The best thing I ever did to cut down on our use of paper products was give myself permission to have wrinkly napkins.
As a carry-over from my days of consumerist glee, I own dozens of cloth napkins. I think I bought a new set of 8 or 12 in an appropriate color whenever I hosted a major holiday dinner, baby shower or fancy-pants dinner party. I had them nicely pressed, wrapped in tissue, and tucked away in a plastic organizer in the back of the pantry. There they sat, unused, taking up space 360 days a year.
Day-to-day we used paper napkins. Everyone uses wads of paper napkins at breakfast, lunch and dinner, right? We even had “good” paper napkins – thicker and with a little embossed seashell pattern. Those were our dinner napkins.
And then one day, during our initial no spend month challenge, as I worked to cut down our family spending, it occurred to me that I was paying perfectly good money – and quite a bit of it, thank you very much! – for napkins and paper towels. Often, economically-modivated actions and environmentally-modivated actions are indistinguishable. And so, with dollar signs in my head, I did the green thing and switched us over to cloth.
At first it was fine, even decadent. We broke out the good napkins – the really good, the cloth napkins. They were pressed into neat little squares with sharp crease lines, and it felt like we were pulling out the party stuff. Meals were just a bit elevated. We dabbed at the corners of our mouths like fussy royalty, where before we had smeared things away.
Everything worked great until I did my first load of cloth napkin laundry and it came time to iron them back into crisp, submissive perfection.
I didn’t want to. I mean, I never want to. I hate ironing. I know I should hate teflon-coated, wrinkle-release pants and shirts more, but I don’t. I consider them a blessing, and I don’t feel that way about much coming from the DuPont Lab. That’s how much I hate ironing.
But I couldn’t not iron the cloth napkins. I mean, cloth napkins are what you pull out for Christmas dinner and the meal you cook for your boss. They have to be perfect, right?
Staring at a laundry basket full of wrinkly all-cotton napkins I made the conscious decision that they did not have to be perfect. I even announced my intension aloud, almost petulantly: “We’re using cloth napkins and I am so not ironing them.”
It was more liberating than I can describe. I became a declared non-ironer. I gave myself permission to be ok with the 80% solution. It was enough that we were reducing our waste, saving money and being mindful about our paper product consumption. My dining table didn’t have to look like a five-star restaurant too.
And even though the wrinkly napkins were just wrinkly napkins, they came to symbolize something bigger. I didn’t have to pretend like I could do it all. I didn’t have to exhaust myself trying to maintain a productive, grow-your-own, frugal home decorated with dirty vegetables from the garden and simultaneously present a showpiece, Pottery-Barn-catalog, creased-linen home where messes were never made. Our cloth napkin living could be real living.
Stepping into a simpler life means getting rid of things we don’t need. Ridiculous expectations of ourselves may be the best place to start.