Paper towel vs. rag: Which is cheaper?

If it costs two cents to wash and dry a rag, is there a paper towel that can match that price?

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    In his Westminster, Calif., kitchen, Mario Cantacessi is one of five finalists nationwide vying to win the title of Brawny Man in this 2002 file photo. Some paper towels are as cheap to use as rags, but it depends on the task.
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For a long time, my wife and I have kept a big pile of rags in our kitchen as a cost-saving strategy. Instead of using paper towels for the endless small kitchen messes that come from having three children (wiping off faces, cleaning up spilled food and drinks, etc.), we strive to use rags from our “rag drawer” as a cost-cutting measure. We simply keep the dirty ones in another spot and wash them once every week to ten days as part of a load of towels.

That’s not to say we never use paper towels. There are certainly some tasks where paper towels are the item of choice, particularly in food preparation. They can also easily handle many of the tasks mentioned above. We just tend to use rags as a less-expensive alternative.

But is it really less expensive to use rags? Clearly, there are some costs involved in using old washcloths and the like as our kitchen rags. Some fractional amount of the cost of each one should be included here, as should the cost of washing the loads of laundry.

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As always, that means it’s time for us to run the numbers.

It costs us $1.34 to run a load of laundry. For this number, I’m using Mr. Electricity’s estimate. Usually, we do a load of half towels and half rags, which means $0.68 for that load just for the rags. Each time we do this, we run about 40 rags or so. Thus, our cost per rag for cleaning is about one and a half cents.

It also costs us $0.49 to dry a load of laundry, again using Mr. Electricity’s estimate. As mentioned above, half of this load is rags, cutting it down to $0.25, and resulting in a cost of roughly three-quarters of a cent per rag for drying.

We usually acquire the rags in bulk. They can often be found at yard sales and the like in large quantities for a cheap price. Let’s say, hypothetically, that I would pay ten cents per rag and I’d get 100 washes out of that rag before it fell apart. That would give us a cost of about a tenth of a cent per rag for acquisition.

All told, the cost per use with a rag is about two cents. A cent and a half per rag for washing, three quarters of a cent per rag for drying, and a tenth of a cent per rag for acquisition are all rounded up a bit, so I’ll round down to give the overall estimate. Two cents really is pretty close to the cost per rag.

How many paper towels does a rag equate to in the kitchen? It depends on the task. For wiping off faces, a rag is about equal to two paper towel sheets of the brands we buy (we usually buy good paper towels, because the cheap ones just disintegrate). For other tasks, though, such as washing dishes or scrubbing tabletops, a rag is equal to quite a few paper towel sheets – say, ten of them. For our uses, I’ll estimate that one rag use is equal to five paper towel uses.

How much does a paper towel cost? Obviously, costs vary. I went to Amazon and looked at lots of different paper towels and found the best bargain I could on a brand we’ve used in the past – Bounty. There, you can geta twelve-pack of Bounty “Huge” Rolls for $33.99 (shipped for free with Super Saver Shipping). Each huge roll has 130 sheets, so that equals 1,680 sheets for $33.99. Since every five sheets equals roughly the same usage as a single rag, that’s 336 “rag uses” for $33.99. That’s almost exactly ten cents per “rag use.” It’s also roughly two cents per single sheet use.

In other words, if I use a rag for a very light use, such as washing off my infant son’s face after he attempts to feed himself pureed carrots, it’ll cost two cents. If I can do it with a single sheet of paper towel, it’ll also cost two cents. The rag and the paper towel are roughly equivalent in cost for very light uses.

However, when the task becomes heavy duty, the rag wins. I can use a rag for scrubbing dishes, while a single sheet of paper towel will simply fall apart. The same goes for giving our kitchen table a good cleaning, handling messes from art projects, and so on. If a task is going to require me to use multiple sheets of paper towel, it’s cheaper to use a rag.

Given all this, we just default to using a rag for as many kitchen tasks as possible. Even if it’s a light task, the cost is roughly the same as a paper towel, and a rag is less expensive and more convenient for a heavy task.

We leave the paper towels for the handful of things they really shine at, usually involving food preparation tasks where you’re trying to dry off a piece of meat or some vegetables. For everything else, we turn to the rags.

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