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In praise of the rag bag

Why use and toss so many paper towels when you can use and reuse cloth?

By Donna_Freedman Apr 18, 2011 10:10AM

It takes me forever to use up a roll of paper towels. I wish I'd written the date inside the cardboard tube of the roll currently in my kitchen. It's been there at least a couple of years. Even though I've been traveling a lot, that's still a long time for one roll to have been operating -- and to be only about 50% reduced.

It's not that I'm particularly neat. It's that I see no reason to use paper towels when I have plenty of rags. Post continues after video.

Sure, paper towels are convenient. But they're expensive, too. Why use and toss wads of paper when I can launder and reuse a piece of cloth?

If I'm just draining salad greens or wiping up spilled water, I don't even need to wash the cloth -- just hang it up to dry.

Call that eco-friendly if you like. I prefer to think of it as common sense.

Maybe you do, too. But you'd be surprised how many folks don't wash mirrors with white vinegar and water and squares cut from old flannel sheets. Or how many drain the romaine on paper towels rather than worn-out dish towels. Or actually buy sacks of "shop rags."


I have a theory: The reason so many clothes end up in thrift stores is that not enough people have rag bags.

Old diapers, trashed T-shirts

My cleaning-cloth collection includes sheet scraps, old washcloths, bits of terrycloth towels, and pieces of worn-to-death blouses, T-shirts and flannel pajamas.


The rags are battle-ready when I need to wipe up spills, wash my stovetop with vinegar and water, or do a bit of freelance cleaning in the apartment building that I formerly managed. (They still hire me for odd jobs here and there.)

For quite a while my cleaning rags of choice were old cloth diapers. I'd bought dozens of the things, after all. (Believe it or not, most were "slightly irregular" and therefore cost only $2.99 per dozen. I couldn't make that up.) I was still using the last stubborn survivors when my baby girl went off to college.

Don't use cloth diapers? I bet you have at least one of the following:

  • Old sheets: Flannel ones in particular are soft and absorbent.
  • Trashed T-shirts: But only the ones too holey even to wear while gardening or painting. I've heard of parents who cut soft, worn T-shirts into small squares to make their own baby wipes. Most such "recipes" use paper towels. If you have enough T-shirts, go for it. (But don't flush them! In fact, you shouldn't flush paper towels, either.)
  • Shirts or blouses: Long-sleeved cotton or flannel shirts worn out at the elbows, or whose cuffs are irreparably frayed, can be cut up and bagged. Save their buttons for future repair jobs. (A former co-worker whose cuffs were shredded cut the sleeves off at the bicep and hemmed them to create a "new" short-sleeved shirt. Wow.)
  • Worn-out bath towels: Their job is to be absorbent so these are great for cleaning, or for draining freshly washed grapes.
  • Old pajamas: We all know how cozy a pair of often-washed flannel PJs can feel. But when they're too threadbare to keep out the draft, scissor 'em up.

What if you're more of a rayon-and-silk kind of person? Or you don't wear T-shirts? Or you don't expect your sheets to wear out for years? Round up some rags at:

  • Thrift stores. I bought a garbage bag full of towels and washcloths for $3.99 at the Value Village half-price sale when I moved to Seattle.
  • Rummage and yard sales. These are where 10k and marathon T-shirts go to die. I've seen bath towels for as little as a quarter each. I bought a full-sized sheet set for $2; still using it, but eventually it will end up in the rag bag.
  • The "free" box at yard sales. I've seen old towels, washcloths and T-shirts there.

Incidentally, my rag bag is actually a white plastic bucket in the entry closet. But "rag bucket" isn't nearly as much fun to say.


Green twice over

I doubt I'll ever stop using paper towels entirely. They're great for jobs such as cooling off bacon. But to me it seems wasteful to use a paper towel every time I spill something.

I also don't want to use one every time I eat something. A guy I know calls paper towels "bachelor plates." I've been in homes where paper towels were used instead of napkins. That use-and-toss habit just makes me wince. I'll stick with a regular plate and one of the cloth napkins that were six for a quarter at a rummage sale.

Not only am I saving money by not buying paper towels and paper napkins, I'm being green twice over: By not adding more than my share of paper to the landfill, and by giving worn-out fabric one more use before discarding it.

Generally that means really worn-out. The T-shirt I'm wearing right now is a good example. I know how old it is because it bears the legend, "1998: 75 And Still Alive! The Historic Fairview Inn, Talkeetna, Alaska."

It's developed holes that cannot be repaired. But at going on 14 years of age, this shirt doesn't owe me a thing. Time to give it a decent burial -- or, in a manner of speaking, a new life. After its next washing, into the rag bag it will go.

And now I know what souvenir I want to bring back from Talkeetna when I attend the bachelor auction later this year. Hint: It's not a bachelor.

MSN Money columnist Donna Freedman blogs at Smart Spending and Surviving and Thriving.

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