Anything single-use is suspicious in terms of sustainability, especially if it goes to the trash afterwards and is not recyclable. Considering that, and the disproportionate use of paper towels by the United States, it makes me wonder if a more sustainable but also safe/hygienic alternative to paper towels is single-use-then-wash rags.

In some cases rags can be used multiple times before needing to be washed (e.g. wiping up water spills separate from cooking surfaces). With the nastiest messes (e.g. vomit or a pet going to the bathroom indoors) rags from a designated "dirtiest rags" pile could be used and washed immediately after. Rags for various uses can be sourced from recycled material such as ripped clothing.

Even using a washing machine and hot water to wash these rags, intuitively I'd think the rag approach is still using way less energy and has a lesser environmental impact than using paper towels. Is there anymore supporting evidence to confirm or deny that?

Some key assumptions:

  • Domestic washing machine and hot water is already in use in most American homes so switching from paper towels to rags would only increase use of those things, not require the fixed cost/impact of initially getting large appliances.

  • Some of the nastiest messes require more energy for more thorough washing and use of hot water. To some extent this balances out as plenty of rags can be washed at once whereas these nastier messes can require many single-use paper towels to clean up.

  • Aside from the absorbant material being used - recycled & reusable rag or single-use paper towel - cleaning methods would be basically constant.

  • Paper towels are packaged in throw-away plastic (even when bought in bulk) and even if they're sourced from post-consumer recycled material or sustainable forestry, there is still industrial processing to begin with and large-scale waste management to end with (incineration in our case, landfills in most other places).

I see similar questions in Reusable vs. disposable diapers: which is better? and especially Tissues or cloth to clean a baby - what's more sustainable? which both seem to support rags being better than single-use/disposable items like tissues or diapers. Does the same apply to paper towels?

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