The Napkin Defense

Dear Helena,
Every year, my mother-in-law gives me something I don’t want for Christmas. One year, it was a Swiffer. Last year, it was a set of linen napkins. She said, “I thought you guys are too grown-up to still be using paper serviettes.” Her tone implied that using paper napkins is like having unframed posters tacked to the walls and a bong on the coffee table. Is there something tacky about using paper napkins or (gasp!) squares of paper towel? Frankly, I feel table linens are a little old-fashioned.
—Sick of Passive-Aggressive Gifts

Dear Sick of Passive-Aggressive Gifts,
Cloth napkins may seem like a throwback to the Victorian era. But people used them all the time until the 1950s, according to Cindy Bowden, director of the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum in Atlanta. That was when the paper industry began using more recycled fiber. Because recycled cost less than virgin fiber, paper manufacturers could produce cheap, disposable products like napkins, she explains.

But there’s a very modern reason to use cloth napkins whenever possible: They’re ecofriendly. Even recycled paper napkins (or paper towels) consume energy and resources in their manufacturing, packaging, and shipping. As Crissy Trask, author of It’s Easy Being Green, says: “Any time you can reuse something, it’s better than the disposable version.”

If you’re really scrupulous, buying mismatched, secondhand cloth napkins is the way to go. Trask recommends thrift stores, or you could try eBay. “Then you keep those napkins out of the landfill,” she says. If the thought of using a stranger’s napkin grosses you out, then the greenest option is a napkin made of “linen or hemp or organic cotton—some natural, sustainable fabric,” Trask says.

Washing cloth napkins does require energy, but there’s no need to do an extra load. Linens are so lightweight, they can go in with the regular laundry. In decades past when people regularly used linen napkins, it wasn’t considered uncouth to go several days before washing them. A different ring often was used to distinguish each person’s napkin when it was stored. This is still a good practice.

“It’s perfectly fine and healthy,” opines Trask. “Napkins don’t get oversoiled in an evening, unless you’re eating pizza or finger food.”

It’s not like wearing your underwear several days in a row. It’s more like sleeping in the same sheets. Your guests, naturally, will always get fresh napkins. But if your family members reuse theirs, no one else needs to know.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. You can also follow her on Twitter and fan her Table Manners column on Facebook.