Paper Napkins or Cloth?


“In a Gentle Way You Can Shake the World.” – Gandhi

When I came across this wonderful quote, I started thinking about gentle changes that positively impact the earth.  One such change is to switch from paper to cloth napkins.  It sounds silly, but here is the math.  If 50% of the U.S. population used 3 paper napkins a day, that would total 450,000,000 napkins for 1 day or 164,250,000,000 napkins over a 1-year period.  That’s a staggering number of paper napkins!

The manufacture of both cloth and paper napkins obviously uses resources and energy. According to a report published by the Environmental Paper Network, however, the paper industry (which includes all paper products) is the 4th largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions among United States manufacturing industries, and accounts for 25% of landfill waste and 1/3 of municipal landfill waste.  Additionally, in the manufacture of paper napkins, the chlorine bleach used to whiten them contains toxic compounds and the dyes in decorative napkins are also questionable.  And, paper napkins are only used once!


napkins (Photo credit: pinprick)

Cloth napkins alternatively, can be used over and over, often lasting for generations.  They can be energy intensive too, but there are several ways to minimize their environmental impact.

  • Unless it’s organic cotton, it’s best to avoid cotton cloth napkins.  Cotton is labeled the world’s “dirtiest” crop because of its heavy insecticide usage.  Instead use linen (which comes from the fibers of the flax plant), hemp, vintage or your own made from fabric remnants.
  • Reuse cloth napkins for 2 or 3 days, depending on how dirty they get.  Buy different colored napkins for each member of the family.  I jokingly match the napkin color to each family member’s personality, my napkin being green of course.  You can also individualize napkin rings.
  • Wash the napkins with regular loads of laundry with environmentally safe detergent, and air-dry them.  In addition to saving energy by air-drying them, I find I don’t have to iron them!

Paper napkins are clearly more convenient, and for entertaining large crowds, picnicking or eating on the run, they make sense. Just make sure to use recycled paper ones.  According to MotherNatureNetwork, “If every household in the U.S. replaced one package of virgin fiber napkins with 100 percent recycled ones, we could save 1 million trees.”

Most of the time, however, use cloth ones.  Dig out your grandmother’s beautiful linen napkins and find yourself brought back to a simpler, slower time when gathering around the dinner table for meals and conversation was routine. That’s a pretty gentle change to me!

Information compiled from, and



11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Pam on January 5, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    thanks for this great reminder…I’m digging out all my cloth napkins and putting them back in use for everyday, rather than just saving them for company. One less paper product to that!


  2. Posted by jean bannister on January 5, 2013 at 11:16 pm

    Did u get this idea from our NYD lobsterfest? Someone mentioned (u or gail) while we were setting the table that we should use paper not cloth napkins for the lobster butter mess. Thoroughly enjoyed our day and eve together. Off to les miz with lou…..xoxo jean


    • I loved our day too! The cape is quite magical in winter!!!! Loved the lobsterfest. I’ve been using cloth napkins for a while, but maybe discussing it gave me the idea, why not? See you soon!


  3. Been using cloth napkins now for years, would not go back to paper…..thank you for the reminder of the benefits of using them!


  4. I always use cloth napkins. We reuse them several times before washing with both my husband and me keeping track of which one is ours. Thanks for posting.


    • I’m not surprised that you use cloth napkins. I like them so much better, regardless of the environmental benefits! Thanks for commenting! Betsy


  5. Made the switch a year or so ago. Not only am I helping to reduce but my table looks prettier too.


  6. […] Paper Napkins or Cloth? ( […]


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