The debate still continues over the use of rags versus paper towels. In our home, it's not a case of either/or. Both are used; rags far more often than paper towels, but the latter is on hand for specific purposes.
Sometimes, it's more cost-effective to dispose of towelling. For instance, I use paper to soak up oil from fried foods, or "mop" fats from stock – as we seldom fry foods and only occasionally make stock only a few towels per week are required. To use rags would mean washing them separately to avoid oily stains on other clothing – not very economical, nor environmentally friendly. At other times, is just safer using paper to clean up raw meat juices or spilled egg. Rags could easily contaminate other surfaces prior to their laundering, possibly causing dire illness. Disposing of an occasional towel lessens the risk so I'll continue using paper for this purpose.
Rags, however, are my first choice for most other household applications. Some people feel the "environmental cost" (EC) of laundering rags negates any advantage they might have over paper towels. In our home, rags are never washed separately, but with other "like" items (per their colour and/or soiling,) thus making those loads closer to capacity and thereby saving EC in the long run. It should also be noted that saving cloth from ending up in a landfill before it's been fully "consumed" must also have some merit.
All rags are not created equal, though. I once cut up an old sweatshirt to use for rags. The material – a poly-cotton blend – only pushed fluids around but wouldn't soak up anything...except oils. A-ha! I thought. Now, polyester blends are kept in a separate pile and used anytime there's a greasy mess to clean. Old towels and washcloths are perfect for polishing glass and plastic surfaces – after all, kitchen linens were made for this purpose. Old bath towels make the best soakers, for those larger spills like the dreaded toilet or bathtub overflows. Cotton-blend socks are fantastic additions to the rag bag. Worn on the hand(s), they work well for dusting or polishing small items. They're ideal shoe buffers and, when too soiled, instead of washing and perhaps ruining other laundry items, can be used as campfire "starters." Just make sure to store them in a closed tin, in a cool place, until needed. Just don't cook over that campfire until all trace of the "starter" has been burned away.
Second-hand cloth can be used for more than merely rags. I take old jeans apart and use the salvageable cloth to sew tote bags. Old pillowcases are used as storage bags and are particularly good for foods which require ventilation (e.g. onions.) "Retired" sheets could produce a dozen rags, but are used for another purpose. I cut them, across their width, into one-foot strips and then sew those strips onto the foot end of new sheets to extend their length – most sheets are just way too short for my liking! Nobody sees the mismatching foot end, and we end up with sheets long enough to fold over the top blanket.
As someone who sews, I also have a collection of remnant cloth. This doesn't go to waste either. Quilting is a possibility, but I've yet to learn that craft. So, to use those fabrics I recently made cosmetic pads with some leftover fleece sandwiched between two layers of poplin. Using a zigzag stitch, I sewed rows and columns, approximately 1-1/2 inches wide, separated by about 1/8 inch to allow cutting between them. These cosmetic pads have lasted several months now and launder well (though I put them in a "small-garment bag" to ensure the washer won't eat them.),
Ultimately, even rags become too threadbare for practical use. Don't throw them out yet, though. Laundered, they make excellent packing material.
Over time, this has become like a game: How else can second-hand cloth be of use? Do you play the Rag-time game too? Please leave a comment and share your cloth-recycling ideas.