THE GOOD OLD HANKY

Zwoice . Jul 23, 2019

Black & white photo of a man in white suit with a dotted tie and a hanky in his pocket.

A hanky or handkerchief is a reusable, foldable square of cloth intended for wiping a nose or sneezing into. It used to be dearly loved by our grandparents, but started to fade away in the mid 20th century, as paper tissues, became a popular alternative, up until reaching the status of a hilariously funny old-fashioned accessory. The disposable option, marketed as easier to use and more hygienic, thus came out as a clear winner, sadly though, without giving it a second thought or considering its impact on our health and the environment.

What is the big deal?

Did you know that paper tissues are not made through environmentally safe processing practices? Pulp and paper manufacturing is the third greatest emitter of CO2. Have you ever looked at the list of ingredients on your paper tissue box? You should. And last, but not least, are you aware that not only their plastic packaging, but also the used paper tissues themselves cannot be recycled?

All of this matters, because the first step in the process of making soft tissue paper is creating paper pulp. This can be generated from wood fibre or recycled materials. Apart from the fact that very few are made of the later one, because manufacturers cannot make them soft enough, in both cases, the process requires chopping off trees, which take decades to grow. Deforestation thus not only contributes to global warming, but also causes loss of habitat for plants and animals. Additionally, paper plants use huge amounts of water and electricity and pollute the air and water through chemicals used for bleaching the tissues. The raw materials as well as the finished tissues need to be transported to and from factories via carbon dioxide emitting means of transport. And the final product is a major polluter due to its own and its plastic packaging’s non-recyclable properties.

As if this were not enough, most of the disposable tissues contain nasty ingredients, such as sodium lauryl sulfate, isopropyl palmitate or chlorine. The first one is a foaming agent, known for being an eye and skin irritant with a potential of turning into a carcinogen when combined with other chemicals. Isopropyl palmitate can cause skin irritations, acne or dermatitis when combined with stearyl alcohol, as is often the case in paper tissues. Furthermore, most of the tissues are bleached to make them white, a process that involves the wood being treated with chlorine, a strong corrosive material that will irritate the eyes, skin and the respiratory tract by just inhaling the gasses. In addition, dioxins are formed in the process, proven to cause cancer and are leached into the air and water supply harming not just us, but also plants, animals and the environment.

Yes, you might be able to find recycled, chlorine-free or processed chlorine-free tissues, even packed in paper boxes nowadays, but considering all of the above, we all know that it is still not the ideal solution neither for your health, nor the future of our planet.

Aerial picture of tree trunks next to a former forest area.

Ready to revive the hanky, but worried about hygiene?

Marketers have us convinced that by using a handkerchief, we are increasing the chance of spreading the virus to those around when shaking hands or touching other items such as taps, doorknobs, cutlery or computer keyboards and then rubbing our eyes or nose. A disposable tissue is considered more hygienic because someone can blow their nose, contain the potentially germy parts inside the tissue and then throw it away. If they also wash their hands afterwards, then their risk of spreading germs to someone else is very remote.

Well, the truth is that the spreading of germs does not depend on whether we use a reusable or a disposable product, but on how do we use it or in other words, on whether we have good hygienic habits to minimise the spread of germs.

If we think of real-life examples, such as someone blowing their nose while walking on the street with no bin around or doing so while watching a theatre play, well, in most instances, a used tissue is going to end up in their bag or pocket. Not even mentioning that hand cleaning is by far not a common practice in these cases.

Now let’s imagine we are a hanky user that carries more than one at a time and folds it inwards after use, trapping the germs and presenting a new dry area each time, before placing it in their pocket. When one hanky is used up, we store it in a separate bag and pull out another one. And when we get home, we add the used hankies to the next wash. Not very different from a disposable paper tissue user, is it?

Still not convinced? Well, what about hay fever? There are no germs involved in allergies, so why not being gentle to your nose by choosing a cute, soft and cuddly chemicals-free hanky?

Soapy hands under water running from the tap.

Go for it!

In reality, handkerchiefs are only unsanitary, if we do not change them, as we would dispose of a paper tissue.

It takes 3x less energy to produce an organic cotton hanky compared to growing trees and producing pulp to manufacture a virgin fibre tissue.

It’s cheaper too. Disposables will always cost us more in the long run, because even if they seem cheap, they are designed to make us continue buying them again and again.

It may need a good washing every now and then, but neither will it produce a mountain of unnecessary trash nor will it further irritate our aching nose every time we have a cold. What is more, over time, the hanky becomes softer than any paper tissue, something your nose will surely appreciate.

And no, you will not waste more resources by washing them. Handkerchiefs are so small you can always stuff them into your washing machine when you wash a load. The hanky comes out as a clear winner, using 4.5x less water than a virgin paper tissue. Even if it takes around 2.2 litres to produce one paper tissue and 165 litres to grow and manufacture a single hanky and 78 litres to wash it throughout your lifetime, it by far beats the disposable hanky, because it will be used at least 520 times, bringing it down to 0.47 litres of water per nose-blow.

Finally, the fact that a hanky is reusable and recyclable means it does not end up in a landfill, and all of the harmful production-related stuff, sourcing of raw materials, manufacturing, packaging, and transporting happens only once, rather than every time you have a good cry.

DYI

  • Ask your grandparents
  • Make your own from old sheets and pillowcases
  • Buy vintage hankies
  • If purchasing new, choose unbleached organic cotton or hemp
Beautiful colourful piece of cloth with a leaves and flowers pattern.

But they are ugly and old school!

Not true at all! Check out these minimal, simple and cutest ever, colourful, soft and cuddly, reusable handkerchiefs, made in organic cotton. Adorable, aren't they?

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