Take these 7 easy steps to a paper free kitchen, and feel great about the savings on your household budget, while reducing your home’s environmental impact. Making the change really isn’t as hard as you might think!
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It’s extremely rare for our family to get sick, but this winter, all four of us came down with something dreadful at the same time. It was a pretty miserable week around here, and I ended up doing something I’d sworn I would never do again.
I bought a roll of paper towels.
It was the first roll I’d bought since giving them up over 6 years ago, and I had such mixed feelings about it. It made my life a lot easier that week, but it also reminded me of the two reasons I gave up paper towels in the first place:
The environmental impact of disposable paper
According to almost every statistic I’ve read – Americans go through more than 13 BILLION pounds of paper towels each year. That’s the equivalent of 80 rolls per person, per year! Think about that one for a sec. That’s an enormous amount of paper, and almost none of it is recycled or composted. It takes 110 million trees to make all those paper towels, and 130 billion gallons of water. Talk about waste.
The savings in our housekeeping budget
The other reason we went paper-free was financial. We were just starting to think about wanting to buy our own home at the time, and the realization that our massive debt was holding us back, made me take a really hard look at our housekeeping budget. I challenged myself to eliminate everything I possibly could, and paper towels definitely ended up on the chopping block. We’ve saved a lot on our grocery bills over the years by never buying paper towels or napkins!
If you’re ready to take the plunge yourself, here are my best tips for anyone wanting to transition to a paper-free kitchen. I hope they help!!
7 steps to a paper free kitchen
1. Stop buying paper products
When I first started writing this post, I had this listed last. But – I’m going to go ahead and assume y’all are a lot like me. To get out of a habit, doing things the way you’re used to needs to not be an option.
That means knowing that the paper towels are going to run out, that you’re not going to buy any more, and that you’ll need something on hand to wipe smooshed avocado off the floor (and the fridge, and the toddler’s face) when paper towels are no longer in the house. The simple solution to this is to just stop buying any disposable paper products.
You can tackle this one product at a time (first give up paper towels, then napkins, for example) or you can go cold turkey. I personally recommend cold turkey, since that way you won’t find yourself reaching for a paper towel when you realize you’re out of napkins – or vice versa.
2. Make or buy some cloth napkins.
Having plenty of cloth napkins on hand is a nice way to get started with going paper-free. Everyone likes a napkin with a meal, and with little ones, they’re pretty necessary!
I find it really helpful to have at least three days’ worth of napkins in my stash, so I’m not always running out. With a busy young homesteading family, I do a load of laundry almost every day, so I’m bound to never run out this way. BUT – if you only do laundry once a week, you’ll probably find that you’ll want a little more than a week’s worth of napkins on hand. It’s all about figuring out what works well, for the way your unique household runs.
This excellent tutorial is super easy-to-follow if you want to make your own napkins, and has lots of photos.
3. Keep a good full basket of “un-paper towels”
These are what I mostly use for day-to-day kitchen counter cleaning, washing tables, cleaning up toddler spills, and things that require some real absorbency. My absolute favorite “un-paper towels” are actually the huge stash of old burp cloths that I made when I was pregnant with my first baby. They’ve now been through two babies, and are still mopping up messes like champs. They’re a little stained and worse for the wear, but they’re sturdy, absorbent, and just great. This is the pattern I followed for making them.
My friend Chris over at Joybilee Farm also has a great tutorial for specifically making “unpaper towels”, and she’s got great suggestions for types of free material you can use for making them!
4. Fill a drawer with fabric dish clothes and wool scrubbies.
While napkins and paper towels are the major culprits, when it comes to disposable kitchen waste, sponges and dish wands are also high on my list of disposables to eliminate. Instead, I opt for fabric cloths with some texture to them – but not so much texture that they could damage more delicate surfaces. Cheap washcloths actually work great for this, and hand-crocheted ones are adorable (here’s an especially cute pattern for making your own!)
For heavier scrubbing jobs (where I would have used the scrubbie side of a sponge in former years) – I like nothing better than a nice heavy square of felted up wool. You can follow the directions in this post for felting up an old sweater you’ll never wear again, and chop it into nicely sized squares for dish washing.
These work amazingly well for hard-to-clean dishes, like cooked-on egg pans, or a cast iron skillet that has some stubborn bits stuck on. Felted wool squares are also my favorite for cleaning any soiled eggs that need washing when they’re brought in from the coop.
5. Keep a plentiful rag stash
We go through a lot of rags in our house! These are what I use for cleaning any particularly yucky messes, or any spills on the floor. They’re also what I use for regular “heavy cleaning” – washing the bathroom, scrubbing floors, washing out duckling brooder tubs, you name it.
I keep a stash in the kitchen, and both bathrooms, so they’re always within pretty easy reach for a quick cleanup!
6. Have a HANDY laundry receptacle
This one is really key. It needs to be just as easy for your family to “dispose” of the cloth they’ve just used, as it is to throw away a paper towel. We have a laundry chute, and I do laundry frequently enough that even damp rags and towels can just go “down the hatch”, and get put in the next load.
The other solution that works really well is to simply keep a wet bag handy. (This is the kind I use & love!) Hanging it right under the sink works well. Just like with cloth diapers, it keeps dampness and any smells trapped inside, and works wonderfully. Everything washes fresh and clean in a normal warm or hot wash.
7. Replace the less-frequently used paper products
Once you’ve eliminated the major uses of disposable paper in your kitchen, you might want to also think about replacing less-frequently used disposable paper products, like:
Instead of parchment paper, baking with a silicone liner (like this one) might be a solution. If you’ve been using parchment paper and the idea of baking with silicone gives you pause, it might surprise you to learn that you’ve actually already been baking with silicone. Even the unbleached “all natural” parchment papers are permeated with silicone. That’s what gives them their non-stick quality.
If you’ve been using regular muffin tin liners, switching to silicone baking cups (like these) might be a way to ditch the paper.
Having a good stash of non-breakable plates for camping, picnics, and play dates can be super helpful. Instead of paper, I like these eco-friendly, bpa-free, and dishwasher safe plates from Amazon. Plus I think they look a little nicer than your run-of-mill plastic camping plates!
Instead of disposable drinking cups, I LOVE these simple metal cups that have different colored silicone sleeves. It makes them easy to tell apart for a picnic or family get-together.
Those are my best tips from 6+ years of maintaining a paper-free kitchen and household. If this list seems at all daunting – by all means, give yourself permission to keep it super simple!
This system described above is what works really well for me right now, with two small (messy!) little ones, and the constant heavy cleaning required by nature of living on a working homestead.
However, you really can make this as simple as two baskets – one for napkins and “good” cloths that get used for meals, dishes, and counters, and another basket for rags that get used for floors and heavier messes. Damp used cloths can be hung over the edge of your laundry receptacle until dry, and dirty cloths that aren’t wet can just be dumped in with the other dirty laundry. Done.
The important thing is finding an easy system that works for you, and that feels simple to your family.
I hope these tips help as you work to minimize your disposable paper use, and that you’ll see some helpful savings in your housekeeping budget! Have you already taken the plunge and gone paper free? I’d love to hear any tips and ideas that you’ve found especially helpful in making it work for your family!