The Revival of the Handkerchief

They had been abandoned for over 5 years. It happened when we bought a new bed and moved the old one, together with the bedside tables, into the guest room. Neatly stacked in one of the drawers, I had almost forgotten about them. If you think hard and look in all your drawers, I am sure you will find some of your own. If not, then you might be too young to have ever used a handkerchief. Go to your parents or grandparents – they will have them. Yes, there was a time when people sneezed or blew their noses into real cloth and not into layers of thin paper. In the 70s it became convenient to have disposable tissues, and so modern and hip! The producing companies promoted their softness, durability and their hygiene factor. Interestingly enough, the brand name became a synonym for tissues; everybody knows what you want when asking for a “Kleenex”. The same goes for a “Tempo” in Germany. Sure, we knew that paper is made from trees, but in their place new trees are grown, aren’t they?

Handkerchief vs tissue

What nobody really told us was that this great, innovative product did more damage to the environment than the product it had made dispensable. I just found a website were studies of Cambridge University and Duke University are cited and according to those, the environmental advantage of handkerchiefs versus tissues is immense. True, the production of a cotton handkerchief takes more energy and water than of a single tissue, and you have to wash and dry the hanky. The studies’ numbers are based on an expected lifespan of 520 uses for a hanky versus a single use tissue and already include the laundry aspect of the hankies. You can look up more info and numbers by clicking on this link


For me, it is more than about the numbers of trees, the litres of water, or the kW/h saved. It is the knowledge that, with a small change, I can do a lot. In my case, I don’t even have to buy new hankies. The energy to produce them was already spent years and decades ago. So why not use them? And they are really durable. I still have hankies from my childhood that are, although a little faded, still in good shape. Some have my initial on them, are printed with fairy tale themes, or are embroidered. When I started using hankies again a few weeks ago, I became a little nostalgic at the look of them. Not that I had any particular memories, but just a general feeling of regaining something I hadn’t even known I had been missing.

Now, there is one hanky in my pile that is still brand new. (I never even removed the little sticker.) It is my favourite and I always thought it is too good and too beautiful to use. It is embroidered with a chalet in the mountains and alp flowers, including edelweiss and gentian. I am pretty sure it once was a gift, a souvenir my parents had brought from a trip. All the more reason for me to treasure it!

Getting inspired

All it took for me to switch back to handkerchiefs, was a reminder to look more closely at my habits. A few weeks ago, I attended, together with my daughter, a conference at her university called “How to be an environmentalist”. One of the speakers was Chris Benjamin, a Halifax-based author. I bought his book “Eco-Innovators”, and the stories about people in Atlantic Canada that are making a difference in protecting the environment totally captured and inspired me. (He doesn’t explicitly promote using hankies ;).)

Our Kids and the Environment

To a greater or lesser degree, I have always been trying to do my share of protecting the environment. Our kids probably still have nightmares about me preaching not to dispose of their garbage just anywhere. Our slogan was and still is: “What you can bring or carry to a place, you can take home!” When they were small, I lectured our kids, if they tried to drop gum or candy paper on the street. “You’ve got pockets in your pants!” I would remind them. The funny thing was, that for many years I emptied the pockets of their pants before washing them and sometimes got annoyed, because they were always so stuffed, and it held me up, especially when I was in a hurry, until it finally dawned on me: “Hey, they are doing exactly what I told them to do.” And don’t they say, children learn by example? I don’t believe our kids have ever seen my husband or myself disposing of anything in an inappropriate manner. (And that’s not because we do it secretly!)

Not too long ago, our 7-year-old granddaughter was staying with us and I told her, that she was to use hankies when wiping her nose, and that I am not buying tissues anymore. I asked her whether she knows what tissues are made of. Quick as a shot came: “Of trees! And when trees are cut down it destroys the habitat of wildlife, like birds and insects and all kinds of animals.”

Well, I couldn’t have said it any better or more enthusiastic! So get your handkerchiefs out and go green(er)!!

You might want to read “Ditch the tissue: We’re bringing back the handkerchief” at

Links to Chris Benjamin’s book and website, the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax and the Community Sustainability Network in Bridgewater and Area


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