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My local municipality has a "Waste Watchers" program that provides resources for reducing the quantity of waste sent to landfills. One of their tips is to use cloth napkins instead of paper napkins.

If I follow this advice, how many times will I need to use my cloth napkins in order to have less environmental impact than if I simply used paper napkins?

If it helps, assume the cloth napkins are standard cotton, and the paper napkins are standard white paper napkins with some recycled content.

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Traditionally in household use, a cloth napkin was used a week. Hence monogrammed napkin rings, so you would get your own at hte table next time. This however is an aesthetic decision.

Another decision: How many times can you wash them before they start looking tacky?

A third decision: Starch: Starched cloth not only stays looking good longer, but it's easier to clean: Most of the stain soaks into the starch.

A final decision: Cotton or linen or polyester. Linen lasts longer but is pricier. Polyester can be perma-pressed so that it requires no ironing. Much higher stain resistance. Not as absorbent.

Labour: What is your labour worth to wash etc.

Let's look at year's worth of 3 meals a day for a family of 4.

Paper: 4 * 365 * 3 = 4300 napkins/year. Vanity Fair napkins -- Amazon best seller -- 2 cents each. so $86.00 Nicer ones about double that. Cotton cloth napkins $14/dozen. You can get them in colours, which helps to not show stains.

Washing: This is iffy. If you can include them in a load you are doing anyway, the cost of washing is essentially nil. Otherwise if you consider that a sheet (6x6 feet) is about 16 napkins (1.5 feet x 1.5 feet) but that napkins are several times as heavy a fabric. Lets call 1 sheet = 6 napkins. So a load of sheets is 8 sheets = 50 napkins. If you have a cost figured per load of wash, then you use 7 washloads of napkins per year (on a weekly cycle)

Starch and iron. Cost for this is vanishingly small except for your time. A friend runs a B&B and uses cloth napkins. I think he said it takes about an hour to do 50 napkins. Call it 1 minute each. If your time is worth $15/hour then that's 25 cents per napkin. I bet that is in line with the time it takes to wash dishes. Note however how quickly the time cost outstrips the original cost.

A 'slumming it' option is to not bother ironing them. Just fold them. If you get coloured ones, you can run them with the coloured tee-shirts. You're not having to make an impression. Likely in family use you would have an everyday set that you don't starch and iron, and a 'fancy guest' set that you make an extra effort for.

An even more slumming it option: Buy bulk rags. These are often sold my machinist shops for wiping oil up. Sold by the pound.

Conclusion: Worth doing, especially if you have a family.

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I couldn't find a source for the economic impact of cloth napkins, but there are numerous studies that examine the environmental impact of cotton bags over plastic and paper. I know it's not a 100% comparison, but we have to use these since we don't know the environmental impact of a single paper and cloth napkin. One study out of England found that you need to use a paper bag 3 times to get the effectiveness, and a cotton bag 131 times. So using these numbers, for this to work for cloth napkins, you'd need to use it 43 times. This doesn't take into account the environmental impact of washing them (heating up hot water, and the electricity usage of the dryer and washer themselves).

This is less than I expected before I found myself at this stack exchange, and seems very doable. If you get your napkins used, which you should, you could also argue you're not responsible for any demand on the cloth napkin manufacturers side so the environmental impact is even smaller.

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  • Worth noting that in many countries line drying is common. I suspect the UV exposure from that both sterilises and ages the cloth, but it significantly reduces the external energy use. Why pipe solar from the PV on your roof to the dryer in your house when sunshine is also available in your back yard!
    – Móż
    Sep 16 at 3:04

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