For those of you who haven’t stopped by our Visitor Center in a while, or just forgot, we now have electric hand dryers installed in our bathrooms. We wanted to take a closer look at the pollution and energy waste caused by both to see if hand dryers really stand up to our great expectations!
First, let’s look at the pros for the electric hand dryers. Research shows that paper towels negatively impact the ecosystem in their production alone! Fossil fuels power the technology to harvest and transport trees to the paper mill. From there, toxic emissions are produced as the trees are turned into paper and get absorbed into the groundwater. Once someone uses a paper towel, it ends up as a solid waste that will eventually hits a landfill. Even if you haven’t cleaned up toxic chemicals with them that would leech into the groundwater, they’re still taking up precious space. The worst part is that most people only use each paper towel once and may even use too many. If there is more solid waste being produced, then more trash bags also need to be used and their production increases fossil fuel usage.
A Buffalo University student researched the usage of paper towels and hand dryers and discovered that a high-speed model of electric hand dryer ended up reducing carbon emissions by 42%! In a different study, electric hand dryers outperformed paper towels when looking at six different environmental indicators – respiratory organics, respiratory inorganics, ozone layer, ecotoxicity, acidification/eutrophication, and fossil fuels.
A UK study (£ were converted to $ on August 10th, 2016) looked at the cost of older-fashioned hand dryers and paper towels in terms of consumption. They found that an old-fashioned hand dryer if used 50 times per day for one month will cost $4.84 and paper towels if used 50 times per day at a rate of 4 towels (the average that someone would use to dry their hands after one wash) for one month will cost $48.48!
According to Slate.com, if we only used 1 paper towel per hand washing, the cost and environmental impact would be very similar to using an old-fashioned electric hand dryer. This insinuates that if we simply are conscientious of our paper towel usage, the world would be a greener place!
Now let’s look at the pros for paper towels. First and foremost, paper towels can keep us healthy. They dry hands more efficiently; taking less than 10 seconds to fully dry hands whereas electric hand dryers take much longer (a hot air dryer can take 40 seconds to fully dry hands). This is concerning as bacteria living on our hands thrive in warm, moist areas. Paper towels were found to reduce all types of bacteria while hot air dryers actually increase the number of bacteria! It was observed that bacteria was reduced if hands were not rubbed together during hand drying under a hot air dryer, however the time it took to effectively dry the hands increased significantly.
Another concern with electric hand dryers is a different type of pollution – noise pollution. Bathrooms are often tile and therefore amplify any noise (this could be why singing in the shower is so fun!). In fact, locations that use jet air dryers (the powerful ones that make the skin on your hand move around) have an average decibel level of 94dB!
From a green standpoint, paper towels do not impact deforestation as much as one might think. Yes, trees are used to produce paper for the towels; however, these trees tend to come from well-managed and maintained commercial forests.
Overall, it is important to view each situation in its own light. In health facilities like hospitals, doctor’s offices, and nursing homes, children’s places (pre-schools, daycares, elementary schools) or airports where there is a constant flow of people from all over the world who may be introducing new bacteria to a location, hygiene may be more important. If this is the case and you would prefer to use a paper towel to more effectively remove any potential harmful bacteria, use as few as possible. If one paper towel can dry your hands, don’t use more! If you are in many other public bathrooms such as (cough, cough, wink, wink) an Environmental Education and Nature Center like ours, and have the time to fully dry your hands under an electric dryer, BCAS and the environment will definitely thank you!
If you want to take a more in depth look at the studies that were done, check out these great links!