June 11, 2007

Which is Greener: Cloth Napkins or Paper?

Which is Greener? Cloth Napkins or Paper Napkins?No one would accuse me of being too civilized; I eat asparagus with my fingers, thank you very much. And so I am a napkin user. I grew up in a household that used paper napkins at every meal—the standard issue 6"-square, white paper napkin that crumples nicely and doesn't quite hold up to stuff like barbeque.

The Captain, on the other hand, grew up using cloth napkins. The first time I visited his folks, I was amazed by how many sets of cloth napkins his mom kept stashed away for every meal. Wow, classy! I thought. And then it occurred to me that perhaps this was a much better way to treat the environment: instead of wasting paper napkins mutliple times a day, we could reuse cloth napkins over and over and over again! Less waste, right?

The Triple Pundit doesn't think so, though. When asked the question "Is it more efficient to use linen napkins (factoring in the energy for picking them up and washing them) or paper napkins (recycled paper napkins)?" columnist Pablo Päster answers with a remarkably detailed breakdown of the various environmental considerations involved.

The result may surprise you; it sure surprised me. Turns out that using 100% recycled paper napkins may, in fact, have a less detrimental effect on the environment! So it looks like I'll leave the cloth napkins in the closet until our next dinner party, and switch back to paper for regular meals. Just to make things even greener, it turns out that in San Francisco it's perfectly acceptable to compost our soiled paper napkins!

Pablo's response—in addition to offering a practical response to a common environmental question—highlights another important point: we can't just start blindly making changes to our lifestyles and habits (on either a micro or macro scale) without first understanding the complexity of the issues. It's important to base our decisions on reality, not blind assumptions. As we continue to ask questions as simple as which napkins should we use? and as complex as how do we feed the world without destroying it, too? we need to remain open to some surprising discoveries and counterintuitive answers.

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17 Comment(s)

Anonymous Alina said...

Jessie,

I was also quite surprised to hear that. But there is a major BUT in his calculations. I asked and apparently the original question was about a restaurant, where they wash napkins after each use. In your own house though, you would probably use a cloth napkin more than once before washing it. Second point it is, you would also, very likely use the said napkin a lot more than 50 times, which is the estimated lifespan in Pablos calculations.

So, for my personal 'domestic' use, I think his conclusions don't apply.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Jessie Jane said...

These are very good points, although practically speaking I think it's safe to assume assume that many folks (the "average" American, whatever that is) would be likely to wash their napkins after each use. Someone with kids, for example, or a messy boyfriend (cough cough).

As for life cycle issues, I agree: you'd likely get more than 50 uses out of a single napkin, even if washed after each use. Realistically, I would likely use the same napkin not much more than 2-3 times a week (since it would sit in my laundry bag until the next load, so we'd cycle through 2-3 sets of napkins).

I wouldn't, however, discount Pablo's calculations outright. The disparity in footprints for cloth vs. paper was pretty huge. And I don't know about where you live, but the fact that I can compost my napkins make a huge difference in footprint to me, since there is no landfil impact whatsoever.

Again, this is the perfect example of how there is rarely a one-size-fits-all answer. Thanks for clarifying!

—JJ

8:13 PM  
Blogger Jessie Jane said...

Ugh, sorry for the illiterate response! No spellcheck for comments :(

8:14 PM  
Blogger diana said...

i didn't think napkins with grease (food residue) were recyclable? Or did you mean that buying napkins that are made from 100% recyclable material and throw them out (or compost) is better? OR am i wrong and it is acceptable to recycle napkins with food residue on them?

sorry-- i am a bit confused!

9:43 AM  
Blogger Jessie Jane said...

Actually, according to the recycling folks in my city, limited food residue on recyclable materials is, infact, acceptable (so, wash out the peanut butter jar but used napkins are fine as-in).

As far as the statistics used for the Triple Pundit results go, they were accounting for paper napkins made from 100% PCW recycled materials.

That said, San Francisco allows us to actually compost most food-soiled paper products (napkins, paper towels, etc), which mean I waste very little. Whew!

—JJ

11:26 AM  
Blogger Dani Nordin said...

the other thing that makes me annoyed is the sheer volume of napkins not only that people take when they go out to eat, but the number that the folks in fast-food joints give you. I make it a point to only take one, maybe two; I've been to a Dunkin Donuts where the person gave me eight. I put most of them away.

I do use recycled paper towels in the house, but I use fairly few of them, and that's typically what I use in place of napkins.

9:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a small compost bin in my yard, used only for our own small garden. Can I really compost my napkins and paper towels? What if they were not made from recycled paper? (Sorry)

In addition, I also use my cloth napkins many times before adding them to a load of laundry. I wait until they are visibly soiled before laundering them. Doesn't that change the equation, or should I switch to paper?

Thanks in advance for any replies that help me sort this out.

SLM

6:27 AM  
Blogger Patricia said...

I do not believe that using paper products is a proper choice. Even recycled paper is then bound in a wrapper that is not recycled and is a fossil fuel product. I buy cloth napkins on clearance sales, garage sales and such. I pay very little for them compared to paper products. I have a big basket full of them for everyone to use instead of paper towels and napkins for everything in the kitchen. We throw them in the wash, along with other stuff for a full load, use COLD water and eco-friendly cleaning products. I have a front-loading washer that uses very little water. I fold the napkins and never bother to iron them. I think my way is much better than the suggested paper trail.

In conclusion, you can go ahead and fatten the wallets of the lumber companies by using huge volumes of paper and I will feel much better with my cloth napkins.

6:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've thought about this, too. And the argument is parallel to the one for cloth/disposable diapers. (Advice well taken: we need to understand the complexities of the issue - not an easy task!)

However, for cloth dinner napkins -- if one simply throws a couple of napkins into an existing load of clothes, I imagine that, too, would affect the environmental impact - makes the load of laundry a bit more efficient and doesn't require a separate load just for napkins.

7:57 AM  
Blogger E's pet said...

For us, we switched to cloth when we inherited all my mother-in-laws cloth napkins that she's had since the 1950s. Given their age, it made more sense to us and I'm fairly sure they've greatly exceeded their 50s uses. :-)

10:53 AM  
Blogger Jessie Jane said...

@SLM: Paper plates and paper napkins are indeed compostable. San Francisco's municipal composting program, in fact, also allows waxed paper (like waxy cardboard or coffee cups) to be composted as well. I'd suggest sticking with unbleached, un-dyed recycled paper, of course.

@Patricia: I'm glad you'll feel better about using cloth napkins while I fatten some wallets. Just be careful on that high horse, it might hurt if you were to ever fall off.

@anonymous: You're definitely right about napkins ending up in an existing load. I'm actually working on a follow-up post that more closely compares the two options based on more realistic calculations.

—JJ

3:02 PM  
Blogger Terry said...

Seems to me like the 50 uses is a ridiculously low figure. I've had the same set of fabric napkins for many years now, and they were vintage (purchased on ebay) so I have no idea how much they were already used. The two of us reuse them up to 3 times if they do not get visibly soiled. If we count a use as a whole day (2-3 meals), that's 530 uses per year, not counting the weekend gatherings where all the napkins come out of the closet. There are about 12 napkins total, but I am inclined to say that the top 4 in the pile get much more frequent use. That's nearly 50 uses each *year* on average, and they show no sign of wear. The tiny pile of napkins disappears into the rest of the laundry. And they do stand up to barbecue :) And finally, I have every reason to believe I will still be using these napkins for many many years to come. I'd love to see a new calculation with a realistic lifetime and re-usage for the fabric napkins.

9:24 PM  
Blogger Jessie Jane said...

Stay tuned...I'm working on an in-depth post looking at the original numbers, and trying to determine if perhaps there's a more realistic assessment for the everyday napkin user!

—JJ

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Ray said...

Something I never see in discussions like this is: Trees from which paper products are made are grown as a crop, much like corn. Hardwood trees are not used, for the most part, to make paper products.

In the south, you can see expansive tracks of land with pine trees planted in neat rows. This has a good affect on the environment, as well as a good finanacial benefit to the land owners.

When this point is considered, using paper products is a better option than many people realize.

5:49 AM  
Blogger Jed said...

So, I know this is now an old discussion, but I have a twist on the question:
My in-laws are sailing around the world. They want to know if they should use paper or cloth napkins: paper will degrade relatively quickly if disposed of in the middle of the Pacific [but they'd still be throwing trash overboard, away from land]. Cloth requires washing with soap [phosphate-free, but still soap] and water [which requires energy to make while at sea], but there are no disposal issues. Any opinions?

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anybody look at the bigger picture? Cloth napkins, like cloth diapers, are definitely better for the environment when washed with biodegradable detergents and line dried. Everyone fails to take into account the massive amount of energy needed for the continual manufacturing process of cloth napkins and diapers. Don't forget the continual need for fossil fuels to transport all of those raw materials and then the finished product to the stores. Plus, don't forget the 2.5 times the amount of water needed to process the paper pulp. Then, the paper napkins and diapers retain water that goes to a landfill and doesn't get filtered back into the environment. Also, the chemical waste when the paper is bleached (not all paper products are bleached in a harmful way but the majority are) Then, as someone already mentioned, the use of plastic to package them. Trees are only truly renewable if their byproducts do not end up in landfills. Cloth diapers and napkins do leave some impact on the environment but not nearly as much as their wicked step sisters, paper napkins and diapers.

3:30 PM  
Blogger amanda said...

In my home, we use second-hand cloth napkins purchased at a thrift store and washed only when heavily soiled. We also use our napkins as wipes for spills and to-go containers for lunches on the run.
I definitely think that, in our case, cloth is the better way to go (and WAY more economical... meaning I can spend more money on other green items, like bicycle upgrades and local food).

4:24 PM  

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