Cost Savings of Cloth Napkins vs. Single-Use Paper Napkins

close up photo of dinnerware set on top of table with glass cups

Are there any cost savings of cloth napkins over single use cheap paper napkins? After all, paper napkins are incredibly inexpensive.

And this is one of the main complaints I hear about being sustainable: it’s too expensive.  I’ve struggled to understand this, because truly being sustainable means using what you have, not purchasing things you don’t need, and not contributing to a throwaway culture.

But I think I finally get it.  People don’t want to change habits.  We’re fortunate enough that we are used to being able to buy a quick fix.  And yes, some sustainable alternatives are more expensive than traditional ones. But sustainability is mostly about changing habits, and only a little about what you buy.

And buying less, purchasing for longevity, and avoiding superfluous products sound like good ways to save money to me.

So, I’m doing a series on saving money by going green. I’m starting with the concept reusables versus single use: for instance the cost savings of cloth napkins v. single use paper napkins. I will be discussing the costs of sustainable choices versus traditional ones.

And I’ll let you know if I think the investment, strictly in regards to money, pays off.

toaster oven on table in kitchen
Photo by Charlotte May on Pexels.com

Single-Use Paper Napkins vs. Reusable Cloth Napkins

Let’s start out with napkins.  Yep, a silly little topic that doesn’t seem like it would have a big impact.  And maybe if you were the only household in the world using them, they wouldn’t.  But you’re not. 

Napkins have a fascinating history. Before paper or fabric napkins, apparently people used a soft dough to clean their fingertips. Not long after that, bread was used. At larger banquets, according to tedium.co, cloth might be passed around after a meal so people could clean their hands after using them to eat.

The next stage of napkin use was individual cloth napkins.  It is suspected that paper napkins originated in China, where paper was invented. However, they didn’t come into popularity until the 1930s.

But here we are, reevaluating our single-use paper napkins and considering going back into time to bring back the cloth napkins.  (or should we go back to dough?)

Making the switch, again:

And there’s a reason for that.

  • Over 17,000,000 acres of forest are cut down every year.
  • The main industries that contribute to deforestation are palm oil, fabric, paper, and logging.
  • Napkins can’t be recycled. Recycling machines are not designed to handle them. Plus, they likely are made from a low form of paper that can’t be reused. Their fibers are too short.
  • They can’t be composted if you’re sick, they’re bleached, or there is a bunch of grease on them.
  • According to Simmons National Consumer Survey (NHCS), 14.11 million Americans used 6 or more packages of paper napkins in 2020.

The idea of cutting down trees to wipe our hands after mowing down a sloppy joe just doesn’t sit right now, does it?

So, what are the alternatives?

The most environmentally friendly reusable napkin would be one that you make yourself from materials that you already have. If you’d like to do this (yay for you!), select fabric based on how well it will clean your hands and face, and absorb spills.

Some of the more absorbent materials are flannel, terry cloth, and microfiber. But for napkins, you might not need super absorbent. You can leave the heavy spills to absorbent rags.

However, a lot of us are not prepared to sew up old t-shirts or fabric scraps. Or you might be looking for something that is more aesthetic than what you have on hand or think you can create.

In this case, look to purchase cotton napkins from a small retailer.  Cotton is a good material for napkins, but it is a water intensive crop, and requires a lot of pesticides.  So, if you do select cotton, consider organic cotton.

Are there any cost savings of cloth napkins over disposable paper napkins?

The cost of reusable napkins varies significantly depending on where you get them. They can be practically free if you make them yourself.  Especially using some fabric you have lying around already.  Obviously, they will cost you a little bit more if you need to buy new fabric. 

Or you can purchase them from a small boutique, or Etsy, where there are a range of prices.

The cost of single use napkins varies significantly as well.

The Process:

So, I have utilized Amazon for pricing for the most popular single use napkins.  I’ve selected Etsy as a place to get reusable cloth napkins.  (You can get them from major retailers too, like Walmart, Target, and Amazon, but I like to add the support of small businesses to our sustainable efforts.)

I’ve broken down costs for cloth napkins, from making your own to buying a set,  and the costs for single-use paper napkins, including a variety of types, such as bamboo, virgin paper, or recycled paper.

I’ve included a “details column” so you can see how I came up with the math.

Assumptions: We’re analyzing a family of four, with each member using a napkin every meal. They would use 4380 napkins a year, total.

Here is the cost chart:

Now, these are just a couple of examples.  But I took the most popular in each category to compare what I would consider the average consumer’s choice.

The only other thing to consider that might cause a price drop per napkin is bulk purchases, for instance from a Costco or Sam’s Club.

Even so, if the price drops in half to $0.01 per napkin, consumers are spending $40 a year on single use napkins. This still shows a cost savings of cloth napkins in comparison.

Any extra costs to reusable napkins?

There are hidden costs to reusable napkins: laundry.  However, because they are small you will rarely have to do a load devoted to napkins entirely. You should just be able to throw them in a load that you’re already doing.

If you don’t do laundry frequently, and need new napkins every day, you may have to get 12-16 napkins, depending on the frequency of laundry.  However, taking the highest cost per napkin, $8, you would spend $128 on fabric napkins.  Keeping in mind that these napkins are (hopefully) going to get you through several years, you’d still save hundreds of dollars over the course of 5 years.

So, are there cost savings to cloth napkins?

The answer is yes. Although the savings aren’t huge in a year (maxing out at under $200), over the course of time, the savings can add up.

It’s a classic case of convenience again; Can you change your habits to save a little change, and a lot of environment?

2 Comments
  • Georgina

    I’m a cloth napkin person. Have been for years!! I hunt them down on the meek down tables. Here is a ‘thing’ about clothe napkins. Not are they not only single use but often serve multiple uses between washings. Historically (I think) was the purpose of the napkin ring. It allowed one to identify which one belonged to whom!! When we served as stewards of an old convent there was a an old wooden box with small cubbies where the sisters stored their napkins until the next meal. So, reusing your cloth napkin is a thing. I’m guessing if they had barbecue for supper the napkins went into the wash!! 🙄

    • guiltygranola

      That would make sense about the napkin rings! I just sewed some old pillow cases into reusable napkins. We definitely use them multiple times between washes. Really, with forks and plates, we don’t necessarily get that dirty during a meal!

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