April 19, 2024

It’s an old adage: don’t cry over spilled milk. But is it fair to want to cry over how many paper towels you have to use to clean up the mess? In an era of increasingly dire climate crisis, tossing out any single-use product feels wrong.

Of course, there are lots of alternatives to paper towels: reusable bamboo napkins, microfiber cleaning cloths, cotton towels packaged on familiar paper towel rolls, even good old fashioned rags. Increasingly common today is the Swedish dishcloth.

Designed by a Swedish engineer in 1949, Swedish dishcloths rose to popularity in Europe in the 1950s, and have only found their way into US kitchens in the past decade. Best described as a cross between a paper towel and a sponge (they’re made of 70% cellulose and 30% cotton), Swedish dishcloths have taken off in the US not only because they’ve been marketed as an affordable, eco-friendly alternative to paper towels, but also because they’re pretty.

But how much better for the environment are Swedish dishcloths over paper towels?

“It just really depends,” said Kimberly Bawden, a life cycle assessment technical program manager at the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “Perhaps the raw materials are less, but are we using more water, are we using more energy, to keep it clean?”

Paper towels: two rolls a week is like burning 11 gallons of gasoline

Let’s start with the competition. Paper towels have a hefty environmental impact because they’re made of, well, paper. Most of their impacts occur during the manufacturing phase – as opposed to when they’re in use.

According to a 2016 life cycle assessment of Bounty brand paper towels, paper towels’ most significant environmental impact is in the realm of fossil fuel depletion. That is, the amount of fossil fuels used to produce the paper pulp, and keep paper towel making facilities open. But paper towel production also requires agricultural land occupation (99% of which is for the growth of trees) and leads to particulate matter formation.

One 2012 study from MIT found that two paper towels account for approximately 15 grams of CO2 emissions. Extrapolating from that, the recycling blog Earth911.com estimates that a family of four that uses two rolls of paper towels a week creates about 219lbs of CO2 emissions a year, “or about the same as burning 11 gallons of gasoline”. And those paper towels add up: in 2017, Americans spent $5.7bn on paper towels (about $17.50 a person) – almost half of the $12bn spent globally.

On top of all of that, research suggests that paper towels don’t even clean that well. A 2010 study on a variety of cleaning cloths used in hospitals reported that microfiber and cotton cloths both cleaned better. That said, your kitchen likely follows different decontamination protocols than the average hospital, and if you’re not regularly washing or microwaving your sponges, a paper towel might not be as bad as the cloth that’s been accruing germs on the edge of your sink all week.

It’s worth noting though, said Brian Hilton, a sustainable design technical program manager at the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology, that few paper towels are made from virgin paper. Towels made from recycled paper extend the life of trees cut down to make previously used paper. And, if they’re not soiled, paper towels are compostable (though that doesn’t mean that people remember to put them in their compost bins or that there are composting facilities that can take them in every city).

Swedish dishcloths have risen to popularity in part because they feel so much better to use than disposable alternatives. Instead of running through a roll of paper towels to clean up a particularly large spill, you can often get away with using only one Swedish dishcloth (they can soak up to 20 times their own weight in liquid). And instead of tossing each one into the trash can, you can throw your Swedish dishcloth into the washing machine or dishwasher to use again and again (many brands say their dishcloths are equivalent to about 15 rolls of paper towels). The dishcloths wear out eventually, usually after about 6 months, but if you only use one at a time a 10-pack of plainer looking dishcloths that costs about $10 (ones printed by independent designers can cost more) could last five years.

Like paper towels, Swedish dishcloths are made out of plant fibers (a mix of cellulose and cotton), but they extend the lives of those fibers for as many times as you’re able to use the dishcloth. If a three-pack of Swedish dishcloths has the same carbon footprint as a roll of paper towels, Earth911.com estimates, then switching to dishcloths can help families eliminate about 200 pounds of CO2 emissions each year.

The trick, Hilton said, is that Swedish dishcloths have to be washed. And the water (and energy used to heat that water) used in washing are not insignificant. But, you can cut back on that by running them with a load you were already planning to wash.

In a formal life cycle assessment, researchers would evaluate different environmental impact categories, which allows them to look at the ways environmental burdens shift from manufacturing to transportation, use and even disposal during the product’s full life cycle. At this time, however, there are no major, publicly available life cycle assessments for any Swedish dishcloth brands (at least that the Guardian could track down).

One of Swedish dishcloths’ main marketing claims is that they’re theoretically 100% biodegradable, which is great, but remember, so are paper towels. The issue is that many people don’t dispose of them in a way that lets this happen. “It could be 100% compostable, but how much of it is actually going to be composted?” said Hilton. “If there’s no system that’s enabling [a consumer] to compost, they’re wasting their money.” That said, if something about the dishcloth reminds you that you can toss it in the compost bin when it starts to wear out (and you live somewhere that actually has compost bins), by all means.

Rags: a centuries-old solution

There’s another reusable alternative that’s been in use for centuries (even if they’re not quite as cute): plain old rags. New dishcloths, of course, have to be manufactured from raw materials like anything else, but the hope is that they’ll last years instead of mere days or months. And if you make your own rags out of old clothes or bed sheets, you can extend the lifespan of other household products.

But, just like Swedish dishcloths, rags still have to be washed. You can cut back on the impacts of both if you limit the number of loads of laundry you run each week, or throw your dishcloths in with a load of clothes or sheets you were going to wash anyway.

In the world of sustainability, there are rarely “best” options, Bawden said, but rather “least bad” ones. “There’s no one right answer for any product versus another. It really depends. And there’s always environmental trade-offs.”

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