Monday, January 05, 2009

The Napkin Cage Match: Paper vs. Cloth

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?


  1. We switched to cloth napkins about 10 years ago, and never looked back. We have lots and lots of them, so we only launder in with our regular clothing loads. It makes even the simplest bowl of cereal seem more elegant when you set the table with cloth napkins, too.

  2. Wow, I can honestly say that even though I consider myself relatively savvy about environmental issues, I've never thought twice about using paper napkins. I guess the fact that I drive a hybrid doesn't cancel out how quickly I go through paper towels either.

    I'm going to give this issue the thought it deserves.

  3. I usually use paper napkins... love you blog!

  4. OFG, I applaud your efforts to bring environmental importance into your blog. Below is a website where you can print out coupons for seventh generation products.

    Keep up the good work.

  5. Hey-
    Very cool blog. I can't figure out how to follow your blog... Can you advise so I can be sent updates?

  6. Hi goooooood girl, thank you very much!

    Hi Lydia, I couldn't agree more about the bowl of cereal! I've been using the same napkin all week for breakfast, all the while looking at the lonely napkin holder on my kitchen table. It feels so good!

    Hi Cheryl, I too have always considered myself environmentally conscious. It wasn't until last month that I began to think about this subject when I visited some friends in California and noticed they use cloth napkins for every meal.

    Hi Zesty, thanks! I've become a big fan of yours too!

    Hi Mike, thanks for the comment and the link to the Seventh Gen. coupons!

    Hi TudorCity Girl, thanks for the comment. I just added a widget on the right side of my page with a link to subscribe to my site! Thanks for following! I don't have an email feed set up at this time but you can add me to your reader.

  7. This is much like the paper vs cloth diaper argument. We use mainly cloth diapers, but I think there is a time & place for paper, as with napkins or other daily products.

  8. We changed to cloth napkins a few months ago and love them.
    To eliminate the paper towel syndrome too we bought 8 microfiber towels and are now using vinegar and water to clean our glass tables, windows and mirrors.
    This has been amazing to me as my glass coffee table has never looked this great and streak free.

    With microfiber towels they do have to be washed by themselves, I usually soak them in the kitchen sink with laundry soap and rinse them with vinegar, then hang dry. Never use any detergent with/or softener. Never put them in a dryer.

    I'm loving the challenge of how to waste less and also about using natural cleaning products. Each week we seem to be getting better and more educated.

  9. so easy to use cloth...wash, go, use, buy like 20 for a fam of 4 and you're good to go! Save trees, nice...

  10. Hi veganf, I agree, similar to the diaper debate, however I simply can't see using cloth diapers.

    Hi missdiscipline, although we have been using cloth napkins exclusively, it's been very difficult for us to remove paper towels from the kitchen.

    Hi Siridyal, I completely agree! We have about a dozen cloth napkins for the two of us, we love them and I cant remember the last time we had to buy paper napkins!