Thank you for this excellent article. I’ve always used my inherited hankies for dabbing my forehead on warm days or cover the occasional cough, but am now inspired to expand their repertoire.
Share this post:
I blow my nose a lot. I mean a lot.
I don’t have allergies; I just have a runny nose in the morning. Every morning. My nose runs when I run (solidarity and all that). My nose runs when I hike. When I work out. When I watch Little House on the Prairie. (Seriously, instant waterworks within 5 minutes of an episode.)
Our bathroom wastebaskets are (were!) perpetually full of dirty tissues — one blow, one toss. Use once (maybe twice), forever in a landfill.
Why? Because used tissues cannot be recycled, and apparently there are mixed opinions as to whether they can be composted (germs that may remain and all that). I imagine the mixed opinions have to do mostly with home compost systems (which we have) versus municipal compost systems (which we have), and I just found out that used tissues can indeed be tossed into our “green bin” — the same bin we can use for food scraps, yard scraps, and even most paper products. It took me all of 5 minutes to talk to a lovely gentleman at Waste Management in Oakland (CA) to confirm this, so I recommend calling your own city if they have a compost service you pay for.
However, not only did I not realize that all these years I could have been composting my used tissues (self-flogging scheduled), I’ve already made a decision to stop using single-use paper tissues, and I’m sticking to it. I’m going to be using something I NEVER in a million years thought I’d use: reusable, washable handkerchiefs. Yup, the very thing I made fun of my father for using my entire life.
After all, the problem with single-use products is not just what happens at the end of their use. The problem is how they are created in the first place.
Before They Were Tissues, They Were Trees
Americans use upwards of 255,360,000,000 disposable facial tissues a year (yes, that is 255.3 billion).1 That doesn’t even include North Americans. Or South Americans. Just people who live in the United States.
Trees: Whether the facial tissue is made from virgin or recycled paper pulp it’s still made from trees, which can take years or decades to grow. Logging practices can degrade forests thus contributing to global warming, cause loss of habitat for plants and animals, and pollute waterways. And even recycled paper can be re-recycled only a limited number of times. Plus, have you ever wiped your nose with a recycled tissue? Makes me cry just thinking about it!
Production: Paper plants use huge amounts of water and electricity. They also pollute the air and water. Add to that the bleaching that takes place for most tissues and the packaging that contains plastic (that never biodegrades).
Transportation: Of course, the raw materials as well as the finished tissues are transported to and from factories via CO2 emitting vehicles.
And so…as always, there is a better way, and — as is often the case — it’s a bit retro. Enter the hanky.
It is by far the most Earth- and animal-friendly choice for your runny nose (or for removing makeup or wiping your hands). I know this idea might be unappealing to some, but for me, what is most unappealing is the unnecessary waste we’re creating. But look at it this way: as with most things from the past, there’s a certain quaintness attached to using a bit of fabric to dry our snouts, and there are other benefits as well.
Costs in dollars
You might be asking, “isn’t it more expensive to buy handkerchiefs vs. single-use facial tissues?” The short answer is no. The long answer is … your own calculations will depend on how many handkerchiefs you will need to buy to replace the paper tissues you normally keep. (Historically, I’ve had a box of tissues in every room of my house. No exaggeration.) But as with so many lifestyle changes, this will most likely be a one-time investment. More than that, you can buy affordable vintage hankies from a thrift store — wash them in hot water when you get them home —or you make your own hankies from old sheets and pillowcases. And that’s free! (See below!)
But let’s do some math. (Well, ZeroWasteBackPacker already did the math, so check it out if you’re interested.) In short, using washable, reusable hankies are far less expensive than buying single-use tissues.
Costs in non-renewable resources
You might be asking: doesn’t it take more resources to wash handkerchiefs? Again, someone else did the work for me so I didn’t have to, so if you’re interested, a thorough analysis and comparison of the problem was conducted by Greenlifestylemag and they concluded that when it comes to the water use, energy use, and waste, the humble hanky was hands down the more sustainable option.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: When you are buying brand-new hankies (not vintage ones), unbleached, organic cotton will be the best choice environmentally speaking. Better yet, just cut up old sheets you have lying around or head to the thrift store for old cotton sheets or vintage hankies.
Isn’t it … gross to use handkerchiefs?
Last time I checked: tissues are pretty gross. Basically, if — like with tissues — you blow everything out of your schnoz into a hanky then shove it into your pocket and repeat several times (and then forget it’s in there), yeah, that’s gross. But if you’re just wiping your nose, it’s really not that different than wiping your nose on a tissue and putting it back into your pocket or purse. But for serious blows, just use a clean hanky!
How do you carry them around? How do you not forget them when you leave the house?
The same way that in the past I remembered to bring paper tissues with me. It’s just one of the things I make sure is in my pocket or purse. In fact, while I use the cut-up sheets as hankies for inside the house, I bought some pretty hankies for me to keep in my purse — like the ladies of yore did — and I use a beautiful little bag my friend bought me for Christmas to keep the used ones in. (I suppose this isn’t how all ladies of yore did it. I remember my paternal grandmother usually kept hers shoved in her bra strap. Whatever works.) When I get home, I toss the used hankies in the hamper.
But what about for house guests and visitors? What if they want a tissue?
I had a couple sets of sheets and pillowcases sitting in my linen closet that were clearly never going to get used. Recently, I spent a few minutes cutting them up into tissue-size hankies, and I refilled all of my cute little tissue holders with them. I put a note on the inside lid of each to let people know they are washable / re-usable.
But here’s the BEST PART: the cute little wastebaskets I have in our bathrooms…have now become cute little hampers!
I. can’t. tell. you. how. happy. that. makes. me. My husband knows, because I gave him a giddy tour of our new system! So, guests…they’ll deal.
How do you wash handkerchiefs?
You can just add them to a regular load, but I would use warm water for their cycle. If you’ve had a cold or flu, use hot water. You can also use mesh laundry bags. And no, it doesn’t take more resources to wash hankies. Remember the water use from our paper products? Way. More. Water.
Permission to pasturbate (in this case)
Like most everyone, I pasturbate. (That’s my term for over-romanticizing the past.) Sometimes pasturbating is good (like how much I love Little House on the Prairie), sometimes not (like when we romanticize how we used to eat animals, tested toxins on them, and made them ride bicycles to entertain us. Oh, wait, that’s not in the past — yet).
My point is: when it comes to hankies, pasturbating is a good thing.
There was a time when people recognized that it doesn’t make sense to use something once, then throw it away. There was also a time when things were made to last…hence, my using a vintage handkerchief made 30 years ago or more. (There was also a time when dropping a handkerchief was a flirtatious act! I want to see you bring that back!)
Handkerchiefs had sentimental value, as well, and we can bring that back. When I got married, in the traditional manner of things, my mother gave me “something old,” and guess what it was? A handkerchief. I still have it today and think of her every time I use it. Prior to my zero-waste journey, I used it more as a doily; today, I use it the way it was meant to be used, and I think she would be proud. ?
Where should I buy handkerchiefs?
- Ask your grandparents, parents, or an older friend if they still have some hankies at home. You might be surprised!
- Purchase new hankies (organic recommended) online or at a department store (usually stocked in the men’s section). Some folks like to get children’s hankies, which are usually 8×8; women’s hankies are usually 10×10 or 12×12; men’s hankies tend to be larger.
- Purchase vintage hankies on eBay or Etsy or in local thrift or vintage stores.
- Make your own. If you enjoy sewing or DIY, make them yourself out of an old sheet, t-shirt, or favorite fabric you have lying around. I have no patience for such things, which is why my homemade ones won’t be as pretty as yours, but they do the job!
- Calculated based on 2012 facial tissue tonnage (399) from RISI – US Tissue Monthly Data, January 2013 multiplied by 20 (approximate number of facial tissues in one ounce).
Hi! I’m Colleen.
Hello, and welcome. I’m Colleen, aka The Joyful Vegan, and I’m here to give you the tools and resources you need to eat, cook, travel, and live compassionately and healthfully.
My Recommended Products
Make a Donation
Donating = Loving
For more than twenty two years, my work and podcast have remained free (and ad-free) thanks to support from listeners, followers, and readers. If this labor of love has impacted your life at all, please consider becoming a supporter. 🖤 Thank you!