This post first appeared in our weekly Make Waves Mondays email series on November 8, 2021.
This week, let’s tackle something I’ve been asked a lot over the years.
How much more sustainable are reusable items versus disposable when we have to wash them over and over again?
What a great question.
And here’s the thing. It’s pretty impossible to do a 100% accurate apples-to-apples comparison. But we can look at the numbers and figure out whether or not reusable really is more sustainable.
So today, we’re gonna use paper towels as an example.
The water footprint of paper towels
Most often, the number we hear thrown around about how much water it takes to make paper towels is 20,000 gallons of water for every one ton of paper towels.
And holy moly that’s a lot of water.
But one ton is also a lot of paper. So if we make this a bit more realistic to work with, one roll of paper towels uses about 2.5 gallons of water to make.
Still a whole lotta water for one roll of paper towels, but it doesn’t sound quite as bad as 20,000 gallons, right?
So what about how many paper towels we typically use?
By my rough calculations, one person probably uses about three-quarters of a roll of paper towels each week. So for a family of four, we’re looking at about three rolls of paper towels every week.
So now we’re looking at about 7.5 gallons of water every week for a family of four, just for paper towels. Over the course of a year, that’s about 390 gallons of water.
And that number is only going to grow year-over-year, as we continue purchasing more and more rolls of paper towels.
A quick side note about math here: these numbers don’t include transportation, disposal, or packaging.
The water footprint of reusable towels
Okay so then how much water does it take to make reusable towels?
Lemme tell ya, friend, this number was very difficult to find, but here’s what we got.
According to an article from The Guardian, it takes about 10,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton.
For us on the Imperial system, this is about 1,198 gallons of water per pound of cotton.
Holy moly that’s a lot of water. (I know I said that before but that’s where we’re at.)
But also a pound is pretty heavy. So let’s look at the two paper towel alternatives we have in the shop here at A Drop in the Ocean.
First, reusable unpaper towels.
Each full-size unpaper towel weighs about 1.3 ounces - made with cotton terry cloth fabric, cotton knit fabric, and cotton thread.
This means it would take about 97 gallons of water to make each unpaper towel.
But our unpaper towels aren’t made with traditional cotton. The beautiful cotton knit fabrics are produced using an innovative system that uses less than one thimble-full of water to print 5 yards of fabric - which makes about 50 unpaper towels.
Traditional printing would use about 50 gallons of water, so each of our unpaper towels uses about one less gallon of water than traditional cotton. Heck. to the yes.
So, each towel uses about 96 gallons of water.
For a roll of five towels, that’s 480 gallons of water. For a roll of nine, 864 gallons.
So for one roll of unpaper towels, we are using more water than disposable paper towels - but only at first. All of this is before we even consider their reusable lifespan.
I made my first roll of five unpaper towels eight years ago, and they are still going strong. That means that on average, my roll of unpaper towels has only used 60 gallons of water per year. And the longer they last, the lower that number gets every single year.
Next, let’s look at our Swedish dishcloths.
Each individual Swedish dishcloth weighs about 0.4 ounces, and is made of 30% cotton (the other 70% is cellulose).
So there’s about 0.12 ounces of cotton in each dishcloth, adding up to about 9 gallons of water per dishcloth.
Which, again, feels like a lot.
But one single Swedish dishcloth can replace up to 17 rolls of paper towels. I’ll let you sit with that one for a minute.
That many rolls of paper towels would use about 42.5 gallons of water to produce. But instead, that one Swedish dishcloth is only using 9. That’s 79% less water than paper towels.
Okay, so what about washing the towels?
This is always the next question. How much water does it take to wash all of these towels, then, instead of throwing away paper towels?
But here’s the great part. You’re probably not actually going to use any more water to wash these towels than you would without.
You don’t have to wash the reusable unpaper towels or Swedish dishcloths in any special way. Just toss ‘em in your laundry with any other loads of towels you were already planning to do. Throw them in with your kitchen towels, your bath towels... whatever ya got, you were already gonna do a load of laundry, and those few additional ounces of laundry each week aren’t gonna make much of a difference.
According to an article by the Sierra Club, your washing machine will use about a quarter of a gallon of water per square foot of textiles. That square foot is a little more than the size of one unpaper towel or a little less than two Swedish dishcloths.
You’d have to wash a lot of reusable towels to offset the water savings.
Not quite ready to ditch paper towels completely?
I get that.
When I moved into my apartment, my property manager left me a lovely little move-in gift that included one roll of paper towels.
That was two years ago.
This is what that roll looks like now:
Sometimes ya just need a paper towel, ya know? I use them for pet messes, and that’s about it. I honestly don’t think I’ve used them for anything else in the last two years.
So if you’ve still got rolls of paper towels hanging around, that’s okay! Hold onto them for those truly messy moments you don’t want to have to clean up twice. You’ll still be using way less water and creating so much less waste by opting for reusables even half the time.
Bonus tip for ditching paper towels… Store the paper towels in an inconvenient place. Maybe on top of your fridge or under the counter. But store the reusables in the most convenient spot you can find. Make it easy for yourself and the rest of your family to choose reusables!
So, friend, have I convinced you yet? Sometimes it may seem like the impacts of reusables aren’t that much compared to disposables, but these numbers surprised even me.
What’s your favorite way to reduce water use? Comment below!