Have you ever wondered how much money you might actually save if you switched from using paper towels and napkins to reusable cloth? I thought about this awhile back and actually did some research on it, but somehow my search resulted in more questions than answers. I figured it was time to revisit this question.
While this might not be a life altering question that will save you thousands over the next few years, it’s a fun process to go through and who knows, maybe it will save time and money. Better yet, maybe it points us in the right direction of finding additional small changes and substitutions that can save a lot of money over time.
Contents and Quick Links
- 1 Which is better, paper napkins or towels or reusable cloth napkins?
- 2 And the winner is…..
- 3 How much does it cost to use paper towels?
- 4 How much does it cost to use paper napkins?
- 5 How much does it cost to buy cloth napkins?
- 6 How to save even more on cloth napkins
- 7 How to make your own cloth napkins
- 8 What is the cost to wash cloth napkins?
- 9 Environmental impact of cloth napkins vs. paper towels
- 10 The Convenience Debate: Cloth vs. Paper Towels
- 11 The Sanitary Debate: Cloth vs. Paper Towels
- 12 The Savings Debate: Cloth vs. Paper Towels
- 13 Conclusion
Which is better, paper napkins or towels or reusable cloth napkins?
There are a few factors to consider to this question.
- Which is cheaper, cloth or paper?
- Which is more environmentally friendly? Compare the use of gas/electricity and water to wash all your cloth napkins or using resources manufacturing paper and then disposing of all that paper.
- Which is more hygienic? Do you spread more germs reusing your cloth napkins?
And the winner is…..
I’ll just cut to the chase and let you know now, in my opinion, the clear winner is reusable cloth napkins. All around it saves you money, especially over time. Research indicates that, so long as you wash your napkins regularly, there is no difference in which is healthier to use. As for the environment, anytime you can reuse resources over the long run, you’re helping the planet. The only time cloth came close to falling behind paper in cost is when you wash your napkins in a separate load of laundry, in a less water and energy efficient washer and dryer. However, this can be negated by throwing all your napkins in with your regular laundry.
Read on to learn about just how much you can save by making the switch from paper towels or napkins to reusable (and stylish) cloth napkins.
How much does it cost to use paper towels?
Looking on Amazon, a box of Bounty 16 rolls is $38.83, which comes out to $2.43 per roll. It’s probably a bit more if you buy smaller packs. According to Amazon’s subscribe and save delivery guide, a family of 2-4 people can expect to go through all 16 rolls in 7-8 months.
Here’s what I’ll assume:
- 4 people household
- 16 rolls in 8 months
- 2 rolls per month
- Total cost for the year: $58.32
How much does it cost to use paper napkins?
I’ll do this again in case your family prefers paper napkins over towels.
According to Amazon again, the most common napkin is Bounty and the most common subscribe and save option is to purchase every 6 months.
At the time of writing this, the price is $49.92 for 6 months, or $99.84 per year.
That seems a bit high to me, almost double the cost of using paper towels. So, I’ll try the math again with some assumptions.
Here’s what I’ll assume:
- 4 person household
- 2 napkins/person/day (you know you use a lot when you have kids!)
- 400 napkins = $15.28
- 7.3 packs of 400 napkins per year
- Total cost for the year: $111.54
Apparently it really is this expensive to use paper napkins rather than paper towels. Who knew?
How much does it cost to buy cloth napkins?
Now we run through the same process for reusable cloth napkins.
I have 8 napkins and it’s enough for me and my son. So I’ll assume 4 napkins per person, it really depends on how often you do laundry.
In browsing for the most popular napkins on Amazon, the average price is around $14 for a pack of 12 napkins. Polyester is cheaper, but who wants to wipe their face with polyester??
Here are my assumptions:
- 4 person household
- 4 napkins per person
- They come in packs of 12 so I’m accounting for two packs, if you want a particular style and color, they will be more expensive and come in smaller sets, so it probably evens out.
- Two packs of 12: $28
- Price per napkin: $2.33
- Total cost for the year: $28
- Each napkin lasts 5 years
- Total cost per year over 5 years: $5.60
How to save even more on cloth napkins
It’s fairly safe to assume that the total cost of your cloth napkins over the course of their 5 year lifetime is $5.60. Let’s just pretend that this is still more than you want to pay for napkins. Here’s some ideas on how you can decrease this even more.
- Your napkins will probably last longer than you want them to. I’ve been using mine for 4 years now and they still look mostly new. They are red and haven’t faded to pink, they aren’t frayed at all and if anything, they have become softer with time. I expect to easily get another 6 years out of them, which brings my overall annual cost down to $2.80.
- Many people are given nice cloth napkins as a gift but don’t end up using them much. Maybe only for the fancy dinner parties that they always say they are going to hold but really never do. Which means it’s not uncommon to find nice napkins at yard sales. Keep an eye out for them and score a great set for super cheap.
- Goodwill is another good place to find high quality and barely ever used, or even new, cloth napkins.
- If you comb through Ebay you just might find a great deal on gently used or new cotton or linen napkins.
- An even better option is to make your own cloth napkins. Search around at your favorite fabric store and create your own unique napkins to match any style and decor.
How to make your own cloth napkins
If you really want to save money, shop around at your favorite fabric store and make your own. Personally, I have a sewing machine and at one time I really enjoyed using it for mending and creating fun hats, aprons and blankets for gifts. Sadly, I just don’t have the time for this anymore.
But if you do have the time and inclination, this is a super fun and inexpensive way to go. Here’s a post that step you through the process.
According to The Family Homestead, 1 ¼ yards of fabric will make 16 napkins. I found a beautiful linen fabric on sale for $6.50, which means my napkins would cost me a grand total of $0.40 each. Or, amortized out over 5 years of use, that’s just $1.30 a year for all your napkin needs!
You can visit another nice article tutorial on making your own cloth napkins by Sew Guide here.
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What is the cost to wash cloth napkins?
You may have been wondering why I’m leaving out the cost of actually washing your napkins all time. Doesn’t this add to your time and utilities costs? Actually, not really. I keep a small basket by my washing machine and throw all the used napkins in there. Anytime I run a load of laundry, I add the napkins to the mix. Since I was going to wash those clothes anyway, and the napkins take up so little room, I haven’t noticed any difference in my laundry routine.
If you want to factor in the cost of a load of laundry to wash all your cloth napkins, rags and towels separately, you’ll have to factor in the energy and water efficiency of your washer and dryer, the cost of your gas, electricity and water and how much you spend on laundry detergent.
The cheapest way to do laundry is with a front loading efficient washer, wash with cold water and line dry. According to a MoneyCrashers article on the issue, the average cost of a single load of laundry ranges from $0.21 – $1.22 depending on efficiency.
So, if we assume one load of laundry a week for your kitchen cloth needs, at $1/load, that comes to $52 extra cost a year.
Environmental impact of cloth napkins vs. paper towels
I’m in California where drought is a big problem and it’s well ingrained in me to use as little water as possible. I was initially concerned about the added water use it would take to wash all my cloth napkins throughout the week. I solved this concern by buying enough napkins to get through a full week and adding them to the rest of my laundry. With my energy and water efficient washer, I’m not using any additional water since I don’t wash a separate load just for the napkins.
Where I do feel like I’ve made a difference is in decreasing my overall waste.
Paper on the Environmental Impact of Hand Drying Systems
In a paper titled Life Cycle Assessment of Hand Drying Systems, funded by Dyson, Inc and prepared by Materials Systems Laboratory and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, some interesting environmental impacts of paper towel use are reviewed. Here are the main takeaways:
- The overall energy and environmental impact of paper towels includes the following processes: the materials to make the paper towels, the manufacturing processes, transportation of the finished product, consumption use per person and end-of-life disposal of used paper towels.
- The majority of environmental impact is from manufacturing.
- The difference in using recycled vs. virgin materials is minimal, since the majority of environmental impact is from the manufacturing process rather than the materials used.
- Paper towels can be made from recycled materials but can’t be recycled after use. Waste goes to landfills and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, which adds to the overall environmental impact.
- This paper reviews hand drying systems outside the home, comparing air dry systems, cloth drying rolls and paper towels. While it doesn’t directly relate to paper towel use in the home, it does review the environmental impact of paper towel use. This is relevant in making the decision to use cloth towels and napkins vs. paper products.
- The largest global warming potential contributor to the use of cotton fabric rolls for drying hands is in the washing process. (For home use this is minimized by adding napkins and cleaning rags to standard laundry loads.)
- Cotton requires a huge amount of water and pesticides to grow.
- Linen is made from flax, which uses less water and land, but results in a large amount of pollutants.
- Polyester requires less water but is more energy intensive to produce and also results in pollutants.
Use organic cotton as much as possible and extend the life for as long as possible.
The Convenience Debate: Cloth vs. Paper Towels
In all honesty, I have battled with this one. Mostly, I just use the old napkins and dish towels as rags for cleaning up in the kitchen. Whatever I used to use a paper towel on, I now just grab a clean rag.
I was using cloth napkins but kept the paper towels around for the simple task of wiping down my cast iron egg skillet every morning. Now I use a cloth rag that has a stitched abrasive weave on the back side for scouring. Works like a charm. I have 4 and just throw them in the wash once a week.
The Sanitary Debate: Cloth vs. Paper Towels
Another question relevant to the cloth vs. paper towel debate: Which is more sanitary?
An article published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings compared the effects of 4 different hand-drying methods for removing bacteria from washed hands. A group of 99 study participants washed their hands then used either a warm air hand-activated dryer, rotary dispenser cloth towel roll, paper towels or air evaporation. There was no statistically significant difference between the 4 different hand drying methods.
However, I’d add that it’s plain common sense to keep hand-drying towels separate from kitchen rags and napkins, and to wash them in hot water every couple of days. This prevents cross-contamination of salmonella after handling raw meat, as well as the general spread of bacteria. The same goes for changing out that bathroom hand towel.
There is certainly the argument for using paper disposable towels in the cleaning of bodily fluids. With babies and small children in the home, it can be much cleaner and convenient to use paper towels. Who’s to say you can’t have both? It still saves money and is kinder on the environment to cut back on the overall use of paper towels and napkins by incorporating cloth into the mix.
The Savings Debate: Cloth vs. Paper Towels
While your own numbers will inevitably vary, here’s what the math looks like if:
- You buy 12 cloth napkins costing around $28
- You use these napkins for 5 years
- You also buy some scouring cleaning rags to keep on hand in the kitchen
- Your family normally went through 2 paper towel rolls per month (a conservative estimate, other sources estimate twice this)
- You purchase based upon the most popular and best selling paper products on Amazon
- If you choose to wash all your kitchen napkins and rags in a separate load every week, the average cost per load is $1.
The results are pretty clear and the winner is cloth napkins. Even if you an additional separate load of laundry and buy more expensive cloth napkins, you still come out ahead. Additionally, the environmental impact of reusable cloth is lower, particularly if you choose organic cotton material.
And let’s face it, you win style points for setting the table with cloth napkins.
As an additional side note, if you give up paper napkins and instead make your own, then invest your annual savings over the period of five years, you’d come out $576 ahead (assuming 7% interest earnings).
Over 10 years you’d have an extra $1,400. Not too bad!
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