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Cloth napkins save money

By on July 19, 2008

photo by muffet
cloth napkins

Cloth versus paper: Which do you use for napkins and cleaning towels? It’s common for newly frugal people to question whether they should switch from paper to cloth. For some people, it’s an easy decision. Plain and simple, it’s cheaper to use cloth. But it becomes a tougher choice when considering whether it’s greener. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, paper products constitute the largest portion (nearly 40 percent) of the municipal solid-waste stream but also have the greatest recycling opportunities. Reducing your reliance on paper and recycling makes the most sense.

What about the water and energy used to manufacture and clean cloth napkins? Is that frugal and/or green? Pablo Paster, a sustainability engineer and vice president at Climate Check, says that 100-percent-recycled paper napkins are better for the environment than cotton napkins. His analysis is based on material intensity and focuses on what appears to be commercial use and not average home use. Paster says that carbon-dioxide emissions and water used during manufacturing are higher for cloth napkins. In his analysis, Paster also included reusing the cloth napkins a mere 50 times, and they were washed after each use, so I disagree with his conclusion.

Cloth napkins last years, not only 50 uses. Many of my readers use terry washcloths or make their own cloth napkins. A reader, Erika, from Florida said: “Got scissors and some old T-shirts? You can go paper-free.” At my home, I often buy secondhand cloth napkins at thrift stores (big surprise, huh), add them to my regular laundry load, sometimes use homemade laundry soap and don’t have to wash and bleach after minimal use. I can choose to hang dry them, too. Please, no lectures on my supposed bacteria-ridden cloth napkins. I’m reusing a cloth napkin with crumbs shaken out and not one covered with chicken-wing sauce or mucus. Another reader, Savannah, said: “When we finish eating, clean napkins go back in each of our napkin holders and the napkins are put in a basket for the next meal.” She continues: “If some or all of the napkins are dirty, the dirty ones are placed in a container in the laundry room to be washed, and a clean napkin is inserted into the holder. Of course, after a couple of days, regardless of how clean the napkins might be, I just go ahead and replace them all with clean napkins.”

That’s an organized way to use cloth. I take it one step further and nix the cute napkin holders. Each family member simply gets a different-colored napkin. I own a set of 24 and rotate them as needed. If I have guests, I break out the nicest cloth napkins.

With the exception of restaurants that often give an excessive amount of loose paper napkins, most purchased napkins come with packaging, and 100-percent-recycled paper napkins are more expensive. I’ve weighed out various research and opinions, and I use both paper and cloth. I use cloth napkins and cleaning cloths entirely, and I supplement with paper. However, I still consider the frugal factor and will divide a paper-towel sheet in half and use only what I need. And no, I don’t ration toilet paper. I could eliminate paper napkins and towels entirely. It would be easy for my family to acclimate, but I like draining fried foods on paper towels. It might be time to give up fried foods. Cloth napkins are frugal, and they make meals seem more special.

Consider the following:
— Avoid excessive packaging when buying paper or cloth.
— Buy secondhand cloth or reuse fabric.
— Avoid virgin-fiber paper towels that are bleached or patterned with dyes — more specifically, those whitened by chlorine gas.
— Try to find paper products that are made with recycled materials and are chlorine-free. One hundred percent is ideal, but even partially recycled and alternative bleaching is beneficial.
— The best option is to use organic cotton, linen or hemp cloth towels and/or napkins.
— Compost your paper towels.

One Comment

  1. Nancy

    1/11/2015 at 11:02 am

    When it comes to draining fried foods, I put newspaper down and then one layer of paper towels as a clean barrier. I often blot with an additional paper towel wadded up.

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