Paper Towels Versus Cloths: Which Ones Should You Use In Your Kitchen?

Girl preparing to spring clean kitchen
Girl preparing to spring clean kitchen

When it comes to chores, there are quite a few which can be conveniently put off until the unspecified time of "later". Things like changing an errant light bulb or vacuuming stray jelly babies from between couch cushions -- you know, the not-so-urgent stuff.

Unfortunately, there are others which need to be performed on pretty much a daily basis, and keeping your kitchen counters clean of spills and splashes is one of them.

Which leads us to the question: are you pro-paper towel or a kitchen cloth convert?

Popular opinion has ping-ponged back and forth between horror at hidden germs lurking in your dishcloth (this Daily Mail article alarmingly refers to a sponge being "200,000 times dirtier than a toilet seat" and could lead to PARALYSIS, people) versus the environmental effect of churning through countless paper towels per week.

So, which cleaning aid should you have on hand? The germy sponge or the wasteful towel?

"Generally speaking, disposable items are more environmentally impactful than reusable things," Planet Ark Head of Campaigns, Brad Gray, told The Huffington Post Australia.

"If you think about coffee cups, if you used just one every day, it would replace 365 paper cups per year. It's a similar situation with paper towels.

"It all comes down to an environmental cost per use basis. Reusable costs have the lower impact. In terms of paper towels, when you take into account all the water and energy and transport costs and wrapping that has to happen for each use -- and you probably use two to three sheets per go, I'm guessing -- paper towels each come with a cost, and then we literally throw them straight out."

In terms of eight kabillion germs lurking in your sponge waiting to infect every surface they touch, Gray says it isn't nearly that bad.

"If you clean your reusable cloth properly and use hot water, it really shouldn't be an issue," Gray said.

"I actually think the whole hygiene thing has gone too far and is a bit of a marketing hype, and we as consumers are falling for it.

"We do that with all sorts of stuff. The automatic soap dispenser, for instance, is a marketing tool. You turn the tap on and wash your hands, but then you still have to turn the tap off at the end. Any germs you would have picked up, you would have put on the tap when you turned it on in the first place, so you would just reinfect yourself when you turned it off."

In terms of paper towels, there is a surprising amount of effort that goes into them ultimately being tossed in the bin.

"Once again it comes back to this life cycle analysis. Basically what that does is it measures the impact of a product on the environment, taking into account all the steps of the production, harvesting the resources that go into it... things like transport, storage, packaging, disposal," Gray said.

"This is where good use really falls down. Each time you use a paper towel, you have to consider the fact someone had to harvest a tree, transport the tree, process the tree, make it into paper, package it, sell it -- then the store has to have lights on in order to sell it -- the list goes on and on."

For those who can't be swayed into a paper-towel-less existence, Gray says there are a number of ways you can reduce the impact your use has on the environment.

"If you use your paper towels just for spills, and not chemicals, you can put them in your compost bin," Gray said.

"Try and get the ones that are unbleached. Look for responsibly sourced paper.

"Also look for recycled products rather than new, virgin paper. There's a lot to be said for getting a market for recycled goods.

"Of course there are some reasons you might use both. Your roll of recycled paper you could use for certain things, and you could use your cloth for almost everything else."

For those extra keen to be environmentally friendly, Gray also suggests purchasing biodegradable cloths.

"Kitchen cloths tend to be made from wood chips but are heavily processed, and have a whole lot of chemicals added. They are not a natural product. It actually makes them a bit of a problem. They can take quite a while to break down because they are designed to last," Gray said.

"Look for a cloth with a biodegradable symbol. This means they are have bamboo in them and can be tossed into your compost bin where it breaks back down into stuff animals can eat."

So in conclusion? The cloth wins, but if you are a paper towel devotee, make sure you are picking products with the least possible environmental impact and, where possible, recycle them or add them to your compost pile.

And for those not keen on your dishcloth becoming a germ breeding ground, check out these two easy ways to clean your kitchen sponge, courtesy of Reader's Digest.


  • Soak a sponge overnight in a mixture of 1 cup (250ml) hot water, 1/2 cup (125ml) white vinegar and 3 tablespoons salt. The next day, rinse and squeeze the sponge several times to get rid of all of the accumulated cleaning liquid.
  • Put a wet sponge (emphasis on wet) in the microwave and heat it on High for 2 minutes. Stay there until the microwave beeps because there’s a chance (though an extremely slight one) that the sponge could burst into flames.

Sponge for the win!

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