Are Paper Napkins Recyclable? (And Can You Compost Them)

Paper napkins have had a really good time being part of many families. If you consider the frequency of their use in many homes and offices, you may be tempted to give them some honor medals.

As much as paper napkins are useful to us, there are, however, a different side to them. And that is the angle that these paper napkins may be capable of causing some harm to the environment, especially if nothing is done after we use them.

This is raising a lot of concern amongst environmentalists, and we have decided to consider some of the underlying questions. For this reason, this post examines whether you can recycle paper napkins and if paper napkins are compostable or biodegradable. We also consider if napkins are bad for the environment and most importantly, how to dispose of old napkins.

Our advice is for you to fasten your seat belt, pay attention to the details and enjoy the ride. Let’s go.

Can You Recycle Paper Napkins?

The name might have given you a hint that it was made with paper, but does this automatically mean that it can be recycled? Let’s find out together.

Unfortunately, paper napkins are not recyclable. This may sound disappointing, but after you hear the reason why this is so, you might just feel a bit consoled.

Paper napkins are not recyclable because of their common uses. In most times, paper napkins are used to clean the liquid mess or wipe dry our hands or other things. In this process, the paper napkins come in contact with different liquids. The liquid might not be water all the time, and this is where the problem comes in.

If the liquid the paper napkin came in contact with is grease, oil, paint, chemicals or body fluid, it would not be fit for recycling. The reason is that it is impossible to separate the substance from the paper napkin. And if it is recycled that way, it will definitely contaminate the recycling process. Since the purpose of recycling the paper napkin is to make new papers, it would not turn out well if contaminated papers are used to make new papers.

Aside from this, paper napkins are always a product of recycled papers. What this means is that other papers that have previously been used and dumped are recycled to make paper napkins.

Now, before it reaches the stage of using recycled papers to make paper napkins, the papers must have been seen to have little fibers. Recall that paper has fibers that make them up. The more the fibers, the thicker the papers.  For a paper napkin to be made, it means that the fibers have been stretched to the last stage, and possibly for the last use.

The implication of this is that even if the contaminants (food, body fluid, pain, chemicals) did not render the paper napkins impossible to recycle, it would still have been impossible to recycle. Why? It would amount to a waste of time, energy and resources as the fiber may not be thick enough to make a different paper material.

This appears to be the reason that paper napkins are not recycled. So, next time you are about to toss your used paper napkin in the recycling bin, you might have to take a break. Putting them in the recycling bin would only duplicate the process at the recycling station because of sorting. In the end, it would not be recycled.

What you should do is toss the paper napkins in the waste bin. Thank goodness they are biodegradable. You should also cut down on the use of your paper napkins. Remember that trees are being put down to make papers that are later used for your paper napkins. By cutting down on your use of paper napkins, you are giving the trees survival chances and saving the environment simultaneously.

Are Napkins Compostable?

You are probably wondering what else you can do with used paper napkins. You have read above that it cannot be recycled because it often comes in contact with what is considered as contaminants. However, you still don’t want your precious and useful paper napkins to go to waste. So here you are asking if it can be used to make compost.

Well, we have earlier thought of this, and we have come to you with the right answers.

Yes, your paper napkins are compostable. We can almost feel the smile on your face now. And, it’s good news that though you can’t recycle, you can compost your paper napkins.

But then, is this everything you need to know? Definitely not. So, let’s quickly brush through what other things there is to know about composting paper napkins.

After you have decided to compost your used paper napkins, you have to be conscious of the kind of paper napkins you toss in the compost bin. What makes the difference here is the fluid or substance the paper napkin has come in contact with.

If the paper napkin was used to wipe water or veggies mess, you can toss it in the compost bin. But if it was used to wipe things like paint, chemicals or other substances that might contain toxic chemicals, it is better you exclude it from your compost bin.

The reason is simple and straightforward. If you put a paper napkin with harmful substances, the substance will leach into your compost and contaminate it. Using this contaminated compost for your garden plants will affect their growth or even cause them to die. Besides, some of these substances may prevent the reaction of organisms in the compost bin. This can cause your compost bin to begin to release some offensive odor. We both know you don’t want this kind of situation for yourself or your environment. So, it is better you exclude harmfully contaminated paper napkins from your compost bin.

To make the best of your compost, you can shred the paper napkins before putting them in the compost bin. This would aid speedy decomposing of the paper napkin.

Are Napkins Biodegradable?

Yes, napkins are biodegradable. Napkins are made with papers, and not just papers, they are made with papers that have the least fiber. This is why they are considered for a single-use.

Due to this, they are easily broken down. Given the right condition, your paper napkin should decompose within a month and six months. This is a very short time, and this benefits the environment. The good news is that when they biodegrade, they can enrich the environment and the soil even better.

Are Napkins Bad For The Environment?

Providing answers to this question might pose a little tricky because there is more than one angle to answering the question. However, there is a way to settle the question and still address all angles.

The angles to this question hold contradictory views. The first is with the assertation that napkins is bad for the environment. The second is that it is not bad for the environment. Let’s take a look at the arguments put forward in support of the two stances.

Argument That Paper Napkin Is Bad For The Environment

For those asserting that napkins are bad for the environment, their argument is more general than it is direct. They argue from the stance that trees are being cut down to make papers which eventually are used to make paper napkins. These trees, according to them, ought to be left to grow because of the role they play in the environment.

They also argue that in the course of the production, packaging and transportation of napkin, more energy is being consumed and toxic ones released into the environment. This would obviously contribute to climate change which, in turn, affects all of us.

Lastly, they have an argument that leans towards the use of napkins. They argue that the use of these paper napkins may pose danger to the environment. Their argument is that once a piece of paper napkins come in contact with some contaminants, they become useless- unable to be composted or recycled. Where they end up in the landfill.

While at the landfill, they will easily biodegrade, but when they do, the substance on them would leach and may eventually get to the groundwater. Here, it can comminate the water and affect the living organisms in the water.

Due to all these, they conclude that paper napkins are bad for the environment.

Argument That Paper Napkin Is Not Bad For The Environment

On the contrary, there is the argument that paper napkin is not bad for the argument. The point of this stance focuses on the use and biodegradability of the paper napkin. Here, they first make an argument that there is too wide a gap between paper napkins and the felling of trees. This point is hinged on the fact that paper napkins are a product of recycled papers, and that no one fells trees to make paper napkins. Due to this, there can’t be a perfect connection of paper napkins harming the environment solely because they are paper products.

Another argument is that paper products biodegrade rapidly. For paper napkins that have very thin fiber, they will even biodegrade faster. So, unlike other materials, paper napkins don’t seem to pose a problem to the environment. Besides, considering the fact that they are from natural products- trees- they would even enrich the soil.

Lastly, they tilt towards debunking the claim that the use of paper napkins is the reason it is bad for the environment. They argue that no one can really control the use of a product. Just like we all don’t ban guns for its misuse, we all shouldn’t castigate paper napkins for its misuse.

These are the arguments for whether paper napkins are good or bad for the environment. It is left for you to choose a side.

How Do You Dispose Of Old Napkins?

In disposing of old napkins, you have to do it the proper way. Below are how you can dispose of them.

1. Donate

This sounds odd, but it is possible. You can donate your old napkins to farms or animal centers. Here, they use the old napkins to make beddings for the animals or compost for the plants.

2. Compost It

This should not be a difficult thing for you. Composting your old napkins is a way of disposing of it. We have already explained above how to go about it and the things you should look out for. So, it should be easier for you to do.

3. Trash it

This is the last option. You can always trash your old napkins. The good news is that you don’t have to worry about it staying forever on the landfill; it biodegrades faster than you think. Just bag the napkins in a paper bag and dispose of it in the trash can.


Paper napkins are necessary to take care of the mess we make each day. While they serve this purpose, we should not allow them to constitute a mess to the environment. As you have seen, you can compose them or donate them. if you decide to trash them, you have to do it properly too. In all, always be conscious of the environment.

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About Rinkesh

A true environmentalist by heart ❤️. Founded Conserve Energy Future with the sole motto of providing helpful information related to our rapidly depleting environment. Unless you strongly believe in Elon Musk‘s idea of making Mars as another habitable planet, do remember that there really is no 'Planet B' in this whole universe.