Paper Towels and Running Water

Like a lot of other people in the USA, I have used large amounts of running water to clean soiled objects (dishes, coolers, outdoor furniture and more). I have also used huge wads of paper towels to wipe up spills.

In each case, I wasn’t thinking about the energy it took to produce these commodities. I didn’t have to think about it. In the wealthy industrialized nations, running water is cheap, as are paper towels. This reflects the artificially cheap price of the embodied fossil energy and other resources that go into bringing us these conveniences.

Running water from the water utility provider costs money, as do paper towels. But based on how profligately I’ve seen people (including myself) use these things, they’re not priced high enough to deter waste. And so, using large amounts of both has become an unquestioned practice. For example: People hose down outdoor furniture or a cooler to push the dirt off of it with large amounts of flowing water, instead of just wiping it down with a rag.

Still, there may come a time when these things become expensive or even unavailable. We’ll have to use manual pressure and a cloth to clean dirty objects; a rag to wipe up spills.

When I started noticing how I was using water pressure from faucets as a substitute for elbow-grease, I switched to using cloth dishrags and wipe-rags plus manual pressure.

Same with paper towels; I just stopped buying them when I realized cloth rags absorb spills much better.

The amount of money I save is trivial. But I love not having “paper towels” on the list of things I have to buy. Similarly, even though running water is priced relatively cheap, I hate being dependent on the availability of a certain amount of water pressure. It’s great just being able to use rainwater collected in a tub if needed.


• When cleaning an item such as outdoor furniture, I put water into a small pot or other small container to keep track of how much I’m using. It’s fun to see how little I really need to get the job done. Sometimes I can get away with just a dampened rag; sometimes I can even get most of the job done with a dry rag and then finish with a dampened rag.

• Definitely I’m a big fan of scraping dishes before washing them! After eating, I scrape the food particles off the dishes and into the yard, compost pile etc. This is super obvious and you might not think it needs mentioning but I’ve been surprised to see that a lot of people don’t scrape their dishes well, so they end up being a lot messier to wash and require a lot more water & soap to wash.

• I wash things outdoors, with mild soap in the minimum quantity needed, and use the leftover water to water shrubs, trees, mulch areas etc.

• When washing the cloth rags, I group similarly purposed rags together. For example, if a rag has been used to wipe the floor or clean a bunch of grime off an outdoor chair, I won’t wash it in the same little batch as a dishrag or kitchen-countertop rag.

• Speaking of water pressure, a big thing these days in the rich industrialized world is pressure-washing: using a thin stream of highly pressurized water to clean sidewalks and patios and such. While I’d rather that pressure-washing didn’t exist (it’s hideously noisy, on top of enabling people to get really obsessive about cleaning the entire great outdoors), I doubt I’ll talk anyone who loves it out of loving it. But, I like to think that by leaving outdoor surfaces to develop a natural “patina,” at least I’m doing my part to avoid feeding the modern-day “cleanliness inflation” enabled by the easy availability of pressurized water. (I have, on occasion, used a bit of water plus vinegar and baking soda to scrub off a section of patio that was becoming actually slippery with mold. And I was happy to see that a hand-brush produced perfectly fine results very quickly.)

Another example along similar lines occurred to me: leaf-blowers. Harnessing the abundant availability of artificially cheap fossil fuel to mobilize large amounts of air, blown at tornado velocity, to push leaves, sand, and other stuff around. I much prefer a combination of using a broom, plus not having unrealistic standards of neatness for the great outdoors. If you’re protesting “But a broom takes too long,” well, there’s a perfect excuse for us all to lower our standards of neatness! Surely we all have more fun and interesting things to do. And anyway, leafblowers actually don’t get the job done all that much faster, as anyone who’s ever watched a neatness-crazed neighbor use one of these appliances to spend an hour chasing two leaves around the driveway can attest.

Can you think of any other examples? As always, feel free to share your thoughts and successes on this or any other topics. I always enjoy hearing from you!