Dishcloths versus paper towels

G Magazine

Which wipes should be in every conscientious kitchen?


Credit: iStockphoto

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Often, when wiping up kitchen spills, we simply reach for whatever is closest by, without thinking about the eco-impacts of our scrubbing and scouring. G gets to the bottom of this big old mess.

The materials

Your standard commercial dishcloth is made from a synthetic cellulosic fibre called viscose rayon, and an acrylic binder. Vicsose rayon is derived from a natural, renewable source: trees. Wood chips are processed using a combination of chemicals such as sodium hypochloride, caustic soda, sulphuric acid and sodium sulphide. This is a polluting process that produces sodium sulphate and toxic, noxious gases.

Life cycle assessments of synthetic cellulosics have shown that for every tonne of viscose rayon produced, about one to two tonnes of greenhouse gases are released. Synthetic cellulosics require between 300,000 and 500,000 litres of water per tonne of fabric to produce.

Paper towels seem to have an advantage because they can be made from post-consumer recycled waste instead of virgin fibre.

However, tissue products made in Australia (a category that lumps paper towel together with facial tissues, loo paper, napkins and) contain only 12 per cent recycled content, according to the Australian Council of Recyclers.

Recycled products manufacturer Seventh Generation suggests that if every Australian household replaced on roll of 120-sheet virgin fibre paper towel roll with a recycled paper product, more than 70,000 trees could be saved.

According to the US Environmental Defense Fund Paper Footprint Calculator, for every tonne of 100 per cent post-consumer recycled paper produced, 1.6 tonnes of greenhouse gases are released, 40,000 litres of water are used and almost a tonne of solid waste is produced (bearing in mind that much of this is inks, coatings and fillers from the post-consumer paper that would have gone to landfill anyway if it was not being recycled into new paper.)

Bleach and dyes

On the shelf, most of us are attracted to the spotlessly white paper towels and brightly coloured dishcloths. However, products can only look this way after bleaching or dyeing, usually with chemicals that are bad news for the environment. More environmentally responsible bleaching methods have been developed, which use water and oxygen instead of chlorine compounds, and these methods are becoming popular with major producers.

Lifespan and disposal

Paper towels are designed for single use, and because they’re so convenient it’s easy to over-use them. Although paper is technically recyclable, used paper towels are classed as contaminated so they’ll end up at the tip.

Depending on how well you look after them, dishcloths can last for months, wiping up countless spills. You can lessen the environmental impacts of washing the cloths by making sure the washing machine is full before you do a load, using environment-friendly cleaning products and using a clothesline or rack to dry them. Since textile recycling in Australia is mainly based on taking a trip to your local op-shop, chances are your dishcloths will be lumped in with general household waste.

Other options

The newest eco- trend in household cleaning is eco sponges and wipes made from renewable and/or biodegradable materials.

The biodegradable options tend to be made from cellulose, rayon (derived from bamboo in a chemically intense process), PLA (a biodegradable polyester made from corn starch) and cotton (look for organic where possible). Look for certification to back up claims of biodegradability and remember to throw used wipes in your compost, as they won’t break down in landfill. Biodegradability is a bonus, but it doesn’t cancel out the environmental impact of producing these products.

Microfibre cloths have been on the market for a while. When used with water (no cleaning sprays needed) they clean surfaces by breaking down dirt mechanically (not chemically). The not-so-great news is that most microfibre is composed of two common synthetic fibres: polyester and nylon. These are manufactured from fossil fuel sources and are not biodegradable. However, some brands, such as Enjo, do accept products back at the end of their life for recycling into car seat padding and other materials. Take-back programs such as these also often mean discounts on your new cloth purchases.

You can recycle your own old T-shorts and towels at home by simply cutting them up as dishcloths.

The G verdict

At the end of the day, this eco-battle is a matter of life and death, for the products that is; dishcloths win because they outlive their paper counterparts by orders of magnitude and so the impact of their production is less per use.

Although dishcloths require regular washing, green laundry habits can minimise water and energy use. So to be a truly green cleaning machine, stick to re-usable cloths that come from the most sustainable sources or, best of all, make your own.


Look for certified biodegradable dishcloths in your supermarket – and don’t forget to compost them at the end of their life!


Choose a microfibre dishcloth and you won’t ever need surface sprays again. Even better if you can find one made of recycled plastic.


Make your own dishcloths from old clothes and towels and compost when you’re finished with them.