The Hand Drying Dilemma: Hand Dryer vs. Paper Towels

You just arrived at your favourite restaurant in town after work. You noticed a bit of marker on your hands from a brainstorming session you carried out at the end of the workday (the one where you swore you nearly solved this whole climate crisis) and dash to the bathroom to wash up. Your environmentally conscious efforts have programmed you to use the most efficient amount of soap and water and now its time to dry when suddenly you’re faced with another environmental conundrum. For some strange reason the restaurant has given you two options for drying your hands: the conventional hand dryer and the disposable paper towel. Which one do you choose? Is the coal-burning electricity of the conventional hand dryer more harmful than the tree-cutting disposable paper towel? Let’s find out.

As a Life Cycle practitioner, I often find my friends come up to me asking difficult questions regarding environmental decision making in their daily lives: bus vs. train, paper vs. plastic, recyclable vs. re-usable; the list goes on and on. A quick and easy answer would be best but most situations unfortunately aren’t that clear. One of my favourites examples of this is the hand-drying dilemma; the conventional hand dryer vs. the disposable paper towel. In a complicated riddle like this, the only way to really understand the best option for the environment is to go back to life cycle assessment.

Internationally, life cycle assessment (LCA) is the most widely accepted method for assessing the environmental performance of a product of service over its whole life. LCA basically does what it says on the tin: assesses the entire life of a product, service, or operation from cradle to grave. LCA has been practiced for over 35 years and now a new method is being tailored specifically for Australia, the Australian ecopoint. The ecopoint is capable of capturing the full extent of an LCA while still bringing it back to a single-unit score. 100 Australian ecopoints is the equivalent of an average Australian’s annual impact across 13 environmental impact categories- so the smaller the amount of ecopoints, the better the environmental performance.

When comparing between two products, a common functional unit is defined in order to fairly compare each option. For example, in the case of the hand dryer vs. paper towel, we could use a set amount of wet hands to dry with a defined run time for the hand dryer and a number of paper towels used per dry. The study attempts to capture everything passing through the boundary is accounted for; raw materials, water and energy coming in, and all land, air and water emissions coming out. This information is called the life cycle inventory.

The Hand Drying Dilemma – Dryer vs Towels?, an article on life cycle assessment and ecopoints (also published in Green Pages) is an article by Ben Kneppers at Edge Environment.

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