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Saving the Planet, One Napkin at a Time

Updated on March 13, 2015

Where do napkins come from?

Lots of companies manufacture paper napkins and market them at various venues: grocery stores, department stores, convenience stores, restaurant suppliers and warehouses. They are usually found in the paper goods aisle of the grocery store, along with paper towels, tissues and paper plates (more on them later). If I had a package to look at, I'd be able to tell you the manufacturer's name and address of at least one brand of napkins, but I don't have any in my house right now, and don't plan to in the near or far future, and I'll tell you why I've come to this decision.

For years upon years, I've used paper napkins for wiping my greasy fingers or mouth after eating. My mother always had them on the table, handy. When I was a young mother, a poor single mother of 3, I couldn't afford them and we used washcloths. When I became more well-off, I luxuriated in the convenience of paper napkins, and paper towels, tissues, etc. All this time, I railed against the cutting of forests for making paper! Did I not realize that napkins came from trees, too? I guess not, but now I do; there's nothing else to do about it except stop buying them.

U is for Use Fewer Paper Napkins
U is for Use Fewer Paper Napkins | Source

Alternatives to paper

When I stopped being able to rationalize my own use of tree products, I began to look for ways to decrease my own consumption. I cannot print on recycled fabric, but I can look for printer paper that has recycled product in it and buy that. I cannot quite bring myself to keeping a box of rags in the bathroom to use in place of toilet paper, but I do buy one ply tissues exclusively. Recently, I came across a product to take the place of paper towels; they are marketed to be placed conveniently on a roll, too. They are made from cloth diaper material. Great idea! I thought. So, I began looking at my recycled fabric stash (clothing a bit out of date, maybe headed for Good Will) and a light bulb blinked on - why not make cloth napkins out of cotton and cotton blend fabric that I have on hand as well as sew up old, frayed towels to use as paper towels? And, while I'm at it, why not use thin, old sheets to make handkerchiefs, thereby relinquishing my need for a constant supply of paper tissues? Three sources of paper use eliminated!

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Thoughts on simple ways to reduce paper consumption in the home

First, I will admit, I do own a sewing machine. This makes turning old sheets, towels, pant legs, etc. into useful items a bit easier. However, you don't need neatly sewn edges on cloth napkins to make them functional. If you don't sew, get a pair of pinking shears and cut your edges with them. That way they won't unravel as readily. The zig-zagged edges are decorative at the same time. But, if you do sew on a machine, making handkerchiefs, paper towels and napkins is pretty simple. You can iron folded edges, pin them, etc. and make them really neat, but all I did was turn the edges, hand-press them a bit, then sew a decorative stitch followed by a straight stitch all the way around. I mitered the corners, too, and they came out pretty nice, I think. Who needs perfection?

Recycled, machine sewn cloth tissues and napkins


From come the following facts about napkins:

"The word napkin is derived from nappe (French for cloth or tablecloth) combined with the suffix kin (meaning little) and is defined as: a small piece of cloth or paper, usually square, used while eating for protecting the clothes and wiping the fingers or lips... Scott Paper introduced the paper napkin in the 1930s...and..if 50% of the U.S. population (about 150MM people), used 1 paper napkin per meal 3 times a day, 164,250,000,000 (yes billion) napkins would be used over just a 1-year period."

From an article on, Ihere's a fact about using just paper napkins:

"During an average year, an American uses approximately 2,200 napkins — around six each day. If everyone in the U.S. used one less napkin a day, more than a billion pounds of napkins could be saved from landfills each year."

Other facts about recycling paper:

About half the paper made is recycled today.

Paper napkins, tissues and other soiled paper goods cannot be recycled.

And the making of paper itself:

Only smaller trees are used to make paper, large trees are saved for lumber-making. Which boils down to 30% of trees cut down are used for making paper.

One cord of wood can make 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of paper, depending on the process used. A cord of dry wood (still containing 15 - 20% water) weighs about 2 tons.

Paper Towels and Plates and more

Paper toweling is an awfully handy item. On a roll, near the kitchen counter, they are so convenient for cleaning a sudden mess. I have cloth dish towels hanging in no less than four spots in my kitchen but, still, if I spilled coffee on the counter, or spaghetti sauce splashed onto the stove top, I reached for that paper towel. "The quicker picker-upper," they call it. Well, I can tell you for certain that a dish towel will mop up a spill or splash every bit as quickly, and much less expensively, than any brand of paper towel.

I happened to notice that a certain television chef always had a cloth towel over his shoulder while he cooked. In this way, he was able to keep his cooking area clean as he went. I had always thought of kitchen towels being used to dry dishes but not for cleaning things. Silly me! They are so great for cleaning spills. One towel will completely mop up nearly anything. No getting the job half done and having to go fetch another paper towel (or two) to finish.

Most of us have old bath towels around. The edges are frayed or they have acquired a rip or tear, so we buy new and put that away in the "rag bag" where they sit, unused, because we reach for paper towels before we think about them. Old bath towels are great to cut down to size and use for cleaning spills in the kitchen. You don't need to sew the edges, unless you really want to. Remember earlier I mentioned the diaper material product that takes the place of paper towels? That designer not only sews the edges, but attaches a strip of snaps to two sides, so they can be joined together and placed on a roll for convenient placement in the kitchen. You can go as fancy as you like or need to, but it's not a difficult change to make. If you don't have a lot of old bath towels, you can find them at consignment shops, yard sales and thrift stores for pennies.

Paper plates are something I've given up sporadically. Recently, I went back to buying them "just to have on hand." So many times, my husband or I will grab one without really thinking about it, simply because they're there. It's a habit we need to break; we have plenty of regular dinnerware and I don't mind washing plates, they're easy.

There are many other items that are absolutely appalling in the amount of paper they use in order to exist: periodicals for one - magazines and newspapers. Today, the industry is suffering because online sources are readily available to almost all of us, and that may not be a bad thing. Books, too, are losing ground, and I have a certain fondness for the old fashioned paper- or hard-back, but I'm weaning myself off (and if it's an old book, it's already been made and would be a shame to waste) with my tablet. And, last but not least, even though we can download and save all manner of informative writings and images on our devices, we still need to have a hard copy sometimes, so copy paper is another vice of mine and many others. Sometimes we simply must have paper in some form or fashion, so if there are paper products I can do without, seems to me that I should try my best to do so.

Recycle and Repurpose

wrapping gifts is a fun way to recycle and reuse paper and fabric
wrapping gifts is a fun way to recycle and reuse paper and fabric | Source

Summarizing the Issues

While the majority of paper manufactured goes to things other than napkins, tissues and paper towels, we can still put forth conscious effort and make decisions that will impact our planet's future. One way to do so is by choosing to cut down on our use of paper products. Alternatives exist and have existed since before the manufacture of paper products began, cloth being an obvious alternative.

Trees are only part of the equation when weighing the pros and cons of using manufactured paper products over more pro-active ways to get the job done. Other resources are used in the tree felling (petrol), the processing of wood pulp (water, energy and chemicals) and the processing of the product itself (more water, energy and chemicals), not to mention the shipping (again, petrol). Foregoing paper products, whenever possible, saves more than trees, it seems.

Recycling and re-purposing is a 'green' practice that can be established in a family setting. By observing, up close and personal, the footsteps we leave behind on this, our shared planet, our children might choose to follow a pathway toward ecologically sound living themselves. And so on and on in future generations.

It's all a matter of choice - will we choose to look for ways to live that have less impact on our dwindling supplies of trees, oil, clean air and water (just to name the most obvious), or will we choose to continue consuming until the resources dry up, disappear and are gone forever? You, and I, must decide for ourselves.


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    • CSWeaver profile imageAUTHOR

      C S Weaver 

      3 years ago from Middle TN, USA

      Thank you so much, Miran.

    • profile image

      Miran Shuleta 

      3 years ago

      A great issue you have written about here, I have learnt a great deal today about napkins, thanks.


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