When trying to be eco-friendly, the right thing to do is often far more complex and difficult to decipher than it may seem on the surface.
If you asked a bunch of people whether they think paper or cloth napkins are better for the environment, a whole lot of them would assume the answer is cloth. The answer, really, is it depends.
It depends on whether you’re buying paper napkins made from new paper or from 100% recycled paper. It depends on whether your cloth napkin choice is cotton or linen/flax, or some other material. It depends on how many you go through. It depends on where they start out and how they get to the store. It depends on the packaging they come in. It depends on how you launder (and dry) them, if you go with cloth — or how you dispose of them, if you go with paper.
“Several years ago, Milliken & Company, a producer of table linens, hired a research company to gauge consumer preferences between paper and cloth napkins at sit-down restaurants. The study found that …84 percent associated cloth napkins with being environmentally friendly.”
General consensus seems to be that cotton napkin manufacturing is environmentally problematic because of greenhouse gas emissions, water (irrigation) consumption, and chemicals required. Linen (made from flax) is preferable to cotton. Paper napkins made from 100% recycled paper are definitely better than new-paper napkins and may be better than cloth napkins — unless you use lots and lots of them and then that affects the math when we think about things like the impact of transporting them and the cellophane wrap that typically comes with them, and whether they are ensconced in a plastic trash bag in a landfill when you’re done with them.
Give this blog a read for more details about cloth vs paper. Pablo Paster, Vice President of Greenhouse Gas Management at ClimateCHECK, concludes, “at home, the cloth napkin is king” when it comes to actually being more environmentally conscious. Reusable almost always beats disposable.
Green Cloth Alternatives
But wait. There’s more! What if you could buy cloth napkins made from recycled plastic bottles?
RieNU by Riegel Linens | The fabric is made from recycled plastic bottles that would otherwise wind up in our landfills. In fact, says the company, “one napkin eliminates 3 plastic bottles.” You can buy them in 2-gross bulk if you run a hotel or restaurant or plan to host a big event — or, you can buy 6 for just $13 at Bed, Bath and Beyond.
Signature by Milliken | This company’s napkins use 1.3 plastic bottles in each napkin. They take environmental responsibility seriously: “In 1990 the company established a goal of zero waste with the elimination rather than reduction of all solid waste, hazardous wastes and emissions. We’ve diverted 99% of all of the company’s waste away from landfills to places where it could be re-used or recycled. Our environmental stewardship extends far beyond the confines of our buildings. The Milliken family of companies nurtures 130,000 acres of sustainably managed forests. Our 600-acre corporate campus is a noted arboretum and horticultural testing ground that’s open to the public. We actively seek and use alternative energy to power our manufacturing plants, such as methane gas produced by local landfills.” You can buy a pack of 20 Milliken Signature napkins on Amazon for $30.
Another option, of course, is to use what you already have around the house. You can make everyday napkins out of fabric remnants or out of old sheets, curtains, pillow cases, or clothing. They might not look fancy for company, but they do the trick.
Our choice is to use the cotton cloth napkins we already own until they are too disgusting and become cleaning rags, then replace them with RieNU and/or Milliken napkins. Whatever choice you go with, make it a mindful one.
- If you buy cloth napkins, go with linen or microfiber made from recycled bottles.
- Make your own napkins using fabric you already own.
- Do not wash cloth napkins after every use (do you do that with your towels?).
- Wash napkins using cold water.
- Use eco-friendly detergent, such as Dropps.
- Line dry your napkins instead of using electricity.
[header photo | Erol Ahmed]