Lessons from a tale of two napkins

Published Monday, February 20, 2012 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

Once upon a time there were two paper napkins.  They were from the same package and purchased by the same restaurant, but they had very different life stories to tell.  Perhaps there is something to be learned from their divergent experiences.

The lucky one
The first napkin was the lucky one because, as napkins go, it had a very exciting life.  Upon arrival at the restaurant, it was removed from its packaging and placed in a dispenser on a self-service table next to the drinking straws and condiments.  There, amid the other napkins, it waited with great anticipation to fulfill its life’s purpose: wiping the fingers and face of a patron.

The napkin was not disappointed.  In seemingly no time at all, the napkins ahead of it disappeared and it found itself at the front of the line.  Almost instantly, a man appeared with a tray.  He reached over, grabbed the napkin and placed it on his tray. 

He found a table and settled in for lunch.  When he had finished eating, he took the napkin, opened it and wiped his face and fingers.  Then he crumpled it into a ball and dropped it into his pocket.  “For the stove or the compost,” he thought.

As it turned out, it was the former: when the man arrived home later that day, the napkin was pulled out of the pocket and tossed into a wood stove.  It yielded every bit of heat it could as it disappeared into the flames, with only seconds to contemplate a life well lived.

The unlucky one
Unfortunately, the other napkin had a less exciting fate.  It was right behind the lucky one in the dispenser, so the first thing it saw when it found itself in front was a man walking away. 

Just then, another man appeared.  He grabbed the napkin and tossed it on his tray.  Then he grabbed a dozen more and tossed them onto the tray too before taking a seat.

When he was finished eating, he reached for the first three napkins in the heap on his tray and used them to brush away crumbs and wipe his hands.  Then he got up to go.

“But wait!”  The napkin at the bottom of the mostly unused stack was horrified, and panicked.  “I haven’t fulfilled my destiny yet!  Nooooo...” it wailed.  But it was futile.  The tray tipped, and the napkin disappeared into the trash bin along with a fistful of other clean napkins and everything else.  Imprisoned in a black plastic bag, it went for a truck ride before being entombed in a landfill, where it slowly decayed into methane and seeped up into the air.

Waste not...
It’s interesting to note that both of the above scenarios produce the exact same result: a clean face and clean hands.  It’s just that they go about it a bit differently: one exemplifies conservation and resourcefulness while the other exemplifies excess and waste. 

It’s also interesting to note that the basic premise of the tale applies not just to napkins, but quite readily to much of what we consume – from water to food to gasoline to electricity.  There are efficient ways, and then there are other ways.

Finally, it’s interesting to note this bittersweet reality: if everyone on Earth consumed like a Canadian, we would need between three and four planets.

So perhaps this tale of two napkins will prompt us to examine our own consumption and waste production patterns.  Which of the two patrons best exemplifies our own behaviour, be it with napkins, water, food, gas, electricity or anything else?  More importantly, what can we do to live within our planet’s means?