Cloth Napkins: A Step Towards Sustainability


When you gather friends or family for dinner, how do you set your table?  Do you have a set of dishes you use everyday or perhaps a ‘good’ set that you save for special occasions?  Besides the dishes, glasses (or cups), and silverware, do you set out napkins?  If your answer is yes, do you use paper ones or cloth?

Most people use paper napkins for the convenience.  What this means is that once the napkins are used, they are simply tossed in the trash rather than being cleaned and used again like their cloth counterparts.  But that convenience comes at an environmental cost.napkins-in-basket-cr

According to Enviro Napkin, there are several interesting statistics for paper napkins.  They are:

  • 2.5 paper napkins are used by each diner per meal
  • over 160 billion paper napkins used annually in the U.S.
  • equates to 34 million trees cut down each year

Paper napkins are not a sustainable choice.  Look at the quantity of trees used to produce a throw away product.  What about the cost of paper napkins annually compared to buying a set or two of good quality cloth napkins?  Cloth napkins are a sustainable choice for your home.

Reasons to Use Cloth Napkins

  • Cost savings over time of cloth over paper
  • Less trash using cloth over paper
  • Durability of cloth over paper
  • Multiple uses (years of cloth compared to single use of paper)
  • Provide greater protection from spills on clothing
  • Available in  fabrics that launder well
  • Become softer with each washing
  • Conveys a sense of occasion over paper napkins
  • Can readily be packed into lunches for school or work
  • Available in colors and patterns that coordinate/complement your dinnerware

Now if you are thinking that cloth napkins means more laundry and work, don’t worry.  Based on the type of fabric and colors, toss them in with specific loads of laundry.  Dark blues or burgundies… toss in with a load of darks.  White or very pale pastels… toss in with your whites.  As far as ironing, the choice is yours.  Initially, I ironed every single napkins after every single wash.  Now?  I just remove them from the dryer, smooth flat with my hand and fold.

Over the years, I have picked up napkins at a variety of locations for not much money.  Flea markets.  Garage sales.  Tag sales.  And even the occasional estate sale.  In many cases, the napkins were either brand new or just lightly used and still looked new.  If there are an odd number of them… such as five, don’t worry, just get them anyway.  I have a collection of damask napkins in a rainbow of pastel colors.  Most of them are orphans that came from many different places, but yet when the table is set, they look like they go together because of the type of fabric and the colors.variety-cloth-napkins-cr

If you worry about the durability, let me ease your fears.   Most of the napkins that grace our table have been in use for over 25 years.  While the fabric has softened and there has been some color fading, the napkins are still going strong.  There are no holes or rips in the fabric, but then  dabbing around a mouth or wiping hands does not cause wear and tear on the fabric.  And should a napkin no longer look nice enough to set out on the table, it will be relegated to ‘dust cloth’ status.

Go ahead and buy cloth napkins.    They come in a range of colors and fabrics.  Are extremely durable.  Are easy to just toss in the wash with other laundry.  Provide much better clothing protection than paper napkins.  They provide a cost savings over time and they are a sustainable choice for your home.


19 responses »

  1. The average US citizen uses 7 trees worth of paper napkins per year (sorry I can’t site a source; it’s been a while and no longer have it here.) That is just napkins not other paper products such as TP, paper towels, or plates, etc. I make my own laundry detergent so that I am not sending any unnecessary chemicals ‘down stream,’ and typically (though admittedly, not always) hang them to dry. Still think cloth is a better option. Also, from one bed sheet, you can make a lot of ‘paper towels’ to place over food, under food, wipe ups and so forth.
    Great post & beautiful napkins:)

    • We have been using cloth for years (about 25). Cloth napkins and towels hold up very well. We also save our old bed sheets and turn them into dust rags or towels. Glad you like the post and my napkins.

  2. Pingback: Friday's Fabulous Five #6

  3. I have been making our own napkins for years. I have such a collection now and my grandchildren have there favorite ones that no one can use but them. I have started to personalize them for the kids now and they like to come to eat at Grandma’s just for the napkins!

  4. I have been using Cloth napkins for over three years, I have a basket on the counter and they are all to small or big enough of left over scraps or fat quarters. My grandson 7 has learned to use the serger and brought home 15 napkins for his family to start using. we have all the holidays and fun prints for girl and boy Grand children, they pic the one they want and don’t use there shirt or sleeve any more. Never done a separate load of napkins either, always room for a napkin .

    • Oh… love the idea of using fat quarters (quilters, you know what I am talking about) for napkins! I bet your grandson had a great time using the serger and making napkins for his family. How wonderful!

  5. I use cloth ones now because its budget friendly. I collected them and used them to decorate the table or for special occasions. But I’m a big one for using the things I have – even the antique china on occasion, and I’ve found that using the cloth napkins is easier and we’re saving money in the long run.

  6. I think there is a fine line between what is environmentally friendly in the use of paper versus cotton napkins. Producing cotton is not a very environmentally friendly process. The ‘biggie’ is the use of pesticides and defoliants. Production of one cotton napkin will cause over one kilogram of greenhouse gas emissions and use 150 liters of water! Based on an average washing machine, each napkin will cause 5 grams of greenhouse gas emissions through the electricity used by the motor, and 1/4 liter of water. In addition to these impacts, the laundry soap used may have downstream impacts on aquatic life. Drying napkins causes about 10 grams of greenhouse gas emissions per napkin. Of course, to reduce this to zero you could line dry.

    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.

    So I think it is 6 of 1 and half-dozen of another.

    • I think that over time, cloth is the more friendly option, especially if you buy them at flea markets or garage sales. If someone does not buy them, their fate is usually the bottom of a trash can. Cloth napkins can also be repurposed as dust rags. Many of our napkins have been in use for 25+ years and are still going strong. There are also organic cloth options available to consumers. While there are recycled paper napkins on the market, they are greatly out-numbered by the non-recycled paper napkins available in the stores and not all of the stores carry recycled paper products.

      • I have to agree. IF you are picking up your cloth napkins at flea markets, garage sales and second hand stores, then you are recycling right? If you are not buying new, you are not putting the extra load on the environment – you did not cause use of more pesticides or of defoliants, etc. I have never washed a load of cloth napkins. They are tossed in with my normal wash. There is always room for them as they take up so little space in the washer, kind of like topping off the load without over stuffing the machine. Our family may do 4 or 5 loads of laundry each week. And we line dry.
        As for paper napkins, the upside in my area is that our recycling program accepts them in our green compost bins. Our municipality collects compost as well as other recyclables. They encourage the use of certain paper items (namely napkins and pizza boxes) for the compost.
        Not every family has the options above. But…. I do encourage everyone to think, before they make such a purchase. There are certainly better choices than non-recycled paper napkins.

      • Yep… flea markets, garage sales, thrift stores are great for recycling items. We have also never washed a load of napkins. They are always put in with loads of laundry.

        Our community is pretty good with recycling plastics, glass, cardboard, newspaper, and fiberboard. But I wish the stores would offer more items made from recycled materials. We are definitely lacking in that area.

        And I agree that not everyone has the options we have in our community.

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