A conversation with a friend of mine has prompted me to take a look at the history of an ordinary household product – paper towels. Her complaint was that paper towels, along with many other household goods, have become very expensive. Although I couldn’t agree more, I was a bit confused by the comment. While I do always have a roll of paper towels on hand, I personally don’t have need to buy them regularly because I use old kitchen rags for everyday uses like soaking up spills and cleaning.
The conversation caused me to wonder how many rolls of paper towels the average American household purchases in a month and what they use them for. I’ve decided to compare paper versus cloth products in price, usage, convenience, aesthetics and sustainability.
First I dug up some interesting history on paper towels. The invention of the paper towel was actually a serendipitous accident. In 1907, a rail-car shipment of the wrong thickness of paper was delivered to the Scot company, the premier toilet paper manufacturer in the US. The president of the company remembered reading an article about a school teacher who gave a small, soft square of paper to each of her students as an alternative for wiping their hands on the communal bathroom cloth towel in hopes of stopping the spread of colds in her classroom.
Instead of taking a loss on the errant paper shipment, Mr. Scot decided to introduce the concept of a disposable sanitary towel, which was marketed to the medical industry. It’s of great interest to me that the actual consumer grade paper towel was not introduced to market until nearly twenty-five years later, in 1931. The simple fact was that people had no use for such a product because they used washable cloth rags.
I priced a roll of Bounty paper towels at $2.50, while a pack of white bar rags are about $10/dozen and you only buy them once. The paper industry needs you the consumer to absolutely believe that their product is not only indispensable but also that there is no alternative. Check out this old Bounty commercial. How many diners do you know of that rely solely upon paper towels to address their cleaning needs?
Ads are aggressively marketed to create a *perceived* convenience factor, but in the long run, the boasted conveniences are really an illusion – we the consumer throw that paper directly into our over-taxed landfill system. And don’t forget that a tree was most likely chopped down to make the pulp for that paper towel and millions of gallons of chemical-laden waste water was flushed directly into the water supply from the paper towel factory.
Kimberly-Clark is the global giant of the paper industry and also the leader in setting standards for paper industry sustainability, so I decided to check out the Kimberly-Clark 2007 Corporate Sustainability Report. K-C spent millions in 2007 to update the water systems at their factories and to convert their power systems to utilize methane gas from local landfills. They also buy virgin wood only from reputable sources to ensure that their raw materials aren’t coming from the rainforest. I applaud Kimberly-Clark’s efforts, but their report isn’t completely undisturbing.
In 2007, the company used 31% recycled paper, so that means that nearly an alarming 70% of all the material they require to make paper towels, facial tissues, diapers and dinner napkins came from trees, otherwise known as ‘virgin wood resources.’ Also, their most water conserving plant, located in Beech Island, South Carolina, recycles 60% of it’s water. They only flush a mere 40% of their waste water into the Savannah River, which is an important public water source. And another note of extreme interest to me is that the K-C’s Emerging Market division has it’s sights set on changing the way that half the world’s population views the use of paper products. Here’s a direct excerpt from the report:
We are seeing our fastest growth in developing and
emerging (D&E) markets in Asia, Eastern Europe and
Latin America. Within these markets, we continue to
focus on the BRICIT countries (Brazil, Russia, India,
China, Indonesia and Turkey). The BRICIT countries
represent half of the world’s population, but only six
percent of K-C sales.
Our range of semi-durable paper towels,
developed to meet cultural norms in Latin America where
disposable paper towels are rarely used, have been highly
I suspect that families with small children use the most paper products, because a busy Mom will tell you her *perceived* truth – that it’s just less hassle and more sanitary to throw a snot-covered paper towel away rather than wash a cloth. That’s one way the utilization of paper becomes the norm within a household.
The Bounty website helps perpetuate the modern trend of American germophobic thinking by encouraging the belief that rags are a breeding ground for billions of household germs that are just lurking, waiting to attack. While hygiene is truly of utmost importance, germs are not only ubiquitous in our world but a necessity for the existence of life. Be smart instead of fearful; washing your kitchen rags and towels regularly will keep you out of harm’s way.
I urge you to look at your household habits. By making the switch to durable cloth rags, dishtowels, napkins and handkerchiefs, you will not only save more green paper from your wallet, but you’ll be using a lot less in the way of resources. I *perceive* that a few extra hundred bucks in your household could go a long, long way.