DIY Project: How to Cut Back on Paper Products

I’ve Recycled for as Long as I can Remember Being an Adult.

I suppose it started when we lived in the country (in the Midwest). Back then we sorted our trash—not for recycling—but for burning. Every home had a large metal drum (barrel) at the back of the property where trash was burned once a week. Items that couldn’t be burned were gathered for trash pick-up. And since we were limited to how many trash bags we could set out, we made sure we burned everything we could.

But soon recycling became popular (and air pollution from burning trash, not so much) and I quickly changed tactics. I loved the idea of recycling, since I was already in the habit of re-purposing anything I could around our home, from worn-out jeans to wooden cloths pins. Being on an extremely tight budget (because we refused to use credit cards) while raising two small children will help one think along those lines!

Recycling is good, but better yet, what if we cut back on the amount of paper we use to begin with?

Cutting back on paper usage in the home, not only helps the environment (and saves some trees), it helps your household budget. Take a look at your grocery bill and add up how much of your money goes to non-consumables vs. actual food. Now, isolate the paper products. I think you might be in for a surprise.

How to Get Started:

The good news is cutting back on paper usage is easier than you might think. We can all participate and do our part. To be fair, I’m not advocating that you have to remove all paper products completely from your life. They do offer a convenience. But we can certainly be more cognizant of how much we are using them. To give you some ideas, here are ways we have cut back on paper usage here in our home:

Kitchen Bar TowelsPaper Towels: I do love the convenience of paper towels. But boy can I go through them quickly! In the kitchen we already had towels and cloths for dishwashing chores, but to cut down on paper usage I have added hand towels, little bar towels and sponges. They are handy for quick cleanups and spills. And they are washable and reusable. For household cleaning chores, I’ve re-purposed old dish cloths, washcloths and old t-shirts as cleaning rags. When I get a load of dirty rags, I run them through the washer with Baking Soda added to the wash cycle (with the detergent). Then I add some vinegar during the rinse. They come out clean and smelling fresh.

Paper Napkins: If you’re like me, you have lots of cloth napkins that matched placemats from years ago (and no longer match your kitchen décor), but you hate to throw them out. Even if they’re now faded, they are still usable! So use them for everyday meals instead of reaching for the paper napkins. You can wash them all in a load together when needed and you are ready to go. If you don’t already have a stash of cloth napkins, it’s as easy as taking a trip to the Dollar Store.

Paper Plates: This one was a big one for us. We found ourselves using them a lot! So we picked out a set of inexpensive dishes we liked (on sale in a department store) and now use them for all our everyday meals and snacks. Our good dishes are still used for special meals and when we have company, but we don’t have to worry if one of the everyday dishes gets broke. Yes – just wash and reuse. :0)

BandannasFacial Tissues: I will admit that this one is my personal challenge. I can go through a box in no time. So I took a step back in time and remembered that when I was growing up we always carried cotton handkerchiefs—men and women. I had pretty embroidered ones or color printed designs. Men had white cotton ones for dress and the big bandannas for work. So now we have all of these at our disposal! Although it’s still recommended to use throw-away tissues when you have a cold, the cloth ones work fine for everyday and can be washed and used over and over. And for make-up removal, I use color wash cloths. They are softer on my skin than paper tissues. I purchased enough to have a new cloth each day and simply them to a load of laundry each week.

Canvas Grocery BagGrocery Bags: When stores first started using those awful plastic bags for groceries (and put in about three items per bag) I hated trying to carry a gazillion of them in my hands. And I was already thinking about saving trees and not using the paper bags. So I purchased heavy-duty canvas bags with shoulder straps and have used them ever since. Now, in our community at least, they have banned the plastic bags, and if you don’t bring in your own bags for your groceries you’ll get charged for the paper ones. This may happen in your area soon, as well. No problem! I was already in the habit of using my own bags! In my opinion it’s much easier to carry one large bag on each shoulder, rather than ten little bags in my hands. Again – just throw them in the wash once in a while – ready to go again! And think of the trees we’re saving and how many of those insidious bags we’re keeping out of the environment!

The side benefit of cutting back on paper product usage and having substitutions in place is that if you and your family ever find yourselves in a disaster or emergency situation, you’ll have the means to get by without having to leave and try to find supplies. And it’s doubtful much would be left on the shelves anyway. You’ll already know how to cope.


What ways do you cut back on paper in your home?


  1. Allison Smith

    I love this- like you, I have a lifetime of conserving paper. I’ve had my own shopping bags for a long time- it helps that I also have a lovely shopping basket from Ghana and it’s a large, visual reminder in my car to bring the d**n thing into the store! Cloth towels, napkins, handkerchiefs- I use them all. I save every ragged t-shirt for rags instead of paper towels.

    This Memorial Day weekend my sister and I co-hosted a 90th birthday party for our mother. Since I live closer to the event, I was in charge of acquiring plates, napkins, etc. I spent a happy several weeks at thrift stores and garage sales buying small dessert plates- nothing fancy, usually rather pretty- and I brought them all to the party. I already collect cloth napkins, but it took some scavenging to get 50 of them, so I also cut fabric with pinking shears to make sure we had enough. The church supplied coffee cups, and I brought vintage tablecloths (which I also collect). I figure, I’ll be doing laundry anyway, and I’m blessed to live an a region with a vibrant water table, so it was my contribution to the cause.

    My next big bugaboo- plastic. I now use bar soap shampoo, and make my own laundry detergent. Dish soap is a problem, as is saving perishable veggies (such as kale and lettuce) in a way that reduces or eliminates plastic. I would love to hear your take on this!

    • indy

      Allison – thank you so much for sharing this. I love love love all your ideas and say bravo for all you do to save on paper! I too have used other alternatives for hair care and laundry detergent, but have found the same challenge when it comes to dish soap. You’ve inspired me to do some research on that topic and see what I can find. Also, I know I recently saw some information regarding storing perishables – will see if I can dig that one up. Thanks again for taking the time to share your experiences with all of us – much appreciated!



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