Dear Dot: Air Dry or Paper Towels?



Dear Dot,

If I'm in a public bathroom and I have a choice between paper towels and an electric hand dryer, which should I choose? I imagine it depends a lot on whether those towels are compostable (and actually get composted), and from where the electricity for the hand dryer is sourced … but are there some clues I can look for?


Dear Kelly,

Dot delights in questions from readers and will endeavor to answer yours. But I can hear the angst in your voice — the fear of potentially making a “wrong” choice — and so I would also like to take this opportunity to remind you and all of Dot’s readers not to sweat the small stuff. 

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Yes, Bluedot has built a business around helping you make changes in your home and your community, while also showcasing the changes others are making — and all of that matters because a whole bunch of drops in a bucket help fill a bucket, and because, well, it feels good to be part of the solution. But as our climate crisis intensifies, the changes we need must be systemic. As author and climate activist Paul Hawken put it, we have to “reimagine everything we make and do” — how we deliver electricity to people; how we grow and distribute our food; how we move ourselves around; and so on. As you yourself point out, Kelly, our choices are so often complicated by things over which we have little control. Where a company sources its paper, for instance. How it sources its electricity. 

But I suspect that a show of hands would reveal that many of us have wondered at this same conundrum: You emerge from the bathroom stall, you scrub your hands clean, and then you are faced with both a dryer and a supply of paper towels. Which to choose?

But wait! What sort of hand dryer is it? Is it one of the newer, fast-drying Dyson or Xlerator wall machines? Both claim to dry hands in about ten seconds — roughly half the time the older machines required. Both claim to be more hygienic than paper towels. Both claim to cause far less in the way of carbon emissions than even recycled paper towels — eighty-eight percent less, says Dyson; seventy-five percent less, says Xlerator. And both claim to use much less energy to dry hands than recycled paper towels, when you account for the energy required to produce and transport the towels. Is this a straightforward case of the reusable item being preferable to the disposable one, even when the disposable one is made of recycled materials? 

Don’t take Dot’s word for it. The smart kids in Stanford’s Earth Systems program already considered this question, and the new faster dryers won hands down, even when compared with recycled paper towels that are composted after use. However, “if your only options are an older air dryer or paper towels, using a single paper towel is marginally better than an older dryer,” they determined. Marginally. Put another way, Kelly, don’t sweat the small stuff. 

In a win for all of us lazy, slovenly folks, the absolutely most energy-efficient option is the one that Dot uses. If it’s hot outside, after giving my hands a good shake, I run my damp digits up my arms and around my neck, which mimics the cooling effect of sweating (but is less smelly). Otherwise, a swipe over my pants does the job. 



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