Currently I’m running an experiment here at Growing a Green Family. Can the average family of four save $50,000 in five years simply by living green?
So far we found that you can save $6,000+ if you switch from bottled water to tap and filtered tap water in reusable bottles. Next up let’s see how much one very simple change could save you. Switching from paper napkins to cloth napkins.
Ditch paper napkins and use cloth napkins instead
Technically my title is misleading. You won’t save much money in just five years. Cloth napkin savings tend to add up over many years. That said, in five years you will save a ton of trees and resources if you use cloth napkins.
I’ve run cloth napkin cost figures before and usually someone argues with me to the effect of, “But we only use one paper napkin a day I swear! MY KIDS are tidy” or, “You aren’t calculating the cheapest paper napkins!”
Ok… sorry. One, if you say you’ve got kids and you’re only using one napkin a day, well, what? Are your kids are using their shirts to wipe down? I’m gonna calculate one napkin per meal because frankly that’s what should be going on. If that’s not what’s going on, sorry but I need a base number here folks.
At three meals a day (1095 meals a year), a family of four would use 12 napkins per day; 4,380 per year; 21,900 per five year. That’s if you only use one napkin per person, per meal and NEVER not once have guests over. Marcal, green paper maker notes that the average person actually uses 6 napkins per day. Since everyone I’ve ever met has guests over at least twice a year and at times uses more than one paper napkin per meal, I’m adding one extra package of paper napkins to the total.
Also, this time around I’m going with the most popular paper napkins at Amazon to get a representative figure of what folks are buying – I figure that will give us a good base for comparison.
How much are paper napkins?
I looked around Amazon and found the most popular bulk case of paper napkins which are Bounty Quilted Napkins, White, 100-Count Napkins (Pack of 20) for $39.99. That’s 2,000 napkins at 0.02 per napkin. You’d need to buy almost 11 cases over 5 years plus 1 extra pack for extras and company.
However, I see people all the time buying non-bulk packages of paper napkins from the regular grocery store. The most popular non-bulk napkins at Amazon are kind of pricey at $5.99 for 50. Kleenex Premium Dinner Napkins, 50 napkins per package. You’d need 438 packs of napkins + two more for extras and company.
Also, if you really use non-recycled paper napkins all the time that’s simply horrid, so I’m also calculating for a case of typical recycled paper napkins. Seventh Generation 100% recycled Napkins, 1-Ply Sheets, 500-Count Packages (pack of 12) cost $80.66. That’s 6,000 napkins at 0.01 per napkin. That’s 3.5 packs over 5 years plus 1/2 extra pack (there’s more napkins in these packs) for extras and company.
Total cost of basic paper napkins over five years = $479.88
Total cost of NON-bulk paper napkins over five years = $2,635.60
Total cost of 100% recycled paper napkins over five years = $322.64
How many cloth napkins will you need?
I’ve used cloth napkins my whole life. My mom used them, then I did, and after 30 some odd years of use I know that typically, decent cloth napkins last about five or six years years. After five years they start to look a little shabby, but we’ll still use them for about another three years (we use newer ones if we’re trying to look nice). After about eight or so years of use cloth napkins are usually too shabby to use at meals but perfectly fine to clean with. My oldest cloth cleaning napkins are about ten years old.
As for how many you need. For a family of four I’d suggest half a weeks worth because at some point in the week I assume you wash laundry. We usually have about 25 on hand at my house. I’d suggest 25-35 total but for this experiment let’s just go with 40 that’s about half a weeks worth.
You can buy nice organic or recycled cotton or hemp napkins (which I suggest) or you can get cheaper thrift store cloth napkins, which I suggest still over paper napkins.
How much will cloth napkins cost?
New Solid Color Cotton Napkin Set of 6 Fair Trade– set of 6 will run you $18.00 or $108 for half a weeks worth that leaves plenty for company and for extras per day as needed.
Thrift store napkins will cost you about .30-.50 each. You could make some cloth napkins for about that much too. In total, cheap cloth napkins or homemade will cost you about $20 for half a weeks worth.
Total cost of eco-friendly cloth napkins over five years = $108.00
Total cost of NON-bulk paper napkins over five years = $20.00
However, you also have to factor in other issues…
For paper napkins you’ll need to figure gas to the store (which I’m not going to do though) and for cloth you’ll need to figure the cost of washing them. Personally I think it’s dumb to use the old argument, “But I have to wash cloth napkins – that costs water and energy!” If you’ve ever washed cloth napkins you’ll know that they use up almost no space in your washer. 40 napkins won’t even amount to a small load. I always throw them in with my other laundry, which frankly, I have to wash anyhow, so water, soap, and energy costs are a moot point.
If you want to argue this though we can. I checked around and there are different estimates on how much it costs to wash one load of laundry on cold using your dryer set on medium to dry. The costs ranged from about 12 cents to 34 cents depending on where I looked. We’ll use the top range; 34 cents.
According to the book The Complete Tightwad Gazette, it takes about 200 napkins in your typical sized washer to make a full load. That’s worth washing your own set of 36-40 napkins about 5 times, or about 24 full loads of napkins per year, which works out to around $8.00 a year. Even if you add in soap costs, it’s clear that washing cloth napkins can’t outweigh the costs of buying paper.
Then you have to factor in the savings from long-term use. The real way that cloth napkins add up to real savings is over many years; not just five. The typical life span of your cloth napkins (as noted above) is about 6-8 years but since I use them to clean with long after that I also save money by not buying paper towels. Since cloth napkins last longer than five years, you’ll have to consider the on-going cost of paper vs. your still going strong cloth napkins.
Money saved over five years if you switch from paper to cloth…
It really depends.
Five year’s worth of eco-friendly cloth napkins for a family of four = $20 to $108.00 + about $60 for five years worth of washing (and I rounded up big time for soap use and energy fluctuation)
- Total cost over five years = $80-$168
Five year’s worth of disposable paper napkins for a family of four = $322.64 to $2,635.60 depending on the type of napkins you buy. Bulk is WAY better. The best deal is actually bulked recycled (oddly).
Savings with cloth napkins over five years…
- If you go from non-bulk paper napkins to homemade/thrift cloth napkins = $2,556.00
- If you go from non-bulk paper napkins to eco-friendly new cloth napkins =$2,463.00
- If you go from bulk recycled paper napkins to homemade/thrift cloth napkins = $242.00
- If you go from bulk recycled paper napkins to eco-friendly new cloth napkins = $155.00
In other words, to know how much you could save you have to be honest about what sort of paper napkins you buy and how many you use. In homes where paper napkins are used it’s been my experience that more paper napkins per meal are used though. Especially when there are kids in the family. Also, while bulk napkins are obviously available, little expensive packs of napkins sell, so someone is buying them. If that’s you, you’re the family who will see the most savings with cloth napkins.
UM????: If you’re already buying recycled paper napkins in bulk using cloth won’t save you much money. If you’re using non-bulk, non-recycled paper napkins, using cloth will save you scads. No matter what, cloth napkins will lower your footprint. Since the savings on cloth napkins vs. paper aren’t as clear cut as disposable water bottles vs. reusable water bottles, I’m going to have to cut the difference. Mid level you’ll spend $124.00 on cloth napkins and $1,478 on paper. There’s not a huge savings here. Just $1,354 over five years. Too bad, but still I recommend using cloth.
END RESULT: We’re trying to save $50,000 and so far we’ve saved $7,534.00 That leaves $42,466.00 left to save. Can we do it? Geez, not if we have more lackadaisical savings like this. Blah.
What are your thoughts on cloth napkins vs. paper napkins?
[cloth napkin image via here]