Bounty Hunter: A Personal Quest to Ditch Paper Products in the Kitchen

With two small boys, messes abound. Will Linda Sharps be able to cut disposable paper products from her routine?

(Getty)

Living in Eugene, Ore., with her family, Linda wrangles two rambunctious boys while ignoring the laundry.

Here are a few of the topics I thought I could tackle in this, my second column on trying to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.

• I could quit smoking! Smoking's bad for the environment, right? But then my husband pointed out that I don't actually smoke. "Sweet. I'm already practically Al Gore over here," I said smugly, while wiping down our kitchen counter with a handful of paper towels.

• I could stop introducing invasive species! Except I guess I haven't really been doing that either. Gosh, this coming-up-with-eco-challenges business is HARD, I thought as I served my kids a snack: sliced-up strawberries and string cheese, arranged on a paper plate. 

• I could get rid of the pesticide-drenched methane-choked industrial farm I have in my backyard! Of course, all that's really out there right now are 12 discarded Nerf guns and a stretch of slightly muddy grass, thanks to a rainy bout of foam-bullet ground warfare. Speaking of, WHO TRACKED DIRTY FOOTPRINTS IN THE KITCHEN, DAMMIT? GET IN HERE AND CLEAN UP YOUR MESS. HERE'S THE BOUNTY.

Hmmm. It's almost like whenever I think of how I can personally affect the environment, I deliberately choose to focus on enormous global challenges and mentally throw up my hands (what can I do to prevent the frightening issue of deforestation? I am but one woman, and I totally can't think about it too long because Breaking Bad's on in an hour!) instead of considering how the individual choices I make every single day contribute to the overall problems.

All right, FINE. The paper towel/paper plate thing. Let's start there.

I fell into a bad habit of relying on paper plates a few years ago, when it became apparent that small children are like cheeping baby birds, constantly demanding to be fed. Only unlike the relative no-mess situation of slam-dunking a worm into an open beak, I had to serve up an endless variety of snacks, most of which ended up smeared on various surfaces of my house or dropped on the floor. 

It seemed easier to use disposable plates. There's really no other excuse for it. Instead of having to rinse things or add more work to the Sisyphean dishwasher load/empty cycle, I just…tossed the "dinnerware."

I do in fact own an entire set of REAL plates that can be used over and over, so my plan for dealing with this particular issue is pretty simple: I'm going to use those plates from now on. Full stop. No excuses aside from festive picnics and/or a terrifying large-scale emergency that cuts off our water supply.

Paper towels are a little more problematic. I started thinking of all the reasons I reach for a paper towel, and they include:

• Wiping up spills

• Cleaning glass or polishing furniture

• Using one as a dinner napkin

• Using one as a sort of plate for a quick snack

• Dusting things

• Creating that, like, bacon mattress? You know, when you cook bacon and you put a bunch of paper towels on a plate to absorb the grease?

• Wiping children's faces

• Scooping disgusting warm cat barf off the carpet

• Drying/cleaning my hands

• Using a giant wad of them as a barrier when picking up a broom-killed spider corpse (no, my efforts to be more thoughtful of our natural environment do NOT extend to spiders the size of sand dollars, thank you very much, and before you cast the first stone I would encourage you to do a Google Image search for the Tegenaria duellica, the Giant House Spider, and consider the experience of discovering one of those unholy Hell-beasts skittering across your pillow)

• Sweeping crumbs off the counter

• A billion more examples, probably, but this list is already embarrassing as hell, so I'm going to stop now

The first thing I did was buy a couple of eco-friendly sponges (because oh, the IRONY of purchasing a green-living cleaning tool formed from environmentally dubious substances, right?) and some dishtowels. Next, I—um. Well, I totally tried to backtrack on the entire endeavor, in the feeble hopes that the whole notion of paper towels not being Earth-friendly was a giant hoax of some kind.

Look, I'm not proud. But I couldn't help wondering: Maybe paper towels aren't really THAT bad? Maybe they're sort of, you know, controversial but not widely agreed upon? Like placenta jerky? 

Sadly, Google sternly informed me otherwise, with dramatic data like PAPER TOWELS GENERATE 3,000 TONS OF WASTE EACH DAY and PAPER TOWELS ARE MANUFACTURED USING CHLORINE WHICH RELEASES CARCINOGENIC DIOXINS and HEY ASSHOLE NICE TRY BUT YOU CAN'T WEASEL OUT OF THIS.

Yesterday I sat my boys down and talked about the reasons we were going to cut back on paper towels. We talked about trees and landfills and wanting to keep the Earth healthy, and this morning I came walking into the kitchen to see this sign, drawn and taped to the wall by my eight-year-old:

"Sometimes the best way to break a bad habit is with a little help," he said, smiling shyly.

Truer words, son. I'll be back next week to give you an update on Operation Less Paper Towels, and in the meantime, if you feel like offering me a little help, I'd love to hear from you. What helps you cut back on paper towels? Have you abolished them altogether, or do you still use them for certain tasks? 

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