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Do Paper or Fabric Napkins Save the Most Money?

Kelly Ann Butterbaugh
June 29, 2011

A major expense in any household shouldn't be the napkins that sit on the dining room table, but it is an expense. As we move towards reuse more and more, the question of the paper napkin takes on more importance. They are certainly filling landfills, and each one costs a fraction of a penny.

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Yet, fabric napkins are a larger initial expense with endless wash cycles awaiting their lifetime. Which is for the better good, both environmentally and economically?

Paper Prices vs. Fabric Investment

The initial investment for fabric napkins can be daunting. They can be made at home or purchased in the clearance aisle of the store, but they still are going to cost at least $2 a piece.

Remember when selecting your fabric napkins that they will have to withstand many, many washes. A thinly woven fabric or straight end stitching may not hold up to the wear and tear that these pieces will need to endure. A good set of fabric napkins that are not on sale will cost $10 for a pair. If your family has four members, you can expect to dirty a dozen napkins a day.

The paper napkins have an obviously lower initial investment. A pack of 250 generic paper napkins can be found on sale for $1.50. This less than $2 investment will last about 21 days if used at the same rate of the fabric napkins above.

It should be noted, however, that the fabric napkins are larger and will absorb more than the paper napkins, making the average use of paper much higher.

WINNER: paper

Maintenance of Paper and Fabric

There is no maintenance needed for paper napkins - just use and toss. However, they go somewhere once the garbage is collected each week. The Sierra Club calculates that a family of four that eats three meals a day will use 4,380 paper napkins a year. Add that to the rest of the families in America, and you've created 4 billion pounds of landfill waste and harvested 34 million trees. It's not a monetary cost, but it's a notable one.

For fabric napkins, the maintenance is the turnoff for most. Twelve napkins a day turns into 84 napkins per week which is easily two loads of laundry. The average cost for a load of laundry using electrically heated water and an electric clothes dryer is $1.20 per load.

Of course, hanging the napkins out to dry on a line is even more economical, bringing the cost per load down to $0.70. The water, soaps, and electric used are a smaller drain on the environment than the landfill waste of paper napkins, while the economic waste is much higher.

The monthly maintenance of fabric napkins will be about $10. The monthly purchase price of paper napkins is less than $5.

WINNER: environmentally, fabric; economically, paper

Production Problems

There is no money taken from your wallet during the production of paper or fabric napkins. However, there are environmental concerns. While paper manufacturing is a major environmental contaminant, cotton production isn't much better.

In fact, a few eco-friends insist that cotton dyeing and refining does more environmental damage than the manufacture of low quality paper like the type used in paper napkins. However, organic cotton or linen napkins are created in a much safer and cleaner process, so they would be better for the planet than the paper in that sense.

WINNER: Tie

The Overall Winner?

When adding the environmental factor, there is not clear cut winner. Fabric seems like the solution, but it may not be when all is factored into the equation. For convenience, paper napkins win without a doubt. Similarly, the paper napkins win the frugality contest as well.

What seemed like an easy decision may not have come out with the expected winner. Fabric napkins are elegant and scream of environmental correctness, but when it comes down to it they're not the least expensive choice.

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