We need hand dryers, not paper towels

Neelesh Rathi

“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg shouldn’t have had to make this demand at the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit last month.

But she did have to, because that’s where humanity is now: the beginning of the end. Only drastic, collective action can prevent complete environmental annihilation.

What I’m suggesting here is collective — it would require pressure and patience from students, and time and effort from the administration — but it’s far less than drastic.

UT should replace all the hand-drying appliances in campus buildings with high-speed, cool-air hand dryers.

Sally Moore, associate director of facilities services, and resource recovery manager Robert Moddrell, said in an email that UT Facilities Services’ Zero Waste Program seeks to transition all campus buildings to paper towels disposed via compost. While the program’s goal of reaching zero waste is certainly necessary, it’s not enough, and it’s not the best option, either.

“When considering installation of appliances in buildings, several factors are considered including scope of the project, hygiene, environmental impact, cost effectiveness, reliability, upkeep and infrastructure requirements,” Moore and Moddrell said in an email. 

Let’s take these one at a time.

In terms of environmental impact, high-speed, cool air hand dryers are the greenest option, even compared to recycled paper towels disposed via compost. A landmark MIT Life Cycle Assessment looked at the overall environmental impact of the entire life cycles — from production to use to disposal — of several different methods of hand drying. These included paper towels, hot-air hand dryers, and high-speed, cool- air hand dryers. Of all the options surveyed, Dyson Airblade plastic hand dryers were deemed the most eco friendly, largely because of one major factor — production.

UT’s Sustainability Master Plan aims to reach zero waste by 2020, but this isn’t enough because the plan fails to address the other parts of the life cycle of paper towels — particularly production, the most environmentally impactful stage — and also entirely fails to address the hot-air hand dryers on campus. The life cycle of hand drying includes more than waste, and those other stages are responsible for the vast majority of the environmental impact.

According to the study, Dyson Airblades are also more eco-friendly because they are long-lasting and require little upkeep.

As for cost effectiveness, switching just 10 restrooms from paper towel dispensers to Dyson Airblades would pay for itself after about 3.1 years and would then proceed to save UT at least $10,000 annually.  Regarding the scope of the project, Moore and Moddrell said there are more than 1,700 restrooms in education and general-use buildings. While this means the payback period and subsequent profit would likely take longer to manifest, it also highlights the need to make this transition now.

As for hygiene, the research on hand-drying hygiene is conflicted, but even pro-paper towel studies acknowledge that the difference only matters in places that require extremely clean environments, such as hospitals — not college campuses. Dyson Airblades are even allowed in commercial food-preparation areas. Moreover, most reliable sources have argued that thoroughly washing and fully drying your hands is much more important than how you dry them.

I can’t speak to the infrastructure requirements, but the fact that other universities have initiated this transition shows it’s not impossible.

Mundane aspects of our lives and society are fundamentally unsustainable. Our government is working, as it has for years, to worsen this crisis that our rapacious capitalism began. We have razed our home and doomed tens of millions of human beings to climate refugeeism by ignoring that reality, and yet we’re still making it worse every day — with every paper towel we use, every second we use a hot-air dryer and much more.

Changing how we dry our hands is a small start to a wide-reaching, systemic societal change that was beyond necessary years ago.

Neelesh Rathi is a Black studies senior from Austin.