You don't even know it yet, but there is something missing in your life. Look around. You won't find it. You and probably your parents have been missing this vital thing in your life and you had no idea. And no, this isn't a marketing scheme where I create a "need" for you. This is actually the opposite: I am going to undo a "need" that marketers created in your life. That's right. I am going to fix your brain. Or maybe I'll just tell you about the Bag of Rags.
Something has been lost. Somewhere between messes and the industrial revolution, the paper towel was invented. That flimsy piece of soft paper (that is somewhat towel like) and made from trees, created a space in our lives for cleaning up spills. That disposable absorbant material somehow snuck in to our world and became so convenient that we forgot that we already had something convenient that worked. But really, paper towels did have their place. I mean they really did fill a need, right? They genuinely had a time and a place. Because driving to the store, to spend money on something we have to throw out and keep buying is convenient. It just makes sense.
Now riddle me this? Whatever happened to using good old rags? You know, that piece of salvaged fabric that used to be your old t-shirt that can also clean up dirt and can be reused? Now I am no greenhouse expert, but I am pretty sure cutting down a tree vs using an old cut up towel has a much smaller carbon foot print. And I don't think adding a small rag to the wash uses any more water or soap than a normal load of laundry. And when it comes to the carbon footprint of paper towels, I am not even counting the packaging, having the goods delivered to the grocery store, the addition to the landfill, and on and on. I'm pretty sure a rag can last forever because it doesn't even matter how ugly it gets; it's a rag! How is that for a carbon footprint?
Benefits of Rag Usage
I could begin and end the list of the benefits of rags with one thing, they clean up messes, because what else really matters, right? Well, apparently there are a few more bonuses of rag usage:
- They keep nice tea towels nice - I'm sure you have had a moment of desperation where you have grabbed one of your decorative tea towels to clean up something that spilled and you instantly regretted it because your pretty tea towel would never look as new after that moment. But if you had grabbed a rag, well, your tea towels would keep looking new forever and could serve their decorative purpose forever more.
- Cheap - Well, being almost free sure is cheap. The cheapest, actually.
- They serve multiple purposes - Rags can clean the kitchen, bathroom, and floors. Seriously, it's true.
- Effective at cleaning up spills - Yep, they can get the job done when it comes to spill clean up.
- Reusable - Because they are. Just wash and reuse. Single use is even okay.
- Ugly - This certainly is not a benefit, more like a fact. Rags are basically ugly, but so is a paper towel after cleaning up muddy paw prints, so who really cares?
Rules for Effective Use
Now using rags is not something you just fall in to, there is proper way to get started and to use your rags. If done incorrectly, you may have the wrong type of rag and if things get really out of hand, total rag chaos. Here are some basic guidelines for set up and usage:
- Buy a bag-o-rags or a box-o-rags from your local thrift store. While you are there, check out the sweater section and maybe puzzles and rain gear too. You might as well, those are basically where the gems of the thrift store are.
- Don't spend more than five bucks on a bag or box. The whole point is that they should be cheap. Well, not really, the whole point is that they should be recycled fabrics that are reusable, but you know what I mean, cheap counts too. A ten dollar rag is a scam.
- Keep your new rags handy. We keep some in a small tote above the fridge and in a basket in the bathroom for easy acccess. If they aren't easily accessible - you won't use them.
- Use them.
- Rinse after use because if you don't they will get stinky.
- Air dry the rags completely before throwing the used rag in your laundry pile. A damp rag becomes a moldy stinky rag that will quickly find its way to the garbage bin because it gets too gross to wash.
- repeat. Reuse. Do it.
If you decide to make your own rags, go crazy. I mean why not? - Save the fiver and cut up that old faded thread bare towel. I suggest cutting the rags pretty big, at least 12"x 12", as this seems to be the most effective size for keep your hand protected from spills when you clean them up. And having small pieces is actually handy too for smaller messes . So any size is good, really.
For fun, let's see if we can figure out how much paper towels really cost, in real life terms. Well, almost real life because in order to figure it out I have to assume the cost of paper towels does not increase. So let's say one roll of paper towels costs $1.50 and you use two rolls a month. Some families probably use less and others use more, so two seem fair, eh? According to Mr. Money Mustache, my frugal finance mentor, in his insightful post about the long term costs of weekly or monthly expenses over ten years, in order to figure out how much a monthly expense costs over ten years, you just need to multiply the monthly cost by 173. In this case, two rolls of paper towels probably cost $3.00 per month. So that would be $519 over ten years. Now let's compare that to the cost of a bag of rags over ten years... yep, maybe you might spend $20 on rags over ten years (probably less) then you are saving $499. That doesn't seem like much, but I would definitely like to see $499 in my bank account after ten years. And what if in the following ten years, paper towels cost $3 a roll, and you use two a month, that is $1038 over ten years. And in the last ten years, they cost $4 a roll, that would be $1,384 over ten years. So to add up your paper towel expenses over thirty years, they would cost $2,921. Yeah, that is about three grand you didn't need to spend.
This is only one example of silly spendiness in our lives that has snuck in and made a home in our routines and pocket books. I won't bore you with listing them all, since that isn't the point of this bag-o-rags post, but I will share with you one of my favourite games that helps point out the absurdity in our daily lives. It's the Alien game. All you have to do is pretend that you are an alien and you are new to this world and you are observing the habits and routines of its inhabitants for the first time. For example, an alien might wonder why we mow lawns, because seriously, why do we mow lawns? For looks? So we use a fossil fuel powered machine, that costs money, to cut grass, that we planted, so that our property looks a certain way? Kind of ridiculous if you think about how unnecessary it is. Not even counting pouring drinking water on it to help it grow, when we don't even eat the grass. And then we put it in bags for trucks to pick up. Cray cray.
So maybe aliens would think paper towels are nutso too?
Like everything else, we can guess how paper towels have made a space in our lives. But when you realise they aren't any better than a rag (worse actually) you might just want to walk to the thrift store and get yourself a bag (or box) of rags. If Americans send 10.5 million tons of their used clothing to landfill each year*, imagine how many rags that could be?
Sometimes it isn't easy to make a change from something that has become convenient in your life; you feel like an outsider on the edge of hippydom when you are going against the societal norm. In my world, I have struggled with my dreams of becoming wasteless, but those are extreme efforts for most (not her) since in order to achieve such goals you sometimes have to become a hermit or a weirdo. But this one small thing, is simple. So simple that it is almost too easy. It might still weird and hard, but it is still worth a shot.
Are you going to give it a shot?
*Where Does Discarded Clothing Go by Elizabeth Cline: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/07/where-does-discarded-clothing-go/374613/