Cloth Napkins…..Really?!

I often read about this tip, and recently tripped over it again on another blog.  To save money and “go green,” switch to cloth napkins instead of paper throw-aways, it goes.

Okay.  I’m all for recycling, and for cutting back on consumables (including packaging), and for saving money.  But as one who has tried this for everyday use, I gotta say, “Whoah, Nellie!”  It doesn’t work for everyone, so be sure this is something you will really do before investing.

Oh, yes, there are super deals at dollar stores, yadda yadda yadda.  But the investment is in more than just napkins.  It is also in time spent cleaning the napkins.  It is in the effort of removing stains.  It is in the extra products needed for removing them.  It is in the time and effort of retraining your family.

If you have children, they will tend to stain cloth napkins, just as they muck up paper ones.  One value of paper.  They, and their parents, will grab cloth napkins to wipe up the spilled milk/applesauce/cocoa/whatever.  This is human nature, and works well for the immediate emergency.  Then comes the nuisance of cloth.

If such a cloth napkin is not cleaned right away, it can stain.  It can mold, especially if there is dairy involved.  It can stain or mold other items in the laundry basket.  So, it becomes necessary to immediately soak, wash, rinse — just till they can be washed with a full load.  Because if you’re doing a laundry load of napkins and towels everyday, how “green” is that?

Let’s talk about the kinds of use these napkins will be getting.  These are not easy stains to remove.  In food, there are fats, natural staining pigments, animal products, and, in some foods (like barbecue), black carbon.  Fats can sometimes be removed with a degreasing dish detergent, mixed with water and left to sit a good long time.  Natural staining pigments, such as tomato, carrot, spices, and “colors of unknown origin,” are difficult to remove, especially from white or light cloth.  Animal products, both protein and fat, are difficult to remove, but enzyme products can help if used immediately.  Black carbon – grill grease – all I can say is, “Have at it.”

Bleach it, you say?  Not all stains bleach out, first of all.  Secondly, not all fabrics take repeated bleaching well.  Even heavy white cotton.  Comes a point of diminishing returns.  Swiftly.

If you think that removing stains isn’t necessary, then you don’t have children.  They never want to use the napkin that has someone else’s stain on it.  And they know their stains v. their brother’s stains!    If they are compelled to take the stained napkin, they will not use it.  Then you have the same stains on sleeves and pant laps.

Now, if you are one of those families that eats every day in the nice dining room, and your family has been perfectly (and I dare say unnaturally) trained to ne’er drip a drop, then you may not have these issues.  Kudos to you!  And I mean that.

But for the rest of us, I believe, using paper napkins is the more frugal way to go.  These can go in lunch boxes without worry.  They can be grabbed to wipe a saucy mouth or a dripping nose, then tossed away inoffensively.  They can be used to blot up a glob of ketchup from the table at the end of a meal without concern for staining.

We still use cloth napkins sometimes.  In the nice dining room, at holiday meals, and after careful admonition.  And with two fingers, ten toes, and ankles crossed.

The paper napkin, in my opinion, is one of the great inventions of modern society.  Experiment if you must, but I think you’ll come back to reality.

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