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Choose eco-friendly paper napkins

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Stocking up on napkins for the next big birthday party, barbecue, or holiday celebration? Look for brands made with recycled fibers and manufactured without the use of bleach. They’ll keep your face food free as well as any conventional brands without sullying the earth.

What to look for when choosing eco-friendly napkins

Pay particular attention to these two attributes:

  1. Post-consumer recycled content: Regardless of the brand of green napkins you choose, make sure you verify what percentage of post-consumer fiber the product contains. PCW or Post-consumer waste (the reborn paper products made from your recycling bin contributions) is preferred to pre-consumer (often originating from manufacturing waste) because it means support for community recycling programs. Don’t be fooled by labels touting the word "recycled" without a PCW percentage since the product is likely made with only a fraction of post-consumer waste—typically as little as 10 percent.[1] The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) provides a very useful Napkin Guide, neatly charting data on different brands of napkins, covering three important points: the bleaching process, the percent recycled, and the percent of napkins made from post-consumer waste. You’ll want to pay special attention to their recommendations for which brands to avoid altogether.
  2. Chlorine usage: Check to see how the napkins have been whitened, avoiding products whitened with chlorine bleach. Look for processed chlorine-free (PCF)since it means no toxic chemicals will end up in our water supply. Though “elemental chlorine free (ECF)” might seem a good alternative, it’s not, so dodge brands sporting that claim. Or avoid the hassle of checking for chlorine altogether by choosing “natural” colored paper products instead, since that’s likely to indicate the fibers haven’t been whitened at all!

Find it! Eco-friendly napkins

Today, eco-friendly napkins are available at many natural food stores, some mainstream grocery stores, and online.

Choosing recycled napkins helps you go green because…

  • If every American home swapped virgin fiber napkins (a pack of 250) for a 100 percent recycled one, about 1,000,000 trees would be saved.[2]

The United States is the largest tissue market in the world, with the average American consuming close to 55 pounds of the stuff every year (including toilet and facial tissue, paper towelling, and napkins). They are followed closely by Canadians who use just under 50 pounds, but trailed a long way by Europeans who use 35 pounds annually.[3] The paper industry consumes 35 percent of all harvested trees every year, accounting for the felling of nearly 4 billion individual trees yearly.[4]

Most conventional paper products companies, such as Bounty and Kimberly-Clark (makers of Scott and Kleenex brand products) unsustainably harvest old growth forests to manufacture disposable paper products. The production of virgin fiber tissue products is contributing to the destruction of vast tracts of forest lands (most of which are in Canada) that have existed for thousands of years. Yet, worldwide forest ecosystems are critical to maintaining life on Earth. They filter the air, stabilize climate by absorbing CO2, and provide habitat for 90 percent of all land-dwelling plants and animals.[5] Making recycled paper products, on the other hand, requires less energy and water, and of course reduces the strain on our world’s forests.

Another major problem with napkins is the way the pulp is processed. Chlorine dioxide is often used as a bleaching agent in napkin manufacturing. This process creates hundreds of chemicals that are released into the environment, including dioxin, a known carcinogen.


  • dioxin: Dioxins are extremely persistent chemical compounds that are created inadvertently by human activities like incineration and fuel combustion. Dioxins break down slowly so they persist in the environment for many years. Exposure to dioxins may cause adverse health effects, such as cancer, reproductive and developmental disorders, and skin disease.
  • elemental chlorine-free (ECF): This designation indicates that virgin fibers were treated without elemental chlorine, but that a chlorine derivative such as chlorine dioxide was used instead. Although preferable to chlorine-bleached paper products, this is nowhere near as eco-friendly as PCF paper products.
  • old growth forest: Also known as virgin forest, ancient forest, or primary forest, this is an area of forest which has attained great age, containing a variety of vertical layers of vegetation, including large live trees. These forests may also be home to many rare species that are dependent on these ecologically unique old growth features.
  • post-consumer waste (PCW): Refers to recycled content that results from curb-side collection. For example, your recycled Sunday paper is considered PCW. Post-consumer waste is the most desirable content in a recycled product, since it creates a market for paper that has already been used and would otherwise end up in a landfill.
  • pre-consumer waste: A type of waste recovered from the manufacturing process that has not met its intended use because of defect or as an acceptable leftover. Examples include paper trimmings from paper production, mill converting scraps, defective aluminum cans, and pulp substitutes.
  • recycled paper: Refers to paper scraps and trimmings that result from paper companies' manufacturing process. This is easiest to recycle because the scraps don't require any collection, sorting, or de-inking. However, it doesn't promote any consumer-based initiative related to recycling.

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