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How to Replace Paper Products the Zero Waste Way

I have been using paper replacements for a few years now. I try to live a frugal, minimal, simple, zero-waste, and sustainable (in the city) lifestyle. Zero waste shouldn’t only be for the financially well-off person. I will always suggest buying vintage/secondhand first. It helps with local economy and most likely charities as well. It’s definitely more sustainable, minimal, ethical and environmentally friendly since it’s someone else ‘garbage’. Thrift shopping is super fun since you get to hunt around and possibly get colors or patterns you wouldn’t think of or find new. Sometimes it’s the little things to find joy in. For example, find some that match your kitchen, bathroom or dish sets, get retro, vintage or hideous ones to use, embroider a cat, cactus or funny saying on them. If you are buying new items (preferable handmade, local and/or small business, see * recommendation list below), I recommend unbleached/un-dyed, organic, fair-trade cotton since it is ethical and compostable (make sure thread is cotton as well and not polyester). Request no plastic or foam with shipping if online shopping. I avoid Amazon for this reason (among others ?) Go wild you!

4 Household Paper Products and their Easy, Zero-Waste, Sustainable Replacements

  1. Tissues replaced with: Cloth Handkerchiefs and/or **T-shirt rags (see ** below for more info on T-shirt Rags). At my household we opt for both! I have collected vintage hankies over the years and we also had some at our wedding for favors and the send off (cute tangent). I have a stack of white T-shirt rags in bathroom and a little drawstring pouch to put the dirties until I do laundry. I wash and dry with towels than stack them back up and restock the bathroom. We blow, sneeze, pick, wipe our noses desires, we never get that sore/raw nose feeling when sick. Out and about like at restaurant or store, family or friends houses we use hankies because they are just too darn pretty, might as well use them! They are inexpensive and easy to find at antiques shops and thrift stores. I don’t have a price breakdown of paper tissue vs cloth but after a while, it is bound to save you money since your not having to re-purchase over and over. Best of all, and to me, most importantly, cloth handkerchiefs or **T-shirt rags as replacements for tissues is more sustainable and environmentally friendly i.e zero waste.
  2. Paper Towels replaced with: Unpaper Towels (ironic huh), Swedish dish towels like these and/or **T-shirt rags. These are cloth versions that are washable and reusable. They are used just like you would paper towels, except you don’t throw them away but put them in the laundry bin and wash them. This is going to take a little trial and error of the quantity you need because this depends on your family size, paper towel use, cleaning routine etc. My husband and I could go a month or more with 30 count of unpaper towels but we do laundry more often than that. We also use and love Swedish dish towels (2-3). They are compostable towels made from wood pulp. They last a long time and are VERY absorbent, almost like a shammy. Use them just like you would a paper towel to soak up messes and tidy us the kitchen, bathroom sink and counters. Once they get too dingy for your liking in the kitchen, move them to the bathroom, once they get too dingy for bathroom, move them to the garage for car maintenance, once they all ripped up (after years) compost them (literally saving SOO much money; $6 dish towel once a year let’s say vs $6 paper towels every 2-3 weeks). Same with unpaper towels, the initial investment is more BUT in the long run it saves you lots of money (Example $50 in 4-5 years vs $6 every 2-3 weeks equaling $100+ per YEAR). Etsy has great options and there are also many DIY versions for unpaper towels(see * list below).

“Basically, Americans use so many paper towels because they can afford to. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2015 the country generated about 7.4 billion pounds of waste consisting of paper towels and other “tissue” materials” (Americans are Weirdly Obsessed with Paper Towels)

  1. Paper Napkins replaced with Cloth Napkins and/or **T-Shirt rags. I love cloth napkins! They are a little different than handkerchiefs and unpaper towels. They are a bit bigger, usually square and just a midweight cotton or linen. They are easy to use at home as well as on the go. We have a little basket (you could use a drawer) in our kitchen for clean ones and we use them with every meal (even sack lunches). When they are dirty you toss them in laundry bin to wash with your next load of bath or kitchen towels. You can stash 1-2 in your car, in your purse or in your pocket and feel good about not creating trash when you are out and about. I have found they are great conversation starters almost like novelty socks, ha! I have got all of my cloth napkins secondhand for less than $2 for 4 and I have about 12 that $6. paper napkins are $1-5 every time you buy them for your house.

Extra frugal and easy tip: gather a collection of bandannas to use for paper product replacement for #’s 1-3!  Bonus: they can serve as an accessory still.

  1. Toilet Paper replaced with Bamboo or Recycled toilet paper from Who Gives a Crap. They are my all-time favorite and most likely forever toilet paper company (unless I find a way to be %100 bidet). They give %50 of proceeds to programs that help with building toilets, sanitation, water systems, and plumbing in places around the world that need it most. It is pricier than regular toilet paper from the grocery store but with the money you save from napkins and paper towels you will be able to afford this and even save $! Did I mention they ship and package plastic-free and come in cute reusable/recyclable, forest-friendly paper coverings?! I decorated a pinata with them.

Materials: Linen will be luxury and on the thinner side (most likely your ‘nice’ napkins). Birdseye cotton will be flat but absorbent (my choice for unpaper towels). Regular cotton will be the least textured and most versatile (every day cloth napkins). Cotton, bamboo, or hemp flannel, velour or fleece will be the softest (most likely for sensitive nose tissues dual use for baby cloths). Terry cloth will be the thickest but also really absorbent (for super messy clean-up unpaper towels). This all just depends on your materials, needs and sewing abilities and desires.

* Recommended Shops, Products and DIY Links

(no affiliates here, I only suggest to make zero waste and shopping/decisions easier for you if you are not going the secondhand direction)

**T shirt rags

T-shirt rags are exactly what they sound like, scraps of t-shirts; rectangles or large squares depending on your preference of paper towel size. My husband and I have graphic t-shirts from high school sports and college activities. We have stained them and worm them til they are scratchy and misshaped. This is when we cut them up into small(tissues, dryer sheets, cleaning rags- see below picture) or medium/large (paper towel or napkin replacements). They don’t fray so you don’t need to sew the edges but you can if you want them to look better, or you could use pinking shears. When we eventually run out of these (will be years and years and years) we will use the organic cotton shirts we are wearing now (by then they will be destroyed). Bonus you can make dryer sheets too. Check out 10 Ways To Make Your Own Homemade Dryer Sheets In Less Than A Minute
IMG_0627 (1)

Question and Answers

Q: Wont it make SO much more laundry/Doesn’t that waste more water doing laundry?
A: I have noticed that it is insignificant to the laundry quantity and frequency that I do because we have kitchen, bath towels and bedding to wash so I throw them in with it all. Having T-shirt rags, handkerchiefs, unpaper towels and cloth napkins does not force me to do laundry more often. If you are really frugal and conscious about water supply, I suggest catching extra water when you take a shower with a bucket and hand wash and hang dry the cloth napkins etc. If you take a bath, before you drain it use it to water plants and wash cloth products. Same thing with dishes, save excess water from going down drain by plugging it up and using that water to wash things. Live by a stream? Do it the Amish way, going back to the simple, DIY, good ol’ hard work way.
Q: What if they get stained?
A: A long as they aren’t your super nice set (which I recommend not using on pasta nights), it’d alright, that’s what they are for, to clean up our messy faces and hands. If this really concerns you have two sets, nice set (for fancy dinners, and the everyday set). You could also try stain remover bars or purchasing dark colored cloth napkins.
Q: What do I do for napkins when I have a dinner party or birthday party at my house?
A: You could do **T-shirt napkins, rent a large quantity of cloth napkins for a local catering service, DIY with cute fabric a large quantity, tell people to bring-your-own-cloth-napkin and/or get a few bamboo, recycled and compostable napkins.
Q: What do I do if they are beyond repair?
A: First off, good for you for using the dickens out of them! If they are %100 cotton compost them, but use them in your bathroom, shop, garden, garage first for cleaning or working on the car.
Q: What if I forget them when I am out?
A: Try no napkin, get creative! I have eaten carefully, used the wrapping paper the to-go food cart food came in, my hands, tongue and yes I have used many paper napkins at restaurants if an when I forget. It happens and it’s alright. If it’s a time where you are easier on yourself and think of creative solutions, you are more apt to remembering next time rather than just being frustrated at the world (I’ve been there too).
Q: What if my kids (or I) throw them away on accident? 
A: It’s fine! At least your trying. Take that moment to celebrate that you care. Use this as a learning lesson to all people involved that we care for the environment and that means taking care of our stuff and using reusable products. The earlier the better with teaching about responsibility will help bring up environmentally friendlier generations to come.


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