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It’s a commonly debated topic and a surprisingly nuanced question – are electric hand dryers or paper towels a better choice for the environment? While it would be useful to have a definitive answer (and many have tried), variations in bathroom traffic, hand dryer models, efficiency, waste management and various other factors means that the question should really be answered on a case-specific basis.

To decide for your own facilities, it’s worth considering the following aspects:

  • Energy rating
    Not all hand dryers are built the same. High speed hand dryers can use significantly less power to dry hands; some eco friendly hand dryers such as Mediclinics are designed to slash energy usage by around 80% over conventional hand dryers, while also providing a quieter and faster drying time. If you do choose hand dryers, then choosing a green hand dryer model can have significant advantages all-round.
  • Bathroom traffic
    It takes energy to manufacture and operate both electric hand dryers and paper towel systems. If you have a bathroom with only a handful of bathroom users every day, then the environmental cost of a manufactured electric hand dryer could outweigh its operating efficiencies. On the other hand, the environmental and financial costs of installing a hand dryer can rapidly justify itself with lower operating requirements in a high traffic bathroom.
  • Bathroom usage
    There’s an environmental cost to both hand dryers and paper towels, so it’s important to choose the option or options that will be used often in your bathroom facilities. After all, there is no benefit to installing any type of system that simply sits there unused. Consider the space, layout and context of your bathroom. Perhaps one paper towel dispenser and one high speed hand dryer would be the perfect choice, so you can provide two options for bathroom visitors while also cutting down on energy usage.
  • Paper composition & waste management
    While paper towels can be partially made from recycled paper, they generally can’t be recycled after use because they’ve been treated to improve the ‘wet-strength’ of the paper. Unfortunately, that means that paper towels typically end up in the landfill. While this may not count for much in a small bathroom, a ten-storey office building can produce over 9 tonnes of paper towel waste per year.
  • How electricity is generated in your area
    It may seem only a small factor, but a hand dryer running on renewable energy will be considered more environmentally friendly than one run on fossil fuels. When considering five or ten years of hand dryer operation, it’s certainly a question worth asking.
  • Life cycle costs
    Ultimately, the more sustainable choice between hand dryers and paper towels should be made based on the entire life cycle of each system, including the sourcing of raw materials, manufacturing, shipping, operation over time and disposal. It’s practically impossible for each facilities manager to calculate the life cycle environmental cost of each option and each model, which is why it’s worth weighing up the above factors into the decision.
Put simply, there is no single answer as to whether hand dryers or paper towels are the better environmental choice for your commercial bathroom. However, with some careful consideration and the right advice in choosing ultra-efficient models, you’ll be likely to make the wisest and greenest choice for your own facilities.