by: Courtney Remacle

You may have noticed a lot of places switching to hand dryers instead of paper towels in their restrooms lately, or at least having both options available, maybe with a sign encouraging you to go green or help save trees and use the hand dryer. While I’m all for saving trees and using fewer paper products, I never really thought of generating electricity as a particularly green or sustainable activity, especially since I live within a mile from a power plant and its associated Superfund site.

hand dryers vs paper towels

To figure out which method of hand drying gets the green star, I did a little digging. This article outlines thorough calculations for the carbon emissions of both methods. Including production, 0.123 pounds of carbon emissions are produced per session of paper towel usage (assuming you use two paper towels), and 0.02-0.088 pounds of carbon emissions are produced per session of hand dryer usage (the variability is due to the drying time and wattage of each hand dryer).

Of course, calculating the carbon emissions for both paper towels and hand dryers have their limitations. In the case of paper towels, the source of the material and whether or not they’re made from recycled material will have an impact its net carbon emissions, as the shipping and transportation necessary to keep paper towels stocked. Hand dryers have shipping and materials costs as well, but since a hand dryer lasts an average of 7-10 years these are far less than for paper towels. However, the overall carbon emissions of hand dryers will vary greatly by model, wattage, and the source of energy for your local power grid (which you can find here!).

The verdict? Hand dryers will be the better choice about 95% of the time, though the difference might end up being pretty minimal. Of course, you can avoid the whole debate altogether by carrying around your own towel or handkerchief to dry your hands with and throw it in the wash when you do your laundry (cold water and line-dried, of course!). Carrying and using your own towel might end up being your most sustainable option.