-clean a cloth towel over its lifetime.



  • Don

    I am going to give that a try.

  • JLC

    Hello! I’m new here. *waves*

    This is something we tried last year. I have two kids under the age of 6 and I keep a damp washcloth hanging next to a hand towel. After a meal, they wipe their hands and faces on the wash cloth before they leave the kitchen. When we have guests, we use cloth napkins.

    Thanks – you have a lot of great tips here!

  • Meghan

    Hmm! I never really thought about that. I think I’ll keep my kleenex, but I’m willing to try giving up napkins!

  • Austin

    We’ve done this in our home, replaced paper towels, napkins, and the like with homemade towels (from re-used fabric, no less.)

    I’m similarly inclined at work, where the bathrooms have paper towels…My pants work just as well. It’s amazing how much paper gets wasted just to dry people’s hands. Once.

  • Valerie

    What a coincidence! I just went to Ross and bought a ton of cloth napkins, washcloths, & kitchen towels. I have enough so that when I wash a load the washermachine & dryer are full. I was concerned about doing small loads and wasting water & energy. Buying all that only cost me $50, which is probably what I spend on paper towels in 6 months. We used the napkins for the first time last night with dinner, it was really nice and I felt so refined. *giggle*

    I haven’t eliminated paper towels completely because I have a big Costco stash. I want to work on leaning us off of them so that when they run out I won’t go back & buy more. This means convincing the husband to clean the bathroom with the rags instead of paper towels.

    If I was even more eco-conscious I would dry the napkins on a clothes-line. I also need to work on my guilty habit: Clorox wipes. I am sure they are horrible for the environment but they are so convenient.

    P.S. I love the itty bitty bonzai’s. Thanks for all the great tips!

    P.S.S. What is your opinion on sponges for cleaning the kitchen and bathrooms?

  • Gareth


    I’m a new reader of your blog, and so far enjoying it a lot. While I agree with your opinions in this post, I think that it is missing important information.

    You mention two stats, but you don’t supply links to support them. Statistics without some documentation behind them are no where near as useful and in some cases (not saying this is one of them) could be considered propaganda and not facts.

  • Joy

    Hi- I love your blog. I discovered it only a few weeks ago, but as a fellow PDX’er I’ve been hooked. For me, it’s the fashion element that puts your blog above all the rest of the urban-farmer-type blogs. You’re gorgeous- heart and soul, as far as I can tell.

    Re: this post, I grew up in a household without a lot of money, and when I once got pinkeye and got a roll of paper towels to use, so I wouldn’t spread the disease, I felt like a queen! In retrospect I am glad I grew up in an environment where such disposables as paper towels weren’t taken for granted. I’m much more conscientious of my consumption in general for it. I won’t espouse my particular life choices here, but,…

    I bring up the following only because I think your blog is SPECTACULAR: one thing makes me wince: the misuse of “it’s”. For the particular word “it”, the possessive is not apostrophized. As in the last sentence of this post, it should be “over its lifetime.”

    Keep radiating beautiful energy!


  • Meghan

    So, I pitched this idea to my husband, and he’s pretty convinced that the overall net effect for the environment isn’t any better with cloth napkins, since washing cloth napkins requires water (which is turned into soapy waste water) and energy (unless you hand wash) whereas napkins are one of the more easily biodegradable products we use. Do you have any evidence I can throw at him?

  • Sayward

    @ Don – Yay, good luck!

    @ JLC – That’s a great idea! I’m so glad to hear that other families are doing this.

    @ Austin – It is incredible the amount of waste just for removing water from hands.

    @ Valerie – Good for you for making those steps! No need to jump in full force – I definitely transitioned slowly myself.

    For cleaning kitchen/counters, I use a sponge. I buy a natural version at my co-op and I use it for all my kitchen cleaning, save dishes. We keep a separate sponge for dishes. I’m not concerned about germs because I keep a sanitary home and I’m constantly tidying/cleaning. Also, a vegan kitchen is a MUCH safer kitchen, as far as food-borne disease is concerned. One more reason to go vegan! =D

    @ Gareth & @ Meghan – I usually do try to cite my sources (via link) but in this case I was getting my info from a paper copy, not online. I did google around and found some articles about this subject, citing the same figures. Here’s some further reading for those who are interested:

    Paper Towels and Napkins Versus Cloth
    These Come From Trees
    Seattle Times

    @ Joy – Thanks, and welcome to the blog! And . . . *blush* You caught me! I am actually a total stickler for grammar – it’s an integral part of my ‘real’ job – but for some reason I have this deep compulsion to egregiously misuse apostrophes, ONLY in the word ‘it’s’. Thanks for the edit, and please feel free to remind me anytime. =)

  • Meghan


  • akeeyu

    Napkins: Replaced by cheap white IKEA washcloths years ago.

    Paper towels: Replaced by cheap white IKEA dishtowels, ditto.

    Kleenex: Replaced by a stack of flannel squares (tear into squares, allow to fray, toss in the wash) last year. They’re easier on your nose, and as a bonus, you can get festive flannel prints on sale. Blow your nose on flying pigs and penguins!

    We still keep paper towels on hand, but we’re down to using about two or three rolls a year.

  • Sayward

    @ Meghan – Of course, and good luck!

    @ akeeyu – That’s so great, I love the flannel kleenex idea. So soft on a tender runny nose! Definitely doing that this winter. =)

  • Erin

    Old t-shirts are also very good for cleaning scraps: absorbent. Good for stained or ripped shirts.

  • Sayward

    @ Erin – Yes, tee shirts are great! Old bathroom towels ripped up are great too, as well as old bed sheets and cloth diapers. =)

  • Homegrown Texan

    I love this idea…we’ve been *mostly* paper towel free for quite some time now. One tip I haven’t seen mentioned is for the car: I bought a small squirt bottle in which I put water with just a squeeze of Dr. Bronner’s soap. I keep a stack of old washcloths I bought at the warehouse club years ago. Now we have dry rags for blowing noses, wiping wet hands, whatever, but if something needs to be cleaned, we use the squirt bottle. It works beautifully.

    I do have one question…what do you use for doing things like draining/drying lettuce or pasta (like for a pasta salad). I once tried using what I thought was a nice, soft, lint-free cloth and ended up with lint all over my pasta! I do have a salad spinner, but sometimes that isn’t quite enough.

    I also have the same problem with drying fish and chicken pieces, but I know you won’t have a solution to that. ;)

  • Sayward

    @ Homegrown Texan – Those are great ideas, and will become especially handy once my wee one is here. =)

    For pasta I just put it back on the stove in the hot pan on the hot burner (the burner has been turned off but will still be hot). The heat is enough to evaporate off the rest of the water but not so hot that it dries out or sticks.

    For lettuce I just use my salad spinner, but I don’t mind a little extra moisture in there. =)

  • EroSan

    Mmmm… like many others, i think I might start by using cloth napkings… I’ve always wanted to do that anyways…

    As far as kitchen “paper” towels go, I use one specific brand that are paper, but you can wash them and use them again… so it not a one-use-then-throw-away paper towel…

    P.S. if apostrophes give you issues, this page simplifies remembering the rules

  • Sayward

    @ EroSan – That page is AWSOME! Bookmarked! Thanks. =)