Hand Dryer or Paper Towels

Whenever visiting a public, I’m always left feeling unsure of which hand drying method is more green: a hand dryer or paper towels. Neither method is particularly environmentally friendly but a debate many of you have probably thought of at one point.

Hand dryers are usually consider to be the more environmentally friendly of the two.  A single machine can last for up to ten years, but you still have to consider the other factors involved.  The device itself is made from a variety of metals, all of which have an environmental impact.  The biggest factor would have to be the energy use. Many traditional hand dryers use over 2000 watts of energy when in use, sometimes for as much as 30 seconds.  With moderate use, that can add up to approximately 7,000 kWh of electricity over its ten year life span.

Just as with the paper towels in your home, those used in public restrooms are just as wasteful.  They cannot be reused or recycled and are often less cost effective that a hand dryer.  Even if the paper towels are made from recycled materials, they still require lots of energy to make and have shipped to the location.  All those paper towels also have to go somewhere, adding to the already massive problem of landfill waste.  One benefit over the hand dryer is that they require no energy to use.

Carbon Emissions

One factor for both methods that needs to be considered is how much carbon emissions are created for the entire lifecycle of the product.

Drying Method Comparison
Photo by McGraw Hill Construction.

As you can see from the above chart, using a standard dryer as compared with non-recycled paper towels emit about the same amount of carbon.  Recycled paper towels do have much less emissions, but still amounts to a considerable amount of carbon emissions.

The Best Option?

Neither option seems great, but I would have to give the edge to hand dryers.  As you can see from the left side of the chart, a high efficient hand dryer like the Excel XLERATOR uses a fraction of the energy that traditional hand dryers use.  This is because they are over 80% more energy efficient as well as much more effective at drying.

The only problem is that many restrooms are not fitted with these advanced hand dryers.  The next best option is to have a person hand towel that you take in the bathroom with you.  This allows you to avoid both methods, while still being able to dry off your hands.

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  1. Quite startling to see how much energy both methods waste. Hopefully we start seeing more and more efficient dryers in use. I personally carry a personal hand towel.

    Till then,


  2. Wow, that is a huge difference. But I’m curious—do you have any sources other than the Excel company itself?

      • Pays to Live Green
      • March 12th, 2010

      I found several other sources that states similar results: old hand dryers and paper products have a similar impact on the environment. Newer hand dryers use much less energy and therefore are much better for the environment. I used that particular chart because of it included not just the actual energy use, but the CO2 generated in all phases of construction of the product.

  3. Hmm that’s very interessting but actually i have a hard time understanding it… wonder what others have to say..

  4. Thanks for this comparison. I have also wondered how efficient hand dryers really are compared to paper towel. Unfortunately we often don’t have a choice which method we use. Most public washrooms are only fitted with one or the other. Still knowing the environmental difference can help establishment owners choose the appropriate method. I wonder what the price difference between all of these options is.

      • Pays to Live Green
      • March 12th, 2010

      I agree, usually have to deal with what is available in the restroom. The other option is to bring your own towel and use that instead.

      In terms of price, the hand drier tends to be cheaper especially the more energy efficient it is. They only require occasional maintenance unlike daily/weekly restocking.

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