The Dilemma of Hand Drying

Roger Bong - Contributing Writer
Posted on Thursday 22nd October 2009

There's an unwarranted dilemma over which is the more environmentally friendly way to dry your hands in a public restroom: paper towels or air dryers?

Americans create over a million tons of paper towel waste each year — paper towel manufacturing being one of the largest segments of the U.S. paper industry. Eco-conscious stickers that remind people to waste less have proven effective in some cases. Yet, hand dryers eliminate waste altogether. So, one point for hand dryers.

But disposable towels are far more sanitary, as dryers shoot out air that's not hot enough to kill germs — in fact, studies have shown that dryers actually increase the presence of bacteria! One point for paper towels.

In 2007, the Climate Conservancy, after examining the life cycle of a disposable paper towel, concluded that a single sheet generates more than double the amount of carbon emissions than a typical hand dryer. Another point for the dryers.

Yet, in many instances, paper towels are manufactured with recycled paper or waste by-products, like wood chips. So, the towels have some clout in terms of energy usage.

And, now the U.S. has been introduced to the Dyson Airblade, an energy efficient air dryer that takes just over 10 seconds to completely dry both hands. It's more hygienic than traditional hand dryers and uses less energy. However, it's doubtful that every restroom in the country will be installing one soon.

So, what to do? Paper towels? Or air dryers? The debate seems endless. The answer is simple: neither.

It's like bringing a reusable shopping bag to the grocery store — a fantastic, practical idea that the majority of Americans have, for some reason, only recently realized. So why not bring a reusable, small towel wherever you go? (The Japanese have been doing it all along).

Of course, there are environmental costs to manufacturing hand towels, but these could be minimized by using renewable materials like hemp, flax or bamboo. Plus, the durability of a non-disposable towel ensures a long life of use.

Put a small hand towel in your pocket or purse whenever you leave home. Use it to dry your hands, to wipe your brow or even as a handkerchief. And what difference does hygiene make when you're the only person using it? (Just be sure to wash your towel at the end of the day).

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