How (and Why) I Kicked the Paper Towel Habit

A few good rags,

A few good rags in a basket = alternative to paper towels. Photo © Liesl Clark

A few good rags in a basket = alternative to paper towels. Photo © Liesl Clark

a washing machine,

2-3 weeks-worth of cloth rags in line for laundering = sustainable replacement for paper towels. Photo © Liesl Clark

2-3 weeks-worth of cloth rags in line for laundering = sustainable replacement for paper towels. Photo © Liesl Clark

and an empty drawer

"Wiping Towel Drawer," under the counter right next to the dinner table, ready for wipe-ups. Photo © Liesl Clark

“Wiping Towel Drawer,” under the counter, right next to the dinner table, ready for wipe-ups. Photo © Liesl Clark

are all it took to convert my family from paper towels to cloth towels.

Rosie would be proud of these cloth towels. They’re definitely “the quicker picker upper” vs. Bounty, her paper equivalent.

And there’s another reason to skip paper towels altogether: Bisphenol A, a chemical linked with cancer among other things. Sadly, according to a study published in Environmental Science & Technology, our recycled paper products are now laced with this endocrine disruptor because thermal receipts that have high amounts of BPA have been recycled into most of our post-consumer paper products. Therefore, recycled content paper towels, newspapers, business cards, printer paper, even toilet paper have BPA and BPS in them. Returning to virgin pulp paper products might the healthier route to take! But the environmental impact of using virgin paper (a.k.a. loss of trees and the dioxins released in the atmosphere during the process of bleaching conventional toilet paper), according to the Huffington Post, far outweighs the small amounts of BPS found in our recycled paper toilet paper.

Oh, and BPA has also been detected in our currency.

Hazardous waste? Photo © Liesl Clark

Hazardous waste? Photo © Liesl Clark

I think this whole situation might be the perfect example of a bass ackwards trash backwards absolutely hazardous mess only humans can create. Somehow, we’ve managed to contaminate our own paper recycling streams with such toxic chemicals that post-consumer recycled paper itself is no longer a green option. Strategists say that if we stop recycling our thermal receipts or any recycled paper that has BPA in it, we may return to BPA-free papers. The problem is that according to some estimates, 8 million tons of BPA are produced each year and it’s been detected on every beach ever tested for the chemical.

The dilemma appears to fit perfectly with Urban Dictionary‘s definition of bass ackwards:

bass ackwards
Ass backwards. The state of doing (or having done) something the wrong way.
No no dude, you’ve got the cables plugged in all bass ackwards.

Before we recycle our papers into new papers and disseminate them all over the planet, into our gray water (in the case of toilet paper) and onto our countertops (paper towels) let’s find out what’s in them and exclude the papers that have toxic chemicals in them.

The bad guys: Thermal receipts have more BPA (that transfers into your skin upon contact) than any other paper, can, or plastic. Photo © Liesl Clark

The bad guys: Thermal receipts have more BPA (that transfers into your skin upon contact) than any other paper, can, or plastic. Photo © Liesl Clark

What can you do to help prevent BPA and its alternative BPS from spreading further into our watersheds? Stop buying paper towels, refuse receipts at stores, and don’t put them in your compost, your recycling, or even in your fireplace. Seems the toxic culprits need to be collected and bagged up so their chemicals can never leach into our groundwater. Think male frogs with female genitalia and you’ll get the picture. I’m considering taking the ones I collect to our household hazardous waste facility.

cloth towels instead of paper

Now, what to do with those paper towel holders? We use ours in a closet to hold rolls of string and masking, duct, electrical tape.

Stop Junk Mail With PaperKarma

Be mindful of your paper karma. This one's worth reducing. Photo © Liesl Clark

Be mindful of your paper karma. This one’s worth reducing. Photo © Liesl Clark

According to some estimates, the average US household receives 850 unsolicited pieces of mail each year. Our household was once way over that average, and for years I tried to reduce it. I can say, two and a half years after subscribing to PaperKarma, that our junk mail is now GREATLY reduced! PaperKarma is my personal junk mail pitbull, chasing that unwanted paper advertising away, nipping at the heals of those bold solicitors, telling them to remove me, forever, from their memory banks.

Here’s a picture of one month’s-worth of junk mail, two years ago, sitting on my desk:

One month of junk mail -- unsolicited. Photo © Liesl Clark

One month of junk mail — unsolicited. Photo © Liesl Clark

Today, that pile is about a quarter as high.

Enter PaperKarma.

As a Buddhist, I admit I was immediately drawn to the app.

I’m on every do-not-send-list I could possibly sign up for through the Direct Marketing Association, and I’ve diligently kept up with Catalog Choice in getting rid of unwanted (that means all) catalogs, but I still find that I have to call companies in-person to request no more catalogs around Christmas-time. My last ditch effort was to try the mobile app called PaperKarma.

PaperKarma, a free app that'll reduce your junk mail for you.

PaperKarma, a free app that’ll reduce your junk mail for you.

This app, named “The Catalog Killer” by Entrepreneur Magazine is FUN! Imagine receiving an unwanted piece of mail, taking a picture of it, hitting a button and seeing all future solicitations from said company (eventually) disappear forever. That’s what PaperKarma offers. And I can tell you from experience that they follow through with their promise. Since I started reducing my own paper karma we’re definitely receiving less junk mail. Some days we even receive, gasp, no mail. A few pieces of unwanted mail keep trickling in, but they’re ones we haven’t reported to PaperKarma yet. So I diligently send a quick picture to the PaperKarma bot that gracefully sends a notice to the offender to make sure they, ahem, TAKE ME OFF THEIR MAILING LIST.

PaperKarma is like having a mail (not male) secretary who handles something that’s offensive to you which you have scant time to deal with. I feel like the CEO of my mailbox domain every time I get a notice from PaperKarma saying they’ve successfully reached one of those corporations I didn’t ask to be targeted by. This is what apps were meant to be: our behind-the-scenes-clean-up-our-messes-while-defending-our-ideals-and-hence-saving-the-environment-type of digital enterprise. PaperKarma is also local, i.e. they’re Seattle-based and we’re just a hop on a ferry away, so I feel like we’re supporting a local enterprise that has huge national environmental impact.


If you have a smartphone, download PaperKarma — it’s free. If “karma,” like “samsara,” is an action or deed that brings light upon the cyclical reality of cause-and-effect, PaperKarma’s bots are truly karmic. Join me in looking forward to getting a rare piece of junk mail, just to experience the sweet pleasure of being a tattle-tale, reporting that offender to PaperKarma’s database that’ll set in motion the cause-and-effect of requesting to be removed from unwanted mailing lists. Federal law says companies must comply if such a request is made. And if they don’t, PaperKarma will check in with you to see who’s not listening and follow through on your behalf. Your personal paper-chasing lawyer, getting it done. It’s joyful, this process, and will save hundreds and thousands of trees as well as carbon in the delivery of your unwanted mail and wasted marketing brain cells on people like you and me.

25 Uses for Silica Gel

The Many Uses of Silica Gel. Photo © Liesl Clark

The Many Uses of Silica Gel. Photo © Liesl Clark

Silica gel is one of those little-understood materials. Although the little silica gel packets say “Do Not Eat, Throw Away” that doesn’t mean you have to follow this misguided advice and think the little gels are poisonous. You’ve likely unknowingly put some in your mouth already or rubbed it all over your body as it’s used in some toothpastes and also exfoliants. They’re a non-toxic inert desiccant that will dry out anything they sit near. Their uses are many and hence it’s worth thinking twice about throwing them away. I collect them and share them in my local Buy Nothing group every 6-13 months with artists and others who praise their worthiness for reuse.

The Carolina Poison Center has this to say about silica gel:

“The gels are a form of silicic acid, which is similar to sand. Silica gel is non-toxic, meaning that it is not poisonous if eaten. The package says “DO NOT EAT” because (1) it is not food, and (2) it could be a choking hazard.”

The ASPCA also deems it nontoxic, usually producing only mild stomach upset, which typically resolves with minimal to no treatment for your pet.

So, now that we’ve determined it’s not a poison to be avoided, we’d like you to not throw it away because those little packets are useful! Silica gel can be reused over and over again and has some excellent applications in the home and office.

This list will go from the most obscure reuses to the most common:

1) If you have trouble keeping your car windshield from fogging due to moisture trapped in your car, place a couple of silica packets on the dashboard and they’ll go to work for you.

2) Put a silica gel packet inside your halloween pumpkin to stave off the mold.

3) Extend the life of your razor blades by placing silica gel packs in an airtight container with silica gel.

4) Throw in your ice skating bag to help keep the blades from oxidizing.

5) Store a few with your fishing gear, especially dry flies.

6) Fight mold! Stash silica packets in the damp corners of your home.

7) (My favorite.) Use silica gel packets as tiny throw pillows for your doll house. If you cover them with scrap fabric, all the better.

8) Use a little in your kitty litter. Your commercial kitty litter manufacturer does.


9) Put packets of silica gel in with your silverware. It slows down the tarnishing process.

10) Place them inside your camera cases, with lenses, to keep your equipment dry.

11) Put silica gel in with your boxes of stored photos and slides to preserve them longer.

12) Your down jackets and down sleeping bags will benefit from a few packets of silica gel to keep moisture out.

13) Put a few packets in with your garden seeds to keep them dry.

14) Stash a packet or 2 with your jewelry to prevent tarnishing

15) All keepsakes in the attic in boxes can benefit from a few silica packets nearby.

16) Keep a couple packs in the pockets of your luggage to keep your clothes and travel items dry.

17) Silica gel and dried flowers are excellent friends.

18) Store them with your electronics.

19) If you have video tapes, DVDs or old audio cassettes, silica gel would be welcome nearby.

20) If you think your silica gel has been exposed to a lot of moisture, you can put them in a 150 – 200 degree oven for a few minutes to dry them out and restore them to functionality again.

21) If you still have silica gel packets hanging about, pass them on to a receptive neighbor through your local Buy Nothing group. Share them, so no one ever has to actually buy them.

22) Use them with your kids to teach about volume. Here’s how one science teacher writes: “I use them in science class. The students love playing with the silica balls when they swell up with water. We measure how much water they can absorbe by measuring them when they are dry then measuring again after a few hours.”

23) When your cell phone falls in the dink, place several packets in a ziplock bag with your wet phone. Leave for 12-24 hours and check for signs of any remaining condensation on lenses, etc. You may just save your cell phone!

24) Another reader tells us that if you put your hearing aid in a ziploc bag overnight with silica gel it can help to keep the moisture out of the hearing aid.

25) Melita tells us they’re a huge help with dirty diapers: “I tape them to the top of the rubbish bin I put nappies in. It absorbs the smells. Every week I change them over. Works a treat!

Don’t stop at 25!

26) Put them in an airtight container with your leftover nori. It’ll keep your nori crisp, not gummy.

27) If you have trouble with dampness in our under-sink cabinet, causing all sorts of damage or the dishwasher powder box to get damp and clump up. Silica gel to the rescue! Throw some packets in with your dishwasher powder.

If you have more reuses for these little packets, please share them here.

Month Less Plastic

Plastic-free for a month

Today is the beginning of a new adventure my family and a few other friends’ families have signed up for: a month less plastic. What?

Essentially, the challenge is to reduce our plastic intake, and share what we learn with each other. If you’re interested in this endeavor, please join us, and write in to share your experiences in curbing our toxic love affair with plastic. It permeates parts of our lives well beyond our kitchens and children’s playrooms, and that’s what this adventure is meant to highlight. What will we learn from trying to use less plastic, whether it’s a focus on simply not allowing new plastics to enter our homes or a study on which plastics we use each day and how we can keep them useful so they never end up in a landfill? Will this exercise complicate our everyday rituals or simplify them? We’re looking for more clarity in defining our relationships with the materials we use each day. Are they healthy? Will the things I throw away or recycle end up part of a new plastic item or will they land in a landfill, or the ocean? What impact will they have in the long run?

All solutions to the problem of persistence of plastics in our environment point to less dependence on plastic. So, we’re going to give it a try. A month less plastic.

But first, I need to rewind to the day before the start of our month. Yesterday. I promise, we didn’t head to the store to stock up on all the things made of or packaged in plastic we’ll need for a month. In fact, we went to a local store to purchase much-needed toilet paper and bananas. Bananas don’t grow here so I’m violating the local motif, but we’re known to do that with a few of our staples: bananas, rice, flours, nuts, avocados, coconuts.

Organic Bananas?

Bananas came in two varieties: organic and non-organic. We aimed for the organic bananas and, to our dismay, found they not only had a couple of organic stickers on them fashioned in the shape of a leaf with a drop of dew on them (made of plastic) but they also had a large strap of plastic tape around the bunch. Adding insult to injury, a ‘sock’ of clear polyethylene plastic was stuck to the stem connecting the bunch together. One plastic over-glued sticker claimed the bananas were “raised by mother nature.” How lovely it will be to see that sticker mushed together with all the other discarded plastics, decidedly not raised by mother nature, in our local landfill in about a week.

Organic/Non-organic, Plastic/no-plastic

Organic/Non-organic, Plastic/no-plastic

On the other side of the produce island, we could see the non-organic “regular” bananas had only a single paper sticker on each bunch. The decision was a no-brainer. Based on our month less plastic agenda, the non-organic bananas ruled out. The organic specimens were a paradox per bunch staring us banana-loving monkeys in the face.

Raised by Mother Nature

We leave you with a short film dedicated to the launch of our month less plastic. It was produced, shot, written, directed, composed and performed by our up-and-coming one-boy film-making machine. I’ll qualify this introspective film by simply saying that it was made entirely without my knowledge. While I was attempting to make a film about how easy it is to shop at your local store and generate zero waste, this film was being made. Sadly, after shooting, editing, and completing our very upbeat film about how one can succeed in zero waste shopping, I was contacted by an executive of the local store and discouraged from pursuing the film any further. We hope you enjoy the film that will have to take its place: