Paper vs. Cloth: The Big Debate

cloth napkinsDo you prefer disposable items versus reusable for the convenience? Do you think it saves you money too, after all, disposable items are often cheaper than reusable, right?  Not so fast!

Have you really compared the costs?

Most people use reusable dishes, cups and utensils in the home, some are even moving towards reusable cloth diapers and baby wipes. Yet there are many other ways we can implement reusable items in our every day living.

Let’s take napkins for example. Some people cite sanitary concerns about using cloth napkins on a day to day basis, yet we wash and reuse our underwear! My husband was even hesitant to move to cloth napkins years ago, but now we have a new debate brewing in our family.

No, we are not debating politics or religion or who the best hockey team is. Instead, it’s a debate about whether or not I’m truly saving the environment and saving money at the same time by using cloth napkins in our home instead of paper napkins.

It all started as we were folding cloth napkins and my spouse grumbled under his breath, “yeah, we probably aren’t saving any money by using cloth napkins anyway…”  Oh yeah?!  Well, that inspired me to do a cloth vs. paper comparison to prove him wrong.

So has completed a paper versus cloth napkin comparison to see which one wins out.  Here’s the breakdown based on a family of four.


  • Based on 4 people in one household.
  • Based on each person using one napkin at breakfast, one at lunch, one for a snack and one at dinner, so 4 napkins per day, per person.
  • Based on 365 days per year.
  • Totals 5,840 napkins used in a year by a family of four.

Ok, now that we have that out of the way, here’s my calculations:

Paper Napkins = $41.34 per year (lowest cost):

This is based on the assumptions above. Also, I used a cost of $1.77 for a 250-count package of Harris Teeter brand napkins, the least expensive option at the store in February when I did this analysis. The cost would be much higher if you use name-brand napkins like Bounty, Sparkle, Mardi Gras, Seventh Generation, etc.  I was trying to go for the cheapest possible paper napkin price out there and Harris Teeter brand napkins actually were cheaper than even my local Walmart’s cheapest brand paper napkins!

Cloth Napkins = $26 per year (or $46.80 if you use a dryer):

This is also based on assumptions above about quantity used per day per person, etc.  The cost could be higher if new, pre-made napkins are purchased, but for this comparison to prove my husband wrong, I used napkins made from existing materials, such as old tablecloths, t-shirts and towels (our entire supply of napkins and kitchen rags are not store-bought – they are tablecloths that got cut up long after their time was done or after a slightly tipsy wine drinker added a red wine stain that refuses to come out, etc.). The cost is based on washing napkins in my newer model high-efficiency (HE) front-load machine, using Costco brand detergent and a vinegar rinse, at 50 cents per load. Since I usually line dry my laundry, I did not include the cost of a dryer. However, if you are a more typical American (I say American because most countries around the world still don’t use dryers), then be sure to include the cost of your dryer. If using an HE dryer, you’d add about 40 cents per load, bringing the total annual cost to $46.80 a year. I do one load per week of just napkins, kitchen towels, rags so that’s how I got my $26 per year total.

( – source for calculations along with my electric bill)

The other thing I didn’t incorporate into this cost comparison is the environmental cost of making both paper napkins and cloth napkins.  Even if the paper napkins are made of recycled paper and the cloth napkins made of organic cotton, consider the environmental cost of the plastic packaging, the truck’s gasoline and pollution to get the napkins from the factory to warehouse or distribution center and then to your grocery store and ultimately to your home. That plastic packaging will be around for hundreds of years, long after the napkins have disintegrated or decomposed. The toxins made from plastic manufacturers as they produce the plastic packaging, and the pollution from the transportation can be quite significant considerations for some people too.

Either way, the important thing is I have some good statistics to show my spouse that yes, indeed we do save money by using cloth napkins over paper napkins.  And that, my friends, ends the debate in our household. ♥

Check out my other post about why I love cloth napkins here.


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