Paper towels and paper napkins are a huge source of paper waste and expensive over time. In the United States, 13 billion pounds of paper towels are used each year. To make one ton of paper towels, 17 trees are cut down and 20,000 gallons of water are consumed.

Instead, think reusable and use cloth napkins and dish towels. Let’s name the benefits:

  • Cloth dishtowels are sturdier and hold more water than their paper alternatives, making for better cleaning and wiping up messes.
  • Cloth napkins come in an endless array of colors and designs, making them more attractive at the table.
  • Your set of cloth dishtowels and napkins will save precious resources.
  • Over time, cloth dishtowels and napkins will save you an enormous amount of money in paper towels and paper napkins that you do not purchase.

You can invest in a set of long lasting wash cloths and napkins, or make your own by cutting up old sheets, towels, etc., and hemming the edges. You can also find them at secondhand stores, at flea markets and on eBay.  If you are buying new dish towels or napkins, remember that conventional cotton is a notoriously nasty crop in terms of pesticides, so aim to use organic cotton. Alternatively, choose hemp or linen which are more sustainable materials than conventional cotton. Follow the tips below for the greenest use of your cloth napkins and dish towels.

Green tips for cloth napkins and dishtowels:

  • Only wash napkins when soiled. Most adults don’t really dirty a napkin after every meal.
  • Designate a place to store “in-use” napkins and use the same one until it is dirty.
  • If you have a large family, designate a napkin ring for each member to identify each person’s napkin between meals.
  • Toss dirty napkins and dishtowels in with other laundry.
  • Use eco-friendly laundry detergent.
  • Wash with cold water and line dry when weather permits.

Worried about germs?

In 2000, the Mayo Clinic conducted one of the few independent studies evaluating paper towels, cloth towels, hand blowers, and good old air drying. Researchers contaminated participants’ hands and then instructed them to wash with soap and water. Afterward, they had them run their hands under a warm air dryer for a single 30-second cycle, use a cloth or paper towel for 15 seconds, or let them air dry. The scientists found no differences in the efficiencies of removing bacteria from washed hands when hands are dried using paper towels, cloth towels, warm forced air or spontaneous evaporation.