Saturday, November 26, 2011

OK, Johnny, Now Greenwash Your Hands

One of the "joys" of traveling long distances on a busy holiday weekend is seeing how highway rest stops try to greenwash their way out of providing paper towels.

Shown here are two examples of hand dryers from my recent travels. The second one, in case you have trouble reading it, says "Save trees, eliminate paper towel waste, and maintain cleaner facilities with World Warm-Air Dryers."

Part of Dead Tree Edition's plan for reviving the paper industry is handing out little stickers saying "Wipe hands on pants". They could be placed under the hand dryer's instructions, right below "Rub hands vigorously under dryer."

Or how about one reading "This dryer powered by coal-fired electricity"?

Somehow, I don't think the state highway department (no, I'm not telling you which one) did a thorough environmental analysis before approving the message on the first example above: "We encourage the use of our high efficiency electric hand dryers as alternatives to disposable paper towels. By doing so, we reduce our carbon footprint and our impact on landfill capacity."

I'm not saying paper towels are more environmentally friendly than electric dryers. But I object to simplistic assumptions that all substitutes for paper are greener than using paper. (Dead Tree Edition has addressed this issue in such previous articles as Google Using Blatant Greenwash To Promote New Catalog App and Smackdown: Printed Editions vs. Digital Editions.)

Whether using an electric dryer has a lower carbon footprint and less impact on forests and landfills than paper towels depends greatly on a variety of variables, such as:
  • The energy sources of the dryer's electricity and of the paper mill. (In North America, coal is the most likely source of the dryer's electricity, while relatively benign energy sources like hydroelectric are fairly common at paper mills.)
  • The forestry practices used to obtain the towels' virgin fiber.
  • The proportion of recycled content in the paper towels.
  • The amount of deforestation caused by obtaining fuel for those power sources, such as via mountaintop removal for coal mining.
  • The energy efficiency of the hand dryer and the paper mill.
  • The proportion of people using hand dryers who end up saying, "Screw it" and finish drying their hands with toilet paper.
  • The carbon footprint of the bathroom's TP.
  • The disposal methods used for the bathroom's waste -- and the power plants' fly ash.
Speaking of not overlooking the environmental impact of electricity generation, I couldn't resist republishing these apocryphal coal-industry advertisements:

Home Solar Power Discounts - One Block Off the Grid


Newsboy said...

That is funny. I was thinking the same thing on my drive along the OH, IN & IL tollways yesterday.... said...

The proponents of electric dryers, particularly the older ones, usually forget that in most circumstances in the US, the energy put into the room by the dryer is subsequently pumped out by the air conditioner, adding significantly to the energy consumption and CO2 footprint.

Papyrus said...

There's an element of truth to this to go along with a healthy portion of humour. Especially with those older machines that are comically ineffective. But lets not get carried away either, or blame everyone for the crude statement used on these old machines by a self-interested company.

I also think that the motorized hand towel dispensers are a foolish use of energy, and undermine the virtuous posture of the paper companies distributing them. Alternatively, the similar design, where you grab the one towel off, and it pulls out the next one, and its all completely mechanical (non-motorized) seems a much better solution. Why do I need it to suck up battery power (or coal), and then dispose of those batteries. Seems that paper companies are pushing these dispensers, which kind of goes the wrong direction if you want to start adding up carbon footprints. Ban the electric paper towel dispenser!

Its also important to note, that while much of the energy in the paper industry is from woodwaste, etc and there's a reasonable discussion to be had, its also inaccurate to suggest that a large amount of paper's energy comes from hydro so its probably/mostly/sorta okay. Only a small portion comes from hydro. And the energy sources probably mirror whats on the grid to a certain extent based on the region of the country, not including the burning of wood which will be greater in the paper production than in the air dryer power.

But, yes, in the real world....I too prefer to use one piece of standard, non-motorized dispenser, hygenic, 100% recycled, paper towel and if I could put it in a compost bin that would be even better!

Coal said...

The investment into alternative power generating technologies such as nuclear energy may need to be measured against the potential cost when things turn against you as unfortunately happened this year in Japan. Coal prices and coal statistics show developing economies are more likely to increase their investment into & their use of coal mining in coming years because of coal's affordability and ability to quickly meet increasing demands for electricity and steel.

Papyrus said...

Here's a link to an LCA from a few years back. I would assume newer models are more efficient.

Anonymous said...

Once you wash your hands and dry them and then go
and grab the doorknob , you have re-infected yourself!
That is pretty common knowledge these days..
So why wash your hands at all.

Making money is what makes the USA work..I just do not
Like lies about what is green. it may be not green at all.

I prefer towels or bring my own. And I never touch that
Doorknob or handle after washing anymore. YUK