It’s almost a given that the napkins and paper towels found in grocery stores, restaurants and public restrooms are made from recycled content. But what kind of content makes up these cloths we use for up close and personal cleansing? How much of a benefit are recycled napkins providing to the planet? And why is it difficult to recycle napkins after they’re used?

In the manufacturing industry, recycled content refers to materials that never made it to the consumer, such as product scraps. Post-consumer recycled content is made from the stuff you and I recycle — such as newspapers, cardboard boxes and office paper.

Not all recycled napkins are created equal, but they all use 100 percent recycled paper. What varies with each brand is the post-consumer content. A higher post-consumer content gives manufacturers greater bragging rights by putting consumer’s recycled items right back in use, albeit with a new face.

Eco-friendly manufacturers will also typically avoid chlorine, dyes and fragrances, making their products skin-friendly and hypoallergenic. So while traditional napkin manufacturers may use recycled paper in their napkins to save costs, they also use bleach and other harmful chemicals to sterilize the product and remove any odors.

Preserving Resources

Starbucks cupIn the Chicago area, Starbucks came up with a novel post-consumer source for napkins — their own hot cups. In the fall of 2010, they began sending used coffee cups to a Wisconsin recycling plant to have the cups remade into Starbucks napkins. This saves thousands of cups from ending up in the landfill, as the plastic coated lining makes it difficult to recycle them.

Sodexo’s switch to recycled napkins in 1,300 foodservice operations several years ago resulted in a savings of close to 10 million gallons of water, more than 23,000 trees, half a million gallons of oil and five and a half million kilowatts of energy.

It takes significantly less energy to recycle paper products than to create them from virgin materials. The Recycled Products Cooperative calculates that replacing a ton of virgin paper with post-consumer recycled content paper saves 7,000 gallons of water, 4,100 kilowatt hours of electricity and prevents 60 pounds of pollutants from entering the atmosphere.

Another simple way to preserve resources is to use less. There are subtle ways to encourage people to avoid wasting paper napkins, such as dispensers which let out one napkin at a time. Food service companies find that using these dispensers instead of open baskets reduces waste by 30 to 40 percent.

The Challenge of Recycling Napkins

Paper towels and napkins are at the end of the recycling line, and therefore made with very short and thin fibers. High quality recycled paper requires long and strong fibers. Used paper towels and napkins should therefore be recycled together with yard waste instead of in the paper bin, and some brands can be added to the compost pile. Several napkin manufacturers, including the Green Planet Company, produce paper napkins made from sugar cane and recycled fibers. These napkins are completely biodegradable and compostable.

Recycle logo on napkinAlthough sustainable serviettes have been around for eco-conscious diners for years, only recently have companies begun to work on ways to recycle them post-consumer use. In 2002, a conglomerate of Canadian government offices ran a pilot program to recycle paper towels and use them as compost at landfills to decrease wind erosion and enrich the soil. The program was successful in reducing demand for natural resources, diverting paper from landfills and creating new jobs in the recycling industry.

It’s relatively simple to implement this concept on a smaller scale at home. Used napkins and paper towels can be collected in a designated bag or bin. It’s crucial to keep these items separate from other recyclable items, as they will typically contain food, mold, germs and other organic particles that can cause contamination. For sanitary purposes, use gloves to rip the napkins or towels into small pieces. These shreds can then be added to the compost pile or used as mulch in the garden.

Have other thoughts on eco-friendly napkins and other end-of-the-line recyclables? Leave us a note in the comments below.

Photos: Tom Raftery/Flickr; Mykl Roventine/Flickr