My Nose and the Planet

It’s Enviro-Mama Thursday here on, 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!

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  1. No, I do not use cloth hankies and I never will. And it’s not because of that Southpark character.

    I can handle any fluid that comes out of the human body. Except mucus. I even have problems handling egg whites because they’re the same texture-ish. Want to induce my gag reflex? Show me some snot.

    So no cloth hankies here.
    Nicole’s last post … 2012 Miles for Mental Health Run & WalkMy Profile

  2. We use cloth hankies at our house. I actually am using a set of linen table napkins that I accidentally dyed pink. I’m careful about washing my hands after a particularly wet/messy sneeze/noseblow. That said, we do have paper disposable tissues in our house and use them.
    Jen’s last post … Backyard WorkMy Profile

  3. I use cloth hankies. I’m an allergy sufferer and wake up every day with a stuffy nose. After a use, I put the hanky in the hamper. If you really hate the idea of touching them, you can always tip the laundry hamper over the washing machine to dump the clothes and hankies in the washer.

    I used to use disposables for colds because I didn’t want to spread germs, etc. During a bout of plague, I was so sick with fever I couldn’t get out of bed to grab a disposable tissue from the bathroom on a regular basis. I opened my nightstand and used cloth instead. Guess what? My raw nose disappeared once I started using cloth hankies after using disposables for several days. Now for major colds I alternate between the two.
    Condo Blues’s last post … How to Tea Stain WoodMy Profile

  4. That’s sad news to realize how unpractical (for the environment) tissues (I always say “Kleenex”) are. The only times I’ve used hankies are as a teenager in school. My dad would give me a handkerchief before school. When the day was done, it was a wet mess. I honestly don’t remember if it was better or worse than having a dozen used tissues in my pockets. Since I went to college, I haven’t used one. Maybe I should buy a package since I’m not a sewer yet. It does have a gentleman-feel to them, at least.
    Rebecca B’s last post … Sunday Surf: May 6-12My Profile

  5. I have no personal experience with this, so these could be horrible ideas, but what about using some baby face cloths or cut up some receiving blankets if you still have them around? I think the trick for me would be having enough on hand that they could still be single use.

  6. I use cloth hankies for me and my children. I have dozens so we can use and throw in the wash as regularly as necessary. I don’t think they’re unhygienic – as you said Amber, cloth diapers are worse to wash! As well as being cheaper they’re much nicer on a sore nose than any paper tissues you can buy plus they can be so cute! I have a mix of bought ones (pretty lace ones, embroidered ones and big bold colourful ones) and handmade. Use thin cotton and just a narrow hem. The more you wash them the softer they get. And tucking a clean, ironed hankie into a bag of pocket is a lovely feeling.

  7. I tried using the ‘normal’ thin cotton hankies, but found them abarasive & not absorbent. More recently I fell into using Sprout’s wipes. They’re just cotton flannel that I serged the edges of. They’re stuffed in purses & bags & pockets everywhere & handy for wiping just about anything. I find them great for a really watery runny nose, but not so great for a really gooey nose, so I use toilet paper for that. I just wash them hot with all the bibs, dishcloths & baby facecloths, sometimes adding some oxy clean.
    Lisa C’s last post … Events we’re probably going to…My Profile

  8. I’ve got a cold right now, and I’ve been blowing my nose on flat diapers. I use them as rags and washcloths, and it turns out they are very soft on my nose, too! And thick enough I never accidentally touch snot. It’s no extra trouble to wash them with the diapers. I’m just too cheap to buy tissues!
    Sheila’s last post … Marko, the big brotherMy Profile

  9. OK, I’m ready to think about the switch, but I have questions for those who use handkerchiefs. Yes, hot water kills the germs, but where/how do you carry the hankie after it’s been used and before it goes in the laundry hamper? And I assume you use one hankie multiple times? Or no?

    In a tissue-using world, we wannabe hankie-users need to learn *technique* from those few of you who know!
    Rachael’s last post … {Almost} Wordless Wednesday: I Could Run a Marathon …My Profile

    • Yes! I eagerly await some answers, too.

      • Ok! If I’m at home I blow my nose and toss the hankie straight in the washing basket. If I’m out I tuck it into my bag (my bag has a little inner pocket I use for used hankies) or just keep it in my pocket. I was my hands regularly if I have a cold, especially after blowing my nose. I use hankies once or twice before moving onto a clean one. Exceptions are when I don’t have enough clean hankies (my own dirty hankie is better than my sleeve!) or if I have a runny nose due to allergies (so I’m not germy, just need to wipe my nose a lot). I don’t think much about the germs to be honest – I’m one of those people who thinks a few are no bad thing! (if you want me to tell you how I feel about antibacterial products I will but you might be horrified/decline any potential dinner invites!)

  10. For some reason, our local yard waste collection will accept “food soiled tissues” but not snotty ones. I go through a lot of tissues for my chronic allergies, so I wish I could just yard waste them. I have used cloth handkerchieves in the past. I used ’em, shoved in my pocket and reused ’em. I guess I had a concern about how sanitary that might be and stopped.

  11. I use old cotton velour/flannel wipes. My fav is bamboo velour as it’s gentle.

    I store them on the back of the toilet. I bleach them if I have had a cold.

    I highly recommend cloth.

  12. I HATE Kleenex. I did a blog post last year about the way they push disposable bathroom hand towels. I understand why they have disposables in public places but in your own HOME? That is just ridiculous.

    Reusing a hanky does kind of skeeve me out but I don’t have allergies or need one often. Last time I was sick I used a prefold instead of tissues and it was a lot more gentle. I just tossed it into the diaper load.
    Janine’s last post … Fresh Produce Clothing ReviewMy Profile

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