How Our Family Is Saving a Tree

So we don’t know when it will happen or the specific tree and we’re not chaining ourselves to it, but four years ago my family made a decision that will eventually save a tree.

A few years ago, it bothered me that our family of four made a big impact on the environment—in a bad way. We produced a lot of unnecessary trash. I needed to change our habits at home to help the environment, teach our kids responsibility for the Earth and its life, and surprisingly cut costs.

What we did is nothing you haven’t heard of, but the outcome surprised me, the transition was easy, and we’ve never looked back.

1. Switch to cloth napkins. In one day during meals and snacks alone, we were using about 20 paper napkins. That’s 140 napkins a week, 560 a month, and 6,720 a year. Sometimes the napkins were barely used, it’s just that no one could remember who wiped their mouth on the corner.

Instead of sets, I use a mix of napkins I made in different fabrics so each child will remember their napkin for the day. (This was important when the kids were younger.) I used fabric remnants to put them together. I don’t have tons of extra laundry to do. The napkins don’t stain. And I buy maybe two packs of paper napkins a year instead of one a month.

These cloth napkins have held up to lots of gooey hands and messy mouths during four years of use.

The National Resources Defense Council says, “If every household in the United States replaced just one package of virgin fiber napkins (250 count) with 100 percent recycled ones, we could save 1 million trees.” Imagine if more people started using cloth napkins or replaced more than one package.

2. Use cloth towels instead of paper towels. To dry produce or clean up spills and messes, I use bar towels. I probably use eight rolls of paper towels a year, reserving them only for meat juices and really icky stuff. This switch to cloth doesn’t really add to my laundry pile either.

3. Use reusable water bottles. I almost never used bottled water, but I think it’s important to say this. Those plastic water bottles do so much damage to the environment. They harm animals. They fill up landfills. Your great-great-grandchildren will probably be around when those bottles are still sitting in landfills, leaching chemicals. We use reusable stainless steel water bottles and refill them with tap water.

4. Reuse your shopping bags. One of the best purchases I have made is reusable shopping bags. They hold an unbelievable amount of stuff and I can still lift it all. Plastic grocery bags kill marine animals that think they are food, and those bags won’t degrade in your lifetime.

5. Keep recyclables for crafting.I keep a designated bin for recyclables and non-recyclables in my kids’ craft area. Imagination can transform cardboard, caps, lids, mesh produce bags, Styrofoam trays, and greeting cards into a treehouse for toy people, robots, sculpture, or whatever else my kids and I think up. Give trash a new life.

Who says you can't make something cute out of junk?

6. Pack a trash-free lunch. We pack lunches and snacks in reusable BPA-free containers instead of plastic baggies. (I sometimes still use these bags for freezing meat, but I buy and use a lot less than I used to.) Washing dishes is better on the environment than throwing away trash.

I think about how much trash we save in a year and how much we have saved since we started this: more than 26,000 napkins in four years. That doesn’t take into account the plastic baggies we haven’t used, paper towels, or all of the paper we have been recycling.

Though it’s impossible to know just how many napkins can be made from one tree because of the use of wood pulp and recycled content, I know we’re making an impact and we’re going to save that tree. And I know we can make a dent in the landfills however small.

You learn something new every day:



Filed under Everyday Life

31 responses to “How Our Family Is Saving a Tree

  1. ohpapa

    We use cloth napkins that my MIL made for our wedding reception. I love your cloth napkin drawer. So pretty! I think we could definitely cut down on our paper towel use, especially when cleaning. I have been meaning to buy reusable grocery bags for so long. Just haven’t taken that step yet. Sounds like you are doing more than most families to help reduce household waste!

    • The towels I use in place of my paper towels certainly aren’t pretty. I bought white and I would advise against that. But I was surprised at how easy it was to switch to cloth for a lot of the things I use paper towels for. Just a tip, if you buy reusable bags, they make some made out of recycled materials. Another plus.

  2. Those napkins are beautiful. I have a whole crate full of fabric scraps…I’m inspired.

    • Thank you! They’re far from perfect, but they do the job. My kids love to pick out their napkin for the day. I used two nine-inch squares so the front and back have the same fabric. This keeps the napkins from needing ironing and gives them some heft and absorbency. Etsy is also a great place for inspiration.

  3. We have a cloth napkin drawer too! Most of ours are homemade and mismatched from left over fabric from various sewing projects. Great post!

  4. We do all of these things too! I’m big on recycling and saving the planet for my kids. Thanks for sharing so people can see that little changes mean a lot!!!

  5. This was awesome! You have so inspired me with the paper napkin thing. A while back for a party, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law made us a gazillion of the cutest fabric napkins of all different (but yet matching) patterns. Why we don’t get these out for every meal is beyond me. They take up such little space in the washer.

    All of the other things, I’m already doing though. Do I get some kind of gold star or anything? Maybe one that is recyclable? 🙂

  6. I almost forgot it was Earth Day, I’m glad you reminded me!

  7. Love the napkin drawer idea! Totally stealing it.

  8. I love your cloth napkins! I am not handy with a sewing machine so will have to buy mine, but it is past time that I make that switch. We use reusable for school lunches and cloth baggies with washable plastic liners instead of plastic ziploc bags and we are all about using “trash” for art projects.
    Great post – it reminds me that I can do better.

    • Thanks. I have some of the cloth baggies too. I have bought some of my cloth napkins but I like a smaller size and I don’t like to have to buy all sets. Besides, who can pick just one pretty fabric?

  9. Fantastic ! We only use re-useable (water bottles, lunch containers for sandwiches, snacks etc) and only buy recycled paper when we have to buy paper and this past year weve been putting out more in recycling bin than in the trash every week ,so we’re pretty happy with that. I need happier napkins, Great post !

  10. Red

    I buy 200 paper napkins every other year. With all the children I have, that is a feat. I even have cloth napkins in our camper. I had to sift through my receipts to see when the last time I bought paper towels was. I bought them in October, six rolls…I still have two full and a half on the roller….and it is the select-a-size type.

    We only use cloth. I use almost no chemicals in the house. (I have handicapped children who do not know what poison means.) You have reminded me I need to post my list of ideas for how to use those awful plastic bags from stores. I have been using canvas bags for almost a decade. (Before you could get them in your store’s logo or recyclable.)

    I am a total recycling Nazi. There are no less than five of us in the house at any given time. (normally, six or more) We produce one shopping bag (plastic T-shirt bag) of trash every 36 hours. Not even enough to fill a 13-gallon kitchen bag twice a week.

    If you do this again, remember to talk about recycling the paperboard your food and toys and dry goods and everything else come in. By recycling the “boxes”, you can save a tree in less than two years…with only two people in your home.


    • Yes, we use those boxes for crafts most of the time. Otherwise we recycle them. Great then. Maybe we have already saved our tree! Thanks for the fabulous tips! And way to go on the napkins!

  11. Jim Cantwell

    Hey Karen,
    Great post!!! We use some of the things you point out here and now have 2 new ones to use 🙂 We also grow our own veggies in the summer which cuts down on waste, not to mention saving just gobs of money.

  12. Excellent list and great suggestions – thank you! I think we are going to switch to cloth napkins. I ended up buying reusable water bottles for the entire family – everyone has their own color which works well! Great post for Earth Day!

  13. I love seeing people doing small things. I truly believe that if everyone did just one SMALL thing like this, the impact would be extraordinary. Kudos to you and keep it up!

    You know we’re a family of six, and we are now down to one Wal-mart bag of curbside trash (what cannot be reused, recycled, or composted) every two weeks. The process it took to getting this result changed many more of our daily habits than we ever could have imagined. The way we live, buy, eat, play — it all got affected. All for the better.

    Check out Jean-François’ site, He’s a man on a mission of betterment.

    • Very cool. It does make you think before you buy things, how long will I use this? Do I need it? Can I use something I already have? The fifth graders at my kids’ school take a field trip to a landfill and I think a recycling center every year. I think that’s something everyone should see.

      • Nothing like a little “improvement” to put how you do things (or don’t do things) right in your face. Yes, the 5th grade field trip is an awesome idea. I would go even younger though…some real nasty habits have been well established by the time a child is 10.

  14. Happy Earth Day to you — an appropriate post for Earth Eve!

  15. elizabethhoward1

    What great tips! I especially like the idea for cloth napkins. We use Fuzzy Bunz diapers for our baby and we love them!

  16. Such great ideas!! I really thought about how much my family wastes!! We would save so much money and the earth!! What a great post! I think tomorrow I will be purchasing more cloth towels instead of paper towel!

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