Feature

Tissues vs handkerchiefs

G Magazine

Are paper tissues or cotton hankies greener? S'not obvious. Fortunately G nose. We've picked through the data to give you the blow-down.

Tissues vs hankies

Which is greener? tissues or hankies?

Credit: Louise Lister

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They might be charming and quaint, but most people consider the handkerchief to be an anachronistic sneeze catcher. Ever since Kimberly-Clark created tissues to remove cold cream in 1924, they have become the product of choice for nose blowing.

Now each year Australians consume 273 000 tonnes of tissue products (including toilet paper) almost all of it made from virgin fibre.

So how do disposable tissues stack up against cloth hankies in the environment stakes? Are tissues really worse for the environment even though they are made from renewable resources?

To find out data was collected from a 1995 Duke University research on paper and 2006 Cambridge University research into textiles. The comparison is based on a 1 g tissue versus a 15 g cotton hanky, which we assumed to have a lifespan of 520 uses.

Water footprint

While both paper and cotton production are known for their high water use, the cotton hanky wins hands down using four and half times less water than a virgin tissue. It takes around 2.2 L to produce one paper tissue.

The water footprint of cotton is huge - it takes 165 L of water to grow and manufacture a single hanky, and then it has to be washed. Assuming a four-star washing machine is used, an additional 0.15 L of water is required each time the hanky is washed.

But the hanky still beats tissues because it will be used at least 520 times, which means the embodied water and the washing water comes to 0.47 L each nose-blow.

Energy

It takes three times more energy to grow trees and produce pulp to manufacture a virgin fibre tissue compared to a producing a cotton hanky.

To make a tissue takes 0.013 kWh. While it takes 0.78 kWh to produce a cotton hanky - spread over 520 uses this works out to be only 0.04 kWh per use, including washing and drying. Since laundering is the main source of energy use, just switching from tumble drying to line drying will reduce energy use even further, to 0.02 kWh.

Waste

Not surprisingly tissues do create a fair amount of waste. Unlike office paper, once a tissue has been used it can't be recycled, so it ends up in landfill. A single virgin fibre tissue creates about 1.3 g of waste, including waste from manufacturing. Manufacturers are reluctant to sell tissues made from recycled paper because they say they can't make them soft enough.

Therefore, tissues are made from virgin fibre for a single use only.

Surprisingly the greatest source of waste from cotton hankies is due to the coal mining waste created to make electricity needed for laundering. One cotton hankie produces 0.05 g of landfill-bound waste for each use, which is 26 times less waste than a tissue.

The Verdict

Hankies are greener than tissues (pardon the pun), that is if they actually get taken out of the sock drawer. To really minimise your nose-blowing impact purchase organic cotton hankies or, if you can find them, buy hemp, which has a 50 per cent lower eco-footprint.

Even better, buy vintage hankies or make them from scrap fabric. To reduce the laundering impact, wash hankies in cold water and line dry. If you really can't bring yourself to give up tissues at least try to find ones made from chlorine-free, post-consumer recycled paper and compost them after use.