Hand Dryers vs. Paper Towels: The Debate Rages On

By Sue Minichiello

paper-towel_vs_hand-dryerIt’s a decades-old question. What’s better, hand dryers or paper towels? Despite numerous studies (often funded by hand dryer or paper companies/associations) plus countless news articles, blog entries and opinion pieces that come down on one side or the other, in truth, the answer is: It depends.

For some building owners and managers, “better” means more environmentally friendly. For others, it means more hygienically effective. And for still others, it means both. What’s more, there are additional considerations — such as upfront investment vs. ongoing costs and user experience and preference — that influence what efficiencies can be gained by one method over the other.

This article endeavors to explore some of the most important factors related to environmental considerations and hygienic efficacy. The main environmental factors concern sustainability and life cycle. (Life cycle refers to the “cradle-to-grave” span of a product, i.e., raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, in-use, and disposal.) The chief hygienic elements involve preventing the spread of germs and bacteria on people’s hands and in restrooms.

Tracy Jensen, Business Development Specialist with Palmer Fixture and Julie Howard, VP & GM, Paper Towel Category with GP PRO (a division of Georgia-Pacific) lent their expertise to this article.

Jensen — whose company sells hand dryers and paper towel dispensers, but not paper — claims that hand dryers have less of a detrimental impact on the environment than paper towels. One of the major factors is the amount of actual waste produced with paper towel systems largely because people tend to take more towels than necessary. (See how users can easily reduce the number of paper towels they use per dry.)

“People take an average of 2 to 3 sheets per dry, when the job can be done with 1 to 1 ½ sheets,” Jensen says. “Even if an individual goes for two cycles with a hand dryer, there’s less impact than someone who takes one to 1 to 1 ½ sheets of paper towels in terms of the paper waste versus the energy consumed in the dry cycles.”

Both Jensen and Howard say that the type of paper towel dispenser or hand dryer also affects the impact.

The basic types of dispensers are:

  • Standard multi-fold towel dispenser
  • Standard roll-towel dispenser with manual lever
  • Touchless mechanical dispenser (i.e., one in which tail of paper is exposed and user pulls paper by tail to dispense)
  • Electronic touchless dispenser (i.e., one in which no paper is exposed, but is fed by sensor activation)

Electronic touchless dispensers offer the most options for adjustability such as more sheet length options (including second sheet set to a percentage of the length of the first sheet) and time delay between dispensing. Each of these controls presents the potential to reduce waste.

Howard says that the standard multi-fold towel system produces the most waste. It doesn’t offer the controls that higher-end systems do, and people have a habit of taking far more than necessary due to their own preferences as well as improper loading of towels. Howard also says that GP PRO — which supplies paper towels and dispensers, but not hand dryers — focuses on usage reduction in all of its dispenser innovations.

In terms of raw materials, Howard asserts that much of paper’s environmental impact is mitigated by recycled content and, in the case of “virgin” paper, there’s a misconception that making paper equals forest destruction.

“Most tree farming in the United States — where the majority of timberland is privately owned– is a sustainable, renewable crop, and paper production actually supports sustainable forest management,” Howard says. “The U.S. grows more trees than it harvests, and has for more than 50 years.”

Jensen points out, however, that even with 100% recycled content, paper towels can only be used once and end up in landfills. Howard admits that’s true, but says Georgia-Pacific is exploring innovations to change paper disposal, including the recovery of paper towels. She also says that many touchless electronic dispensers are battery operated and — in a typical office environment — have a 4-year battery life, which makes them very energy efficient.

Jensen says there are some newer model hand dryers that are fabricated from recycled materials, but the majority aren’t, so there is significant environmental impact from the raw materials as well as from the energy consumed in manufacturing.

The widest variance in the energy efficiency of operating hand dryers varies by type. The basic types of hand dryers are:

  • Button-operated conventional warm air dryers
  • Touchless conventional warm air dryers
  • Touchless high-speed dryers
  • Touchless high-speed dryers with enhanced hygienic features

Conventional warm air dryers have a dry time of approximately 30 seconds. High-speed models cut that down to about 12-15 seconds. So, conventional dryers tend to pull more energy than high-speed models. The heat can be turned off in some high-speed models (and still dry as efficiently), which cuts in half the wattage drawn.

There are “green” certifications for paper towels, dispensers and hand dryers, such as Green Seal and EcoLogo. Choosing a more environmentally friendly paper towel dispenser or hand dryer can even earn LEED credits.

Turning to the hygiene side of the equation, Howard asserts there’s a general consensus that paper towels are more hygienic than hand dryers.

“Wet hands are known for their higher potential to transfer germs and pathogens more readily,” Howard says. “We’ve all been in that situation where we use a hand dryer and find our skin is still quite wet when that dryer cycles off. We give up and exit the restroom waving our hands in the air or wiping them on our pants. Whereas, with paper towels, friction occurs and total drying time tends to be less, both of which help to ensure hands are truly dry.”

Howard says touchless closed-dispensing systems further boost the hygiene factor because no hand contact is required and no part of the towel is exposed to the environment until activated by a motion sensor.

Jensen concedes that hand dryers are perceived to be less hygienically effective than paper towels. She claims, however, they’re becoming more hygienic, particularly the newer, higher-end models that offer some combination of anti-bacterial coating, HEPA filtration and design features like a water-absorbing ceramic backsplash. Also, specifically regarding the no-contact element, touchless hand dryers offer the same hygienic benefit as touchless closed-dispensing paper towel systems.

Each building owner or manager needs to weigh the pros and cons associated with the environmental impact and hygienic efficacy of hand dryers and paper towels, and balance their conclusions with other cost, efficiency and user experience factors to determine which method is the best fit.

(image courtesy of youtube.com_user_AsapSCIENCE)