A Zero Waste Project: Paperless kitchen prep

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Illustration by Alisia Gruendel/The Daily Campus

The kitchen is one of the biggest obstacles to zero waste because so much garbage comes from the kitchen. Some of this is food waste, which we can tackle with composting. And lots of this is food packaging, which needs a multi-pronged approach of making your own food, shopping in bulk, and choosing items with less packaging at whatever store you do go to. And for me at least, I know I also go through an exorbitant amount of paper towels, which tend to end up in the trash. 

Partly this is just bad habits — a lot of the times I dry my hands with paper towels instead of kitchen towels. But in my apartment this year, part of the problem was also just a lack of dish rags and towels. We were using paper towels for everything from cleaning up spills to wiping down the counter after cooking. I’ve been holding off on the paperless kitchen because I’m cheap, and I knew I could snag some extra dish rags from my parents’ house instead of buying anything new. I finally did drive home last week, where I was able to mooch some old, bleach-stained kitchen washcloths off my mom. With those as a starting place, I decided it was finally time to tackle the paperless kitchen. 

Why make this swap? 

A drawer filled with rags mooched from around the house and purchased from Walmart. Since most trash in a household comes from the kitchen, a paperless kitchen allows for a huge reduction in waste. Photo courtesy of Alex Houdeshell.

Paper towels and napkins may not seem like the worst offenders when it comes to waste. In fact, if you’re composting, they can go right in there with the banana peels and coffee grinds. However, instead of worrying about the output waste of paper towels, think about all the wasted input. Why bother using all the energy, water and trees it takes to provide you with a new roll of paper towels each week? By eliminating your recurring consumption of a product, you eliminate all the wasted resources that go into making that product. 

These saved resources are reflected by savings in your bank account. I always cringe when it’s my turn to buy paper towels because my grocery receipt is something like $10 to $15 more than it needs to be. If you invest in cloth paper towels — commonly called “unpaper towels” — just once, you can eliminate that cost forever for the future. 

What I did 

I found all the info I needed on how to construct my paperless kitchen by following a Pinterest link to a paperless kitchen article on Maryea Flaherty’s Happy Healthy Mamma blog. And although I am not a happy, healthy mamma, I followed her advice to find two types of cloths: cloth napkins to replace paper napkins and rags and towels to clean up spills to replace paper towels. 

As I said, I was lucky enough to get some extra wash rags from home, so in my kitchen we can use those to clean the kitchen and wipe down the counters. But in addition to those, I knew I needed cloth napkins and I also wanted “unpaper towels” in case of larger spills and other cleaning needs. 

I was actually really excited to make my own unpaper towels and learn how to do some simple sewing. More great Pinterest finds — articles from the Happiest Camper, a blog with all kinds of DIYs and crafts, and 104Homestead, a blog about self-sustainability — provided easy instructions. Basically all you need to do is find the right kind of cloth, terry cloth or flour sack towels, cut them to a size you like, and then sew around the edge to keep them from fraying too much. 

I started at Savers, where I quickly found lots of cloth napkins. I chose three different colored sets and bought them for a total of $7. I also bought a cute basket to store them in my kitchen for $3. 

This picture shows cloth napkins from Savers in a basket. The cost of both the basket and the napkins together is $10. Since most trash in a household comes from the kitchen, a paperless kitchen allows for a huge reduction in waste. Photo courtesy of Alex Houdeshell.

Unfortunately Savers couldn’t provide me with terry cloth or flour sack towels, so I went to Walmart. Walmart could provide me with terry cloth, but it was already cut to size, so there was no sewing involved, which was a bit of a disappointment since I was ready to get crafty. I paid $4 for the terry cloth, so altogether I spent $14 on my paperless kitchen. 

Back at my apartment, I washed all the new cloths and set them up in the basket in my kitchen. The trick I have yet to figure out is finding a good place to put a napkin-disposal basket that I can easily dump in with my sheets and towels when I’m doing laundry. Obviously, you have to launder your cloth towels and napkins, and while this may seem like a larger burden than paper products, I know I’ll be able to easily throw them in with my sheets every other week, and it won’t waste any more time, money or energy than what I’m already using. 

What this means for you 

For me, this was a pretty easy swap. I think it’s cool that this swap is really easily customizable too. If you want to buy really cute napkins from Etsy or Amazon, you can. But if you’d rather find whatever stuff they have lying around Savers, you can do that too. If you want to just buy some terry cloth unpaper towels from Walmart, you can do that, or you could cut up an old bath towel and use that too. 

The important part, and the part I still have yet to struggle with, is keeping these unpaper habits sustainable. Flaherty’s blog post offers tips on this as well. She says keeping everything convenient will make the habits easier to keep — this means the unpaper products should be as easy to reach as paper products, and the disposal basket should be as easy to access as the trash can. Ultimately this swap was pretty low effort, with a pretty decent reward. 

Coming up next week: TBD 

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