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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Alternatives to Paper Napkins and Paper towels - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – Paper vs. Cloth Napkins

Saving the planet is not just about recycling, it is also about reducing our use of natural resources and reusing those things we already have in new ways. I am constantly looking for ways to save our planet. Many ideas come to me in dreams, :) I borrow some ideas and expand on them, and also follow the tried and true - like simply putting my household recycling out on the curb every other week. I also love reusing and upcycling items that may have been thrown away (because as we all know: There is no such thing as “away”). 

One habit I cultivated in myself is the use of fabric, reusable napkins. I have been using fabric napkins for years and love them. I have my favorites that are worn into softness, their design faded and difficult to see.  I don’t think I’ve had to throw any of them away yet, either. I think they’re all still functional – although some really are showing their years. J Because they are of natural fibers, I will probably just cut them up at some point, as they become too worn for use, and put them in the compost bin.

My daughter argues that I have to wash cloth napkins and am therefore not really reducing. I think I would agree with her if I used a different napkin for each meal. As it is, though, I pick one for the week and use it until it is time to do the wash on the weekend.  This idea was taken further by someone else (and I’m sorry, but I can’t remember where I read this several years ago), when they suggested color-coding the family’s napkins for the week.

They suggested giving each person in the household a different color/patterned napkin for the week - that way everyone can remember their napkin and reuse it the entire week. Then you only have those very few napkins to wash at the end of the week, and they can be thrown in with the regular wash, taking up very little space, time and money.

I have noticed, much to my dismay, that companies that produce household paper products have not reduced their production of paper products, as might be expected when we are finally beginning to realize that we have limited resources. In fact, it seems to be the opposite.  There is a paper product for just about everything.  How did the human race survive without disinfectant wipes, baby wipes, plastic/paper diapers and sanitary napkins and tampons, make-up removal wipes, personal hygiene wipes, etc?  There’s a ‘wipe’ for everything!  And it’s made out of paper! I haven’t done any research, but surely they are not ALL made out of new paper, are they? Is anyone using recycled paper for their wipes? Are they at least doing that? And don’t get me started on the effects and repercussions of bleaching the paper products! Apparently, as a society, all our products must be “clean, bright white” to be appealing and/or effective – interesting comment on our society, I think.

But at least all this over-production of paper products made me question the use of paper in my own house.  I stopped buying and using paper towels. I just can’t stomach it – I feel too guilty. I don’t buy tissues; I use hankies. I do still buy and use toilet paper – not sure I want to deal with any of the alternatives. But shouldn’t I be willing to deal with, even that, to walk my talk? :) I have no “wipes” of any kind in my house. When my daughter was a baby, I carried cloth wipes that I made myself and used cloth diapers.  It was/is more work. It does take water, soap and time to reuse them. So what uses less energy and resources:  1. Using paper products, or 2. Using fabric and then having to launder it? I think it depends on how you use the fabric alternatives to paper. Interesting how the original (fabric towels, wipes, sanitary napkins, wash cloths, dish towels, etc) has become the “alternative”.

So think about whether you are willing to wash a few more small pieces of fabric each week as opposed to buying and using paper napkins. Will it save you money? In the long run, probably. Will it save trees? Probably. We can only begin where we can – one small step at a time.  Think about cutting up that next worn tee instead of throwing it out. Cut it into 12”-15” squares of fabric and use them as napkins. They don’t really need a finished edge or hem to be effective. They’ll wash just fine and ravel very little, if any. And if you color-code, you’ll only be washing very little extra. And if you need a jump-start, do to and have a look at the options. :)


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