Eco Friendly Napkins: Paper vs. Cloth Napkins

You use napkins on a regular basis and often throw them out after dinner without a second thought.

However, this is problematic because the napkin should be recycled or composted to reduce waste, and not all napkins allow this. Here’s how to find the greenest napkin.

Should you be using cloth or paper napkins?

There’s no simple answer to this question. While one might seem better than the other, the truth is that both can be problematic for the environment. Paper napkins can only be used once, though, which makes them particularly best to avoid.

Let’s take a closer look at paper vs. cloth napkins to see how they fare when it comes to their eco-friendliness.

Paper vs. Cloth Napkins: Which One’s Greener?

  Paper Napkins Cloth Napkins
How Many Times You Can Use Them Once Numerous times
How Is Their Material Sourced? Paper napkins come from trees or recycled paper Cloth napkins are made from cotton and other natural fiber crops or fossil fuels in the case of polyester
Can They Be Recycled? No – this is because paper napkins often get dirty, whether from food or bodily fluids Yes – you can’t put them in your recycling bin, but cloth napkins can be given to companies like the American Textile Recycling Service

Paper Napkins – Can You Put Them In The Compost?

When you make compost, you want to get a good balance between green and brown items.

Green items, such as grass cuttings, are rich in protein or nitrogen that help micro-organisms grow.

Brown items, such as paper and paper napkins, are a source of carbon. This is required to filter air through the compost.

Since paper is made from plant materials, paper napkins are inherently biodegradable.

This is why they can be put in the compost heap where they will decompose, and it’s a great alternative since dirty paper napkins can’t be recycled.

But there’s a catch.

If you’ve got things like detergents on your paper napkins, such as if you quickly used one to clean the kitchen counter, or they’re covered in grease, you can’t put them in your compost.

This is because the grease residue can reduce oxygen in the compost, while cleaning products are harmful to microorganisms, as reported by Stanford.

Are Cloth Napkins The Eco-Friendlier Option? It Depends

Mismatched Cloth Napkins

If you like the idea of reusing a cloth napkin instead of using paper napkins just once before throwing them away, it’s important to realize that not all cloth napkins are eco-friendly.

If you’re purchasing a cloth made of cotton, for instance, this is problematic because cotton uses a lot of pesticides and resources during its production. This makes it less eco-friendly.

The Cloth Napkins With The Least Environmental Impact

When deciding which napkins are greener, it’s worth considering the environmental impact of producing different napkin materials: paper, cotton, and linen.

Let’s take a look at how many resources are required for the production of each of these.

Most Impact: Paper Napkins

These use 24.5 gallons of water to get produced, and they release 7.5 pounds of greenhouse gases, as TreeHugger reports (via Eating Well).

Can Be Worse Than Paper In Some Cases: Cotton Napkins

Cotton requires 43.3 gallons of water, which is even more than paper napkins! In addition, it releases 3.9 pounds of greenhouse gases.

Cotton also requires a lot of pesticides and it is highly irrigated as a crop. This means that the land used for cotton production needs to be watered a lot.

Least Impact: Linen Napkins

If you want to choose the best napkin, go for linen napkins. These only make use of 8.9 gallons of water and release 1.9 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.

Linen napkins are produced from the flax plant, which doesn’t require any extra water than rainwater. It also grows naturally, making it highly eco-friendly.

It’s clear to see that linen napkins are much better for the planet than cloth or paper. So, by choosing linen, your kitchen can definitely be greener.

Why Cloth Napkins Are Better Than Paper

Two Types Of Cloths

It’s not just that cloth napkins, like those made of linen, have less impact on the earth’s resources than paper.

There are other reasons why you should switch to cloth in the kitchen.

  • When your cloth napkins get dirty, you can pop them in the laundry without having to throw them away. On average, each person in America uses 2,200 two-ply napkins every year, as Business Insider reports. They get thrown away and that’s a lot of waste ending up in landfills that can be avoided with a sustainable cloth napkin.
  • Cloth napkins have more than one use. You can obviously use them when setting the table, but cloth napkins can also be used to mop up any spills or cover food.
  • You can downcycle them. Once your cloth napkins aren’t being used around the kitchen, such as when they have stains that just don’t come out in the wash, you still don’t have to throw them away. You can use them as cleaning rags.
  • When it’s time to get rid of your cloth napkins, you don’t have to pop them in the bin. If they’re made of natural fibers such as linen, hemp, or cotton, you can cut them up into smaller pieces and throw them in the compost pile.

How To Make Paper Napkins Greener

It’s clear that paper napkins get a bit of a bad rap, such as when it comes to their environmental impact.

Even though they tend to have a much shorter lifespan than cloth napkins, paper napkins can still be eco-friendly.

It all comes down to the materials you choose for them. Yes, not all paper napkins are made equal!

Choose Paper Napkins Made Of Recycled Paper

Recycled Paper Napkins

It takes much less energy to recycle paper than it does to produce it from raw materials.

Making recycled paper uses 31 percent less energy than the production of virgin paper, as reported by Environmental Paper.

If you buy paper napkins that are made of virgin paper, you’re using up a lot of resources. It takes 0,07 gallons of water to make just one paper napkin that’s 0,08 ounces in size.

Now, if every person in the U.S. uses three paper napkins a day, that creates a figure of 450,000,000 napkins being used in just one day.

To produce those napkins, 31,500,000 gallons of water will have to be used. This is basically the equivalent of 477 Olympic swimming pools, as reported by Green Groundswell.

The Concern Of Using Water To Clean Cloth Napkins

Now, people could say that cloth napkins are less eco-friendly than paper napkins that get thrown away because you have to the washcloth.

That can waste a lot of water. Tree Hugger states that washing a napkin in the washing machine can produce five grams of greenhouse gas emissions due to the electricity that’s used.

It also uses a quarter-liter of water.

Then, we also have to consider the detergents that are used as these can contain chemicals that can be harmful to aquatic life if they get into the water system.

However, you can prevent these concerns altogether in some important ways.

  • Instead of using your washing machine, hand-wash your cloth napkins in cool water and hang them out on the washing line to dry. This prevents the use of electricity and hot water.
  • You can also make smarter choices when you need new cloth napkins so that you completely prevent using the earth’s resources. Instead of buying new cloth napkins, consider making them from old fabric that you no longer need.

Cloth Napkins Can Save You Money

Cloth Napkins

The average paper napkin will cost around $0,02.

Although you might think buying paper napkins in bulk can save you money, you’re just adding more waste to your household.

Cloth napkins will be a bit more expensive. You’re looking at roughly $1, but thrift-store napkins can cost around $0.30.

In addition, you can use cloth napkins for many years. If you use one paper napkin every day, that will add up to $0.14 per week, which is $4.2 every month and $50 every year!

When you think of it like that, it’s much more expensive to buy paper napkins.

Of course, you?d probably buy paper napkins in bulk, and you’re looking at a cost of approximately $5 for 400 napkins.

This could easily last you more than a year if you use just one or two paper napkins every day, but it’s still not as cost-effective as using a cloth napkin.

After a year, you’ll have to spend another $5 for the paper napkins.

That $1 you spent on a cloth napkin will go the distance because you’re likely to still use your cloth napkin for many more years if you look after it.

In addition, you’re reducing a lot more waste by choosing cloth.

You will have to throw out approximately 400 paper napkins at some point, whereas by using cloth you won’t have to waste anything.

In this way, cloth napkins not only save you a bit of money in the long run, but they also help you live a zero-waste lifestyle.

Related Questions

What About Hemp As A Fabric For Cloth Napkins?

Hemp napkins are an excellent choice.

Hemp plants use 50 percent of the water required by cotton and reduce carbon emissions.

One hectare of industrial hemp absorbs 22 tonnes of CO2 emissions, thanks to hemp’s ability to absorb CO2 into its body and roots, as reported by the Australian parliament.

Does A Lot Of Paper Get Into The Landfills?

You might only think of plastic as being a landfill problem, but the paper isn’t much better.

Roughly 35 percent of municipal solid waste that ends up in landfills is paper that’s been discarded, as Norwex Movement reports.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best eco friendly napkin to use?

Linen napkins are a great sustainable alternative to single use paper napkins. Linen is made from the flax plant, which is a renewable resource that does not use a lot of water to produce. They are reusable and long lasting, washable and compostable when they eventually do wear out. Check out this article for more information on eco friendly alternatives to single use paper napkins.

Can you recycle paper napkins?

Paper napkins usually cannot be recycled once they have been used as they are contaminated with food stuffs, grease or cleaning products. For more information on paper napkins and eco friendly alternatives, check out this article.

Are paper napkins compostable?

Paper napkins that have not been contaminated with grease or chemicals like cleaning detergents can be composted but it is very seldom that a paper napkin is used for any purpose that does not involve grease or detergents so the majority of paper napkins end up going to landfill. Check out this article on paper vs cloth napkins for more information.


When it comes to the paper vs. cloth napkins debate, there are some things to consider.

While the cloth is generally better for the environment because it reduces waste, the fabrics you choose to buy for your cloth napkins as well as how you reuse them are important factors to consider so you make the eco-friendliest choice.

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