Why reusable paper towels aren't always right for the job

“Reusable” isn’t always “suitable”.

Paper towel roll on kitchen bench.

When I saw “reusable paper towels” at the store, I thought, “Cool!” I’m always keen to cut back on single-use products, so I picked up two types, but, as I found out in my trial, “reusable” isn’t always “suitable”.

The pros of paper

If I’ve spilled tea or soup, I reach for a cloth. When there’s something yucky to clean up, I grab a paper towel. Why? Because I don’t want to have to wash a dirty rag later.

So, what constitutes a “yucky” job? For me, it’s cleaning the drip tray after grilling salmon. To avoid coating everything else in the dishwasher with smelly fish oil, I mop up the slick with a paper towel and throw it in the bin. That towel ultimately ends up at the tip, though, so a “green alternative” seemed a great idea – on paper at least.

What are reusable paper towels?

If You Care Reusable Paper Towels.
If You Care Reusable Paper Towels, $29.90 for 12 (24x23.5cm) from Commonsense Organics and some online shops.

It seems like an oxymoron, but reusable paper towels are cloths that are both "reusable" and made of "paper". I tried If You Care's Reusable Paper Towels ($29.90 for 12 from Commonsense Organics) and Simply Clean's Bamboo reusable towels ($9.99 for 30 from Briscoes) to see how they fared in everyday situations.

If You Care’s Reusable Paper Towels are 70% cellulose & 30% cotton. They have been independently certified as home-compostable.

Simply Clean’s reusable towels can be washed and reused “up to 100 times”. The sheets are “100-percent bamboo”, but Simply Clean makes no composting claims.

How they performed

Simply Clean Bamboo reusable towels.
Simply Clean Bamboo reusable towels $9.99 for 30 (27x30cm).

While both products are strong and absorbent, the If You Care cloths had the edge when it came to mopping up. They were much thicker than either the 100% bamboo or regular paper towels, but a downside was that they’re stiff when dry. That was fine when I was dealing with liquids as the towels became pliable when moistened.

For anything else I found the Simply Clean towels a more flexible option. The bamboo towels felt more like soft, silky dusters when dry (although, when wet, they had a “slipperiness” – it wasn’t gross or slimy, just weirdly waxy).

As both products are whitish, they stained easily, but they did stand up to repeated hot washes (they didn’t disintegrate in my washing machine). They also dried quickly.

How long will a reusable paper towel last?

I used several of both types for a couple of months (as dishcloths, rather than as paper towels) and found the If You Care ones held up really well. The texture and integrity were as new. The Simply Clean ones, meanwhile, began to pill after a dozen or so washes. They still did the job but they weren’t as nice to use, especially when bits of food got stuck in the “fluff”.

So will they last as claimed? Perhaps. I was still using the If You Care towels as dishcloths after a couple of weeks, but although the Simply Clean ones hadn’t physically broken down, I threw them in the compost as they weren’t pleasant to use.

Will I keep using reusable paper towels?

On the face of it, they’re a great idea, yet neither type was a satisfactory substitute for a “proper” paper towel. Rather, they were a decent (and compostable) replacement for microfibre cloths. So, yes, reusable paper towels have a place in my home.

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J W.
23 Apr 2020

Hi. I think you've substituted "Simply Care" for "Simply Clean" a couple of times and it makes the article really hard to read.

Consumer staff
23 Apr 2020
Re: Typo?

Hi J W,

Good spot and apologies for the error. We've now corrected this.

Fonda - Consumer NZ staff