When Arthur Scott came up with the idea of the disposable paper towel back in 1932, not many people had the foresight to envision what a bane toss-away paper products would become. But here we are, nearly 80 years later–paper accounts for one third of all municipal landfill waste, and the number of trees used in the paper industry is nothing short of staggering. So the big question: Is the continued use of disposable paper products sustainable? Is using dishtowels better for the environment than using paper towels? Similarly, are cloth napkins greener than paper napkins? Some argue that the energy used to make and repeatedly wash a dishtowel may exceed that used for the manufacture of a paper towel, and many argue the other way around. In the battle of paper towels and napkins versus cloth, here are the green, greener, and greenest options.
Not-Green: Paper—Virgin Fiber, Chlorine Bleached
Virgin fiber is that which comes straight from a tree. Doesn’t it seem a waste to use a tree for a single-use item? Well how’s this: If every household in the United States replaced one roll of virgin-fiber paper towels with 100 percent recycled paper towels, we could save 1.4 million trees. If every household in the United States replaced just one package of virgin fiber napkins with 100 percent recycled ones, we could save 1 million trees. With those numbers in mind, using virgin fiber for single use items seems simply outrageous.
Next up, bleach. Gleaming, bright white paper towels and napkins don’t get that way naturally. There are several methods of bleaching paper products, some far better than others. The one to avoid is Elemental Chlorine (chlorine gas). This is the worst of the bunch, and is responsible for the release of chlorinated compounds like dioxins and furans, which are powerful carcinogens and mutagens. These chemicals can adversely affect immune systems and reproductive systems and are dreadful for aquatic life and wildlife. Bad, bad, bad. Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) process may be okay—this method employs a chlorine derivative such as chlorine dioxide rather than chlorine gas, and is not the best choice, but is a cleaner process than the use of elemental chlorine.
Greenish: Paper—Partially Recycled, Alternative Bleaching
If you can’t find paper products that are made of 100 percent recycled paper, look for ones with at least some recycled content. Also, steer away from products bleached with elemental chlorine and instead chose ones that use alternative bleaching. Process Chlorine Free (PCF) is a great choice, this process does not use not bleach with chlorine or its derivatives. Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) is the best choice—this is pulp that has never been bleached with chlorine or its derivatives.
Green: Paper—Totally Chlorine Free, 100 Percent Recycled
There are two types of materials used in recycled paper products: Post-consumer fiber and recovered fiber. Post-consumer fibers come from paper that has already been used by the consumer and sent to recycling. Recovered fiber is from paper waste leftover in manufacturing, such as trim, scraps, unused stock. When you are buying recycled paper products, strive for 100 percent recycled paper with a minimum of 90 percent post-consumer materials. The higher the post-consumer percentage, the more paper is being saved from hitting the landfill. Also look for Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) paper towels and napkins—these are brown, and a very pretty brown at that.
If you are hugely careless in your treatment of cloth napkins and dishtowels (like running a load of hot-water wash for a few barely-soiled napkins), paper can be the more eco-friendly option. But if you approach your cloth towels and napkins conscientiously, cloth is the greener option. Some say that washing cloth must be more energy-intensive than using paper, but electric dryers are actually twice as energy efficient as the manufacture of paper towels. When you factor in all of the components of making a paper towel or napkins (harvesting the material, processing and bleaching it, packaging it, shipping it, stocking it at a supermarket, transportation to and from the store to purchase it, etc). all for a single use, you find that the paper towels and napkins are about twice as energy-intensive and create more greenhouse gases overall. A cloth napkin or dishtowel may go through similar processes to get to your kitchen drawer, but it will stay there for many, many years, rather than being sent directly to the landfill.
Greenest: Cloth—Recycled and/or Hemp, Linen or Organic Cotton
Buy used cloth napkins and dishtowels. You can find lovely and fun ones at second hand stores, at flea markets and on eBay. You can make your own dishtowels by cutting up old sheets, towels, etc., and hemming the edges (same goes for napkins). If you are buying new dishtowels or napkins, remember that conventional cotton is a notoriously nasty crop in terms of pesticides, so aim to use organic cotton. Alternatively, choose hemp or linen which are more sustainable than conventional cotton. Follow the tips below for the greenest use of your cloth napkins and dishtowels.
Paper Towel and Napkin Green Tips
- Purchase paper towels made of 100 percent recycled materials.
- Look for paper products that contain a minimum of 90 percent post-consumer waste.
- Choose unbleached paper towels. If those are unavailable, opt for process chlorine free (PCF) next, or elemental chlorine free (ECF) as a last choice.
- Choose paper towels and napkins that have no added pigments, inks or dyes (say goodbye to that floral printed border).
- Select packaging with minimal environmental impact, such as that made of recycled and recyclable materials; imprinted with safe inks; and containing no toxic metals, dyes or inks.
- Seek items having the largest amount of product to minimize packaging, for example, high-capacity hardwound roll towels have 800 feet or more. Some brands are puffier and allow for fewer paper towels per roll or napkins per package.
- Avoid folded paper towels, it is too easy to use too many of them.
- Look for paper towels that are wound on a 100 percent recycled core.
Cloth Napkin and Dishtowel Green Tips
- Only wash when soiled. Most adults don’t really dirty a napkin after every meal.
- Designate a place to store “in-use” napkins and use the same one until it is dirty.
- If you have a large family, designate a napkin ring for each member to identify their napkin between meals.
- Toss dirty napkins and dish towels in with other laundry.
- Use eco-friendly laundry detergent.
- Wash with cold water and line dry when weather permits.