Some zero waste changes are easy to make: swap a compostable bamboo toothbrush for your plastic one, done. Others require years of trial and error to figure out just exactly how that new routine is gonna work well. What I use to clean my house is one of those that's ever-evolving, but seeing as I've finally (almost) nailed one aspect of it, I thought I'd share: how I've made cleaning with cloths work for me.
Of course, this may not be a way that will work for you, or it may be a compendium of tips gentle and simple enough to encourage you to finally kick paper towels to the curb. Either way, here's how I approach it:
-Invest in cloths of different colors. Or textures or sizes or patterns or something distinguishing. Basically, anything to reassure you that the cloth you used to wipe off the seat of your toilet is not the same one that turns around the next week and gets used on the kitchen counter. I use the white washcloths for wiping down dust (etc.) around the house, the light yellow washcloths for washing my face and other cosmetic-y things, bright yellow washcloths for cleaning in the bathroom (not pictured: but they are so hideous I don't mind subjecting them to the dirtiest of tasks), and the dark gray washcloths for cleaning the kitchen. You probably don't need four colors: I bet three would do. One for kitchen and home, one for face and body and kiddos, and one for cleaning the bathroom.
-Make sure you have enough. I only recently upped my stock of kitchen washcloths and that, more than anything, has been the biggest game changer. Prior to, I had a limited number of cleaning rags for the kitchen, and so I'd use each too many times before throwing it in the laundry. I never want to feel like my ability to wipe off a counter that sorely needs it is limited by the number of clean washcloths left in the stack; so over-purchasing new ones means that my kitchen is actually substantially cleaner than before.
-Keep different laundry piles. (Maybe). This is a preference thing, but I like to keep my dirty cleaning cloths separate from clothing and in some cases, each other. I keep a few small bags on top of my laundry basket, where I stash the used cloths of varying kinds once they're dry. This helps keep them separate both in the pile and in the wash.
-Wash them in hot water. Naturally.
-A few zero waste companies make specific "un-paper" towels. (Something like this). Have you ever used these? I'm not sure if they're different or better than typical washcloths, but I'm thinking of picking up a set to give them a try.
-Rags work too, cut-up old t-shirts and what-have-you. I didn't have enough t-shirts to cut up for this purpose and I like the plush absorby-ness of washcloths, but using old fabric scraps cut into nice big rectangles is probably the more zero waste option than buying something new. You could still color-code the uses, of course: setting aside white t-shirts for the kitchen, blue t-shirts for the bathroom, etc.
-Rags are also helpful to keep around for disaster tasks: when a bottle of oil spills in the kitchen (?!?!), when your kid does something particularly untoward, when you find some mold in the back of your fridge. Though washcloths don't feel particularly precious, it doesn't feel right to ruin something that can last for a long time; I like to keep some rags handy just in case.
-If you find you still need paper towels for certain specific tasks, look for rolls packaged in paper rather than plastic-wrapped. You may be able to find them at a local grocery, or you could try out this set. (It's a box of six, so good to split with a friend if you don't anticipate using that many!).