ecostore New Zealand Blog

Which is greener, paper or cloth napkins?
Posted On May 28th, 2012

You might be wondering whether the energy used to make and wash a cloth napkin is higher than the energy it takes to manufacture a paper towel which is why I did some digging and found that if you use your cloth towels and napkins mindfully, then cloth is definitely the greener way to go. Making a paper towel or napkin involves harvesting the material, processing and bleaching it, packaging it, shipping it, stocking it at a supermarket and transportation to and from the store to purchase it – all for a single use. A cloth napkin might go through similar processes to get to your home but it will be there for many years, rather than going directly to landfill.

If you do buy paper products, then here are a few things to help you go for the greener options. Look out for:

  • 100% recycled materials.
  • A minimum of 90% post-consumer waste.
  • Unbleached paper towels (first choice) or process chlorine free (PCF) (second choice) or elemental chlorine free (ECF) (last choice).
  • No added colours, inks or dyes (no more floral-printed borders).
  • Packaging that has the least environmental impact, made of recycled and/or recyclable materials; printed with safe inks; with no toxic metals, dyes or inks.
  • Avoid folded paper towels, it is easy to use too many.
  • Paper towels that are wound on a 100% recycled core.

And here are a few green tips for using cloth napkins:

  • Only wash when needed (most adults don’t really dirty a napkin after every meal).
  • Have a place to store ‘in-use’ napkins and use the same one until it is dirty.
  • If you have a large family, designate a napkin ring for each member to identify each person’s napkin between meals.
  • Wash dirty napkins in with other laundry.
  • Use plant-based laundry detergent.
  • Line-dry outside when the weather permits.
  • Scour op shops or thrift stores –they often have baskets of linen, including napkins.
  • Repurpose any fabric that you have lying around the house such as old tea towels.

Source: Paper vs cloth – what are the greenest options?

5 Responses to “Which is greener, paper or cloth napkins?”

  1. lynley ruck says:

    Have been using recycled (op shop) linen napkins for years, and I tend to buy red – (saves on stain removal – and they all match – as a xmas treat I buy one new set of 6 linen napkins each year – agree with everything except re-using napkins for another meal – in a large family who wants to be the napkin police? – unhygienic!

  2. Melanie says:

    Haha! very true. Let’s revise that to ‘the reuse system works pretty well for consenting and reasonably tidy adults’ :)

  3. We only use napkins when we entertain – otherwise we just go and wash our hands when we are finished with dinner !! ;)

  4. cedar51 says:

    I have around 10 plain cream but handwoven by a friend years ago…I love using them, hand stitched hems as well :-)

    I have to take cutlery with me when I go somewhere I’m going to eat a lunch/food and I wrap it all in the napkin to corral them…then I have the napkin to as well.

    I actually use the napkins for other things but in the food line…

    I have a bunch of other ones that I got via a trading table/white elephant that have a sweet little flower embroidered on – they are for best…

  5. Jo says:

    Embodied energy is an interesting thing, and not always easy to calculate. I ran across this TED Talk awhile ago which starts on this very subject, and provides some interesting food for thought. She’s an excellent speaker too:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/catherine_mohr_builds_green.html

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