It's the destruction of forests and trees vs. water and detergent. Some argue that the water and detergent needed to launder cloth napkins negate the environmental benefit of using them instead of their paper-made brethren that require trees, chemicals, fossil fuels, packaging and transportation to reach you. I argue that the water required to launder the cloth napkins is far less than the amount of water and natural resources required to manufacture paper napkins and I'm converting completely to cloth napkins for daily use in my house.
For those in the paper camp, you should know that there are different kinds of paper napkins, some just straight out bad, others not too bad. The just plain evil paper napkins are the ones from virgin paper; virgin paper is paper that goes straight from tree to napkin, it is brand spanking new paper and incredibly wasteful for a single use item like a paper napkin. Then there is partially recycled paper that is bleached, better than virgin paper but still bad thanks to its partial use of virgin paper and bleaching chemicals. Finally there is 100% unbleached, recycled paper. If you are going to use paper napkins, please only use 100% recycled bleach free paper napkins, at least trees aren't being cut down just to make these napkins.
For those in the cloth camp, there are also several cloth options, each of which in my opinion is more green than even 100% recycled paper napkins provided you are are responsibly washing them. That means don't throw two napkins into the washer and run a full cleansing cycle. If you're going to use cloth napkins, consider linen or organic cotton. The growing of conventional cotton includes artificial fertilizers and pesticides that can do irreparable damage to the earth. Remember that it is not necessary to wash them after each use either. Fold your cloth napkins and store them someplace between meals noting of whose napkin is whose - use individual napkin rings to identify them - and use for several meals if possible. When it's time to launder them, throw them in with your regular laundry or wait until you have enough to do a full load on their own. Also, use cold water and an environmentally friendly detergent like Seventh Generation.
So now I put the argument out to you, my readers, what is better or worse for the environment, cloth or paper napkins? I have dug out many of the old cotton napkins that are at the bottom of my dish towel drawer and I have also purchased a half dozen new cloth napkins for daily use.
What do you use?