It’s Enviro-Mama Thursday here on Strocel.com, and today I’m considering the impact of my runny nose on the planet.
Last week my son Jacob had a cold. Children are germy, germy creatures, and it can seem like they’re always sick. Unfortunately, they don’t always keep the sickness to themselves, either. This is why I am currently suffering from a cold myself. My throat is sore, my sinuses are achy, I’m slightly feverish, and my nose is running profusely. It’s all extremely attractive.
One of the things that happens when I get a cold is I start going through tissues at a rapid pace. While I’ve recently ditched paper towels, and I’ve been using cloth napkins for years, I still haven’t embraced the cloth handkerchief. The idea of re-using a piece of cloth that I’m blowing my nose on just feels a little foreign to me. Maybe even unsanitary. As it turns out, there’s probably a good reason why I feel this way – it’s been fed to me all my life.
Kimberly-Clark, the makers of Kleenex, marketed their product as safer than cloth handkerchiefs from the get-go. A newspaper ad from 1933 contained this wording to promote the product:
And think of the greater safety! No germ-filled handkerchiefs to infect hands, pockets, laundry bags. No soiled, disgusting handkerchiefs to carry germs back to your face. No repulsive handkerchief washing. You use a fresh Kleenex Tissue every time. It’s safe.
Even today, Kleenex plays on this message of greater safety. Their website contains a page with 11 tips for cold and flu season, and three of the tips involve using their products and/or disposing of the tissues immediately. The idea is that the sooner those tissues end up in the garbage, the less germy your world will be. I’m sure the fact that using a new tissue every time you sneeze, cough or blow your nose will cause you to buy even more of their product is totally secondary. They’re doing a public service.
In fairness, though, it’s not just Kimberly-Clark telling us to use disposable tissues and dispose of them promptly. My own provincial government produced a document with guidelines for preventing illness in childcare settings. They say that you should have plenty of tissues available, which should be disposed of promptly in a plastic-lined container, and that you should not use cloth handkerchiefs. And many people who grew up using disposable tissues find the idea of cloth handkerchiefs foreign at best and repulsive at worst.
There are others, though, who say that handkerchiefs are perfectly safe when they’re laundered properly. I used cloth diapers on my son. If I’m comfortable cleaning toddler poop, why should snot be so different? Hot water kills bacteria. It will kill the bacteria on a handkerchief as well as a dirty diaper. And handkerchiefs are small, so it’s not like you need a ton of them to see you through a cold. In fact, even minimalists advocate for using them.
There are other reasons to use cloth handkerchiefs, though, and it all comes down to our planet. Apparently, every day in the US some 3000 tons of paper tissue products are sent to landfills. When something biodegrades in a landfill, it does it in an environment where there is no oxygen present, which means that instead of producing carbon dioxide, it produces methane. Methane is actually a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, which means it contributes to climate change. Not good. Plus, according to Greenpeace, most tissues are manufactured from wood that was not sustainably harvested. Unless you’re buying tissues made from recycled fibres, each time you blow your nose more trees need to be cut down.
Having a cold is no fun, as I can personally attest to at this moment. But maybe it doesn’t need to mean plowing through several boxes of tissues. I’m going to be investigating some cloth handkerchief options, and hopefully I’ll be better prepared the next time a virus strikes.
What do you think – would you use cloth handkerchiefs? Do you feel that they can be as sanitary as disposable tissues? And do you have any suggestions for buying handkerchiefs or making my own? I’d love to hear!