Paper v. cloth

| 04 Nov 2013 | 05:03

Paper doesn’t have to become waste

As the holidays approach, I wonder how I, as someone who has been environmentally conscious the better part of my life, will make a statement in my choice to accommodate guests this year? Initially I felt I should reduce waste, use no paper products. Then it occurred to me, “That’s what everyone thinks.” Perhaps we should look at our decisions a little more critically.

“Wash and reuse” isn’t as simple as it sounds. A small load of napkins may cause 40 grams of greenhouse gas emissions from electricity, and use three gallons of water if the machine is energy efficient. An older machine may use up to 14 gallons. Some detergents still use trisodium phosphates (only some states have banned it), which may end up in gray water leach fields leading to nearby streams. Phosphate -based products have increased eutrophication of lakes and contributes to loss of wildlife. Another 10 grams of greenhouse gas emissions per napkin is used in drying. Some may argue this shouldn’t matter as a household is doing laundry anyway. However I don’t know too many people who wash dinner napkins with clothing, so chances are good this “environmentally friendly” choice will in truth create an extra load. Lastly, most napkins will have to be ironed, using another energy- consuming appliance.

It’s difficult to justify the waste, but paper is not “waste” in compost. Napkins that are not bleached will be better for the compost than newspaper with ink or coated printer paper. I have chosen to support the paper companies that aren’t cutting old growth forests, but instead engage in sustainable forestry. Marcal uses 100% recycled paper as source material.

This discussion is mostly about the need to consider all environmental factors from production to disposal. Ask yourself: “Where does this come from,” “How is it made” and “Where does it go?” and you will arrive at informed decisions. This holiday I choose to take an active role in the sustainable paper industry and promote composting as an option for reducing waste.

Kristin Spring teaches environmental science at Warwick Valley High School in Warwick, N.Y. A special thanks to this year’s environmental science class for presenting their positions on this topic

Cloth is greener and just way cooler

While paper napkins may be convenient, I think that’s about all they’ve got going for them.

After all the chopping, spicing and cooking it takes to prepare a meal, it deserves a nice presentation -- and that means real plates, real flatware and real napkins. Cloth napkins are more absorbent and resilient than disposable ones, plus they add a touch of class.

If you are eating something really messy – especially finger food, most people will go through three or four paper napkins, when just one made of cloth will do the job.

But the question is, are they greener? In my house they are. First of all, I’ve rarely bought them new, so the manufacture of them is a moot point. They last forever – I have some from my grandmother, and some that I have bought second hand.

Then there are the ones I’ve made. I make them out of leftover material too small for anything else, as well as heavy cotton T-shirts and even pajamas. About 16-inch square is a great size, but that’s fairly large to cut out of clothes, so I do a patchwork of different four-inch squares. An added plus to doing it that way is that all the napkins match one another. I like cotton blends because I’m too lazy to iron them and I don’t like them wrinkled, so wash and wear material works well.

Then there is the question of washing them. While this is an issue for commercial use, such as a restaurant, at home it doesn’t even make a blip. I just toss them in with the regular laundry. I don’t think they have ever caused me to wash an additional load.

And since I mentioned restaurants, I’d like to point out that many restaurants that use paper not only give each diner a napkin, they often leave a small stack in the center of the table. The unused ones are then usually just swept up with the rest of the detritus when the table is cleared and thrown away.

So, I’d say cloth napkins are definitely greener. But, basically, they’re just way cooler.

Joanne Baker of Monroe, N.Y. makes cloth napkins out of pajama pants