In making such a comparison one must start by first considering the three main factors which will shape the conclusion: the environmental cost, hygiene and economic cost.
Studies are being carried out constantly in order to finally answer these questions whilst both the paper towel and hand dryer markets attempt to defend their products aggressively.
The latest ECO hand dryers such as the Armadillo ECO Handy Dryer have the ability to switch off the heating element and reduce the speed of the hand dryer so that the energy consumption can be reduced to the minimum amount necessary to dry your hands. With HEPA filters for added hygeine these dryers have evrything needed for a modern washroom.
First, let us consider the effect on the environment of paper towels versus hand dryers. In the manufacturing process, trees are destroyed, and wood must be transported to factories where it is then made into the paper towels we see in restrooms. However, we can probably ignore deforestation impacts as usually wood comes from sustainable commercial forests. The environmental cost of such a process is high as fossil fuels are burnt in order to supply the electrical energy needed for both the manufacturing process and packaging as well as the cost of transport from the factory to the purchaser. Furthermore, paper towels will require constant replenishment throughout their use, as once dirty, they can’t be re-used.
When considering the overall environmental cost, we must also consider what happens to a paper towel once used. Although it is not possible to include all accounts of paper towel disposal in this article, it is safe to say most hand towels are not recycled. Paper towels are made of organic material, so once sent to a landfill - harmful greenhouse gases such as methane are released in the decomposition of this material. This is a massive problem in the USA as 2% of total landfill is made up of paper towels. As well as this, due to the way in which these paper towels are designed, they do not break down when wet in the mulching process and instead retain their original structure. Therefore, a bigger problem is posed by paper towel disposal when considering their environmental sustainability. One can look to other means of disposal such as compost, however, this is not a viable solution as paper towels are used on a large scale. So, although difficult to consider all environmental factors concerned with paper towel usage one can conclude that paper towels certainly do leave a significant carbon footprint.
Next the environmental impact of hand dryers must be considered. A standard hand dryer will use around 1.5Kw (per hour of use) of electric and is said (by Slate magazine) to typically last for around 10 years. It is apparent that some electricity is used in supplying a hand dryer once it is installed - however, compared to the paper towel, CO2 emissions are much less in terms of transporting the product as, once installed, nothing is required in terms of upkeep making it more environmentally sustainable in this aspect.
Studies have shown that a hand dryer is nearly three times eco-friendlier, producing nearly a third of the CO2 that paper towels create. In addition there is absolutely no rubbish disposal associated with the usage of the electric hand dryers, saving landfill space and reducing amounts of harmful greenhouses gases emitted into the atmosphere. It has also been found that during the productive life span of the average hand dryer, around 24 less trees are cut down than would be were paper towels being used in the place of this one hand dryer. However, some negative aspects of electric hand drying must also be considered. One such factor is that a hand dryer is more complex than a carbon-based paper towel as more materials go into producing such a machine. This means that once disposed of a hand dryer will not degrade for thousands of years.
The fact has been highlighted by several paper towel manufacturers that in the manufacturing and industrial sector the hand dryer may decrease the company’s overall productivity. This is since only one person can use a hand dryer at any one time whereas paper towels can be taken by several people. Similarly, this can be counter argued as hand dryers with their rapidly increasing efficiency due to advances in technology can now dry hands in under 15 seconds where a paper towel may take longer than this. Overall there is a clear advantage to use of hand dryers in terms of environmental sustainability.
Are hand dryers hygienic? Studies, such as those done by Westminster University, found drying hands using hand dryers shows an increase in the number of germs on the individual’s hands after using an electric hand dryer when paper towels appear not to affect the number of bacteria present before or after. However, the way in which such studies are carried out must be questioned before agreeing with statements from The Daily Telegraph - comments such as “is so unhygienic that it might be better to not wash at all”.
In further investigating studies carried out which led to such extreme conclusions it appears that holding your hands still under a hand dryer for the allocated amount of time is key in reducing germs on one’s hands, and seen as the more hygienic method - was not considered by this study.
Moreover, the fact that many bacteria are completely harmless has also not been taken into thought; this proves these studies are at best inconclusive and at worst, highly misleading and incorrect, insinuating it as a false unhygienic method. Finally, the sample sizes used are small, and larger studies must be conducted before any kind of accurate conclusion can be drawn over whether on a bigger scale about whether hand dryers are more hygienic or unhygienic compared to paper towels.
Clearly the initial cost of an electric hand dryer surpasses that of its competitor the hand towel. It is also true that in the case of Handy Dryers units, almost all units will pay for themselves in under a year*. Without factoring in the cost of rubbish bags and maintenance, an average size company will spend around £2,000 a year. By comparison, the initial cost of an electric hand dryer and an annual operating cost of around £60 is a much smaller price to pay.
In conclusion these three factors are all interdependent when determining which method of hand drying is most appropriate for your individual situation. It is better though, to encourage the development of hand dryers by investing in them rather than using paper towels for the sake of short-term eco-friendliness. This is because constant technological advances are key in providing long term environmental sustainability as hand dryer efficiency is constantly increasing.
*Assuming usage over 100 times per day when moving from paper towels.