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Counter Intelligence Featured on Sep 24, 2009

Challenge

Give up paper towels for one month. Use alternatives, such as dishtowels or sponges.

Individual Result

Eliminating your use of paper towels will reduce CO2 emissions by 5.8 lbs this month, and save you about $8.

Rally Impact

1659 people have reduced CO2 emissions by 4.14 tons by completing this challenge so far. That's equal to turning off the electricity of 1 home for about 1 month!

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Challenge Details

Rally Points

  • The United States consumes 30 percent of the world’s paper each year.
  • Of the 741 pounds of paper used by the average American each year, close to 55 pounds is tissue paper (which includes paper towels, napkins, facial tissue, and toilet tissue).
  • Even with recycling programs, a little more than one-third of the trash going into landfills is paper products. Paper towels are not recycled.

We were out of paper towels. It had been that kind of crazy, back-to-school week and no one had gotten to the grocery to do the usual “mega shop.” So there I was, my kitchen counter covered in cake batter, staring at an empty cardboard tube. The batter oozed toward the edge like the lava in an island movie adventure. Luckily, I have several college degrees and was able to figure out that the kitchen sponge and the dish towel might be of some use somehow. I sopped up the batter, rinsed the sponge, rinsed the dish towel and wrung it out, got out another dish towel and dried the counter. Good as new. Paper towels? I laugh.

This Featured Challenge again comes from our Challenge Workshop. It is based on the excellent suggestions of tinytim, Violet, Max!, foreversmiley412, marge201, and Lemon Head. Keep those ideas coming!

The Carbon Connection
Many people use so many paper towels because they seem convenient. Grab, use, throw away. You might use paper towels to wipe off the kitchen counter, clean the stovetop, or get toothpaste film out of the bathroom sink. You might use several to clean your windows or the glass in your picture frames. You might wash your hands and use a paper towel to dry. All of these uses add up to some people using a lot of paper towels. By some estimates, the average American family uses between 1.5 and 2 rolls of paper towels each week.

In general, our consumption of paper products, including paper towels, comes at a very high cost. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the pulp and paper industry is the third largest industrial producer of global warming pollution. And, with paper consumption on the rise, the carbon dioxide emissions from paper production are projected to double by 2020.

Manufacturing paper of all types, whether it is tissue paper for paper towels, newsprint for newspapers, or bright white paper for a laser printer, requires energy. Energy is required to perform the harvesting, manufacturing, transport, and disposal of paper products. That energy most likely comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere. That’s why the more paper you use, the more carbon dioxide that gets produced.

Getting It Done
Need help meeting this Challenge? Here are a few simple suggestions:

  • Frugal Girl suggests buying a small supply of cheap white wash cloths or dish towels to have on hand in the kitchen to wipe up messes. If you have a stack on hand, it’s no big deal to just grab another one. Rinse them out at the end of the day, wring them out, and allow them to dry overnight. Then put them in the laundry the next day. The energy and CO2 associated with laundering a few reusable wash cloths each week as part of your normal laundry is minimal compared with the energy and CO2 associated with manufacturing, transporting, and eliminating disposable paper towels.
  • Concerned about germs? Paper towels are often thought of as a germ-free alternative to kitchen sponges and towels. There are ways to substitute sponges and towels for paper towels without feeling as if you are breeding billions of germs. For instance, you can wet your kitchen sponge and then stick it into the microwave for two minutes to eliminate germs. (Yes, we know that the microwave oven uses electricity which requires the burning of fossil fuel, etc. However, you can sanitize your sponge every week for three months without creating one pound of CO2, so the trade-off seems worth it.) For more on dealing with kitchen germs, see this article from WebMD .
  • Don’t use paper towels to clean or dry your glasses. Your optician told you not to (because the wood fibers in paper towels may be soft, but they’re still hard enough to scratch your plastic lenses) and probably gave you a micro-fiber cloth to use instead. The same thing goes for that new LCD television with the glossy screen. Use the micro-fiber cloth for that, too.
  • Use sheets of old newspapers to clean mirrors and windows. They’re just as good as paper towels and they don’t leave any lint behind.
  • As for paper towels in company bathrooms, don’t use more than you need. If you only need one towel to dry your hands, just take one. If it’s a roll-type dispenser, just push the lever once, not two or three times.
  • Admittedly, there may be times when a paper towel is the best option (think spilled oil, blood, whatever the dog leaves when she’s upset you left her home alone). For those times, we hope you’ll have a seldom-used roll of green, alternative paper towels hidden away. You should be able to find inexpensive paper towels that contain pulp from recycled paper, often referred to as post-consumer or recycled content. Try to find paper towels that use 100% recycled fiber and that also either use totally chlorine-free (TCF) or processed chlorine-free (PCF) bleaching in their manufacture. (Bleaching paper pulp to make it whiter often leads to the release of harmful chemicals into the air and water.) For suggestions on green paper products, see the NRDC Shopping Guide for household tissue-paper goods (also includes recommendations for facial tissue and toilet tissue) and the paper towel reviews linked in the Learn More section below.

Have you already cut back on your use of paper towels? What are you using instead and what impact has that had on your household? Help your fellow Rallyers mop up their mess by sharing your stories in the Challenge Discussion section below.

Rules of the Challenge
This Challenge asks you to completely eliminate your use of paper towels in your house for one month. By using 4 fewer rolls of paper towels, you will reduce your CO2 emissions by 5.8 lbs for the month. This Challenge lasts for one month and is repeatable.

Learn More
eHow: How to Stop Using Paper Towels
Green Your: Choose eco-friendly paper towels
Grist: Putting a Bounty of Paper Towels to the Test
The Daily Green: 15 Facts About the Paper Industry…

See the Math
Here are our known or estimated numbers and assumptions for this Challenge:

  • Paper that has no post-consumer fiber (100% virgin paper) is responsible for 3.2 pounds of CO2 being released for every pound of paper produced. Paper towels such as Bounty and Viva fall into that category. Paper with 100% post-consumer fiber equals 1.8 pounds of CO2 released per pound of paper. “Green” paper towels fall into this category. We are going to split the difference and use an average of 2.5 pounds CO2 per pound of paper in our calculations.  source
  • Rolls of paper towels (including the inner cardboard core) weigh anywhere from 7.1 to 13.8 ounces. The average roll of paper towels weighs about 8 ounces.
  • At 2.5 lbs of CO2 per pound of paper produced, the production of one 8 oz roll of paper towels is responsible for 1.25 lbs of CO2.
  • Next the paper towels have to get from the production plant to your local grocery. Let’s assume that they are transported 500 miles by a large, diesel-burning truck. If the truck gets 8 miles per gallon, it needs 62.5 gallons of diesel to go 500 miles. At 22.2 lbs CO2 released per gallon of diesel burned, that 500 mile trip would release 1387.5 lbs CO2. However, that CO2 is for a truck full of paper towels. If the truck can carry 24 pallets, fully-loaded with 360 rolls of paper towels per pallet, then the 1387.5 lbs CO2 is divided by 8640 rolls of paper towels to get a transportation cost of 0.2 lbs CO2 per roll.  source  source
  • For simplicity’s sake, we will not calculate CO2 generated by the transportation of the paper towels from a local distribution warehouse to your supermarket, for the utilities of the supermarket, or for your transportation of the paper towels home from market. We will also not calculate the CO2 associated with the removal of the paper towels from your home as waste (i.e., transportation from your house to a landfill, processing of waste at the landfill, or methane created and released at the landfill by buried used paper towels). We are also not calculating the CO2 associated with whatever it is you use to replace the paper towels. Some of you will already have rags, sponges, and dish towels. For those who need to buy a set of cheap dish towels or wash cloths, rest assured that giving up paper towels will offset the CO2 associated with those new purchase within 4 months of giving the paper towels the ol’ heave-ho.
  • How many rolls of paper towels does the average household use in one month? We have seen estimates ranging from 1.5 to 2 rolls of paper towels used per week, which would be as much as 8 or 9 rolls per month. However, that seems excessive, so we’re going to use an estimate of 4 rolls of paper towels used per month.
  • By not using 4 rolls of paper towels this month, you will be saving 5.8 lbs of CO2 (4 rolls per month X 1.45 lbs CO2 per roll) and about $8 at the grocery checkout. Over the course of a year, this Challenge can save you $100 or more.

Remember, you can’t recycle a paper towel. Once it is used and thrown away, that paper towel is off to the landfill. Even if the paper towel is made from recycled paper fibers, once you use it, those fibers are never going to be used again. Rallyers, that’s such a waste! Let’s wipe it out and stop using paper towels, once and for all.

Discussion 45 comments so far

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JimmyTowel almost 2 years ago
Anyone doing challenge will love my new invention on Kickstarter called Jimmy Pocket Towel. It helps you stop using paper towels away from home too. If you're reading this after 12-27-12 you can get one on our new website starting mid january, 2013. www.JimmyTowel.com
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pegva over 2 years ago
I went to Wally World and bought 'sack cloths'. They come several to a pack and they are big enough to cut into FOUR large napkins! I use them in place of paper napkins and paper towels. I love them!
eclothguy over 2 years ago
I've actually been doing this for a number of years. Today I was at a party and did not have a cloth, only paper towels... It was interesting to me that it just felt 'wrong' to use it!!! Some of the best 'cleaning' alternatives are microfiber cloths - they pick up all of the bacteria... see www.eclothguy.com So easy to ditch the paper towels for good!!! (without worrying about bacteria)
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Kathryn Grace almost 3 years ago
I'm so glad to see so many people here using cloth instead of paper towels! We kicked our paper towel habit a couple of years ago. It turned out to be much easier than we expected. In case someone reading this feels a little challenged at the thought of giving up paper towels, (we surely did, in the beginning), I've written a little how to here: http://www.squidoo.com/kickyourpapertowelhabit. Hope it helps!
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rallyer59845 almost 3 years ago
Been using cloth towels instead of paper towels
jeneko over 3 years ago
It has been 6 months since I last used a paper towel to clean my house, and I'm never going back
deesydia over 3 years ago
And this challenge is done! :) Dee - http://www.marketbold.com/KeywordSniperPro/
deesydia over 3 years ago
I don't use paper towels too often, so this should be easy for me. :) Dee - http://woodworkingplansdiy.org
Stefaimg almost 4 years ago
Is crucial to find alternatives to paper to continue to harm our planet. Towels, napkins, plates and paper cups are not recyclable and require a long and difficult process of disposal. <a href="http://prestiti-personali-bancaonline.blogspot.com/">Prestiti online</a>
random bookworm about 4 years ago
I don't think this will be very easy!
rallyer40533 about 4 years ago
I do this anyway..but I always wonder about the "trade-off" in energy use to wash the towels and napkins.
Journey over 4 years ago
This is my first challenge since joining the group. I think that it will be very easy for me as this was the norm for us. Our down fall was Spring Cleaning and we have not been very good about this in the past several months. Normally a roll of paper towels will last for months and months. I buy bar cloths which I use for everything and just throw them in the washing machine to be washed with what ever is washed next. Since I wash them with either dark or white clothes I always have a ready supply to grab. In addition I have a large stack of cloth napkins in my sideboard that we use daily instead of paper napkins. I purchased a packet of paper napkins 5 years ago and it is still 75% full. We use the napkins and then throw them in the washer. I don't iron them I just fold and stack them for reuse. I do save a nice set for company or holidays that do get ironed. We all like them better than paper and if they get too stained I use them for cleaning as they are lint free.
birdlover over 4 years ago
Doesn't sound hard... My cousin has done it already and said it wasn't hard
mcgoughclan over 4 years ago
I not only stocked up on new dish towels I purchased 2 doz cloth napkins at the same time!
CerridwynEldritch over 4 years ago
As happy as I am to avoid paper towels, I'm glad Kleenex and other tissue paper are not out of the question because I recently ended up getting a bloody nose (twice!) while at work, one of them a few days after I took the challenge. I do not think it would have been wise of me to wave around a bloody handkerchief or hand towel in front of customers, though one customer didn't seem to care, or at least didn't notice, I was nursing a bloody nose and started placing items to purchase in front of me anyway.
CerridwynEldritch over 4 years ago
"Always know where your towel is." -The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Those are some darn good words of wisdom, and something I did fairly regularly over the years. My family would actually get put out when I tossed a towel over my lap to use instead of using a napkin. I keep a cloth napkin (actually, a scarf for which I found a better use) and an unbleached, organic cotton handkerchief I picked up somewhere in my lunch bag so I can avoid using them at work as well.
nlowe almost 5 years ago
I have been using cloth napkins and kitchen towels for over 15 years and it is great! I highly recommend it
aqalilani almost 5 years ago
Paper towles are a waste of money, so your saveing green to :)
1step@atime almost 5 years ago
who needs paper towels anyways!!
tsadvanced almost 5 years ago
I usually don't use paper towel. lol
lindsey_a almost 5 years ago
Was wandering around Rona the other day and came across Reusable paper towels. They are made from the same type of cellulose fibers as regular paper towels, but these are sponge sheet cloths that can be rinsed and thrown in the washing machine when they get really dirty. Bought a pack of 10 for about $8.00, we'll see how they work out...
kristyn416 almost 5 years ago
Day 1: Just realized I was out and decided it was a good time to start. No problems yet...
Nika almost 5 years ago
I agree with the challenge purpose. I went without paper towels in my home for about 1 1/2 mos! By using the dishcloths and sponges, I really didn't see the need to buy papertowels again and I kept that money in my pocket. Not much, but a definite difference!
mimisvintage almost 5 years ago
kitchen towels, then linen napkins
kayleighhoulker almost 5 years ago
this shouldn't be to hard
ccteach16 about 5 years ago
I got some paper towel substitutes (2) at the store--they are made of viscose and washable. Three months and counting--hardly a pain at all!
cupcakegangstrr about 5 years ago
hmm..duznt sound too hard:]
kt vestal about 5 years ago
use a SHAMWOW!!
vishnu361 about 5 years ago
Its quite interesting to see how all this concept of using paper towels evolved. Its like giving a slow poison, all these big MNCs thro their ads and articles in different health magazines force the concept of "ONLY PAPER TOWELS ARE SAFE, ANYTHING ELSE WILL KILL YOU" I really wonder how people survived before the invention of paper towels. Wake up and think logically and it would easy for you to get rid of paper towels which is burning hole both to your pocket and ozone layer.
Carbonrally_Holly about 5 years ago
This is very true, it's kind of wasteful to use paper towels and throw them right away when you can dish towels instead. I'm not really an avid user of paper towels, I usually just wipe up messes with dish towels and soak them in bleach or all purpose cleaner. It's much better and less of a waste. :)
birdman (Carbonrally) about 5 years ago
This is really working! We ditched the paper towels in our house for the past two weeks. We are over the hump. Done.
freddiebenjamin about 5 years ago
I use cloth to clean...dislike paper towel to the core.
consciouswoman about 5 years ago
Ready to start the next challenge!!! WOO HOO!!! Gave up paper towels over a year ago. Took a little getting used to at first but now I don't even notice.
Naturelover101 about 5 years ago
This challenge will be kinda difficult but I will try it myself. I will not use paper towel for month! I swear!
rallyer29493 about 5 years ago
I just got some paper towels last sunday, but i,ll tell everyone who lives in my house and i,ll make sure that no one uses the paper towels for the mounth.
BeMusedArt about 5 years ago
I haven't used paper towels for wiping things up or paper napkins in the 10 years I have been married. But my husband insists on them for putting the bacon on after cooking to sop up the grease. Some days I think before hand and use a bit of bread heel for this and the dog loves it as a treat to get his medication in. As far as dog messes go, we have a large dog and paper towels wouldn't work anyway. I save my old ratty towels that probably most folks would toss, for just such a purpose.
Reign4693 about 5 years ago
Well, my house never really relied much on paper towels to begin with, so this challenge will be a no-brainier ;-D
katrina about 5 years ago
Are we only counting the paper towels used at home? Or the ones used at work, etc. as well?
zackd_sf about 5 years ago
I try to do this, but pleding will make sure I do
eguna about 5 years ago
thanks for this challenge, carbonrally!! i've been meaning to bring a cloth napkin to work for awhile, but my motivation kept forgetting. now i don't have to grab a paper towel at lunchtime. =]
Marcus Master about 5 years ago
This is a really hard challenge. I live for paper towels. I think I use a roll every other day. Yipes. I'm going to try very hard to go cold turkey.
grasshopper green about 5 years ago
I would add paper napkins to the paper towels challenge. You can use cloth napkins. A person can use the same napkin for a few meals.
marge201 about 5 years ago
I haven't bought paper towels in 20 years. Such a waste of money. If you've got vomit to clean up like pets or babies, then I can see paper towel. No vomit? Why waste your money???!! Use kitchen towels (dish towels) and dish cloths and sponges and wash them with your laundry.
anitapita_85022 about 5 years ago
this should be easy. i ran out of paper towels three or four days ago and continously forgot to buy more. and i already nuke my dish sponge. yeah, i can do this!
rallyer25030 about 5 years ago
Shammies work great instead of paper towels. (Such as the SHAM WOW's.) They aren't as thick and heavy as a towel. Also they dry very quickly (so you do not need to use the dryer.