With the energy and water used in washing and drying, isn't it actually more environmentally friendly to use paper napkins made by napkin tissue making machine 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 paper napkins produced by double layer napkin paper manufacturing machine 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!Napkin tissue made by napkin paper machine is a rectangle of cloth used at the table for wiping the mouth and fingers while eating. It is usually small and folded, sometimes in intricate designs and shapes.
So how do the Napkins compare?
If you add up the emissions from growing the raw materials, manufacturing the napkins, as well as washing and drying, the napkin tissue 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.
Napkins in the restaurant
In a food service scenario we can assume that the napkins are too worn out or soiled to be used after about 50 uses. With this assumption, the emissions for the cotton napkin are 35 grams per use and for the linen napkin are 18 grams per use. The water use is 3.3 and 0.7 liters, respectively. Add to this the fact that restaurant napkins are often washed using a significant amount of bleach to keep them bright white. Of course the emissions and water use for the paper napkin remain at 10 grams and 0.3 liters.
Napkins in the home
At home you probably aren't going to be washing your napkins after each use. In my house we have found that washing the napkins every week is sufficient. With this assumption, how do the reusable napkins made by Napkin tissue machine stack up to paper napkins? Over the course of a year you might wash your napkins 50 times and during the same time you might go through 350 (50 x 7) paper napkins. This scenario is much more favorable towards the reusable napkins, with 5 grams of greenhouse gas emissions for the cotton versus 10 grams for the single-use paper napkins. The linen napkin was even lower at 2.5 grams. In terms of water use, the cotton is still higher (0.5 liters) than the paper napkins (0.3 liters), and the linen is the lowest, at 0.1 liters.
So what Napkins are best?
Surprisingly in the restaurant scenario the napkin tissue is the winner, while at home, the cloth napkin is king. Here are some tips for reducing your impact:
Purchase linen napkins, not cotton
Make your own napkins from fabric remnants
Set your washing machine to use cold water
Line dry your napkins