Paper or Air?

January 28, 2012

“Paper or plastic?” For a very long time it seemed liked the eternal supermarket question. Certainly, though, for quite a long time it was also pretty clear that while both products were potentially recyclable, it was paper that was by far the least harmful to the environment As a result, an increasing number of jurisdictions, including nearly all of the largest cities in California, including San Francisco, San Jose, Long Beach, Manhattan Beach, Marin County, and the giant-sized county of Los Angeles, have outlawed plastic. (They are also, of course, trying to encourage more consumers to take advantage of reusable cloth bags, which everyone agrees is much better than either, environmentally speaking.)

Paper or plastic Paper or Air?

Now, a similar green question has arisen in regards to public bathroom facilities: “paper or hand dryers?” It is true that the old fashioned hand dryers we have all seen in public restrooms had the advantage of not using paper, thus saving carbon dioxide-fighting trees and increasingly precious landfill space. On the other, er, hand, they did use a great deal of carbon producing electricity, and sometimes in a fairly wasteful manner.

Users would punch a button, dry their hands for 20 seconds (assuming they even had the patience) and the dryer would keep on blowing hot air for another twenty. Environmentally it all seemed — wait for it — a bit of a wash. Also, there was the small matter of time. Paper towels just seemed to be a whole lot quicker, and us human beings are forever in a big hurry.

The good news is that today’s hand dryers are far more efficient and greener than their ancient ancestors that we all knew from movie theaters, sports stadiums, and amusement parks. Such leading edge products as the Dyson Airblade save energy by shooting cool, unheated but very powerful air through a tiny gap that can dry hands in as little as twelve short seconds. This particular product also deals with (in our opinion, greatly overblown) concerns about germs by incorporating a HEPA filter into the design of hand dryers, eliminating nearly all airborne bacteria. It really does seem to us like the answer to the “paper or air” question is now “air,” hands down.

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