I’m a big fan of reality television. Mind you, not just any reality television. Historical reality television. That’s the kind where they take three modern American families and have them, say, live as 19th century pioneers somewhere in the Montana wilderness.
What I just described is one of my favorites shows of all time: Frontier House, which premiered on PBS in 2002. Before being transported “back in time” the participants were asked what things they thought they’d miss most. As they listed off a whole bunch of things, the whole time I was thinking: I know what I’d say: paper towels! I mean, NO PAPER TOWELS!?! How did people live?
Ever since watching that episode I’ve wondered somewhere in the back of my mind if I could ever, truly wean myself from my fully absorbing paper towel addiction.
(See what I did there? I even like bad paper towel puns. Clearly, I need help.)
As if in reply to my question, some time ago on social media I came across a tutorial on how to make your own paper towels out of cloth and then sew little snaps into the sides and snap them together one by one to form a reusable roll. Like a lot of these DIY videos, the slick editing makes this idea seem completely brilliant. Wow! Look how easy it could be. And no waste!!
I’m definitely a crafty, I’ll make it myself kind of person, so at first I was captivated. However after the idea sank in a bit I was made of questions: hold on a sec here Pinterest people. How long would it take to make this gigantic reusable paper towel roll, I mean, without time-lapse photography? And once you had used the towels up and washed them all, how many hours would it take to snap all those tiny little itty-bitty snaps back together? And what if you sewed one snap just a liiiiiittle to the left or right and suddenly your lovely DIY project is NOT COOPERATING? And you accidentally throw the whole darn thing out the window? That’s not very zero waste, now is it? If you ever did manage to roll the whole thing back up again- you know, say, three weeks later- is there any possibility it wouldn’t look like a giant used wad of Frankenstein Kleenex?
I decided the chances of that were pretty much nonexistent, so I kept on using regular paper towels at a rather alarming rate, despite the fact that I have an extensive collection of dishtowels and cloth napkins that I also use. But, you know, sometimes the napkins were all dirty and I hadn’t had a chance to wash them yet. Paper towel. What if it was just a little bit inconvenient to go grab a dishtowel? Paper towel. What if it was a messy, stain-y job involving spilled wine or something that I didn’t want my pretty dishtowels being exposed to? You get the idea.
So in the first few days of our Year of No Garbage, I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to go when it came to the Paper Towel Conundrum. I had discovered that paper towels are compostable, so that was good news, but it was also kind of bad news, because my kitchen compost bin was getting filled up approximately every ten minutes. People were using one-use, disposable paper towels for jobs that really could easily have been going to the reusables, silly things like drying their hands off or wiping the countertop off. It was simply out of habit and because we knew we could.
It was hard to retrain myself and virtually impossible to keep everyone else away from the siren song of old, bad habits rooted in one thing: convenience.
Should I just do away with paper towels all together? I thought. That was one solution. I kind of feel like that’s Zero Waste Ninja Level. I hope to get there someday, but for now I still want to use them for the very slimiest jobs such as wiping grease out of cast iron pans and drying off raw meat and poultry.
Instead, I decided to switch the narrative: if the problem was convenience, how could I make paper towels the most inconvenient solution? So I put them in the laundry room waaaaaay on the other side of our house from the kitchen. In a way I felt like I was just trying to hide them from myself, which seemed silly. I mean, I knew where they were. And anyway surely something that simple would never work.
It totally worked. It worked so well I was kind of shocked. One day I was sighing and emptying yet another compost containing 75% paper towels into my poor starved compost pile in the backyard, the next it was like “Paper towels? Hmmmm. I’m not sure I’m familiar with those. Could you describe them?”
In the old days I am not kidding you, it was not unusual for us to use up an entire eight-roll package in one week. Now that the paper towels live in the laundry room, we’ve been on the same roll for the last six weeks.
Okay, I’m pretty proud of that.
Eventually I may get to a point where we’re so organized we even have a separate batch of dishrags for those few greasy, ooky jobs, along with a separate container to hold the dirty ones between washings. But for now I feel really good that this worked. It all came down to a simple idea that I need to be sure to remember: make the things you want to do easy, and the things you don’t want to do, more difficult.
Now if PBS comes knocking, I’ll be ready.