If you’re striving for a greener lifestyle, even a small change can reduce your carbon footprint. When it comes to air hand dryers vs. paper towels, the most environmentally friendly choice is neither: Allowing your hands to air dry naturally after you wash them is the greenest option. If you’d rather not drip water all over your desk, an air dryer is more eco-friendly than paper towels. Before you swear off using paper towels, however, you may want to consider factors other than environmental concerns.
Air Dryer Environmental Impact
A typical air dryer lasts seven to 10 years, according to the online magazine Slate, so any environmental production costs are negligible over its lifetime. Environmentalists are chiefly concerned with the electricity required to operate them. The average air dryer uses about 2,200 watts of power while running. If you spend 30 seconds drying your hands, you use approximately 0.018 kilowatt hours of electricity, according to Slate. To put that in perspective, consider these numbers from the Flathead Electric website: 4 kilowatt hours for 10 minutes of using a hair dryer, 14 to 29 kilowatt hours for operating a window fan for two hours, and 857 kilowatt hours for eight hours of central air conditioning.
Paper Towel Environmental Impact
Calculating the environmental impact of paper towel production is more problematic, given the many variables. Deforestation is generally not a concern, because most American-made paper towels come from commercial forests that are regularly replanted, notes Slate. But fossil fuels are consumed in the process of logging, milling and transporting the materials that eventually become paper towels. While an air dryer is delivered to a public restroom once in seven to 10 years, paper towels require continuous replenishment. Paper towels also create trash, which is often disposed of in plastic garbage bags headed for landfills.
The consulting firm Environmental Research Management conducted an independent study in 2001 to compare the carbon footprint of paper towel use vs. air dryers. As reported on the website Treehugger, the study assumed the average person uses two paper towels or spends 30 seconds using an air dryer on each visit to a restroom. The study concluded that over a five-year period, the production, transportation and electricity use of an air dryer is responsible for the same amount of carbon as a car traveling about 3,169 miles. Using paper towels over the same period results in the carbon equivalent of a car traveling about 9,000 miles, almost three times greater. The study concluded that air dryers “result in lower global warming, acidification, ecotoxicity, human toxicity, nutrification, ozone depletion and photochemical smog burdens.”
Improving the Numbers
The EPA estimates that paper towels made of recycled materials consume 40 percent less energy than ordinary paper towels. Rolled paper towels create less waste than multifold towels, according to the website StopWaste. Treehugger notes that air dryers have a lower environmental impact if they're powered by electricity generated from sustainable power sources, such as wind and solar energy.
Although the installation of an air dryer is more expensive than that of a paper towel dispenser, the air dryer will save money over time. The cost of running an air dryer for 30 seconds is approximately 0.2 cents per use, according to the website Green and Save, compared with 1.5 cents on average for paper towels. Green and Save estimates an air dryer can save a business $475 over five years compared with paper towels. Indirect costs associated with paper towels include increased bathroom cleaning, trash removal and dispenser refilling.
An air dryer may save you money over time, but paper towels are more hygienic. The website Clean Link describes a study conducted by the University of Westminster in London that found that air dryers increased the spread of bacteria on the hands. Using paper towels reduced the amount of bacteria on the hands by 76 percent. The study also showed that a jet air dryer was capable of blowing micro-organisms off of a user's hands, potentially contaminating other bathroom users and the bathroom itself. Paper towels did not show any measurable increase in cross-contamination.