Keeping Green: Public bathroom predicament

One key aspect of the paper towels that the hand driers lack is the element of friction. The abrasive qualities of these hand towels helps remove the dregs of bacteria lurking on your skin that the soap and water might have missed. (Soloman203/Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Paper towels or hand drier? Survey statistics say that you probably choose paper towels more frequently than hand driers when finishing up in public restrooms. Many times they seem like the obvious choice. Hand driers are often loud, low power and low heat, leaving those who chose to use these machines frustrated and most likely, wiping their hands on their pants as they exit the bathroom in impatience. On the other hand, Paper towels, even if they are low quality, can at least ensure the speed at which your hands are dried, plus the added bonus of being a buffer for faucet and door handles for all the germaphobes out there, which brings us to hygiene.

According to a study conducted by the Mayo Clinic, paper towels are more hygienic and can help eliminate more disease causing bacteria than traditional hand driers. One key aspect of the paper towels that the hand driers lack is the element of friction. The abrasive qualities of these hand towels helps remove the dregs of bacteria lurking on your skin that the soap and water might have missed. If personal cleanliness is not your top priority, and cleanliness of the planet is, then the impact of your choice in the lavatory might surprise you.

In an environmental study conducted by an EPA scientist that was published by the American Chemical Society found that overall, the environmental impact of hand driers and paper towels are relatively the same. The study took into account many variables like, the recycled content, the weight and the methods used to produce and distribute the paper towels. The study also looked at the processes and life spans surrounding both the dispensers of the towels and the hand driers to find that both are damaging in that regard. There are only slight differences in environmental efficiency that are connected to electrical inputs and type/quantity of paper used.

It should be noted that hand driers are powered by electricity which can come from both renewable and non-renewable sources. On that same note, there are producers of paper that are engaged in methods that do not yield harmful production and post consumer pollution as well as sustainable forestry.

Post consumer recycled paper towels have become much more available over the past decade and hand drier technology has advanced as well. The newer, high speed hand driers that you might have seen like the Dyson air blade and XLERATOR hand drier have proven to be better than both conventional options. A study conducted by MIT concluded that these new hand driers are much more sustainable than their elders because they use newer technology to strip the water off your hands with force as opposed to slow radiant heat with moving air that is not effectively concentrated. The study also controlled for the average of 2 sheets of paper towels and the recycled content. (Because we all know that one is just not enough to dry completely) These new driers can also be adjusted to control noise, speed and heat levels to accommodate the volume and rate of people using them on a given day, giving them an added efficiency edge.

High speed driers are capable of drying your hands at a rate that is comparable to paper towels and use around half the power of a conventional hand drier to do so. These combined aspects outweigh the upfront costs of these new dryers and are becoming more common because of this. The monetary cost to operate all three of these options follows the same gradient as environmental impact: high speed driers, conventional driers, and then paper towels.

When it comes to home living, it is much greener and less expensive to use natural cloth towels, napkins and tissues given the fact that most people will be using laundry machines to launder their clothes as well, instead of putting more paper waste into our waste cycles. A great way to ‘upcycle’ old, stained, or ripped T-Shirts is to turn them into rags to serve these purposes.


Dan Wood is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at daniel.wood@uconn.edu.