This is Day 148 of the Green in 365 series!
*This is a guest post from Becca, who has been one of my most faithful readers and commenters here on Live Renewed. I’ve always appreciated her sharing her ideas and experience in the comments, and am excited to have her share this post with you today!
by Becca Stallings of The Earthling’s Handbook
I switched from blowing my nose on paper tissues to using cloth handkerchiefs more than a decade ago. When our son was born a few years later, we used cloth baby wipes along with cloth diapers, and we used cloth hankies instead of tissues to wipe up drool and spit-up.
In all these situations, I found that cloth was much better than paper for cleaning yucky stuff off a person without leaving bits of paper stuck to the skin or letting yucky stuff soak through to my hand. Reusable cloths save trees and prevent pollution from paper manufacturing.
Building a cloth wipe stash
Because they’re small, quite a lot of them can get washed with a load of clothing or diapers without using any extra water, soap, or electricity. They can even be made from reused fabric–my son’s first hankies were made from his grandparents’ worn-out pajamas, cut into squares and hemmed by Grandma! Obviously, cloth is the environmentally friendly, affordable, and effective way to wipe.
Even so, it took me a while to try substituting cloth in other situations where I’d been using paper tissues all my life. We’d always kept a box of tissues next to our bed for (ahem) intimate hygiene. One day we ran out of tissues and realized we didn’t have a spare box, so I grabbed a handful of hankies from my drawer and put them in the tissue box. We discovered that they were softer and easier to use–especially in the dark–and left us feeling a lot cleaner than tissues. Although we did buy more tissues to have in the living room for guests, we have never again put tissues next to our bed.
Whenever a soft cotton knit garment wears out, I cut off all the seams and elastic and parts that are worn really thin, and then cut the remaining fabric into rectangles, about 5 to 8 inches long and wide. Knit fabric is great because you don’t have to hem; it doesn’t ravel very much. I love being able to keep the pretty fabric from favorite old garments in everyday use, and I love the variety of colors and prints among our rags!
Storing cloth wipes
What you see here is the basket of rags on our bathroom shelf. We have a lot of similar baskets holding various supplies on those shelves. They were made out of an invasive river plant and purchased from the artisans in a fair-trade arrangement with Ten Thousand Villages–so they solve several problems at once: getting the invasive plant out of the river, making use of the material, earning the artisans money to feed their families, and providing attractive and useful storage for us!
In our bedroom, we kept refilling the cardboard tissue box until it tore, and then Daniel substituted a little wooden chest that he happened to have–but it isn’t quite wide enough, and it has a latch that sometimes scrapes my finger in the dark, and it doesn’t look as pretty as the setup in the bathroom.
The rag supply in the bathroom is used for applying facial toner (apple cider vinegar is great for that!) and blowing noses, and I also use it in place of toilet paper just for pee.
You see, although I’d read online about lots of families who use “family cloth” instead of toilet paper, I just couldn’t stomach the idea of rubbing adult intestinal bacteria onto rags, letting them sit around for a couple days until I do laundry, and then trying to get them clean enough that I’d feel safe using them on my ladyparts or my nose. I’ve had a lot of urinary tract infections in my life and didn’t want to risk more.
I can believe that some families are able to use cloth wipes safely and control the odor, but I just didn’t want to try. Eventually it occurred to me that about half my toilet paper use is just dabbing myself dry after peeing, and I decided to try cloth for that, while still using toilet paper for poop.
Well, I’m sold! It’s amazing how a piece of cloth makes me feel much cleaner and drier than a piece of toilet paper the same size. You know, toilet paper actually is designed to fall apart on contact with liquid–that’s what makes it flushable–so it’s kind of ridiculous to put it against your wet skin and expect it to come away intact. I have to use toilet paper while I’m at work every day, and after getting home I can see on my cloth the fibers of toilet paper that had been stuck to me for several hours–it’s disgusting, and when you think about the chemicals used to process paper, it’s probably a health concern as well as an aesthetic one.
Washing cloth wipes
The air circulation allows the cloths to dry completely, so there’s no risk of mildew. When I do laundry, I just zip up the bag and toss it into the washing machine. It keeps the cloths together–being so small, if they go loose in the laundry they can wind up inside sleeves and so forth. The bag can go straight into the dryer, too, but I usually line-dry all of my laundry. Uncrumpling each of the clean rags and hanging them on the drying rack adds several minutes to my laundry routine. I kind of enjoy it, though, arranging the different colors and patterns.
But seriously, does all the goo come off in a cold-water wash? Yes, usually, the washing machine does a surprisingly good job of removing every trace of every type of fluid that gets on our rags. It does help to make sure the rag is uncrumpled when dropped into the bag, instead of being folded around a glob of goo. Every once in a while I’ll notice a rag that did not get completely clean. Because I’m handling them when I hang them to dry, I usually notice at that point and just rinse that rag at the laundry sink. If I do find a not-so-clean rag that made it back into the basket of clean ones, I just toss it into the bag for another washing. It really doesn’t happen often.
Try cloth wipes for yourself and see the difference!
I had no idea how much I disliked paper tissues and toilet paper until I tried using real cloth! Now I’m finding it annoying that I have to use toilet paper at work…but I’m not quite dedicated enough to carry rags with me everywhere I go. I do use pocket handkerchiefs for my nose-blowing all the time.
I mentioned having tissues for guests. Of course, we can’t expect guests to understand all of our earth-friendly ways, but an additional concern is that they might have infections that could remain on the cloths after laundering. I want to share my cloth items only with people with whom I already swap germs anyway. I do have a funny story about a guest, though…
Back in the era when we had a cardboard tissue box full of rags on our bedside table, a friend was keeping me company while I put away summer clothes and unpacked winter clothes in the bedroom. He noticed the box of rags and began ranting about how gross it is to blow your nose on something and then wash it and use it again. I pointed out that people used handkerchiefs for centuries and survived; I told him the many advantages of hankies in my experience. He eventually dropped the subject.
A few weeks later, he came over again, and when he sneezed he pulled out of his pocket a purple-and-white striped rag that I recognized as one of mine!! He finished wiping his nose, noticed me looking, and said, “What?! These are great! You said so yourself! Well, you don’t want it back now, do you?” Um, no, dude, keep it…. Over time, I noticed more stacks of rags (made from his own clothes) around his place.
It’s fun to convert someone to a habit that works for me. After reading this, I hope you’re convinced to make yourself a handy basket of rags! Any questions?
Becca Stallings is an environmentalist, mother, and social scientist who works as data manager for a research study and spends her lunch breaks writing The Earthling’s Handbook, a collection of useful information for living, eating, thinking, and parenting on Earth. She has been trying to use resources wisely all her life but finds more habits to change every year.
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