Hands down, paper napkins, especially ones that are unbleached and made from recycled fibers, take MUCH less energy to manufacture. Even the white ones don't take much energy (but the bleaching ... eek!). There's really no comparison in energy use because textile manufacturing is pretty energy and water-intensive. And added to the energy consumption of cloth, is regular laundering.
Then there's the landfill issue. Rotting paper napkins produce greenhouse gasses, and contribute to various other landfill problems. Cloth is much less of a environmental load in the landfills. it's there, certainly, but it gets recycled, sent to goodwill, sold in garage sales and the like, and paper napkins never do.
So, which is better?
Well, cloth, but only a little in most cases. There are things you can do to make your napkins more environmentally friendly:
- Use recycled cloth. Turn old (and especially torn, unrepairable, or unwearable) clothes into napkins.
- Choose environmentally-friendly fabrics. Linen, while more expensive, uses much less water and pesticides than other fabrics.
- Go organic with cotton. Cotton uses a lot of pesticides and a lot of water.
- Use your cloth napkins until they are downright threadbare. And then use them as rags until they fall apart.
- Go wrinkly and don't iron your napkins! Who cares if they are a little wrinkled? You are just going to be getting them dirty again. Special occasions and holidays are one thing, but for everyday use, let 'em wrinkle.
- Don't wash them each and every time, if you can help it. Use napkin rings with your family's names on it, and keep using the napkin until it's actually dirty.
- Don't wash the napkins in a load by themselves. That's an AMAZING waste of water. (It takes something like 200+ napkins to make a single load). Just throw them in with your other laundry that you'd be doing anyway.
- Wash in cold water whenever possible (and that goes for all your laundry, and not just napkins).
- Don't overdry your laundry and napkins (it's really fine for your clothes to be ever-so-slightly damp - fold everything anyway. It'll dry by the time you wear it, trust me. Besides, it cuts down on static). Better yet, hang as much stuff dry as possible.
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