Save money and space by using fewer paper towels with these tips. Double bonus: you'll have less trash and it's better for the environment!

Using Fewer Paper Towels

Paper towels can take up a lot of space on a cruising boat.  And once out of the US, it can be hard to find “good” ones and they can be expensive.  And then there’s the environmental aspect, as well as just producing more trash to deal with when you’re cruising.  We learned several ways to use far fewer paper towels — although we never got it totally down to zero.

In the Kitchen, Use Bar Rags

Bar rags are a little smaller than a dish towel and are made of 100% cotton to be very absorbent.  I got a pack of 24, so that I could use fresh ones frequently.  I’d use them for wiping up all the little stuff in the galley as well as things like mopping the water out of the refrigerator when I defrosted it.

Bar rags are almost always just plain white, maybe with a little stripe.  Don’t pay extra for microfiber or “pretty” towels for everyday use — they’ll get stained and you’ll want to be able to use bleach on them.  After about a year, I’d buy another set and my old ones would become engine rags.  Uh, yeah, it’s about time for new ones as you can see in the top photo.

NOTE: I did buy one set of microfiber wash cloths and don’t like them nearly as much as the 100% cotton ones. They just don’t absorb as well. I don’t recommend them.

You can usually buy bar rags or large packages of “kitchen cloths” in the housewares department of big box stores like Target, Wal-Mart and K-Mart.  The big thing is to make sure that they are 100% cotton — ones with part polyester are not nearly as absorbent. These are the ones I have — available on Amazon:

Outside the US, I never did find anything similar — I could find wash cloths, but most had polyester in them and weren’t nearly as absorbent.  Then I figured out a great substitute:  cloth baby diapers and burp rags.  They’re both very absorbent, designed to be washed and bleached over and over, and I could find them everywhere.

For the Engine and Workshop, Use Old T-Shirts and Towels

Initially, Dave bought a bag of “shop towels” for all the gunky stuff.  The first time he used them he discovered that there was a reason they’d been so cheap:  they had a high polyester content and didn’t do much for getting grease and oil off his hands . . . or anything else, for that matter.

About the same time, we discovered that the combination of  living in the tropics and laundry women using lots of bleach to make our clothes appear very clean resulted in t-shirts with holes.  Since they were all 100% cotton, they were quickly torn up and used as shop rags.

When bar towels or shower towels were past their prime, they also were made into work rags.  Most could be washed and re-used numerous times before they got tossed.

When You Have to Use a Paper Towel, Use Only Half

While we used far fewer paper towels, there were still times when we wanted one instead of a cloth rag.

In the US, we had usually bought the ones with the “half-sheet” perforations so we didn’t have to always use a full sheet.  We never found these outside the US.

At first, I tried tearing half a sheet off the roll, parallel to the perforations.  That didn’t work as the sheet would end up tearing lengthwise sort of diagonally.

One day I had an AHA! moment:  if the sheets want to tear lengthwise, let them. Make a small tear to start in the center of the roll, hold down one side and tear the other side off.  Voilà — a perfect half sheet!

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  • Cherielynne on Facebook
    Posted at 17 November 2011 Reply

    I had never thought about using cloth diapers!

  • Penny
    Posted at 18 November 2011 Reply

    I love the paper towels that have half sheet perforations. You gave me another idea for when we can’t get those. What if you cut the roll in half and then stacked the two halves on your towel holder. You could then just pull from one roll when you need a half sheet, or double up if you need more. I would think you could the roll with an electric knife, or very sharp one.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 18 November 2011 Reply

      I think that would work, too, depending on the type of towel holder you have (it would have to have something that goes the full length of the roll, not just hold it by the ends). I never tried it, just tore them as I went — but Dave never quite remembered that unless there was a half sheet on the roll.

  • Behan Fravel Gifford on Facebook
    Posted at 02 April 2012 Reply

    Americans have a crazy obsession with paper. I grew up using dish / “tea” towels…the one thing I still reach for paper for is to wipe out cast iron… feel guilty every time.

  • The Boat Galley on Facebook
    Posted at 02 April 2012 Reply

    I still use paper to wipe up meat juice, too — but it’s amazing how much less I use than I used to!

  • Susan Parker
    Posted at 22 September 2012 Reply

    I like your idea of bar towels. I’ll look for them at Sam’s. I use cloth napkins instead of paper. I found some very durable ones at my local thrift store for 10 cents each.

  • Krissy
    Posted at 25 March 2013 Reply

    Restaurants and bars regularly restock their bar towels, tossing out the old ones some of which are still in good condition. A lot of times if you ask they will pass them on to you. Throw them in the wash, good ones can be used in the galley, the others for shop work. Not a bad deal for the price of a load of laundry! Always good to reuse & recycle right?

  • Janice
    Posted at 02 June 2013 Reply

    I purchased some knock-off “shamwows” at the dollar store. I cut them up into smaller squares and they do absorb a lot of liquid, rinse easily and dry quickly. I use them for dishcloths and wiping up water mostly. I keep a larger one at the top of the companionway steps to act at as mat for wet shoes. They are so cheap I don’t feel bad about throwing them out when they get a little yucky or letting my husband use them for engine work.

  • Lupari Sue
    Posted at 06 March 2014 Reply

    Great idea. Wish my husband would think like that!

  • Helen Amanda Fricker
    Posted at 06 March 2014 Reply

    In England we use “J cloths”; this is the closest thing I could find online:

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 06 March 2014 Reply

      Thanks so much! When I went to look at them, Amazon UK also had the original J cloths — and they were sold in the US when I was a kid but I haven’t seen them since the 70’s. Yeah, they were good!

  • Marcia Kress
    Posted at 09 April 2015 Reply

    I love all of your ideas I have seen on your site. My husband and I are new to living aboard, and relatively new to sailing. (We just sold our house and purchased our first boat last month.) How do you store your extra linens and keep them dry?

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 09 April 2015 Reply

      I try to have as few spares as possible — both for space and to keep them from getting mildew. The ones I do have, I store just as I do clothes and change which ones I’m using fairly frequently so that they get laundered on a regular basis.

  • Mitch Daly
    Posted at 15 January 2016 Reply

    Sure wish this weather would clear around here.

  • Stephanie Gardiner
    Posted at 15 January 2016 Reply

    I admit that we’re big paper towel users (in part because they burn easily) but another good replacement item I’ve found over the years are washable sponges. They’re great for cleaning up spills in the galley and one will last 6 months to a year depending on how often you use/wash them.

  • Paul Wyand
    Posted at 15 January 2016 Reply

    Number one way to use fewer paper towels is either don’t buy them at all, or if you do, keep them stashed deep in a locker. If you really need to use it, then you can dig them out, but otherwise you will use what is quickly available! I like microfiber, and if you find them to not be as absorbent, try a different brand. Look at auto detail suppliers, they have good ones. Expensive but worth it. I find that they just don’t really stain unless they get engine oil on them. They dry really quickly and don’t get stinky or moldy.

    I bet that in our house of 4 we do not use more than 6 to 10 rolls of paper towels a year. There are some jobs they are necessary for but not many.

  • Martin Henry
    Posted at 15 January 2016 Reply

    Angela McCarthy Henry

  • Andy Preston
    Posted at 15 January 2016 Reply

    Admittedly I don’t live on a boat, but I haven’t used paper towels in years. I buy the bags of white towels from Lowes or HD, and use those. Toss them in the washer when needed. Much cheaper, and much less waste into a landfill. Growing up, my mum would cut up old clothes to use as cleaning rags.

    • Christina Hand
      Posted at 15 January 2016 Reply

      It’s a habit I have carried on…. Old rags are useful in the garden!

  • Dave Skolnick (S/V Auspicious)
    Posted at 15 January 2016 Reply

    +1 on bar rags. I get them at a warehouse store in bags of 100.

    If you can’t find paper towels with perforations closer together just cut a roll in half with a serrated bread knife and use that.

  • Dave Skolnick
    Posted at 15 January 2016 Reply

    +1 on bar rags. I get them at a warehouse store in bags of 100.

    If you can’t find paper towels with perforations closer together just cut a roll in half with a serrated bread knife and use that.

  • Judith C
    Posted at 15 March 2016 Reply

    Old t-shirts are great to dry your hair with too. They absorb much better than a towel and dry faster too. When my kitchen towels retire to the garage, I use a Sharpie to write a BIG R on them for RAG. Love your blog, I’m not a sailor, but your tips are awesome on dry land too.

  • Elllie
    Posted at 13 May 2017 Reply

    At $18.00 for a bag f 6 rolls of paper towels I was so glad I’d read this article. Before we left I stocked up on Bar towels and microfiber ones for cleaning. I color coded them for each job …it helps. Green for kitchen for the floor etc..

  • Victoria Fennell
    Posted at 13 May 2017 Reply

    Great tips. Bar towels are on the list! For the half paper towels, instead of ripping each one individually, you could just cut the entire roll in half with a sharp knife when you first opened the package. Just a thought. Happy cleaning!

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