From Paper to Cloth



Grocery bags? Diapers? I have been reducing my use of disposable paper products for a few years, and I would like to chat about it.

This post is not suitable for anyone with a phobia about body fluids!

First of all, what I have never done. I don’t know anyone who buys packages of paper plates or paper cups, not even for barbecues or camping, not since the 1980s – it just isn’t done. The social shaming would be too great! Likewise, using paper bags for “brown bag lunches” is extinct. Everyone has nice reusable lunch kits now.

All the rest, I have done. Fast food cups and wrappers, paper towels, paper dinner napkins, tissues, toilet paper, diapers, wipes and feminine products.

Cloth diaper from Laundry advice here:

Cloth diaper from

I’ll go back a couple of decades. I was determined to use (fitted) cloth diapers for my baby, but they didn’t make a newborn size small enough. When I returned to work, daycares would use only disposables. Later we moved across the country and were in temporary housing for a while. So, during the diapering years, my best effort was using cloth diapers or training pants about half of the time, basically when we were at home or around the neighbourhood. Along with them, we used traditional (woven fabric) wash cloths. To this day, I am not sure if cloth diapers are the better choice. I needed to do a wash every day with hot water, and often an extra rinse. The severe weather meant I had to toss them in the dryer for an hour. But I was pleased to reduce the amount of synthetics that went to landfill, even if I couldn’t opt out completely.

OK, feminine hygiene. I came of age in the era of stick-on maxi pads and I marvelled at the advances in technology that made them thinner and more absorbent. My first tampons had cardboard applicators. At some point I decided I would try to do my part by not buying individually plastic-wrapped items or plastic applicators or scented stuff. In recent years, reusable fabric pads have been widely available. Then you get into the same issues as washing diapers, but at least periods have a finite duration! It occurred to me that on period days, you are always washing out your panties and your sheets and whatever else, so maybe fabric pads are not that big a deal. For those comfortable with their bodies (check!), the very smart diva cup has arrived.

Now I will get personal, ha! Among eco warriors, using toilet paper is passé. We have to use something, right? If anyone out there has not considered the options, the eco-savvy have taken to using something called the Family Cloth. That terminology makes me cringe. Doesn’t it sound as if the whole family is sharing a cloth to wipe themselves? If you can get past the name, what it means is, you put a stack of clean cloths next to the toilet, such as wash cloths (flannels) or old cut-up t-shirts. You use them to wipe, then place them in the equivalent of a diaper pail, and launder them regularly, just as you would diapers.

For me, it’s a matter of outlook. If you have babies or young children that you change and bathe, if you look after someone with a colostomy, if you pooper-scoop after your dog, or if you clean a cat box, then you are so used to poop being a part of life that you probably don’t care.

At our house I insist we buy toilet paper made from recycled paper. If you haven’t tried it lately, there are some good brands out there now (we like Cascades brand). I don’t like the idea of cutting down new trees for TP, even if there is lots of reforestation. In recent years, disposable wipes have been promoted for adults for “extra cleanliness.” I would rather use a warm, wet cloth than use a synthetic throw-away sheet with surfactants on it. A lot of people don’t know that wipes can’t be flushed.

You will have noticed that all of the above require easy access to laundry facilities – not to mention an unlimited water supply, and drying space. If you live in an apartment building with shared laundry, or have to go out to a laundromat, you will probably find all of these options impossible. Unless you are like No Impact Man who washed his family’s laundry in a wash tub with no electricity!

The next yuckiest thing is: tissues! I had been buying tissues made from recycled paper for a long time. Fortunately, I use them almost exclusively because my nose runs clear when I go outdoors. For my purposes, handkerchiefs are great. They can be folded and used several times, and stuffed into a pocket. You are unlikely to drop them or lose them because they have substance. They wash and dry very easily. What they are not good for is miserable, snotty colds, or at least, that is where I draw the line.

Of course, a clean handkerchief is always good for drying your hands, wiping a spill, blotting a stain, cleaning your glasses, or any number of things!

That leads in to kitchen cloths. Way back when I first started to swap out paper products, paper towels were the first to go. I have a Rag Bag of torn and worn out tea towels, dish cloths, pillow cases or T-shirts which are used for cleaning, dusting, wiping up spills, and every reason under the sun. I have some I use for food, such as blotting leaves of just-washed lettuce, or greasing a baking pan. I have some for cleaning the floor. Occasionally I have to throw one away (such as one used too many times for shoe polish). I have managed not to use paper towel or cleaning wipes at all.

My Linen Closet

My Linen Closet

Being a big fan of linens, I have a large supply of cloth table napkins, place mats and table cloths, so paper is never a consideration. One thing that makes all this easy for me is that I love textiles!

I’ll end with shopping and restaurants. I used to take home dozens of plastic grocery bags, because I would always be able to use them for cat litter or as bin liners. But they seem to breed and I would end up with hundreds! Then I would buy the grocery-store brand reusable bags, or have some given to me. The local ones are made from recycled plastic bottles and you get a free replacement if they wear out. They tend to last a year or more, but I hate the idea of an endless cycle of reusable plastic bags. I have all sorts of cloth tote bags from library conferences! I have to be extra-mindful to bring a bag into a store with me everywhere I go, and never assume “I don’t need much so I won’t bother.” I used to have a set of net bags for produce. Curiously, no one uses any sort of produce bags any more (except maybe for grapes and berries). They just place the fruit and veg on the conveyor for weighing and put it directly into the grocery bag. I am surprised that has become the new norm. We must be pros at washing our produce when we get home.

I got frustrated when I would buy fast food. At best, they would ask “Eat in or take out?” and adjust the packaging accordingly. But most places will still wrap food in paper or waxed paper even if you eat in. Take-out/doggy bag containers are paper at best, sometimes non-reusable plastic or even styrofoam. So I have taken the easiest way out and just don’t buy fast food. Well, I buy an order of New York Fries every month or two! Otherwise, we don’t need to eat fast. We eat in.

Sadly, thousands of these are littered everywhere

Sadly, thousands of these are littered everywhere

My last challenge is take-out coffee. I take a Thermos bottle of coffee to work or make it there, and use ceramic mugs or travel mugs. I do OK taking a travel mug with me on vacation, because the pace is usually leisurely and I carry a big tote bag everywhere! But when I go to off-site work meetings, I’ll have occasion to buy a coffee. I try hard to remember to bring my own travel mug. I vowed I would not even buy coffee if I didn’t have my mug with me. But some appetites just cannot be denied, and I don’t have a perfect track record.

Where are you with paper, plastic and cloth? And thank you for surviving my 1500-word essay. Just don’t print it 🙂 


  1. EcoCatLady

    Sounds like you’re doing an incredible job! I do pretty well with this stuff, but there are a few areas that I struggle with – and for most of it I lay the blame firmly on my cats!

    CatMan LOVES buttered popcorn, and try as I might, I haven’t found a way to launder the cloth napkins that gets all the cat hair off of them. And there’s nothing worse than trying to eat popcorn when you’ve got cat hair all over your fingers from the napkin! So we still use paper towels for napkins on movie night. I also use them for cleaning up cat barf – at least to get the bulk of it scooped up. I use a rag to scrub the remaining yuck out of the carpet. I also still buy produce in those plastic produce bags because I use the bags for cleaning the litter box – Denver requires that stuff to be bagged in the garbage.

    And I am one of the crazy people who has tried cloth TP. My conclusion is this: if you have a big enough family or a small enough washing machine so that you can do a load of them fairly regularly, then it makes sense. For me… that was not the case. Plus… I dunno, the poop thing just kinda grosses me out. But I do have a compromise position that I use when I’m not being too lazy. That’s to just keep a little tin cup by the loo and use it to rinse myself off when it’s just pee – then you can use a “family cloth” to dry with. Seems farily sanitary to me – I mean for heaven’s sake, every man I’ve ever been intimate with just uses the “3 shakes” method for pee, and this couldn’t possibly be any less sanitary than that is!

    Sorry if that was too much information – you did ask! 🙂

    • Yes, I did ask, and too true about the penis thing 🙂 Although I try to reduce paper, plastic, etc, I hope not to be too judgmental about what other people do (keeping in mind we have 2 cars and probably about 12 computers/tablets in the house!)

  2. jamielredmond

    I’m having a slack phase at the moment. I was doing so well with recycling that we were down to only one small bag of proper rubbish each week. But this week we’ve been decluttering the garage (think old, stained, falling apart stuffed toys from my childhood) and I’ve been feeling overwhelmed with life so haven’t been washing out bags for recycling (eg. bread bags) and instead have just been doing standard recycling (cans, plastic bottles, compost). We’ve ended up with a full bin for garbage night tonight.

    I have a good collection of cloths for cleaning up spills, cleaning the bathroom, doing the dishes, dusting, etc. I do have a packet of cloth paper towel for anything that is too disgusting and would lead to a cloth being thrown out, but I find that one packet of paper towel lasts me a few years, so I don’t feel terribly bad about it. My mum has made me lovely sets of dishcloths for the kitchen and cleaning cloths for washing the bathroom. And I still have some nappies leftover from the kids, though we did ruin a lot of those when renovating our old house, so our collection of those is quite small now. Maybe half a dozen.

    I am very naughty and buy fancy toilet paper. Growing up it was one thing my mum wouldn’t scrimp on, so when I saw we had cheap toilet paper as a kid I knew things were dire!

    I have some mesh bags I use for fruit and veg from time to time, but only if I am buying a lot of something. Usually it just goes straight onto the conveyer belt. But despite having a good collection of reusable shopping bags, and feeling like I remember them most of the time, I still have half a drawer full of plastic bags I’m using as bin liners….last year I had managed to get it down to zero, but it has crept back up on me.

    I use cloth pads maybe 50% of the time. I’ve had them since we had babies and were doing cloth nappies, so probably ten years now. We haven’t done Family Cloth, but I did use cloth wipes for our babies probably 90% of the time. We had an attachment on our toilet called a Little Squirt. It was like a water gun so you could spray any solids into the toilet before washing. Might be handy for someone doing Family Cloth.

    I drink tea at home, but not coffee at all. I can’t remember the last time I bought a cup of tea while out. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I have done it in my life. If we are going on a car trip I will pack a thermos of tea for myself and coffee for my husband, but we don’t get them refilled. My husband tries to stick to one coffee a day and I just find that I don’t seem to crave tea in the way people crave coffee?? And the times I have bought a tea it hasn’t been an enjoyable cup, so that stops me, too.

    We also pack water bottles if going out for the day, and I have a water filter jug I take on holidays to refill our bottles and our hydration backpacks while away. We also have reusable lunch totes and a good collection of Tupperware sandwich boxes, which I find excellent.

    • Funny about the TP! We all must have our own line for when frugality is going too far. Our municipality is requiring us to use clear garbage bags starting in August. You can put in one small opaque bag for privacy reasons. I am thinking, hmm, what should I throw away before August so no one sees it? 🙂

  3. Just my sorta post!

    i use a version of a diva cup, which creeps the BF and my mother out. My mother surprised me, as she’s otherwise pretty open minded. If I lived alone, i reckon I’d trial family cloth – I mean, hankies worked a treat! I’m not perfect with taking my keep cup either, and I wish I was more stringent on myself. If I don’t, I do try to rinse top and bottom as I think both are recyclable…

    • jamielredmond

      Ooh I forgot to mention hankies. We each have a good collection of those. I had our sons choose some fabric and I made some for them. But we do keep a box of tissues in the house. I have a friend who grew up with tissues and finds hankies gross, so there is a box of tissues here for when she visits, as she is usually unwell (low immune system). I rarely need a hankie, but one of our sons and my husband are ‘hanky in the pocket every day’ people. They can’t leave the house without one.

    • I was thinking all of these things work because my life is “home based.” If I travelled or entertained or went out a lot, they would be hard.

  4. gk

    This type of thing is a wonder to behold –

    Having recently spent a month in Thailand I became familiar with the handheld bidet and thought the thing was brilliant. Much better than tp. So now I’m determined to install one at home. Of course there is the water usage to consider…

    Aside from tp (which I consider the final frontier of paper goods), I’ve almost cut out all paper products. I keep paper towels on hand for exceptional purposes, but otherwise have the same system as you in the kitchen.

    I avoid wrapping paper for gifts as well. I either recycle paper to re-wrap a gift, or I use furoshiki. And I find furoshiki a wonderful way to shrink my collection of fabric (I don’t even sew, but I love textiles!). I use anything from scarves to remnants and have wrapped everything from wine bottles to toys using furoshiki.

  5. Fiona

    When J was little, we did cloth nappies for the first few months then switched to a fabulous company that recycled disposable nappies. Cost a bomb for the weekly kerbside collection but I’m glad we did I it.

    We’re a hanky house and I grew up never knowing paper towels. I’ve probably only ever bought 5 packets of them in my life (at my husband’s request.)

    I totally draw the line on diva cups and family cloths though! I probably should look at it, because non-recyclable hygiene products are very environmentally damaging. So far though…*shudder*! We do buy recycled and usually unbleached tp products though.

    My biggest issue is my work-related paper consumption. I teach around 280 kids a week. There are just no words for the amount of paper consumed. In my old job in the library, we had a photocopy code and were allocated $5 per half year for photocopies – billed at 7 cents per copy! Understandably, nobody printed anything. In my current job, I have an unlimited budget and I copy whatever I think will help my students and / or make my day easier. I try to assuage my guilt by saying that most of this paper will go to kerbside recycling.

    It be an interesting challenge to try to go a few weeks as a teacher without using paper.

    • Eek, the paper-free workplace is sure a joke, isn’t it? In my new job (18 months) I have been keeping all my files electronically and printing less, but the paper output in the library is astounding. Luckily we have a limitless need for scrap paper, so anything printed on one side can be reused. One of my pet peeves is when I receive agendas and documents to read in advance of a meeting. Even though I’ve read them, there is an expectation that a paper copy should be sitting in front of me. Then the chair or the presenter will go and make copies for everyone who didn’t bring them! It’s like, “If you aren’t reading along then you aren’t paying attention.” Grr!

  6. Good post. I won’t drop you a paper card on this one and stick to a cyber thank you.

  7. did cloth diapers for both kids, only because disposable ones were so expensive and not the done thing. I WILL NOT compromise on toilet paper, sorry just too gross to use washable rags there. As I rarely use paper tissues unless sick, it isn’t an issue. Otherwise I am not the best person out there, nor the worst but I can always do better as they say!

  8. I’m pretty bad, but I do three things properly. I carry my own water bottle and coffee thermos. I use “cornstarch” truly biodegradable bags for picking up after the dog. I reuse plastic bags and bring my own shopping bags (my day pack always has extra bags in it). Otherwise I have a big carbon footprint.

  9. I used cloth nappies, both folded the old fashioned way and in Velcro holders, for both my boys. But not exclusively. At day care and overnight I used disposables. And I used cut up old sheets as wet wipes and washers to dry the bots. But I wouldn’t use cloth toilet wipes on myself. Maybe if I had a huge loss of income, I’d use them for wees but not poo. Just couldn’t.

    We’ve cut back a lot on paper towels in the kitchen. I’ve cut up old sheets and tee shirts. Same for cleaning around the house. Together with washable microfibre cloths, it’s enough for me.

    I don’t like drinking tea out of disposable cups. It ruins the whole experience and tastes different.

    But I know we can do better.

    I feel more strongly about plastic than paper, given paper’s ability to biodegrade. I no longer wrap my sandwiches in cling wrap, using plastics are which I wash. I also rarely use cling wrap for storing food in the fridge. Again I use containers.

    Hope this link works. It really made me think.

    • Like the poster. I have cut back as much as possible on disposable plastic. Still have a roll of cling wrap for sealing some storage containers that are missing lids – I suppose I could just throw out the containers and get new ones with lids….I have tried other seals for containers (such as Abeego wraps) but wasn’t happy with them.

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