“You’re a real jerk. You wasted eight . . . aprons on this guy,” says his gangster boss, Tuddy Cicero, played by Frank DiLeo. “I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with you. I gotta toughen this kid up.”
You could blame Henry’s waste on basic compassion, a trait with no real value in the underworld in which he traveled. I had no such excuse for my unhealthy relationship with paper towels: I was spinning through one spool after another, as if a parade of gunshot victims were awaiting my ministrations on the front porch.
I was turning to paper towels for every conceivable job: shooing crumbs off counters, drying my hands, cleaning the espresso maker, polishing stainless-steel surfaces, wiping my mouth during meals, absorbing the crocodile tears that I shed for the environment.
I had become the thing I abhor: the wasteful American, the person with enough disposable income to keep his life tidy at the expense of life on this earth, whether plant or animal.
Few things will make your head spin faster than trying to determine the environmental impact of paper towels. Water consumption for cloth rags vs. paper towels is apparently a wash. Paper towels individually have a small carbon footprint, but collectively contribute to deforestation and global warming. The major manufacturers of paper products continue to rely on virgin forest fiber, though the industry says paper towels are “made from recycled paper or from a renewable resource — trees that are planted to meet future demand for paper and wood products and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow.”
The fact is, when it comes to paper towels, you can basically make an argument for whatever side of the divide you favor. But to me, there seems to be a few irrefutable facts: Used paper towels cannot be recycled (though they can be composted); paper towels are among the tons and tons of paper products that clog our landfills; and paper towels, even if manufacturers are replanting trees for the ones they harvest, are contributing to the rising carbon dioxide levels, at a time when we can little afford it.
As the New York Times reported in early 2020, “A tree planted this year won’t make much of a difference in terms of carbon sequestration over the next decade, a period many scientists say is critical for climate action.”
For these reasons — and because the boss asked me to — I went a week without using paper towels. Or, I should say, I tried to go a week without using them. I feared the task would be tougher than imagined when, on the first day, I unconsciously grabbed a paper towel to clean a dog food bowl. Some habits are so ingrained they become like internal organs: so integral to daily living that you don’t even think about them.
Because of these mindless practices, some folks ban paper towels from their homes, or at least hide rolls under the sink, just like hardcore smokers keep cigarettes out of their reach when trying to break the habit. I refused to go that route, for one reason: I knew there would be messes that I’d never use a kitchen towel to clean, such as those occasional “accidents” from our maladjusted mutts. And by “occasional,” I mean daily. <Shudder.>
My first step was to clear the cutesy and designer towels from the kitchen, like the one printed with the family recipe for gingerbread cookies or the one I bought for my wife at a small crafts store in Frederick, Md. The latter features a cartoon dog, its tail a-wagging, with the phrase: “Wigglebutts drive me nuts.” I don’t really care to mop up bacon grease with a gift that doubles as an inside joke between husband and wife. I mean, I might as well grab the wedding dress to do the job.
My second step was to buy a stack of flour-sack dish towels. They’re super cheap, super absorbent and super dependable for just about any mess. I set aside one just for coffee-making: to ferry the wet filter and grounds to the trash, to clean the group head on our espresso machine and to mop up the inevitable dribbles involved with the daily process of caffeinating our bodies. I quickly adjusted to the idea that this towel was the equivalent of a tackling dummy: It would take all kinds of punishment and keep coming back for more.
I gradually, perhaps intuitively, developed a strategy on when to use paper towels rather than dish towels. If the mess came from a dog’s mouth (or some other canine body part) or was so large as to require multiple dish towels (and multiple rinsings of those multiple towels), I defaulted to paper towels. The latter situation happened only a couple of times. The worst was when some egg yolks, sitting in the fridge awaiting my wife’s next baking project, somehow escaped their glass bowl and yucked up most of the top shelf, clinging to every conceivable surface. The paper towel was my best friend that day.
But aside from that mess, and the “occasional accidents,” I relied on dish towels for everything. I even pushed myself to see how committed I was to the project. I fried half-pound burgers in a cast-iron pan, with a couple fat pats of butter, relying on a cloth towel to mop up the grease splatters. I cooked two racks of St. Louis-style ribs in an off-set smoker, keeping a dish towel draped over my shoulder to wipe my hands and keep all surfaces clear of runaway rib rub. I even fried thick-slab bacon in a pan and let the strips drain on a dish, not paper, towel.
Sometimes the towels required only a warm rinse under the faucet to be ready for another use. Other times, they needed to be thrown into the laundry. Either way, these cheap flour-sack towels always bounced back. (Incidentally, I also bought bamboo towels, which are reusable and highly sustainable as anyone with bamboo in their backyard can attest to. They’re sold in rolls, like paper towels, but have the texture of felt, which is not a sensation you want when wiping your mouth.)
The highest hurdle to clear when switching from paper towels to cloth ones may be psychological. Americans — and I say Americans because, as a country, our use of paper towels dwarfs the rest of the planet’s — have this habit of not wanting to see evidence of the messes we make. We like to toss our messes into the trash, never to think about them again. We kick our messes down the road to let someone take care of them.
Cleaning your kitchen with a cloth towel makes the mess your own. Its evidence can linger for minutes or days, depending on how swiftly you wash the towel. The evidence can hang out in your kitchen, like an unwanted house guest. The sooner you accept these dirty misfits, the sooner you can break the paper-towel habit.
I can speak from experience. I’m on my third week now and have gone through only half-a-roll of paper towels during that time, even with canine accidents. Come to think of it, I might even start dedicating an old beach towel for those messes.