Monday, June 14, 2010

Paper or Plastic? Neither! Give Me Cloth.

Today I would like to welcome Dionna, who has written a guest post on an easy way your family can go green. Dionna is a lawyer turned work at home mama of an amazing son. You can normally find Dionna over at Code Name: Mama where she shares information, resources, and her thoughts on natural parenting (including intactivism and lactivism issues) and life with a toddler (including lots of toddler/preschooler activities). 

If going green were easy and saved us lots of money while also rescuing our landfills from needless waste and our environment from harmful chemicals, everyone would be doing it, right? 

Well, one can always hope. 

Going green isn’t always as easy or affordable as the average American consumer would like. Sorting recyclables? Too sticky. Turning the A/C down in the summer? Too hot. Cloth diapering? Too much laundry. Carpooling or taking public transportation? Too inconvenient. 

 But I have one green idea that fulfills all of the required conditions on the average American consumer’s checklist:

  cloth wipe sticky 
 What is this miracle of greenness? Cloth. Cloth wipes and towels can replace at least five paper products in your house: cloth towels can replace paper towels, paper napkins, and Kleenex, and smaller cloth wipes (or "family cloth") can replace toilet paper and disposable baby wipes. (1) Let’s examine the excellent reasons your family should consider making the switch to cloth wipes. 

Environmental & Health Concerns 
The environmental and health impacts of switching to cloth wipes are easily seen in at least three areas: chemicals, packaging, and paper waste. 

Chemicals: Dioxin “is one of the most toxic human-made chemicals.” Dioxin is made during manufacturing when the pulp is bleached so that our toilet paper, baby wipes, paper towels, etc. will be white. And once dioxin is released into the environment, it is there for good (until it gets into our food supply, of course), because natural bacteria cannot break it down. (2) Dioxin was the primary toxic substance in Agent Orange, and it has been linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, birth defects, diabetes, immune system suppression, fertility problems, and more. 

Perhaps more disturbing are the chemicals found in leading baby wipes. Some wipes contain chemicals that are highly toxic, linked to cancer, associated with hormone disruptors and developmental/reproductive problems, and/or are allergenic. And these chemicals are used in some of the most sensitive areas of our children's bodies. 

Packaging: Packaging makes up 30-40% (a third!) of all trash. That is incredible! The packaging on most toilet paper, paper napkins, and paper towels isn't terribly elaborate, but when you consider that the average American uses over 100 single rolls of toilet paper and 2,200 napkins each year, that adds up to a lot of multipacks which are all conveniently wrapped in plastic. Plastic, as you probably know, is made using oil - the same stuff that's currently choking our Gulf

Even worse than the soft plastic packages are the hard plastic disposable wipes containers. At best, parents who use disposable wipes buy only a few plastic boxes of wipes and then buy refills (also encased in plastic packaging). But parents could conceivably buy a new plastic box of wipes each time they run out. Now that is a lot of wasted plastic. (3)

Tee Towels
100% Cotton Cloth Towels

Paper Waste: So how much waste do Americans produce in toilet paper alone? How about 15,202,986,200 pounds (yes, that is over 15 billion): today, the average American uses over 50 pounds of toilet paper each year. (4) The effects of switching to a toilet paper alternative are dramatic: If every person in the U.S. traded one regular roll of toilet paper for a recycled roll, we could save 1.2 million cubic feet of landfill space (as well as 470,000 trees and 169 million gallons of water)

 Now let's talk about baby wipes. Did you know that every child in disposables will add an average of 3,796 diapers to our landfills in roughly 2.5 years? (5) Let's assume parents will use one disposable baby wipe for every diaper change, then add a few more wipes in for all of those dirty mouths and fingers that our babies and toddlers inevitably sport. Every parent is looking at using at least 4,000 disposable baby wipes per child. 4,000 wipes plus their packaging for every child in the U.S. 

And what about paper napkins? "During an average year, an American uses approximately 2,200 napkins — around six each day. If everyone in the U.S. used one less napkin a day, more than a billion pounds of napkins could be saved from landfills each year." 

And where does all of this plastic and paper end up? Much of it can be found in our landfills. (Unfortunately, disposable wipes cannot be recycled or composted.) 

When you are faced with the choice of paper or plastic, say no to both: choose cloth.


As a country, we spend more than $6 billion dollars on toilet paper every year. Americans send 3,000 tons of paper towels to landfills each day. If your household uses a roll of paper towels per week, you could save more than $100 per year by switching to cloth towels/wipes. 

I can't find an average dollar figure per household for all personal paper products, but you can see how the dollars add up if you are using 4000 wipes per child (during the diapering years), 100 single rolls of toilet paper for every family member, 2,200 napkins per person, and an unknown amount of paper towels and Kleenex each year. 

We are literally flushing a ridiculous amount of money down the toilet (or throwing it in the trash can, as the case may be for disposable wipes, napkins, and paper towels). 

Cloth Wipes 1
100% Cotton Cloth Wipes

 Cloth Wipes & Towels Are an Easy Green Alternative 

"If every household replaced just a single twelve-roll pack of regular bathroom tissue with a recycled variety, it would save almost five million trees and enough paper waste to fill seventeen thousand garbage trucks." (6) "If each household in the U.S. replaced just one roll of 180 sheet virgin fiber paper towels with 100% recycled ones, we could save: 864,00 trees; 3.4 million cubic feet of landfill space, equal to 3,900 full garbage trucks; and 354 million gallons of water, a year’s supply for 10,100 families of four." 

We may not be saving the world, but think about what we could save by switching to cloth!
  • Using cloth will save the environment from the harmful chemicals released during the manufacturing process of paper.
  • Using cloth will save your child from exposure to the toxic chemicals found in many disposable wipes.
  • Using cloth will reduce your plastic consumption.
  • Using cloth will reduce your contribution to our overcrowded landfills.
  • Using cloth will save you hundreds of dollars over the years.
The switch to cloth wipes and towels is easy. Here are a few tips that we have found useful in our house.
  1. Keep a reusable shopping bag or other container in the bathroom. We hang a Chico bag up on the bathroom door for family cloth and toss it in the diaper pail on laundry day.
  2. Wash with your regular laundry. If you are laundering cloth diapers, definitely throw the family cloth in with the diapers. But if you are done with diapers and you are only using your cloth wipes for the easy jobs, just toss them in with your normal wash. (In our house, we use cloth for potty and regular TP for poo. How's that for TMI?!) Don't let the thought of washing family cloth gross you out, think of it this way: when your child wets her pants or the bed, you don't think twice about sticking the soiled laundry in the washer, right? Cloth wipes are no different. Cloth towels used as napkins, Kleenex, or paper towels can go in with your regular laundry as well.
  3. Make homemade wipe solution. For cloth diapering families, there's no reason you can't use cloth wipes for the messy clean-up jobs, just keep a spray bottle with homemade wipe solution handy. I make mine using water, a few drops of tea tree oil, and a few drops of lavender essential oil.
  4. Get enough wipes and towels for your family. For family cloth, I have about 50 cloth wipes in circulation for our family of three with one in diapers. I do cloth diaper laundry every other day, and I am often close to running out of wipes if I wait too long between loads. I have at least 30 cloth towels. We use them for tea towels, as paper towel/napkin replacements, Kleenex, and I keep a few in the backpack and car for random spills. When my son was younger they doubled as burp rags.
  5. They don't need to be fancy. Sure cute wipes/towels are fun, but if you are on a budget there is no reason to spend a lot of money on cloth. Many of our cloth towels are cheap prefold diapers that I dyed. You can cut up old t-shirts for wipes or towels or use an economy size package of soft wash cloths.
Do you use cloth wipes and towels? If so, please leave your experiences in the comments. 

Do you have questions about switching to cloth? Please leave a comment here or on my Facebook page so that we can share your question and everyone's responses with other readers - I am happy to help! 

Be sure to look for my cloth wipe and cloth towel giveaway in the Saving Penises online auction this week! (7) 

(1) This guest post is based in part on an article I wrote about the history of toilet paper and the benefits of cloth wipes. 
(2) To learn more about dioxin and the manufacturing process, check out "Toilet Paper and the Environment," "Baby Wipes," and "Paper Towels." 
(3) For more on why reducing your consumption of plastics can help the environment, start with this easy to read site from the Earth Resource Foundation: Campaign Against the Plastic Plague Background Info 
(4) That’s my calculation. The current U.S. population is 304,059,724; I just multiplied that by 50 to get an approximate total number of pounds per year for everyone. I've also found conflicting information on that 50 pound figure - some sites maintain we use 50 lbs of TP, some say that the 50 lbs includes TP, facial tissue, and napkins. Regardless, it would be nice to replace some of that usage with cloth. 
(5) For more on the environmental impact of disposable v. cloth diapers, see "Why We Chose Cloth Diapers, Part 1" on Go Green Street. 
(6) Rogers, Elizabeth & Kostigen, Thomas M., “The Green Book” at 66 (2007) 
(7) I make my own cloth wipes and towels (the ones in the pictures above are mine), and I'd be happy to sell you some! I don't have an Etsy store, so you'll have to contact methrough email to order.


Liev said...

Yep. I cut up a bunch of old t-shirts, put a pretty basket on top of one toilet tank, cleared out an ill-used drawer in the other bathroom, and filled both up with scrap wipes. I bought two Umbra mini-cans, and voila. Pretty, discreet cloth wipes for going #1. When I'm on my period, I just add a little cold water and detergent. Dump into my cloth diaper laundry, or the next hot wash, and I'm good to go. We barely ever buy toilet paper anymore. The mini-cans also serve as "dumping stations" for other wipes that we use for clean-up around the house. Who cares? They all get sterilized in the wash and dryer or drying in the sun, anyway. Finally, we have little Pixie Wipes, that are sturdier for our toddler in a little basket next to her little potty, and a mini-can of her own. So, she's potty training with cloth, too! No more linty bits! No more harsh chemicals in delicate places, and far less of contributing to the deforestation of North America! Less oil from packaging, and less oil from transporting more TP to the stores. Feels great every time I use them to know that I'm helping save the planet.

TouchstoneZ said...

We use cloth for everything (napkins, towels, kleenex, etc, etc) except the following: I'm the only one in the house willing to do cloth tp (rest of the family uses unbleached, 100% recycled tp, at least); we use disposable baby wipes when out of the house, Seventh Generation brand, which we bring home to toss in the wash & then reuse at home with a homemade wipe solution. I can usually get 6-10 wash & reuses per wipe (this in addition to cloth baby wipes we also use at home) It's a compromise, but one that works until I can wean us completely from disposable wipes. All of our plastic wrap on the tp and wipes is recycled. Everything else, like you said, is just tossed in the laundry (homemade detergent and hung on the line to dry)

Lauren @ Hobo Mama said...

@TouchstoneZ: I had no idea it was possible launder disposable wipes! Intriguing.

I've finally made the conscious switch over from paper towels for cleaning and wiping up spills, and I'm frankly astonished it took me this long. Somewhat in my defense, we didn't have a washer or dryer till recently, but it's entirely convenient when you do.

I'm looking into setting up a little spray bidet for our toilets to rinse off a bit before wiping with cloth. On a related note, anyone have problems with pee smell with a cloth TP bucket? Both my husband and my son have the stinkiest pee, close to cat pee in fragrance. I'm worried our bathrooms would reek if we switched to cloth without a bidet/sprayer.

I've been saving up old sheets and t-shirts, intending to cut them into hankies. It's on my list...

Arwyn said...

We switched to cloth towels and cloth napkins years ago (to the point when our midwife asked, when it came to cleaning out the birth tub, where our paper towels were, and we both just stared at her blankly), ditto me and cloth pads.

Honestly, it's the easiest thing in the world, now that we've done it. The only time I even think about it is when we have people over for dinner and realize we forgot to do the laundry the night before, and we're all out of napkins! But that's what tea towels are for, right? ;) (And I simply can't imagine going back to disposable menstrual products. Ick!)

We haven't yet gotten handkerchiefs or toilet wipes, though. I'm not sure what's stopping us about the handkerchiefs, other than that we never use tissues except when we have a cold and are going through a box a day. But the toilet wipes -- I'm the only be-vulva'ed person in the house, so it would just be me using them, if we didn't use them for fecal wiping. And we're just not to the poop stage yet. And it seems like too much hassle to set up just for me to use.

But I keep thinking about it. Maybe one day...

Lynette said...

I've been using reusable menstrual products for about six years now. During that time, i've slowly made the switch to cloth. i use cloth wipes and diapers for my son, and I also use cloth napkins, but haven't made the switch to cloth toilet paper yet. i've thought about buying some hankies, but we never use Kleenex unless we have a cold, which is hardly ever.

i think one argument for disposables, especially Kleenex, is that it's more sanitary to blow your germs into a disposable product and then immediately throw it into the waste basket. Is using cloth just as sanitary? I would imagine that washing your hands before and after handling diry laundry would kill anything harmful, but in all my reading about cloth vs. paper products, this is an argument that i've never saw addressed.

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

Lauren - I have never noticed any smell from my Chico bag in the little/public bathroom. Like I said though, we do diaper laundry every other day, so they don't get a chance to sit very long. If you don't feel like doing the bidet, why not just have a squirt bottle (like the ones they give you after a vaginal childbirth - what are they called?!)?

Arwyn - even if it's just you switching to cloth, I am telling you - cloth is SO MUCH NICER. After having used family cloth for a couple of years now, I hate using paper TP - it's flimsy, it leaves bits of residue, it's irritating, etc. Same thing with Kleenex replacements - I love using cloth. The paper kind feels odd against my nose now :)

And for anyone who is interested, I make family cloth and cloth towels (I made the ones pictured in the post). I'd love to sell some to anyone who is ready to make the switch!

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

@Lynette - good question! I just did a quick search and found an article on this from SimpleOrganic (
"Handkerchiefs went out of vogue when our society became germ-phobic; tissues seemed like a sanitary solution. But handkerchiefs are perfectly sanitary when you know how to wash them. Honestly, if you have a washing machine, detergent, and hot water, that’s really all you need to wash the average hanky. If you’ve been sick, you might want to soak them first with a little Bac-Out."

Diana said...

We use cloth for everything. We never spend money, and we never run out!

Just as a handkerchief feels nicer than a kleenex, so cloth wipes feel nicer than tp. Especially when wet. And it works better (particularly for someone just learning to wipe themselves).

My girls and I absolutely use cloth for pee and poop and wouldn't go back. My husband is sticking to toilet paper for now (pun intended).

Jenna said...

Awesome. I never thought about the TP idea.

One other idea - instead of napkins we use bandannas. You can get them pretty cheap and they are fun and easy to clean.

GypsyMomma said...

I went to an auto supply shop (Canadian Tire) and bought a "Brick of Rags" (or some similar name). $7 for 3lbs of rags. All new, end of rolls at some textile manufacturer or something. Cotton-something blend. They are irregular & random sizes & shapes. Soft & absorbent. I bought two & only needed the first one, so far. We use cloth for everything.

Our Pace said...

We use cloth for many things. Even menstrual pads, but I never really thought about toilet paper. Thanks for sharing such interesting information.

Anonymous said...

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