Electric hand driers vs. paper towels

A viewer asked this question on 6/28/2000:

Which is the more efficient to use :

Hand-driers or Paper Towels, taking into account things like:

Energy Used in manufacturing, delivery and disposal of equipment and consumables.
Energy used for running hand driers

Seems like a trivial question but I would be interested to know if one solution is significantly more environmentally costly than another.

JesseGordon gave this response on 6/29/2000:

Here's a life cycle analysis in outline form. I don't know the specific numbers, but I'll give my guess at the bottom.

Paper towels are the clear winner here.

PAPER TOWELS: Got to build, deliver, and install the paper towel roller holder. A pretty simple machine. Fewer parts than a hand drier, and it hardly ever breaks.
HAND DRIERS: This machine has to be electrically installed, and has a motor to blow the air. Much higher manufacturing cost, and installation cost. Distribution is a little more for hand driers, since the machine weighs more than a paper towel dispenser. You'd likely need maintenance every once in a while, by an electrician when the thing breaks.

I'd call this one a tie, or maybe a small win for hand driers.

PAPER TOWELS: Got to produce the paper itself, then maintain a machine which rolls it up onto those nice rollers, then you've got to deliver them and install them. The process of producing the consumables isn't so bad; it's unbleached paper, and can be all recycled materials.
HAND DRIERS: Here the only consumable is electricity. You can't count building the electric generation plant, since it would be built anyway, so you can only count the marginal costs of the electricity produced for using hand driers. It's not too much, since they're only using electricity when in use. And since electricity is produced at a central location, the air pollution can be filtered pretty efficiently. I'd say that the amount of electricity used in one hand-drying session is more than the electricity used to produce one paper towel (including the energy for delivery), but there's more marginal costs to the production process for paper towels overall.

A big win for hand driers here.

PAPER TOWELS: Got to fill up landfills with discarded paper towels (bio-degradable, so not so bad), as well as the paper towel roller tubes (also bio-degradable cardboard).
HAND DRIERS: No disposal cost at all -- it's just heat. Unless you want to count global warming, which should really be counted at the electricity level. But even with that, hand driers win.

Paper towels win here, but ambiguously.

PAPER TOWELS: Got to throw away the roller machines when they're broken, but I'd say these last a lot longer than electrical devices. Got to replace the machines that make paper towels and roll them up, every once in a great while.
HAND DRIERS: Got to throw away the electrical machine when it breaks. There's some small component of having to replace the electrical generation plant a little more often because of the extra use of electricity. I'd say on balance paper towels win here, but not by much.

So in summary the real factors are that paper towels use more consumables (the paper towels) versus hand driers using more stuff in producing and disposing of the electrical device. The bottom line? I don't know; I'd say the paper towels may have a slight advantage overall. I always use paper towels, if there's a choice, because to me it seems that the consumables are more "environmentally friendly." I don't like encouraging the use of electrical devices where a simple piece of soft paper will suffice.

But the real issue here isn't comparing the environmental damage -- it's the health effects. The hand drier was invented and got put into use, presumably, because people felt that it was cleaner and less risk of spreading disease if they used something to dry their hands that didn't require as much physical contact. In other words, even if my guess above is right, that paper towels consume less overall, the real comparison is comparing environment PLUS health issues on both sides. I'd say that the old-style rotating-cloth-towel machines were pretty bad on the health front -- I think that's what hand-driers actually replaced. But I have no problems with paper towels from a health perspective, but I suppose many people still equate paper towels with the potential health risk of cloth towels.

The more dramatic issue related to this one is disposable diapers versus washing cloth diapers. Disposables are a major component of landfills. But washing takes a lot of energy, and the extra sewage processing is significant (whereas putting lots of baby poop into landfills is the epitome of biodegradability). I've considered for a couple of years (since I had a baby) writing that study. Maybe I'll include a section on paper towels in there too. (Heck, it'll never get a paper published on its own!).

A viewer asked this follow-up question on 6/30/2000:

In my experience (in the UK), the majority of paper dispensers are of the pull-out folded type rather than paper on a roll, which I imagine are more expensive to produce the consumables but the dispenser itself is simpler, being just a box with an outlet and a lid.

I don't agree about not taking into account the costs of building power stations. If we are talking about a choice for an individual unit or for a particular office say, then fair enough, it won't increase the capacity requirement by much. If, on the other hand, we consider the number of potential new installations in the next 5 years, there could be a significant capacity increase.

Regarding diapers (or nappies as I know them), what are the implications because of the amount of vaccines present ?

JesseGordon gave this response on 6/30/2000:

Yes, I guess the folded type is even a simpler machine, hence more points against driers.

I don't mean one should NOT count the cost of building a power station -- but one must only count the MARGINAL cost that the EXTRA electricity consumed accounts for. Since the amount of electricity is quite small in this case, this would be a negligible component in the analysis. You'd have to account for the cost of building a new plant times the percentage of electricity that applies to hand driers (say that's one-millionth of the total of all electricity; then you can only count for one-millionth of the cost of the plant). And to make it even more negligible, you should only count the cost of the plant which is NOT amortized into the cost of electricity. I.e., since most plant construction cost is charged to consumers over time as part of the electricity cost, the marginal cost of construction is already accounted for by simply adding in the cost of construction.

I'm not sure how vaccines come into play with nappies?

Return to index