Which is greener – paper towels or hand dryers? On its face, the question seems obvious, but you might be surprised. Being green is more than just reducing paper consumption. You have to take a step back and look at the full picture from supply chain and manufacturing to operational carbon footprint to find the answer to this question. So, let’s get into it! It’s time for a lean, green, eco-friendly hand drying machine showdown.
For this analysis we’ll take a look at 3 factors:
- Manufacturing carbon footprint
- Operational carbon footprint
- Long-term sustainability
Manufacturing carbon footprint
First, let’s take a look at the impact of manufacturing or two options.
A hand dryer has to be assembled in a factory and delivered to its final destination one time. Generally speaking, this only happens one time per bathroom. While the factories which produce these machines range in terms of their respective eco-friendliness, you are only looking at one cycle of manufacturing and shipping over thousands of users and years of use.
Paper towels are made of wood, water, and resin, and that takes a lot of trees. Did you know that Americans use 270 million trees per year for paper towels? If you’ve ever wondered how exactly these tiny towels are put together, check out this article for a quick run down. In addition to paper towels being produced, they have to be shipped over and over again at regular intervals to keep the bathroom stocked. And even then, it seems like there are never enough. Recycled paper towels are preferable in terms of how many natural resources are required, but they still have to be continuously manufactured and shipped. The ongoing demand for paper towels to be replenished increases the manufacturing footprint significantly.
The Winner of Round 1 is… Hand driers.
Since hand driers only have to be made and delivered once per bathroom, they take the cake for this category.
Operational carbon footprint
The amount of energy required to operate a hand drier varies a lot between models. Newer models are much more energy-efficient than the older generations of hand dryers. Even though hand dryers run on electricity, one study conducted at MIT found that modern high-speed electric hand dryers have a much lower carbon footprint than paper towels. The old-school “blow drier in a box” style driers don’t stack up, though. In addition to the energy use of the machines themselves, one should also factor in the source of the building’s electricity into the operational footprint. If a building is using wind or solar power, then this would further reduce the operational impact of a hand dryer.
Paper towels are a disposable commodity intended for a single use. Once you use one paper towel, no one else can use it. Also, it’s thrown in the garbage which must be collected and transported to a landfill. The upside of paper towels is that they do not require any electricity in their active (being used to dry hands) or passive (sitting on a walk plugged in) state. The fuel required to haul all those used paper towels to the landfill does add up, though. Also, some buildings are now composting paper towel waste which can make paper towels a much greener proposition!
The Winner of Round 2 is… A tie.
The operational footprint of paper towels and hand driers depends on a lot of different factors. If you are using recycled paper towels and composting them after they’re used, then this may be the greener option. If, on the other hand, you’re using a high-speed electric hand dryer in a building with sustainable energy sources, then it may be the better option. Call it a draw.
When you compare the lifespan of a paper towel versus a hand dryer, then you can start to see some pretty stark differences.
Depending on how frequently it’s used, a single hand drier can last up to 10 years. Let’s go ahead and assume that your dryer gets light use and stays in good condition. That means that it gets manufactured and shipped one time every 7-10 years. Compare that with paper towels which have to be manufactured and shipped repeatedly. Even if we were being generous and assuming you buy in bulk, you’re looking at having to make and ship paper towels at least once or twice a year. Over 10 years that adds up to 1 assembly and shipping of a hand drier 10-20 assembly and shipping of paper towels.
One advantage paper towels have in this category is that they do not require electricity and maintenance as hand driers do. That is more of a financial consideration than an ecological one, so we’re not going to factor it in too heavily here. Paper towels can also be made of recycled materials, which are better than non-recycled but still only get used once.
The Winner of Round 3 is…Hand Dryers.
Single-use items like paper towels simply cannot compete in the sustainability category. When you add up the manufacturing and shipping imprint of having to keep paper towels in stock, they slip behind hand driers in long-term sustainability.
Drum roll, please…
So, who takes the cake when it comes to drying your hands the greenest way? Hand driers!
Modern high-speed hand dryers take less energy to make and use than paper towels. They also do not generate waste and last much longer. That is why study after study has found that the aggregate carbon footprint of high-speed hand driers is much lower than that of paper towels.
If you are concerned primarily with being green, then modern, high-speed hand dryers are the way to go.
If you are still using paper towels, then you can make them more eco-friendly by:
- Choosing paper towels made from recycled materials
- Composting paper towels instead of throwing them in the trash
- Buying in bulk to reduce your total number of deliveries
What are your thoughts? Do you use a high-speed hand dryer? If you are still using paper towels, what do you do to make them more eco-friendly?
Guest post by Ryan.