We've never been huge fans of the old school hand dryers, but we'd be willing to put our preference for paper towels aside if the blowers were more efficient. However, are they actually more sustainable than drying your hands with paper towels? Paper is made from trees, but those blowers use electricity (which these days we can assume comes from fossil fuels), and although it's not an apples to apples comparison, which one is actually better for the environment? Fingers crossed for paper towels! No such luck, but the sustainable ranking might surprise you!
Wiping vs old school blowing vs new school airblading
We aren't the only ones who wanted to know once and for all what is the most environmentally friendly way to dry your hands in a public restroom. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology completed the first major study to assess this. If MIT is studying it, then it must be important!
The scientists were very thorough and compared many different factors in the life cycle of these hand drying options such as manufacturing, transportation, sources of energy and even the trash bags used. Here are the main takeaways.
The primary factors to consider with paper towels are where they come from and where they're going. Unfortunately, more often than not the answers to those questions are, from trees and to the landfill (where they produce methane gas). Did you know that 2% of landfill volume is taken up by paper towels? Who ever thinks of this? We dry our hands, put the paper towel in the trash, and then it goes away to never be thought of again. Let's not forget about the plastic trash can liners that are also going to the landfill with them.
Warm air dryers are the old school hand dryers that we've seen on the walls of public restrooms for years. The MIT study concluded that the life cycle environmental impact of the warm air hand dryers was actually very similar to that of paper towels. Not awesome news and definitely not what we were led to believe! On the bright side, this means that next time you're faced with choosing between these annoying machines (that don't really work) and a paper towel, you don't have to feel guilty about going with paper.
High speed, cool air hand dryers won the test hands down. These are the new dryers we've been recently seeing more and more of. You slip your hands into the chamber and the rush of air automatically comes out and quickly dries your hands. These new hand dryers use high speed, cool air to dry your hands instead of wasting energy heating up the air and are much more efficient overall. The MIT study concluded that warm air dryers are "up to 80% less energy-efficient" than the Dyson Airblade hand dryer. That's a BIG difference!
Of course you can always go the wipe your hands on your pants route (we may or may not be known to do this especially if we're wearing jeans or casual clothes), but if you have a choice between machine blowing and paper towel wiping, now you know what's actually the more eco-friendly way of drying your hands.
If there's a new, high-speed, cool air dryer then definitely use it. If an old school hand dryer is the only machine available, then take your pick because they're no better than paper towels.
Instagram photo credits:
Paper towels and old hand dryer with colorful background: @handdryers
Dyson airblade with red background: @achimh
Old school hand dryer with blue background: @handdryers