Can napkins be recycled? (9 properties of napkins) 

In this article, the recycling aspect of napkins will be uncovered. Other covered topics would be: 

  • What are napkins made of?
  • What is the history of napkins?
  • What is the environmental impact of napkins?
  • What is recycling?
  • Can napkins be recycled?
  • FAQs

Can napkins be recycled?

It is possible to recycle napkins because napkins are made from cotton, linen, and a mix of cotton and linen. 

The recycling of napkins will ensure better waste management, resource and energy management. 

Other than being recyclable, napkins also may be biodegradable and compostable. It may take from 2 weeks to several months for napkins to degrade. 

What are napkins made of? (9 properties of napkins) 

The analysis of the materials involved in the making of napkins is very important in the determination of the biodegradability, recyclability, and the environmental aspect of napkins. 

The materials involved in the making of any consumer product has a lot to tell about that product other than the chemical formula or the physical properties. This is because the properties of the constituents will be reciprocated in the properties of the final product. 

For example, polymers are commercial products that are made from monomers linked together by chemical bonds. The properties of monomers will be translated, reflected and reciprocated in the aspects and impacts of the polymers. 

An example can be of plastic polymers. There are several types of plastic polymers present in the markets. Some are made from monomers derived from fossil fuels whereas, some are made from monomers derived from nature. 

Plastics made from synthetic monomers like ethylene have a greater impact on the environment as compared to plastics made from naturally occurring monomers like plant-based materials or DNA of Salmon sperm cells. 

The materials that are commonly used to make napkins include: 

  • Cotton 
  • Linen 
  • Cotton-linen blends 

As it may be guessed, natural materials are used to make napkins and therefore, it can be assumed that there will be fewer impacts of napkins on the environment and human health. 

Napkins may be of the following properties: 

  • No odour
  • Good absorption of water and fluids
  • Comfortable 
  • Does not cause any irritation 
  • Durable 
  • Hygienic
  • Must be free from microbes and impurities
  • Smooth texture
  • Good to feel 

These are some of the common properties that have to be ensured in making good napkins. The use of napkins is typically reserved for cleaning purposes, however, napkins may also be used for other purposes as well such as decoration or creation of an aesthetic value. 

Napkins may also come in various colours. However, white coloured napkins are usually taken as a symbol of class and elegance. White coloured napkins are usually preferred by the consumers. Other colours in which napkins may be available are black, red, and ivory. 

What is the history of napkins?

The use of napkins is not only widespread today because it is recorded that napkins have been in use for many centuries. 

The use of napkins to clean hands and parts of bodies date back to many ancient civilisations. However, the first account of use of napkins to clean hands and body parts was recorded in ancient Greece wherein, bread pisces were used as napkins back then. 

This was also exhibited by the ancient Romans that also used folded and sliced bread to clean hands while eating. This was largely because the use of paper and fabric for napkins was not well understood back then. 

With the invention of paper back in the 2nd century, paper also began to be used as napkins. This use originated in the Chinese civilisations. 

The use of proper napkins started off in the 14th century and in the later years to come it became a symbol of refined dining. Napkins began to be used popularly as a symbol of refined dining and etiquettes. 

The use of napkins was only reserved for cleaning purposes back then. Because as per the custodians of history, napkins were also used for decorative purposes. Napkins were employed to elevate a sense of aesthetic touch to dining tables by concerned people. 

What is the environmental impact of Napkins?

This section will detail the effects rendered by napkins on the environment and life. In a way, this section will also elaborate the effects of materials used in the napkins. 

It is usually perceived that since napkins are made from natural materials such as plant-based materials, there will be no such impact on the environment. 

However, this statement is partly incorrect. If a product is produced, be it natural or non-natural, there will be the impacts of those products on the people and the environment. 

As napkins are made from plant-based materials, namely cotton and linen, this can impact the environment. 

Cotton is known to degrade the soil quality while also impacting its water retention profiles. If cotton is produced in greater amounts, the use of agrochemicals to meet those demands become imperative. 

These agrochemicals may degrade the soil and also the water bodies. The impacts of agrochemicals may also be reciprocated on the life that abides in the natural settings (land and water). 

Although the impact of linen on the environment is not widely explored, it is peripherally claimed that linen will not have a significant impact on the environment because the flax plants from which linen is made do not generally require agrochemicals. 

Another environmental damage that is linked with napkins in the generation of waste. Napkins may contribute to waste generation and accumulation, which already is a great challenge for the authorities. 

The current waste generation is already at grave figures that is slowly leading towards the incapacitation of waste management endeavours. If the situation is not improved, soon there will be no place to dump the waste to. 

Another damage caused by napkins on the environment is the effect caused by the use of napkins. The washing of napkins is done at the expense of water and detergents which may also cause pollution and degradation. 

As per a study, one napkin may lead to the consumption of 250 ml of water and more than 5 grams of GHG emissions. 

GHGs may lead to global warming and other detrimental environmental impacts such as weather anomalies, deforestation, disruption of ecosystems, and infiltrations into the food chains. 

What is recycling?

Recycling is a process in which waste is modified to be used as new materials. This comes with a bunch of amazing benefits. 

The materials that are commonly used for recycling include plastics, paper, glass, metal, electronics et cetera. 

Most contemporary consumer products can be recycled because these products are designed in a way to be reused again, adhering to the 3R approach and motives of the SDGs of 2030. 

The process and inclination of recycling offer many advantages to the environment. It is one of the best solutions to deal with the problem of non-biodegradable waste. 

If non-biodegradable waste is not recycled, it may end up in waste management systems (like landfills) where it may remain for hundreds of years. This will lead to a waste of resources and opportunities. 

A good example can be Econyl. Nylon is a non-biodegradable waste. If it is disposed of, it will either harm the aquatic life and the environment at a pretty grand level or will remain in a landfill for many years. 

If nylon is recycled instead, then the negative effects caused by the disposal of nylon can at least be delayed indefinitely. This is where recycled nylon (Econyl) enters the picture. 

Recycling leads to better waste management because the current waste generation is really problematic to society at large. Therefore, all the endeavours to curb and reduce waste generation are highly prized and recycling is one of those. 

Recycling also leads to better resource management because if products are recycled, they are not needed to be built from scratch. This saves time, labour, energy, and resources. While being good for the economy, it is also great for the environment. Therefore, it is a win-win situation for everyone. 

For example, it is estimated that if one ton of plastic bags is recycled, 11 barrels of oil may be saved, 

Regardless of these lucrative motives, the current rate of recycling is quite saddening. In the case of developed countries, less than 40% of recycling capacity is achieved, which means that 60% of the recycled waste is disposed of. 

Therefore, a lot needs to be done to make people aware and inclined toward green practices and principles including recycling. 

Can napkins be recycled?

It is seen that most of the napkins are made from materials such as cotton, linen, or a blend of cotton and linen. Napkins may also be made out of paper. 

Since you can recycle materials used to make napkins, it is definitely possible to recycle napkins. 

Napkins may be recycled to conserve energy, resources and lead to a better waste management. Other than napkins, other materials that are commonly recycled include paper, glass, plastics, and other non-biodegradable products. 

Since napkins are made from natural materials, they are biodegradable and even compostable. You may compost napkins because they are made from organic, natural products. Compost is a dead organic matter which may be used as a natural fertiliser. 

Cotton may degrade in about five months time while linen may degrade in about 2 weeks.  


It is concluded that it is possible to recycle napkins because napkins are made from cotton, linen, and a mix of cotton and linen. 

The recycling of napkins will ensure better waste management, resource and energy management. 

Other than being recyclable, napkins also may be biodegradable and compostable. It may take from 2 weeks to several months for napkins to degrade. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Can napkins be recycled?

What is the best type of napkin?

Linen napkins are considered to be the best type of napkins. 

Can napkins be reused?

Cloth napkins may be reused by washing. However, it will come at the cost of water and detergents. GHGs may also be emitted by washing machines used for washing purposes. 


  • Orr, D. (2014). RECYCLING. The Yale Review, 102(3), 98-100.
  • Jain, R., & Agarwal, P. (2014). Textile Recycling Scenario in India and other Countries. Man-Made Textiles in India, 42(3).
  • Kooistra, K. J., Termorshuizen, A. J., & Pyburn, R. (2006). The sustainability of cotton: Consequences for man and environment (No. 223). Science Shop Wageningen UR.
  • Akin, D. E. (2013). Linen most useful: perspectives on structure, chemistry, and enzymes for retting flax. International Scholarly Research Notices, 2013.

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