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Since we have problems with too much trash, but also water resources in California, my question is: Is it better to use paper napkins or to use cloth napkins and wash them? Which one is less environmentally threatening?
Question Date: 2009-02-26
Answer 1:

Good question! The answer may not be as simple as one or the other. For example, common paper towels and napkins have been bleached with chlorine, and the bleaching process produces nasty environmental poisons such as dioxins. And most paper towels and napkins are made by grinding up trees... not a good environmental solution. On the other hand, recycled, unbleached (or at least chlorine-free bleached) paper towels and napkins are made from recycling paper or from byproducts from the manufacture of other materials. This not only saves trees, it also reduces filling of our landfills with bulky paper or wood refuse. Also, you can tear the corner off a paper towel and use only as much as you need. Some paper towel brands are cut in half-size sheets, which saves resources.

Similarly, there's not a simple answer for cloth napkins and towels. Cotton is a pesticide-heavy crop, and bleached cotton has some of the same problems as bleached paper. Organic cotton is better, but making your own napkins by cutting and hemming old sheets or fabric is the best of all. Reusing a cloth napkin without washing it saves energy and water but may increase the spread of germs.

So basically, it depends. It takes slightly less energy to wash and dry cloth napkins than to make paper napkins, but there are other factors to consider besides energy. Instead, it's probably better to think of ways to reduce our use of *any* kind of napkins or towels (by not taking more than we need, etc.)

Answer 2:

What a great question! As you could probably guess, finding the right answer to this question for your household depends on so many different things. Would the paper napkins be made from recycled paper? Would you wash the cloth napkins in cold water? How many napkins do you use in a day, and can you cut down on that number? If you'd wash the cloth napkins in a washing machine, is the machine energy efficient? Generally speaking, however, I'd say cloth napkins are the way to go if you're looking to help the environment. That said, we use paper napkins at my house. We try to make an effort to buy products made from recycled paper and to only use what we need. If we were to switch to cloth napkins, we might consider buying different colored napkins so that we could each keep track of our own and not have to wash them until they're dirty. That's something I'll think about doing.

Answer 3:

The problem with trash is not just its storage but also its transport, which costs other resources (like energy). It's probably better to wash reusable napkins when you can - although, compared to other sources of trash and uses of water, it probably doesn't really matter. The kinds of trash that are problematic are those that don't degrade quickly like lots of styrofoam or plastic, and the biggest extraneous use of water in southern California is lawns.

Answer 4:

Your question about paper vs. cloth napkins is a very intriguing one and I have wondered that myself. I wasn't sure what the answer was, so I looked it up. I found a lot of people claiming that cloth napkins are the better choice since they are reusable. However, I found this website where a guy actually went through and did some calculations comparing the energy use, water use, and carbon footprint of both paper and cotton napkins. Being a scientist, I am inclined to believe something only when I see actual facts and calculations and so far this is the only article I found that tries to crunch some numbers. It's an interesting article and I suggest you read it.


In brief, he says that recycled paper napkins are a lot better than regular paper napkins, and both are better overall than cotton napkins (although he notes that napkins made from flax/linen are better than those made from cotton). Below is the summary that he wrote at the end of the article:

"So, here's the final tally: Fifty paper napkins are responsible for 3,750 g of water use, and 462.5 g of CO2 emissions (although we can't assume the landfill emissions factor to be quite accurate) and the cloth napkin is responsible for 240,548 g of water use, and 648 g of CO2 emissions. Here are my recommendations Cotton is very damaging from an environmental aspect (we didn't even discuss pesticides and defoliants) so purchasing organic cotton is a good decision. Since Linen is made from flax we can assume that the environmental impact of linen napkins would be less. If you need to buy napkins, the 100% recycled ones clearly have a lower environmental impact. If you use cloth napkins, use biodegradable, phosphate-free soap, use the energy-saving settings, and line-dry them."

Hope this helps,

Answer 5:

Thank you for your very perceptive question! You are correct that both cloth and paper napkins can be harmful to the environment- paper napkins because you use them only once and throw them out, and cloth napkins because you have to use water and energy to wash them. I think the best thing you can do is try to think environmentally whether you use paper or cloth napkins. If you use paper napkins, buy napkins made from 100% recycled paper. If you buy cloth napkins, use environmentally safe detergent to wash them and line-dry them instead of putting them in the dryer (the dryer uses a lot of energy).

Thank you!

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