A bath-towel conundrum leads to a revelation: Buying something new to reduce your waste is almost never the sustainable solution.
Let’s talk towels. Do yours match? For a while, mine did. Not that it matters, but for years I had a sturdy, serviceable set of cotton towels in dark blue, an excellent color for everyday textiles. My kids’ public school uniforms are dark blue, as are many of my clothes. Dark blue hides almost any non-salad-dressing-based stain and is easy to match in the dark. If I’m feeling shy at a party, I stand a reasonable chance of blending into the furniture, or the pile of coats, if I wear dark blue. I also think it’s a color that puts people at ease, possibly because they don’t notice I’m sitting next to them, eyeing their cheese plate.
In the early days of pandemic lockdown, I saw a bad pattern developing: my family started to use the towels. While not ideal, it was, I suppose, predictable. Whatever, go ahead and use them–just hang them up when you’re done. That’s the towel contract. Most civilized societies respect it. So why was I seeing so many towels on the floor? Some had suffered gross indignities (can we agree to use kitchen towels for kitchen spills?), while others were still plush and sweet-smelling, having barely grazed the delicate necks of freshly washed babes before being cast on the floor.
Not that I’m a huge stickler for neatness. I like to live and let live, so towels on the floor wouldn’t be a big deal, except…cue the Bumpus Hounds, aka, the two terrible, loveable dogs who live with us. Their ears, finely tuned through generations of domestic evolution to sense tiny, invisible disruptions in the vibrations of the air, can pinpoint the unique frequency of a falling towel. And nothing delights their terrier hearts more than fresh terrycloth.
Before the towel even hits the ground, you can feel canine endorphins shoot through the air like static. The dogs drop everything to: (1) cloak the fallen towel in personalized dog scent; (2) dig an imaginary hole in the towel; and (3) fall asleep therein. I have seen these dogs ignore, against all nature and precedent, the heroic three o’clock sally of our intrepid mail carrier, in favor of napping on a towel.
I warned my family to hang up the towels or be prepared to wear a doghair shirt next time they dried off. To wash every towel after every use was a colossal waste of water and energy.
When nothing changed, I tried hiding the towels and doling them out one at a time. Hang it up! I may have screeched. You are entitled to one towel per week, maximum!
That failed pretty quickly too, as you might have guessed before I started telling the exciting towel story. In our defense, this isn’t a unique narrative. Contract or no contract, towel dropping is a problem so pervasive that Jewel wrote a song about it.
If Mistake Number One was inviting children and dogs to share my living space, then Mistake Number Two was the plan I concocted to wash fewer towels. Chasing a daydream of order and accountability, I decided to assign each family member a unique towel color. How pretty this solution would be, I mused, as I moved our perfectly good dark blue towels to a super-secret location (the back of my truck) where I hide things I plan to give away before my family notices.
Yes, I decided to buy a “better” copy of what we already had. Reader, I went online. I found a line of inexpensive cotton towels at a big retailer, and click, click, (sigh) click, bought each family member a new set that included one washcloth, one hand towel, and one bath towel, each set in a unique jewel tone. Bullseye. I ran headlong into Mistake Number Three: falling for the cheap bait of “free” shipping. If nothing in this life is free, then shipping may be the least free of all.
Do you want to know how many packages were delivered to my house in the following weeks? Here’s a hint: multiply one washcloth, one hand towel, and one bath towel by the number of people in my nuclear family (five). If that’s an exaggeration, it is a slight one. I lost count as the tally grew. At least ten separate packages arrived at my house in the span of about fourteen days, though I will never know how many shipping containers, planes, factories, warehouses and trucks it took to fulfill that order.
Strategically speaking, the plan worked—mainly by revealing the main culprit to be the eleven-year-old I suspected already.
Ethically speaking, I had made a series of mortifying and environmentally costly mistakes, none of which was new, and maybe that’s my point. I performed one scene in a very long play that’s been running in America longer than the musical Cats. (Are the songs even that good? It doesn’t matter.) I bought my ticket. I kept it going. As long as an audience will pay, some poor actor has to put on the cat suit, or in my case, fulfill the order, fuel the plane. I might have been saving water at home, but I took my waste on the road.
If these sound to you like the tears of a clown, I agree (and I’m only scratching the surface of my lifetime towel errors). Not to trivialize clown tears, but in monetary terms they aren’t worth the terrycloth they’re wiped on. They don’t cover, for example, health expenses for the workers we rely on to deliver essential goods during times of pandemic, war, or even peace. I have tried to learn from them, and to remember the human supply chain I activate every time I click, before I click, because while buying something new might feel like the easier, more fun solution to a waste problem, it is rarely the sustainable one.
On the list of things that don’t matter, my current mismatched towel situation is way, way up there. All told, it was an embarrassing lesson, but at least I get to remember it every time I dry my hands.