Saturday, March 22, 2008

Ragging on Paper Towels (and Our Disposable Culture)

I grew up in a home where paper towels were used for everything. When there was a spill, you cleaned it up with a paper towel. When you wanted to dry your hands, heck, just use a paper towel. These throw-away towels were the solution for everything, and I never thought twice about it.

But now I see that instead of being a solution for anything, they are part of a huge problem--our disposable culture--a sickness that creates huge amounts of waste and is pushing Americans into deeper and deeper debt.

What's Causing Our Disposable Culture?
The causes are hard to pin down, but I think the following are some of the likely reasons we've opted for this new way of living:
  • Allowing ourselves to be over-worked: Americans work some of the longest hours in the world, and therefore have less time and energy for tasks like cooking meals and cleaning. This apparently makes us more likely to buy things that promise to save us time like pre-cooked meals and magical cleaning products.

  • An obsession with convenience: Sometime in the past, oh, let's say 50 years, savvy marketers convinced Americans that convenience is the way of the future. At first, this probably made sense to people, especially since we were (and are) over-worked, but these days, many of these needless products end up clogging our arteries and filling up our cupboards and closets (which we don't have time to organize).
  • Watching too much television: The average American watches 4 hours and 35 minutes of television per day, which is exactly 4 hours and 35 minutes of time spent being persuaded by misrepresentations of what American life is really like and by the commercials and product placements on the air.
  • Credit cards: Average credit card debt in the United States is now at $6,600 per household, which shows that most of us seem to have lost sight of just how much we should really be spending. Instead of being frugal, people feel like they have enough money to buy any of the myriad disposable goods on the market.
  • A misunderstanding of the term "healthy": It seems that people are so desperate to lose weight these days that they will buy any processed food that claims to be healthy or low-calorie. The problem is that these products typically have loads of packaging and are usually a far cry from being good for you. My favorite example right now is Hostess' 100 Calorie Packs of Muffins. You can't find the ingredients on their website (I wonder why?), but I saw them recently, and it was the longest list of ingredients I'd ever seen.
  • A need for cleanliness and a distaste for dirt: It seems like everyone these days wants their homes to be absolutely spotless, but can't handle the idea of touching something dirty. Case in point: this afternoon I read an article reviewing disposable cleaning products from the magazine Real Simple that said, "A majority of testers found picking clumps of hair and dust bunnies off [the mop] distasteful enough to throw their votes in favor of the pricier Swiffer system." So basically people have become so removed from the act of cleaning that they won't even touch dust bunnies? Strange.
  • Fear of germs: Just about every other newscast and commercial I see contains a story about food borne illnesses or scary, scary germs. It seems we're being convinced to live in fear of sickness, and therefore to buy a huge array of cleaning products, many of which probably don't even get used (I mean, it's not like we have time to clean anyway).
  • Fashion, fashion, fashion: Changing in the blink of an eye, fashion is continuously giving us an out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new mentality. And these days, this sort of fashion is spreading to things like refrigerators and the size of your floor boards. Whether we blame HDTV (which is surely part of the problem) or our appetite to spend, the need to constantly replace the things we own is expensive, time-consuming, and bad for the environment.
The Symptoms of Our Illness: Some Seriously Annoying Products
So these appear to be some of the fundamental causes of our disposable culture, but what are the symptoms? Obviously things like paper towels and disposable napkins have been plaguing us for awhile, but it seems that more and more disposable products get launched into the American buy-o-sphere everday.

Here are some perfect(ly annoying) examples in the cleaning products category:
My Questions
  • Wasn't there a time when people saw value in rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty? What's happened?

  • How can we return to the idea that living simply and frugally is a valued way of life?

  • Will people ever see that sometimes the disposable items aren't necessarily better?
  • And the question on everyone's minds: If we can't find time to cook dinner, why do we have enough time to watch 4.5 hours of t.v.?
Back to the Paper Towels
I'm going to make a bold and controversial claim and say that paper towels aren't really any better than rags. I can say this because I NEVER use paper towels anymore. When I have a spill, I reach under the sink, grab a rag and clean it up. Then I throw the rag in my "dirty rag box" and do a load of laundry a month later. It's not hard. In fact, it was probably the first thing I ever did when I started to become more concerned about the environment, and I barely noticed the change.

So maybe doing away with paper towels should be the first move we all make in our attempt to do away with our disposable mentality. After all, we've got to start somewhere.

34 comments:

erisedraine said...

"In fact, it was probably the first thing I ever did when I started to become more concerned about the environment, and I barely noticed the change."

It was one of the first things I did too, I was sick of running out of paper towels, and then having no idea how to clean up messes properly (I didn't want to use my 'good' towels).

This is a great article, thanks for posting it.

Holly said...

My family has always used rags to clean up spills among other things that saved both money and resources. Now I live with 3 other college students who seem totally oblivious to their wastefulness and it drives me nuts that we go through at least one roll of paper towels every single week!

Also, I heard something good a while back about our cleaning obsession. "Clean doesn't have a smell." Ever since then I've been trying to avoid products with strong scents and extra chemicals which are totally unnecessary to have in the house.

Shannon said...

I can't agree with you more. Ever since I switched from using paper towels to using rags to clean, I actually feel like things are more clean, not less. That's because I'm not afraid to get in there and scrub with a rag. When my kitchen rags get too stained and dirty, they get relegated to garage rags. Now my only cleaning products are the rags, a microfiber duster, white vinegar, baking soda and water. Works for pretty much anything at a fraction of the cost and with none of the chemicals.

Reenie Beanie said...

LLP, I couldn't agree with you more about paper towels! I have never bought a roll of paper towels, and I probably never will. You know what else bothers me? Anti-bacterial soaps that are horrible for public health as they can lead to stronger "super-bugs". Plain old bar soap works just fine, smells great, and my favorite brand, Sappo Hill, has no packaging!

LifeLessPlastic said...

Erisedraine, thanks very much for your comment. I know what you mean about not knowing how to clean up a mess when I had no paper towels on hand. I used to be that way because I didn't have any rags at all. Now I have about 40 of them, mostly made of cut up old t-shirts. Works really well, of course :)

LifeLessPlastic said...

Holly, that's sad about your college roommates. Do you still use rags around them? If you do, I guess we can just hope that one day your good influence will rub off on them.

As for that old saying, I think it's a good one, EXCEPT for the fact the vinegar is a great cleaning product and has a strong smell while you're using it.

LifeLessPlastic said...

Good point about rags being stronger and therefore much better for scrubbing stuff. That's totally true. And I'm with you on the house cleaning supplies, excluding the duster (I'm too lazy to dust :))

BTW, while we're on paper towels, I wanted to mention that for cleaning windows and mirrors, some people find that rags don't work because they leave streaks. I don't really notice this, but if it bothers anyone, you can use old newspaper as a sort of rag and you won't get any streaks at all. It's pretty cool.

LifeLessPlastic said...

Reenie, funny you should mention bar soap because I think that will be the topic of my next post.

As for your paper towel usage, that's pretty awesome. I used to buy paper towels in college a lot, but I'm obviously off them now. Too much wasted paper, too much plastic packaging!

Robj98168 said...

I can't day much about the paper towels as I am in denial, but I can comment on the Annoying products- 1- the swifter has never worked right for me- I use a goold old fashioned washable dust mop, 2- I dont understand the toilet wands cause an old fahioned bowl brush works as well- As for the automatic shower cleaner- they can keep that as I have used one and I still end up scrubbing by hand - Never tried the stainless steel cleaner, but the magic eraser don't work worth a damn. I keep hoping for miracle products to help clean and it turns out there is NO MATCH FOR ELBOW GREASE and a bit of HARD WORK

RLM said...

I agree completely with your assessment of our disposable culture and its causes. Along with the sources you suggest for the problem, I wonder if the extreme specialization of our culture is a contributing factor. Each of us does his or her own job with very little awareness of anyone else's...making possible the illusion that our trash just vanishes when we throw it out, rather than going somewhere else in the world. We forget that our homes are open systems, with products coming in and waste going out, but that the earth is for all intents and purposes a closed system, and almost every single piece of matter ever present on earth is still here, in one form or another (sometimes in a very damaging form). Thanks for the great post.

Shannon Hodgins said...

Hear, hear! An excellent post.

I buy about 1 roll per year, and it's only for cleaning the bathroom and car windows/mirrors. I don't use them for regular things at all.....I have two drawers of cloths that work well.

Regular plain washcloths make good cleaning rags around the house.

I'd like to transition to table napkins for meals, but haven't yet with two little ones.

Rejin L said...

Thanks for the good post. Here is another unnecessary product: facial tissues. I found a few old hankies and have stopped using paper.
There are so many disposable products that we take for granted, and justify our bad habits with convenience and germ theory if challenged. A while back I was surprised to see that defenders of plastic grocery bags were citing germs as a reason not to reuse bags. Our capacity to NOT look at the big picture is staggering.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, the biggest factor that caused our convenience culture is the duel income household. Take my home for example. By the time we get home from work, we have very little time to get dinner on the table, help with the homework, do baths, and get the kids to bed. I admit to using convenience foods and products. Spending extra time on housework/cooking means I'll have even less time to spend with the kids and for myself. While I do want to reduce our consumption, it's much more difficult for families with kids, especially when both parents work. Any suggestions?

Grant said...

I think that you might be selling convenience items a bit short in your post. There are many, many cultures around the world which do not have paper towels, cars, and all of the other convenience items that we take for granted. For some reason "green" people tend to think that living simply and getting rid of these conveniences will somehow make us all happy and fix the environmental problems we face. This couldn't be further from the truth. The cultures that do not have these items spend their entire day gathering food and water and keeping themselves from being killed by weather/animals/viruses/etc. These people have no time for anything other than survival. There's no time for reading or education and having a dozen children is commonplace because those kids can help with the chores (and they'll probably die early anyway, so you need a few extras to take up the slack).

Being able to get a book from my local library or directly on my laptop is convenient, and it allows me to be a better, smarter person. Buying fresh fruit at the farmer's market is a heck of a lot more convenient than growing it myself. It allows me to eat more healthy and make better use of my talents (which, so far, do not include gardening). Kleenex are more convenient and wasteful than handkerchiefs, but they are also safer. I read a report recently that about half of the population carries staph infection (I'm pretty sure I'm included in that number). I don't know about you, but I'm willing to sacrifice a tree or two (which are totally renewable, by the way) to not carry a virus ridden cloth around in my pocket all day long. Similarly, there's no reason to give up the convenience of a refrigerator when you can build and operate one in an environmentally friendly and fully sustainable manner.

Yes, our culture is overly-obsessed with convenience and, more importantly, status. However, the convenience culture doesn't have to be a bad thing. I think the important point is not that we don't need those items, but rather that we can make more sustainable and environmentally friendly choices about them without going back to dirt floors and thatched roofs.

Green Bean said...

Hear hear! What a right on post.

We've somehow transitioned to a completely disposable, terrifed of the smallest germ or speck of dust, overly busy watching TV culture.

Ditching paper towels was also one of the first and might I say easiest things we did to go green. Like Shannon H, we still buy a roll or two a year for the really really disgusting things.

As to the dual income thing, I know many families where both parents work. I don't work now but I used to work in a field where I would regularly work anywhere from 60-100 hours in a week. No matter how busy I was, I still always managed to find time to watch TV. Sure, it was "decompressing" and such but I think there might be other ways to do this - perhaps reading, baking or planning a garden at night. Cutting down on children's activities on the weekend (does the entire Saturday really need to be devoted to soccer/T-ball/etc) can open up family time where cooking or gardening or visiting the farmers' market can take center stage. Start with something small like making Saturday night pizza night where the whole family pitches in. After the kids go to bed one night a week, devote to cooking meals that then get frozen and reheated later or better yet do a meal co-op with other interested families. I truly enjoy making jam, baking bread and such and, over time, that has become more relaxing to me than parking myself in front of the boob tube.

As to ditching disposables, personally, I don't think using rags or dish towels or cloth napkins takes any longer than the disposable version. If nothing else, think of the money you save. A rag costs nothing, paper towels, that's another story. Also, I've found many really cute cloth napkins at garage sales and thrift stores and usually end up paying $.10 a napkin. Over time, that's a huge money saver.

And, finally, for those dual income families, take a look at Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin. There are many steps that you can take to reduce your expenses and possibly free one spouse up to work full time or part time. I know because that is what we did and that is why I'm sitting here typing right now.

LLP, this is such a valuable post - I hope people bookmark it and come back to it from time to time to give themselves more food for thought. I will. :)

LifeLessPlastic said...

Grant, Thanks for your comment. It's always good to have some healthy debate! In response, I'll say that conveniences like having a roof over your head, enough food to eat, and medicine as protection from disease are wonderful things and certainly should not be done away with. But these are also not the types of conveniences that are the problem. I'm referring to are things like tv dinners, Lunchables, and the cleaning products I mentioned in my post--things that don't actually increase the quality of your life, but that you have still chosen to buy--maybe because clever marketers have convinced you that you need them or because you're simply exhausted and don't know how to do things any other way. Perhaps we should call them "extreme conveniences" to distinguish them from "modern conveniences" like running water (obviously a good thing).

In any case, I also want to address your point about facial tissues. I haven't switched over to using a handkerchief yet, but I am probably going to start carrying one in the next few weeks (especially since allergy season is coming).

In terms of tissues be necessary, you are (or should be!) the only person using your handkerchief,so I don't think the argument that it is virus-ridden is actually that substantial. I mean, you can't catch a cold you already have. Maybe I can understand this argument if you have kids, but my dad has always carried a handkerchief and I was almost never sick as a child. Also, I'm sure we've all seen research showing that children who are exposed to germs when they are young go on to have healthier immune systems as adults. I'm not sure this hypothesis is totally accepted yet, but it's at least something to think about.

Also, the interesting thing about tissues is that even if you are preventing yourself and others from getting short-term sick, you're ultimately contributing to putting pollution into the ground and water, which itself might make you long-term sick--ya know, cancer and the like. Therefore, I think it's really valuable to think critically about every product you purchase and whether it's worth polluting the Earth to have it.

arduous said...

I admit to having bought almost all of the products you listed. The magic eraser. The swiffer. And those Clorox disinfecting wipes. But after I started living more sustainably, all those had to go of course.

I also admit to hating gunk and dust bunnies on my hands. Blech!

I still don't love it, but I compromise by cleaning, oh boy this is going to sound SO weird, I clean in like a sports bra and boxers so my regular clothes don't get "infected." I know, I know, I'm weird.

And then after I clean, I take my shower for the day.

Weirdly, I think my apartment is cleaner now. There is something to be said for getting down on your hands and knees and scrubbing the heck out of the floor. A swiffer just doesn't have the same effect.

Shannon Hodgins said...

Hum, LLP and Green Bean both had posts this week that really touched on the topic.

I do have to agree that I think the duel income famiily issue is a big factor--but I'd like to ponder and write about it more extensively. It's a multi-faceted issue with many layers. Women, men and family allocation of duties plays into all of it.

As a working parent I plan and pre-cook. This reduces food waste, convenience foods and is thifty. You do think that "it takes too much time" at first, but it really doesn't- - it saves time. You don't spend hours walking around in the store wondering "what's for dinner" or half your food budget on one meal out.

I also eat simpler for working nights and it helps. Recipe Zaar online is a great resource for me as I can meal plan, adjust ingredients, boot it to ann e-list and save my favs.

cherie said...

I grew up only using hand towels, dish cloths and cut up old clothes as rags and watching (and helping) my mom scrub the floor on her hands and knees. Now, I'm living with others who buy paper towels in bulk and I'm using them just as much. I'm going to keep a little box of cut up rags under the sink and start using those. Thanks for all the ideas. Also, about the Stainless steel cleaner- castile soap, you know, the Dr. Bronner's brand or Trader Joe's brand works miracles for cleaning stainless steel. I just put some in a spray bottle with water and it works great to clean everything, even steel. The swiffer mop with out the absorbant disposable cloths works well when you put a rag on it instead ...but as others have said, the only way to clean a floor is on your hands and knees.

esp said...

For me this started as frugality -- I was a poor college student and needed money for food and rent, not something I was going to throw away! I'm amazed by how troubling people find this when they are at my house. They seem to need to be convinced that it's okay to use the rag for the mess or the cloth napkin at a meal!

Joyce said...

What's strange to me is that most families now are almost forced to depend on two incomes, just so they can pay for conveiences like paper towels. If we could give some of that up, more parents could stay home with their kids, if they wanted to.

Grad Green said...

Great post! I totally agree. I was just talking with a friend about this today. What blows me away is when people use wads of paper towels to clean up water. We don't dry dishes with paper towels, do we? (Gosh... I hope no one does this.) We don't dry our bodies with paper towels, but if there's a spill on the table or on the floor -- ACH! paper towels.

We decided a couple of years ago to not buy any more paper towels and I can honestly say that it has had no effect on my life --except saving money and reducing waste.

Rejin L said...

Where I live it often takes two incomes to pay for housing. It is really not so simple as "need disposables = get a job."
But I think plenty of people could save money if they stopped buying a lot of disposables.

Anonymous said...

Families don't have dual incomes so they can afford paper towels. It is a much more complex issue. Elizabeth Warren, Harvard Law School Professor studied this issue:

http://www.hno.harvard.edu/gazette/2003/10.30/19-bankruptcy.html

Her research finds that the reasons middle class life is so expensive are contrary to popular assumptions - it's not due to clothing, food, appliances, McMansions. "Now, she says, middle-class families are stretching themselves to the breaking point to afford homes in safe neighborhoods and "better" school districts. "

Yes, not using paper towels will save a family some money. But families are stretched by both money and time, and as the saying goes, time is money.

A stay-at-home parent might make her own bread or pasta, thus eliminating the packaging. But a working parent will probably pick up a loaf of bread or box of pasta at the grocery store (extreme conveniences???) If you've got a family of 5 or 6 with small kids, we can't pretend that using cloth napkins wouldn't add work to an already-overstretched parent.

Ultimalely, being "green" isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. Each of us needs to make changes that are specific to our situation. This blog entry seems to suggest that those who use convenience products are lazy and dumb -- they watch too much TV and are fooled by glitzy marketing schemes. I'm neither of those, but my kids still use paper napkins, and I still buy boxed pasta. But I am making changes in other ways -- reusable bags and cups, drastically reducing plastic, biking to work, etc. Isn't that what counts?

Reenie Beanie said...

I just saw a commercial for Dixie disposable plates, and they suggested that you buy Dixie plates and use them instead of regular plates at dinner time. That way you can spend more time with your kids instead of washing dishes!!! I guess only bad parents wash dishes...

Anonymous said...

reenie beanie, you miss my point. I'm trying to explain my opinions about the sources of our disposable culture. I'm 100% certain that you are not perfect, and neither am I. I simply admit that I use paper napkins for my kids. As environmentalists, we need to encourage people to change their ways in positive ways -- self righteousness is not the answer. I don't appreciate your and LLP's suggestion that I am dumb and lazy because I use paper napkins. I am making the decisions that are best for my family. You remind me of those mothers who suggest that I'm doing permanent damage to my kids by being a working mother. Intolerant. Shouldn't we be supporting and encouraging each other? I came to this blog in search of ideas and support, not morally superiority and intolerance.

Have you ever seen the show "Jon and Kate plus 8"? It's a family with twin girls about 6 years old, and 2 year old sextuplets. In one episode, Kate admits to using paper plates for all meals. She said that she tried using regular plates, but was doing dishes all day long. I cringed when I heard her say that, but I don't claim to understand what it's like to be in her situation. Unlike you.

LifeLessPlastic said...

Anonymous, Sorry about any confusion, but I suspect Reenie Beanie, who is my sister, was making that comment for my amusement and not as a response to your comment, which definitely had lots of valid points.

LifeLessPlastic said...

Also, Anonymous, I just want to make sure that you know that I am really not trying to call anybody "dumb." I mean, everyone is at a different place in their lives and it's obviously not fair for me to make those kinds of judgements without really knowing what their lives are like. I understand, for example, that a mother of several children might not have enough time to bake her own bread.

Still, I just think that it's important for us, as a society and without making judgements about individuals, to step back and reconsider whether certain conveniences are worth destroying our environment, and to think about whether we can make compromises in our lives for the sake of people who will live here after we're gone.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree, LLP! I've been examining my and my family's lifestyle and have made several changes to become more environmenally-friendly. We've cut out a lot of, but certainly not all, conveniences from our life. Not all of the changes have been easy, but I know that it's worth it. This is a journey and I discover new things every day. I've found a lot of good ideas on your blog - thanks! :)

Reenie Beanie said...

Anonymous, LLP was right. I hadn't even read your comment before I posted mine.

I would never critize anyone for using paper napkins...especially a mom. First of all, I don't view paper napkins as an extreme convenience expecially when raising little kids. Second, I have a job that requires a lot of travel; and therefore, I eat at restaurants several times a week. As a result, I find myself using paper napkins regularly (and plastic takeout containers! But LLP and I have talked about my bringing my own take-out boxes and I need to start this!).

No one can go to an extreme and do literally everything in an eco-friendly manner. They can just find things that work for them, and do what they can. And it sounds like you have made changes that you should be proud of. That's awesome!

Overall, I think our country has an obsession with throwing things away. My orthodontist's office has single-use (!) toothbrushes that have toothpaste already on the toothbrush. What? This is crazy to me!! If you are already carrying a toothbrush, how hard is it to add small tube of toothpaste to your purse as well? I think that paper towels are not necessarily easy for everyone to give up especially those with kids and pets, but how about single-use toothbrushes?

As for my earlier comment, I just had a problem with the paper plate commercial because I don't think that 99% of the general population should not be using this product at dinnertime since it's expensive and wasteful. And I think working moms spend enough time feeling guilty about leaving their little ones in the care of others during the day. The commercial had smiling moms talking about how they get to spend more time with their kids by not doing dishes. I don't think that it's appropriate to use these feelings of guilt to manipulate moms into buying a product that very few should be using daily.

eco-samurai said...

Very interesting observation! I think convenience is overrated in this country. Thanks for insightful post.

ashley said...

Here is an idea to make cloth napkins more "convenient". When I was a teenager I lived with a family in Spain for a summer. They had a unique napkin ring for everyone in the family. At the end of the meal if your napkin wasn't too badly soiled you rolled it up put it in your napkin ring for the next meal. It cuts down on the amount of wash tremendously.

Anonymous said...

Did you know that baby wipes are reusable? Just throw them in the washer and they are as good as new.They are my familys tissues,napkins,paper towels,rags and of course,babywipes for the baby. Those wipes I just wash right with the cloth diapers because my 5 yr old would have a fit if she thought there was any cross contamination.In each package of baby wipes there are 80 or so-before I knew about this with my 1st child I used a pack a week.I have used the same pack with my 3 month old baby since I had her! Its shocking when you realize how these little cloths are made for one time throw away use but can be reused indefinitly.

Peter Power said...

I thought I left a comment here, but it doesn't seem to be up. That was about a month ago. Anyway, I'll try again with this maybe.

I suppose, in short, what I said was to not be afraid to continue to "shout stop" to silly, unenvironmental, unjust practices like the use of paper towels. :)