The question of whether it is environmentally better to equip washrooms with paper towels or electric dryers seems never to go away, perhaps because we are reminded of it every time we go to a public or commercial washroom. GallonDaily was therefore interested to discover that the Materials Systems Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has actually published a science-based lifecycle analysis on exactly this topic.
More importantly is that this MIT LCA describes some of the data challenges that still plague comparative LCA studies, though the authors of this one are confident in their results because the environmental impact differences between towels and dryers are so significant. GallonDaily refers readers interested in comparative LCA as a tool to this study because of the clear lessons that it provides.
So what is the answer to the paper towels versus electric dryers conundrum? Not surprisingly in environmental conundrums, the answer is none of the above. The study shows that cotton roll towels beat both paper towels and standard electric hand dryers in most environmental aspects, though paper towels, especially paper towels from recycled paper, are not too far behind the cotton roll towel. Standard electric dryers are a little worse from an environmental perspective than recycled paper towels. Interestingly, the latest types of electric hand dryer with a very forceful air blast and known by the brand names Airblade™ and XLERATOR® have significantly lower overall environmental impact than any other hand drying system, including cotton roll towels.
The report Life Cycle Assessment of Hand Drying Systems can be found at http://msl.mit.edu/publications/HandDryingLCA-Report.pdf