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Do Paper or Fabric Napkins Save the Most Money?

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If you are trying to save money and be environmentally friendly this question is more complicated than you may assume. This is a page about, "Do paper or fabric napkins save the most money?".


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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.

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.



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.

Comment Pin it! Was this helpful? 3


June 28, 20113 found this helpful

I bought 2 dozen fabric napkins at a thrift store for $2.00. My husband and I use 1 each a day for dinner (paper for breakfast and lunch). They are tossed in a load of laundry I'm already doing.


They do take time to fold. On the other hand, I often have to use more than one paper napkin for lunch, especially if they're the cheap generic ones. Cloth napkins stand up to a lot of finger food!

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June 28, 20113 found this helpful

I pick up fabric remnants to make fabric napkins, you can usually get at least two out of a remnant, depending on how large you want them. I serge around them, but if you don't have a serger you can hem with a regular sewing machine. If you don't sew you can fringe the edges. Unless they get really dirty, they can be used for more than one meal. I just throw them in with the tea towels and dish cloths and actually it really helps make a full load of kitchen items. I would hate to go back to paper now, love the fabric ones.

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June 28, 20114 found this helpful

We have napkin rings with our initials on them (or you could just use a different style of ring for each person) and reuse our napkins for several meals. I now have lovely napkins that I bought at Winners, but I have use nice tea towels or dish cloths for napkins in the past especially when the kids were little and spills were messy and sticky. One certainly does not need 84 napkins for a family of 4 for a week! Ridiculous.

I don't know if I have ever had more than 20. And the cost is next to nothing figured over time. Napkins last for years (I'd say easily 5!) and when you decide they are too worn for that, you move them onto cleaning duty in the kitchen or shop. I have either washed my napkins with the tea towels or with the white load and it costs me virtually nothing per week, as I would be doing those loads anyway.

Fabric napkins are the clear environmental choice, economic choice, and are far nicer to use. We only use paper when we are camping.

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June 28, 20112 found this helpful

I'm sorry, but I am going to be politically incorrect here & say that I absolutely DON'T believe that paper napkins are filling our landfills! Have you ever noticed how they seem to dissolve in your hands as you use them? I bet the degrade just as quickly in the landfill.
But I do believe that it's a waste of trees to use paper napkins, unless they are made from recycled paper. I don't like the cost either, so I don't usually buy napkins OR paper towels! Well, sometimes I do buy generic napkins, but we don't use many because my teenagers like to lick their fingers or wipe their hands on their clothes when I'm not looking,LOL!

My solution is to use the paper napkins these ridiculous fast food places & restaurants like to give by the handfuls! It never fails, we get at least a doze every time. I keep a rubbermaid container on my counter to put the napkins in & we use them from there - it's almost always full! I figure they would go in the garbage if I didn't use them anyway. When we are low on paper napkins, we use napkins made from old tshirts or towels.

I figure this way I'm saving money, trees, water & the landfill!

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