Seasonal allergies aren’t really a thing where I live in Northern California—instead I have allergies at least half of the year, which means I frequently need to blow my nose or blot my eyes. Add in a neti pot habit to try to combat the allergies, and I'm typically cruising through half a box of tissues or more in a week at my peak—a fact that weighs on my conscience considering how completely terrible disposable paper products are for the environment.
Softer tissues, including most name brand options, are often exclusively made from virgin wood pulp. Kleenex, for example, sources 30 percent of its wood pulp from the Atlantic Forest, according to their website. The Atlantic Forest is an important UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Amazon that was once one of the most biodiverse forests on the planet. And though Kimberly-Clark, the company that makes Kleenex, says they’re committed to conservation, the Nature Conservancy reports that deforestation and clear-cutting have already decimated 85 percent of the forest (though, of course, not all of that lumber has been used to make Kleenex tissues). Ancient forests around the world are being destroyed to keep up with our demands for tissues, toilet paper, paper towels, and other single-use paper products. These forests are an important part of removing carbon from the atmosphere and maintaining animal habitats.
Related: The Truth About Recycling In America
And then there’s the manufacturing process. Most wood pulp, virgin or recycled, is heavily processed and bleached in order to make soft, bright white tissues. The bleaching process releases harmful chemicals into the air and water according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. To top it all off, many tissue brands are not compostable because they use unlisted additives to reinforce the tissues.
Wouldn't it be easier on the environment—not to mention my wallet— I wondered, to use a cloth handkerchief instead? Hankies appealed to my sense of thrift and environmental responsibility. They can be used for years, and they’re small enough that don’t create any extra water-wasting loads of laundry.
Still, something held me back. For a long time. I wish I could say the reason I held on to (recycled) tissues for so long was because handkerchiefs grossed me out. But the truth is that I was embarrassed.
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Handkerchiefs are such an uncommon sight these days that I was afraid of being stared at or judged. Family members had made comments about how disgusting it was to watch someone blow their nose into a handkerchief and put it back in their pocket. Did I really want to be that person? Could I really embrace ‘snot rags’?
Social pressure kept me going back to the store for more boxes, but those boxes were stacking up.
The bathroom trash is what finally broke my resistance to hankies. It felt like the tissues were self-multiplying every time I turned my back. The bin was frequently overflowing, and my tree-killing habit was constantly staring me in the face. It got to the point where I would leave little piles of tissues around the house to try to avoid the guilt, but that was only more disgusting and guilt-inducing.
After months of deliberation and hoarding links to handkerchiefs, I finally made the plunge. Here’s what I learned.