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Dryer or paper towels – but which is better?

14 December 2011

Life Cycle Assessment of Hand Drying Systems Results

A Massachusetts-based research university study has proven that the Airblade hand dryer is the most sustainable way to completely dry hands. Paper towels and warm air hand dryers have the highest environmental toll according to this comprehensive lifecycle analysis (LCA), generating 70% or more carbon emissions than the Airblade hand dryer, that is made by Dyson.

People perceive recycled paper towels to always be better for the environment. However, the report’s researchers found that the environmental impact of recycled towels equals that of virgin paper towels in a number of environmental measures, including CO2 emissions and water consumption. Recycled and virgin towels both generate over three times more carbon emissions than the Airblade hand dryer – creating waste, consuming more energy and using more water.

If every UK citizen visited the bathroom just once a day for a year and used two paper towels each time, there would be enough paper waste to cover the entire surface of London. Yet, paper towels are still the most widely used in public restrooms. Waste accounts for only a fraction of recycled paper’s carbon footprint: 65% is created during manufacturing due to the energy, chemicals and water used. Rather than innovate, paper towel manufacturers spend millions opposing stricter environmental rules related to paper manufacturing.

Unlike paper towels – the most resource intensive hand drying method – the environmental impact of warm air hand dryers (and most home appliances) occurs during use. Heating elements and inefficient motors tip the sustainability scales, making warm air dryers up to 80% less energy efficient than the Airblade hand dryer.

The university used a scientific method known as "life cycle assessment" (LCA) to measure the overall environmental impact of seven hand drying systems including cotton towels, virgin and recycled paper towels and hand dryers – both conventional warm air and high speed dryers. Researchers considered all life cycle stages from manufacturing to end of life and calculated findings based on the system’s impact on CO2 emissions, ecosystem quality, land and water use, human health and resource intensity.

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