Paper towels vs electric hand-dryers

hand drying

Credit: Jason Nichol

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Constantly re-stocking dispensers with fresh wads of paper towels also takes a significant environment toll, according to The Climate Co2nservancy. It creates emissions through making garbage bags (0.3 g of CO2 per use), transportation (5.3 g per use), paper-waste disposal in landfill (24.7 g per use) and garbage-bag waste (0.2 g per use). In total, there are an additional 30.5 g of CO2 emissions associated with paper towel use.


Paper towels start to take the upper hand again when it comes to manufacture. Paper towels are made from trees, a renewable resource, whereas hand dryers are made from metals and plastic. Ores and oil are not renewable resources.

One way to determine the impact of a material is to look at the embodied energy. This is all the energy consumed from the mining and processing of natural resources to manufacturing, transport and delivery.

For a hand dryer in Melbourne (for example), the embodied energy contained in three kilograms of steel, 1.7 kg of aluminium, 231 g of copper, and 64 g of plastic, plus another kilogram of other materials adds up to 96.4 kWh. If the dryer lasts 10 years in a moderately busy bathroom, then this works out to be 0.004 kWh per use, which is nothing compared to energy use of the dryer.

But the emissions during manufacture are also serious. To make steel, iron ore is burnt with coal. And the mining and manufacture of aluminium is responsible for the emission of powerful greenhouse gases called perfluorcarbons.

But pulp and paper manufacture have serious environmental impacts as well, such as the creation of chemical pollutants. Sulphur compounds, dioxins and organochlorines are just three of the nasty by-products.

Organochlorines and sulphur can be persistent, toxic and accumulate in the environment while dioxins cause cancer.

Water use and deforestation are also big issues. The estimated annual water use of the proposed Gunns pulp mill in Tasmania is 26 billion litres. Deforestation is estimated to create 58.9 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in Australia per year, or the equivalent of driving 14.4 million cars for a year.


In reality, neither option is good for the environment. If possible, use the excess water to fix up your hair or let your hands dry naturally. Otherwise, electric hand dryers have a slight advantage because they can run on green power and they are recycled.

There is also more hope for greener hand dryers in the future. Over the last 60 years or so the technology of electric hand dryers had not changed. But recent developments from vacuum manufacturer Dyson include taking the heating element out and reducing drying time to 10 seconds instead of 30 or 40 seconds.

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