Washing cloth napkins vs. using 100 percent recycled paper napkins

January 17th, 2008

In comments on my Paper napkins nevermore post, blog visitors Dawn and Virginia both asked about the impact of using water and energy to wash cotton napkins. Does it cancel out the good you’re doing by not using paper napkins?

This is a complicated question. If you wash your cloth napkins on cold and use phosphate-free soap (a really easy thing to do), you will lessen the impact. I wash all of my laundry on cold and haven’t noticed a difference.

You can also consider hanging napkins to dry. And, of course, you can use your napkin more than once if you don’t eat like a kid. I try to keep the same napkin throughout the day, but this is easy for me since I work from home. (Can you imagine using the same paper napkin throughout the day?)

However, Pablo, a sustainability engineer from Triple Pundit, argues that 100 percent recycled paper napkins are kinder to the environment than conventional (not organic) cotton napkins. He notes that linen napkins are better than conventional cotton as well.

I don’t totally agree with all of Pablo’s assumptions (he assumes you’ll only use your cloth napkin 50 times before throwing it away), but he did do some impressive calculations. I think one thing we can all agree on is that virgin paper napkins are bad for the environment.

There’s also the money factor — recycled paper napkins can be expensive, and they come wrapped in packaging each time you buy them. When you throw them away, you are creating waste with your plastic garbage bag, not to mention the transportation costs to the local landfill.

The short answer seems to be that the best choices are either organic cotton napkins or linen napkins OR 100 percent recycled paper napkins. With mindful laundry habits, I still maintain that even non-organic cotton napkins are better for the environment than virgin paper napkins.

I am going to keep a log to see how many washings my cotton napkins will withstand. I am fairly sure they will hold up for more than 50 washings.

8 Responses to “Washing cloth napkins vs. using 100 percent recycled paper napkins”

  1. Jennifer on January 18, 2008 7:06 pm

    Cloth napkins are hands down a better eco-choice I think. There is no way washing them cancels the benefits. I mean, how small are cloth napkins? It’s not as if you ever have an entire load of cloth napkins. We throw them in with other stuff (and use cold and what-not like you said). I don’t agree with that fellows assertion that we only use cloth about 50 times either. We’ve had a couple of our sets for years. Once a set gets too old we turn it into a dust rag or wash rag (like for bathroom cleaning). We use them until there’s really nothing left. So, not only are we saving paper napkins but paper towels as well.

    You said, “With mindful laundry habits, I still maintain that even non-organic cotton napkins are better for the environment than virgin paper napkins.” I agree. Reuse is always better. It still takes energy each time a company produces paper napkins, organic napkins, whatever, so the trade-offs are tiny.

  2. Peggy on January 24, 2008 6:40 am

    Good point about saving paper towels as well!

  3. nita on February 6, 2008 8:18 am

    I have to disagree with that guy. First, as you said, if we buy the recycled paper napkins, they come wrapped in something and chances are the wrapping isn’t recycled. Second, I have several sets of cloth napkins I acquired when my aunt passed away. I’ve had them for four years, I’m guessing they’ve been used more than 50 times by me, and my aunt had them several years herself. Not to mention, some of them she purchased at a thrift store, so they’ve been around awhile. Plus, the cloth napkins are just plain nicer.

  4. Peggy on February 6, 2008 8:29 am

    Thanks for stopping by Nita. It’s always nice to comment with a fellow cloth napkin user.

  5. Tracy on May 7, 2008 7:46 pm

    I made some cotton napkins (a dozen takes about and hour and a half from start to finish) and I LOVE them! My original intention was to replace paper towels as I hated the fact that my family was so dependent on them. My main conservation issue was cash. Some things I have noted since switching to cloth. 1) I love the way they feel. 2) I use the same one all day and often into the next. 3) I use them for napkins, spills, blowing my nose and microwave cooking (not all with the same one, of course!). Its not an increase on my laundry load. They go in with loads that would have been run with or without them, whites, darks, colors, you name it, any load can handle the addition of a couple cloth napkins. I expect my napkins to last for many years. I have had some dishtowels in use for 10 years or more. Original cost outlay around $3.00 for a dozen. Additional labor, negligible. For me, its a no brainer.

  6. Peggy on May 7, 2008 9:22 pm

    Tracy, that’s great. I need to get a sewing machine. Thanks for sharing. I also noted a big difference in my paper towel usage after switching to cloth napkins. I’ll never go back.

  7. Sadie on August 27, 2008 7:30 am

    I’ve been grappling with this, too, and decided cloth napkins make sense. Better still, you can “recycle” by buying second-hand and vintage cloth napkins instead of brand new ones. For informal use it doesn’t matter to me if they match, and in fact it is fun to put out a bunch of mismatched vintage cloth napkins for an outdoor party.

    I agree with what others have said about multiple use, too. I have cloth napkins that are 20 years old and still in good enough shape for everyday/casual . Once they look bad, they become cleaning rags and dust cloths.

  8. lucy on April 11, 2012 8:33 pm

    napkins last more than 50 washings.
    6 years ago my daughter decided to have a completely green wedding. I sewed more than 300 napkins. bought glass plates, cups and cutlery at the dollar store.
    Not only did it look beautiful, the cutlery tied up in the colorful cloth napkins, she used the napkins for thank you gifts, (Christmas gifts, home warming gifts etc). just short of 300 guests later there was less than one black garbage bag of garbage. everything else was reusable or recyclable.
    6 years later….just at my house we still have 100 napkins and they still look nice enough. the dishes have been used at other weddings and parties 25 times. (I am now begging people to take them off my hands). ‘we use the cloth napkins for everything. I just add them to the wash whenever I run a load. so in short…it was fun, colorful, made great gifts, and are still in everyday use.

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