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Using napkins as coasters is pointless and wasteful

Matthew Kassel
May 16, 2018

Here’s a frustrating scenario that you may find familiar. You go to a bar and order a beer. As the bartender brings you your pint he throws down a little beverage napkin and places the beer on top of it. At first you might wonder why he’s done this, because the bartop is already pretty filthy—sticky, scratched up, stained—and the napkin is, it appears, a weak shield against further soilage.

Still, you figure it might come in handy. Perhaps you can wipe away the condensation accumulating on the glass. Or maybe you can pocket the napkin for later and put chewed gum in it or something. Not so fast. After just a few seconds, the napkin is almost completely soaked through, and you are stuck with a worthless, soggy piece of paper that may or may not be clinging to the bottom of your drink like some pathetic fatberg. Gross.

There is no reason why you—or the napkin—should suffer this indignity. It isn’t right. It’s indecent. It’s a first-world problem, I’m aware, but lately I feel as though I have been having bad run-ins with napkin coasters everywhere—in bars, in restaurants, at hotels. I’ve always felt that napkin coasters are a nuisance but I’ve reached a tipping point, and it’s time for social change.

For one, using them with such recklessness is a huge waste of paper. The average American consumes an unseemly 2,200 napkins a year, so why create extra garbage? What’s more, napkin coasters are an insult to those who respect wood or any surface that could possibly be defiled. So herewith, I present to you a revolutionary idea: Let’s abolish the napkin coaster once and for all!

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against napkins. In fact, I’m a big fan of them. I stuff them into my pockets at every opportunity. I pilfer them from coffee shops, pizza parlors, and other establishments where napkins are free and plentiful. I can’t get enough of them. I’m napkin-mad. About two years ago, I even wrote an ode to the napkin for this very publication.

But napkins are not at all useful as coasters, and I will no longer pretend otherwise. In fact, they defeat their own purpose, creating an even larger, wetter surface that can stain a table or countertop with a big, oblong smudge.

It doesn’t need to be this way. To state the obvious: silver coasters, wood coasters, ceramic coasters, felt coasters, bamboo coasters, cloth coasters, cork coasters and even cardboard coasters are all viable alternatives to the cocktail napkin. But it isn’t as if it’s acceptable to take your own coaster to a bar or restaurant. And I doubt some grungy bar is going to start handing out cloth coasters to everyone who orders a drink.

So it seems to me that we should start refusing napkin coasters. If you see you a bartender or waiter preparing to slip you a napkin, tell them to hold off. Hard to do, I know. Who among us can resist a free napkin? But it’s possible. I’ve slowly started rejecting napkins at bars and restaurants myself. You may meet some resistance at first, but that’s normal. It’s hard to break old, useless habits.

I’m not alone in this crusade. James Hamblin, a senior editor at The Atlantic, has questioned the efficacy of airplane napkins and encountered some pushback. "I would love few things more than to see airplane cocktail napkins completely disappear,” he told me in an email. “Trying to decline them is difficult—as anyone who's tried knows. It's often such an ordeal, with the attendant asking me to repeat myself, and then looking at me like I'm out of my mind and then insisting, sometimes actually refusing to let me decline the napkin—that I sometimes end up taking them without even trying.”

Likewise, bartenders and waiters may at first question your motives when you tell them that, no, you don’t need a napkin coaster with your beverage. That napkin coasters are basically useless accouterments. That they are troublesome little things that turn immediately into wet, tattered messes when placed underneath a sweaty glass. If you speak passionately enough, you may be ridiculed or laughed at. But this is no joke. Too many napkins have needlessly perished as a result of our profligacy.


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