Hand Dryers vs Paper Towels: A Comparison Between the Two

What Are Paper Towels?

Paper towels are absorbent towels made from tissue paper instead of cloth. Unlike their cloth counterparts, paper towels are disposable and are usually only used once. Paper towels soak up water due to their loosely woven fiber structure. This structure allows water to travel between the fibers, even when going against gravity. Paper towels can be individually packed or come in rolls. Paper towels have similar purposes to conventional towels in that they dry hands, wipe windows, and clean up spills. 

History of the Paper Towel

In 1907, the Scott Paper Company introduced paper tissues. They were originally invented to help prevent the spread of colds from cloth towels in restrooms. Some believe that their invention was accidental and was stumbled upon as a solution for a railroad car full of long paper rolls. The rolls were originally meant to be made into toilet paper, but it was deemed unsuitable to be made into toilet paper. In 1919, William E. Corbin began experimenting with paper towels in the Research and Development building of the Brown Company. By 1922, Corbin perfected the product and began mass-producing paper towels at the Cascade Mill. This product was called Nibroc Paper Towels (Corbin spelled backward). In 1931, the Scott Paper Company introduced their paper towel rolls for kitchens and have been the leading brand since.

What Are Hand Dryers?

Hand dryers are electric machines found in public bathrooms and move air to assists in drying hands. They are operated by either the push of a button or automatically using a sensor.

History of the Hand Dryer

R.B. Hibbard, D. J. Watrous, and J.G. Basset of the Airdry Corporation patented the first-hand dryer in 1921. The machine was sold as a built-in model or as a freestanding floor unit. The units consisted of an inverted blower that was controlled by a floor pedal. It was named, "Airdry The Electric Towel", and were used in restrooms, barbershops and factories. 

The hand dryer was later popularized in 1948 by George Clemens. And in 1993, Mitsubishi Electric introduced a new type of hand dryer that pushes water off hands rather than evaporating it.

Pros and Cons of Paper Towels

Pros:

  1. Less Expensive: Paper towel dispensers are less expensive up front than hand dryers. A hand dryer usually costs anywhere between $400 up to $1000. While a paper towel dispenser with auto cut rolls costs under $100.
  2. Quick Dry Time: Paper towels dry your hands fast, and you know when your hands are dry. An economic hand dryer usually takes about 45 seconds to dry your hands.
  3. Kills More Germs: The Mayo Clinic states that paper towels remove more germs compared to hand dryers. Although this may be debated depending on what side of the fence you sit on. But regardless of what you think, this study states that paper towels are just must efficient at removing germs.
  4. Diversity: Paper towels have more diverse roles compared to hand dryers. Many customers use paper towels after using a hand dryer to finish drying their hands. They may even use towels to grab the door handle on the way out, an attempt to avoid more germs.
  5. Easy Installation: Paper towel dispensers simply mount to the wall. No need to pay $100s of dollars to hire a certified electrician to install a hand dryer.

Cons:

  1. Expensive to Maintain: If a business spends $50 per month on paper towels for their washrooms, that’s $600 per year. That is about the same cost as installing a hand dryer.
  2. Messy: Washrooms can also be left in a mess if you don’t have a sufficient place to dispose of used paper towels.
  3. Waste Management: The majority of paper towels are not recycled and they usually end up in landfills. Fortunately, paper towels decompose fairly quickly.
  4. Harvested From Trees: Paper towels are produced by using tree wood and forest products. Just remember, the paper towel you used this morning was once a tree.

Pros and Cons of Hand Dryers

Pros:

  1. No Clutter of Paper Towels - Paper towels can leave a mess on the floors of the restroom and require maintenance to clean up.
  2. Lower Plumbing Costs - Many times customers will try to flush paper towels in the toilet. This attempt usually ends with the toilet becoming clogged and requires a plumber to come out to fix.
  3. Energy Efficient - Hand Dryers today use a lot less energy compared to their predecessors.
  4. Better for the Environment - Hand Dryers do not waste paper or trees, they leave less of a carbon footprint.
  5. Lower Maintenance Cost - Paper towels require refilling when empty, which requires a maintenance person to check on the paper towel levels throughout the day.
  6. Fast - High-Speed Hand Dryers can dry hands in as little as 10 seconds.

Cons:

  1. Malfunction: If a hand dryer were to break down, you’d have to have an electrician to come and fix it. This is expensive and you will have to provide paper towels for your bathroom users as a back-up.
  2. Noise Pollution: Many people, and children, shy away from things that make a loud noise. Babies and toddlers can even be afraid of the loud machines. So if your premises regularly welcomes families or little ones, consider a quieter alternative.
  3. Electrical Expense: Electricity can be expensive in areas, and it can even be produced by carbon-heavy systems. Not the best choice for the environment. So be aware of where your electricity is coming from.

Environment Impact of Paper Towels:

Paper towels might be the perfect metaphor for the wasteful, throw-away society America became in the 20th century. The harm that is done to the environment during their manufacture, and the amount of waste they produce, are considered scandals that are largely unrecognized by those who use them. Today, papers towels have become a major part of daily life for most Americans. More than 13 billion pounds of paper towels are used each year in the USA. That amounts to 40 pounds (80 rolls) per person, per year. That’s roughly one roll every four and a half days for every man, woman, and child alive in the USA. 

Producing that many paper towels requires 110 million trees per year and 130 billion gallons of water. In addition, it requires massive amounts of energy to manufacture and deliver it from the factory to the store. All the while producing and releasing plenty of carbon dioxide to be emitted into the atmosphere. And after a single use, the entire paper towel goes to the landfill, roughly 3,000 tons annually. While sitting and decomposing in the landfill it generates and releases methane. Like carbon dioxide, methane is a greenhouse gas that’s strongly implicated as a cause of climate change.

Attempts to Decrease the Impact of Paper Towels 

Some progressive cities, including San Francisco, are beginning to compost used paper towels. But unfortunately, most cities and towns cannot afford to implement programs like this. And their efforts have no impact on the production and delivery of paper towels. The only practical approach to reducing the environmental impact of paper towels is to use less.

Here are a few ideas of how to decrease your paper towel use and to get the most out of the paper towels you do use:

  1. Just take one towel instead of three or four. After each hand-wipe, shake it out flat to expose more surface area that’s still dry, and use it again.
  2. At home, use reusable cloths in most cleaning tasks. They work better than paper towels, they cost less in the not-so-long run, and they’re better for the environment. 

Environmental Impact of Hand Dryers

Clearly, electric hand dryers also have an impact on the environment that should not be ignored. However, the impact is significantly less than many people think. Based on current hand dryer models, they usually require only 890 watts to dry your hands in just 10 seconds. Current hand dryers are also expected to last at least ten years. Some believe that by using newer hand dryers over older models can decrease the total carbon footprint associated with hand drying by 85%. A major factor for why hand dryers can have such a large environmental impact is due to its one-time installation. Once installed, nothing more is required in terms of transportation. This is extremely eco-friendly when compared to paper towels and their never-ending need to be restocked and resupplied. Additionally, there’s no waste associated with electric hand dryers.

Conclusion

As this article has clearly stated, there are pros and cons to the use of both paper towels and hand dryers. Both have their shortcomings, and both compliment one another in various situations. But regardless of if you are either team paper towel or team hand dryer, you make an impact on the environment. Become aware of your paper towel use and figure out ways that you can reduce the number that you do use. There are plenty of reusable cloth towels that you can use to overcome your paper towel addiction.

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Tyler Farr
 

Tyler is an energetic nature enthusiast who is currently considering moving into a tiny house. Tyler and his wife enjoy hiking, mountain biking, camping, and doing anything in the great outdoors. He hopes that the articles he writes will help others learn how important it is to take care of the environment.

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