Paper Towel or Hand Dryer?

I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to Google this… like since when the internet became mainstream [in the pre-Google Alta Vista days]. Whenever I’ve used a bathroom that offers both paper towels and an electric hand dryer I’ve felt conflicted – I’ve never really been certain which one has the lesser environmental footprint.

I thought perhaps the paper towels were worse because they use energy, materials and resources to produce and discard, plus the bin liners. I thought maybe the electric dryer because it runs on coal and is made with high-energy materials…

paper towels

So yesterday for the first time in my life I decided to find out which I should use. I didn’t get the answer I expected, and had a couple of other home truths reinforced as well;

  1. They’re both about as bad as each other – you can follow the image-link above to get a great article on the pros & cons of each. Of course there is also an arms-race going on – paper towels are becoming ‘friendlier’ and dryers are becoming more efficient – but that can be a PhD for someone else;
  2. We need to be really careful about the objectivity of research and data that we find. Even the most objective-looking experiments and scientific data are laced with subjectivity – someone still had to use judgement to design the experiment, select the tools and define the scope [and also decide what not to measure]. If you research the paper-towel Vs dryer question you’ll get convincing arguments from both sides of the sales force;
  3. Life cycle analysis is a highly complex field – the complexity grows exponentially with the scope or boundary, e.g. if we just look at direct bathroom emissions [sorry, toilet humour], paper towels don’t look so bad. But as soon as we start looking at the whole supply chain and waste/emissions stream it gets vastly more complex. This field isn’t always intuitive.

But perhaps the best truth I had reinforced is that there’s always another way. In this case, just don’t use either. Run your fingers through your hair [if you have it], freshen your face, flick your hands around, whatever. I don’t like wasting paper and I don’t like the noise of the dryers, so for me this is an easy one.

Sometimes when we’re presented with a number of complex problems, the right answer can be the elegantly simple one.

Now if only I could open that door without touching the handle…


4 responses to “Paper Towel or Hand Dryer?

  1. What about a towel that’s washed many, many times over? With transports and laundry powder they might just be as bad…?

    • Hi Pontus. You may well be right. As tempting as it was to branch out into other hand-drying options [including the Dyson Air Blade which probably is better than paper after all the accounting is done] I had to resist. I would imagine the pull-down cloth towels have similar footprints, with the transport, laundry and air/water emissions as you suggest.

  2. Drying hands on your jeans is the best answer I’ve had to this one… 🙂

  3. Seems my 3yr old has it sorted as well. He routinely opts for the shaking of wet hands over the paper or dryer.Good luck with the door opening!

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