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How I Finally Kicked My Most Wasteful Kitchen Habit

A hand holds a dishcloth that features a flower design.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Now Designs Store/Amazon.

If there is a special place in hell for people who use too many paper towels, there’s been a spot for me there since my first child was born in 2007. Every time I reached for a quicker picker-upper to wipe off the highchair or my child’s sticky hand, I told myself I’d make it up somehow on the back end of my years in the parenting trenches.

But as my family grew, my addiction grew. And I remained so hooked on paper towels that, in addition to using them on spills and slop—and cleaning the coffee table and bathroom mirrors—I’d grab a paper towel to dry my own clean hands or even wipe water (water!) off the countertop. Sometimes there was even a dish towel right in front of me. I am not a monster—I use select-a-size rolls exclusively—but I knew I had a problem, and I felt bad about the waste.

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When the pandemic caused shortages, our family of course cut back enormously on our paper towel use. I missed paper towels dearly, but I got by with kitchen towels (and a little more laundry). When paper products started to become more readily available again, I felt the pull of my old bad habits, so instead of going back to my wastin’ ways, I decided to seize the opportunity for change. Pre-pandemic, I’d seen “reusable paper towels” spooled up on stands at friends’ houses. I knew those weren’t for me—they would require I do even more laundry—but when I spotted a Swedish dishcloth in a store this past winter, and it promised to replace 15 paper towel rolls over its lifetime, I threw it in my basket.

Perhaps you’re like I was a few short months ago, and you have no idea what a Swedish dishcloth is. Imagine, if you will, that someone took a very thin yoga mat–like piece of material and cut it into 6.5-by-8 pieces. Imagine that this magical rectangle can be used like a paper towel, or a sponge, or a kitchen towel, or a dish rag, and you can use it for about six months before you retire it by composting or throwing it out.

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Does that clear things up? Probably not. You really have to use one to understand.

It’s basically stiff when dry, but it quickly softens when damp. So you might, for example, use it to dry off pots and pans you’ve just washed and then set the cloth aside to dry (and later reuse). Alternatively, you can dig right into washing—the cloth becomes instantly malleable when wet—and use it like a sponge, then wring it out to use again.

The best part? When your cloth is no longer clean—maybe your kid sprayed marinara sauce all over your table—you don’t have to rinse it, and wring it, and toss it in a hamper where it might sit getting moldy if you’re not quick to run laundry. You can put it right there in your dishwasher and it’ll come out sanitized and clean (though still wet, FYI—just leave it out to dry for a bit).

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You might ask what I have against a good old-fashioned dish towel, surely the easiest solution for many of my needs … like the drying of a pot or of my hands. You might argue I should just deal with the laundry and get over it. But I can never quite keep track of when the dish towels are clean, and I always wonder whether a child has used one to wipe up water (or worse) on the floor. I run my Swedish cloths through the dishwasher nightly and start my day confident they’re not swirling germs around. I’ve since bought a few more so that I even have extras on hand.

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By using our cloths for cleaning surfaces, which we do very, very often, I’m proud to say we now use about one-third of the paper towels we used to use. And while I used to feel guilty every time I reached for a towel, I now know I’m making smarter decisions by considering the cloths first—and can happily use a paper towel only when necessary.

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In addition to saving the planet, I’m saving money. A Swedish dishcloth, which seems on track to live its full six-month life, costs $6, whereas my expensive paper towel habit used to run me upward of $170 over the same time period. Another bonus if you like some household quirk like I do: fun designs like mermaids and owls.

I feel optimistic I’ve squashed my paper towel addiction for good, and I love living in a guilt-free kitchen—at least when it comes to cleaning solutions. If you happen to come across a magical product out there that could perhaps replace 15 bags of potato chips with just one, please do get in touch.