Are paper napkins more environmentally friendly?

With the energy and water used in washing and drying, isn’t it actually more environmentally friendly to use disposable paper napkins instead of cotton?Cloth napkins not only use water in washing and a lot of energy in drying but the making of them is also not insignificant. Cotton is a highly irrigated crop that also requires a lot of biocides and defoliant chemicals. In many cases napkins are actually made from linen, which is made from the fibers of the flax plant, and is significantly more environmentally friendly. Additional considerations include the fact that personalised paper napkins are used once, while cloth napkins can be used multiple times. Of course, in the case of restaurants, you don’t want a napkin used twice!Setting up the Napkin analysis
I begin by weighing some napkins. My printed cocktail napkins weigh only 18 grams each ply, while my cotton napkins weigh 28 grams, and linen napkins weigh 35 grams. Of course the exact weight will vary but the relative weights will be roughly the same.


Making Napkins
As mentioned already, producing cotton is not a very environmentally friendly process. In fact, each 28 gram cotton napkin causes over one kilogram of greenhouse gas emissions and uses 150 liters of water! By comparison, the paper napkin causes a mere 10 grams of greenhouse gas emissions and uses 0.3 liters of water use while the linen napkin causes 112 grams of greenhouse gas emissions and uses 22 liters of water.

Washing Napkins
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. You can reduce the impact of washing by washing in cold water and using biodegradeable and phosphate free laundry soap.

Drying Napkins
Drying napkins causes about 10 grams of greenhouse gas emissions per napkin. Of course, to reduce this to zero you could line dry. One of the advantages of the paper napkin is, of course, that you don’t incur the emissions or water use from washing and drying.

So how do the Napkins compare?
If you add up the emissions from growing the raw materials, manufacturing the luxury paper napkins, as well as washing and drying, the disposable paper napkin is the clear winner with 10 grams of greenhouse gas emissions vs. 127 grams for the linen and 1020 grams for the cotton. Of course this isn’t a fair comparison because it assumes only one use. Instead, we need to divide the raw material and manufacturing emissions by the number of uses over the lifetime of the napkins.

Post time: Feb-27-2023