Pass on the paper towels

I use about five rolls of paper towels a year, and rarely for wiping up or cleaning.

Most often, I use them to wrap a cut head of lettuce with a paper towel for later use or use one as the top layer on a stack of newspaper when draining fried eggplant.

Instead, I use rags for most of the chores around the house that might otherwise require paper towels. Rags are more absorbent, stronger, plentiful and effective.

My rags fall into three categories: the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good

A " good rag, " is an oxymoron, you say? I disagree. Old hand or dish towels, cloth diapers, cotton t-shirts and wash cloths are great for wiping down counters, shining the sink and polishing the stainless appliances.

Cotton rags are best for polishing windows, patio doors and mirrors to perfection. No store-bought spray required, just a spritz of vinegar.

Old bath towels are great for washing the car or boat, drying the dog or catching muddy footprints on a rainy day. If you are moving furniture on a tile floor, fold one to make a pad to slide the item across the floor easily with no scratches. Don’t cut towels, because the frayed bits just make a mess.

I cut t-shirts across the chest just under the armpit. You get a great square rag and an odd shape from the top, which can go right in the use-and-toss bag.

The t-shirt rag can be folded a few times to keep a clean surface for dusting and then refolded to keep dirt inside. If you want a young child to help dust, give them a black t-shirt rag. It is like magic to watch the light-colored dust collect on a black rag.

Cotton socks make great dust rags. Use front and back, turn them inside out and do it again.

Used " good rags " go in a special hamper when dry to be laundered in a load just for rags with no fabric softener. If you fold or lay flat to store, you can fit a good many in a small space.

The bad

Sheets are not great cleaning rags, because they don’t absorb well. Instead, save them for drop cloths for painting projects, use them as dust covers over furniture in the spare room and keep one in the car for a ground cloth if you have to do an emergency repair, protect the back seat from a dirty dog or stop for an impromptu picnic.

You also can put them to good use making strips to tie your plants to a trellis or bundle branches for pick up like twine. You can’t do any of those things with a paper towel.

Anything made of polyester makes for a lousy cleaning rag.

The ugly

Old cotton clothing, the tops of t-shirts, flannel sheets and rags that have served their time as " good rags " become my use-and-toss rags. They allow me to clean up a nasty mess easily. Keep a stack in the bathroom, the shed and the garage and on the boat. Use them with a dust mop or a stick mop. The rags work great, and you can toss them — along with the pet hair and germs — into the trash.

— Karen Beal is a member of the Keyswide nonprofit Green Living & Energy Education. She writes about the four Rs — reducing, reusing, recycling and rot (compost) —and green living. She can be reached at