“What’s a paper towel? said little Declan at a holiday meal. A member of the extended family asked for one. I passed around a stack of cloth napkins.

“It’s one of these made of paper.” Declan laughed. When he saw his first paper napkin in a restaurant, he was confused, much the same as when new guests come over to my house, pick up cloth napkin, and ask, “Can I use this?”

I don’t have a scrap of a paper towel in my house. I never buy them. The average American uses nearly 3,000 paper towels at work alone, let alone in the home. (1) (2) I can’t be part of this crime. That’s 13B pounds of dead trees a year.

I do my best at school to reduce paper waste, too. I don’t give a lot of slips of paper or homework that needs to be written. I accept work online. I think of the Lorax when I teach.

When students need lined paper, I walk around with a stack. “Anyone need a slice of dead tree? Dead tree? Dead tree?…Yeah, you, need to ruin the environment to get an A? Write small.”

Years ago, I got very smug and proud of myself. I was able to say, “No, I don’t have kitchen sponges or paper towels to clean, I use these.” Kitchen rags–they’re what happens when good towels go bad. I throw them in the wash and use them again.

The other day, I found a big, big stack of paper napkins under the kitchen sink. Someone left them here, I didn’t buy them, but somehow they migrated up to the “general use” zone in the kitchen. I didn’t catch anyone using them. I hoped nobody expected me to buy more.

Today, I remembered there are some days the rag pile just won’t do.

This morning, I woke up to mysterious shapes on the rug. It was dark, as 4:30AM tends to be. I flipped on the little light–mud piles of various sizes and shapes were dropped and sprayed wall-to-wall throughout the room with the rug. I say this, because most of the house has such easy-to-clean wood floors. This purple rug has been on my DIY list to rip out since we moved in.

Declan was asleep–innocent. The criminal investigation spun in my mind as I flipped on the bigger light and put on my glasses. The dog couldn’t track in this much…mud?

It wasn’t mud.

I vaguely recall the dog whining at 2AM. I assumed the person closest to the door let her out. Bad assumption. It wasn’t mud on the floor. It was the aftermath of “good dog falls to Halloween candy theft” telling her people “You really should get out of bed and let me out.” And they don’t.

Fear struck my soul. I don’t own paper towels.

This is the one time the non-recyclers and wasters in society get to laugh at smug enviro-freaks.

There are times a person needs to put products in the landfill, even I admit. I used disposable diapers–I could’ve used cloth, but I only had one kid, so I didn’t increase the surplus population. I simply ensured that my questionable DNA would remain on this planet, and for a moment in time, I wasted.

I also think things like dental floss are disposable, and also feminine products. Sure, there are recyclable options, but there’s a reason we don’t call it “the Middle Ages” anymore. Unless you’re in education, but that’s a topic for another post.

Sometimes you really need a paper towel. All the rags in the world won’t do the job right.

I pushed the button on the coffee and heated up a pot of water. I have a method for this. Hot water, cleaner, a ton of paper towels and a floor brush. I developed this foolproof method for Cat with Hairballs years ago.

The stack of napkins! I’d never been so overjoyed to see a giant stack of wastefulness in my life. Saved. Note to self: Buy a floor brush. The toothbrush I found (old, not somebody’s) was going to take a very, very long time. Ah, the toilet brush…I’m in business! 

It’s amazing what goes through the mind when dealing with piles of shit. I call it “The Cycle of Shit.” It goes something like this:

First instinct–pass the buck. “Can I leave this shit for someone else?” This is a natural feeling whether dealing with shit at work or literal piles of the stuff two feet from the nose.

Next, you might be the one who gets shit dumped on you, like me.  I look to see if there’s anyone else I can pass it on to before remembering the feeling of first getting dumped on. I know I can’t in good conscience make someone else feel that way. So, I clean up the shit, metaphorically or literally. It’s the right thing to do.

Then, there’s this feeling I get when I’m cleaning up the shit–a strangely optimistic feeling. “Oh, there’s shit all over. Thanks, dog, you even managed to get a chunk inside my shoe. Could’ve been worse though. I was going to put my nearly packed new suitcase out here but I shoved it in the corner of my room instead. Phew!” Instant gratitude.

Always be optimistic, even in the middle of the shit. It could have been worse. Trust me.

Finally, when the piles are all cleaned up, I stand back and say, “I can hardly smell it anymore,” only the fresh lemony smell of the non-environmentally sound cleaner someone else brought into this house after I lost the argument of which cleaner’s better.

I pause for a moment to wonder if Mr. Clean is safe for rugs, but he’s done his job so I high-five him in my mind.

I’ve lost an hour of my morning to shit, but I’m reminded of valuable lessons. One, take care of the shit before it happens (let out your whining dog). Two, don’t let shit roll downhill–clean it yourself. Three, yes, it could’ve been worse–be grateful. And, four, when it’s all clean, the world smells like lemons.

I resolve to buy and hide a roll of paper towels so I can always be ready for shit.

I wash my hands.

Now, lessons learned and recalled, I’m sitting, happy as a clam, smelling lemons and drinking way too much coffee as usual.



(1) Bet you got annoyed to read a blog post with actual citations. Sorry.

(2) The site where I stole this fact has an interesting TED talk–4 minutes–“How to Use a Paper Towel.” Dog turds aren’t mentioned. Worth your watch.

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