My husband and I had gotten off our paper napkin habit a while ago. It was one of the easiest green changes we’ve made so far. Even still, my husband found what to complain about when I bought 2-25 packs of linen napkins.
“Are you going into the restaurant business or did you overbuy again?”
“Um…” I overbought again.
Then, I had even more explaining to do when a friend pointed out that the greenhouse gasses released and the water used when washings and drying those cloth napkins makes them no better for the planet than paper ones.
Thanks a lot, friend.
So, here are my arguments in favor of cloth napkins over paper:
A never ending cycle: Paper napkins are a single use item. That means companies, like Procter and Gamble, need a steady flow of resources, like trees, water, crude oil, and electricity in order to manufacture and package them. The many phases of getting those resources to the mills causes the release of greenhouse gasses at intervals. Then manufacturing and packaging the products releases greenhouse gasses and chemicals that pollute the air and water at a steady flow. And after, the finished product has to be shipped to supermarkets, sending more greenhouse gasses into the air. The consumer completes the cycle when they use the napkins and then drop them in the trash at a rate of over a billion per day–––and that’s just in the US! Those billion plus napkins wind up in landfills across the country, where they slowly decompose and release even more greenhouse gasses.
Big Paper is often not so eco-friendly: Paper mills have a reputation of being hard on the environment. They use harsh chemicals to turn wood into pulp and elemental bleach to make their paper products bright white. Paper milling has been around a long time, though. So, many companies that make paper have powerful lobbies. Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s they’d block regulations put forth by the EPA that would have made them more planet friendly. That said, nowadays there are mills that do the right thing. They use recycled material instead of trees and gentle or no bleaching agents to manufacture their paper products. For me, it was just a question of doing a little research to find out which paper companies really care about the Earth.
These days, most washers and dryers are energy efficient: Our washing machine and dryer both have Energy Star ratings. That means they’re designed to save us money and be better for the planet. Plus, I let my linen napkins accumulate and then I wash them with my whites. I could also use the setting for ‘tap/cold’ water, which would save even more energy. If I then hung each napkin on a clothes line instead of using the dryer to dry them it would be even greener. But we don’t have a cloths line. Phew!
There are plenty of green laundry products available: My husband and I haven’t yet talked about making our laundry room greener. (I’m still working through reducing our trash.) But for several weeks now, I’ve been experimenting with Dr. Bronners as detergent and cleaning vinegar as fabric softener. (Dr. Bronners is a plant-based soap that has a reputation for being good and green.) My husband was skeptical. He said things like: “Do you even know what your doing?” and “I’m not on board.”
The wash came out great, though. And, as a bonus, I no longer had to use dryer sheets, because for some reason, vinegar not only softens clothes, but it also prevents static cling! But that’s not all! That musty smell in our wash tub disappeared! So, now, not only did I find a green alternative to laundry soap, but we no longer have to buy fabric softener or dryer sheets! I was over-the-top excited, right up to the moment our washing machine stopped working mid-cycle and no longer turned on. Guess who my husband blamed.
“But I’d been using Dr. Bronners and vinegar for over a month,” I said.
To which he replied, “You killed the coffee maker the same way.”
“It was thirteen years old.”
“It was doing fine until you cleaned it with vinegar.”
For the record, I’d cleaned the coffee maker with vinegar plenty of times over the years. But now, whether he can figure out how to fix the machine or we replace it, I’m a little scared to try the vinegar/DB combo again. So, my plan-B was to find a green laundry detergent at my supermarket. I noticed that Seventh Generation has so many planet-safe ones, and most of them have gotten ratings of 8.0 or better for environment on GoodGuide. (They’d also gotten high marks for health and social.) Some of them even come in compostable containers. But, back to my point, whether I use vinegar and DB or one of the green detergents found in the cleaning aisle at the store, that would take the negative impact of chemicals from laundry detergents and such out of the equation.
Cloth napkins can be used more than once: Don’t be grossed out by this, but my husband and I will use the same linen napkin for two or three meals, or until it looks dirty. (I see you making a face.) It’s not like we share a single napkin with lots of people. It’s just the two of us and we each have our own. And, might I point out, the Spartans wiped their mouths with lumps of dough. At least we’re not dabbing our faces with uncooked bread.
With all that considered: It seems to me, with environmentally friendly practices in place for washing and drying, cloth napkins win over paper.
And now, the degrees of going green for paper napkins: