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Published on March 27th, 2008 | by Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

12

Paper or Hot Air? Bring Your Own Hand Towel

greenhand.jpgEditor’s note: No, not paper or plastic… we’ve been there. David Shaw takes a look at the environmental impact of hand-washing, and finds there’s a better way… even better than “Press button. Rub hands under warm air. Wipe hands on pants.” David originally published this post to Professor Simran Sethi’s Media and the Environment course blog on Wednesday, March 5, 2008.

I drink at least a liter of water a day, which means I end up using the restroom at least five times a day. In the bathroom at work, we have the fairly standard stack of single sheet paper towels that you pull from the holder one at a time (although sometimes a clump comes out, if they’re packed too tightly). It takes two paper towels to dry my hands thoroughly.

So, on a daily basis I use at least 10 paper towels, or 50 paper towels a week, or 200 paper towels a month, or 2,400 paper towels a year! That is a lot of paper. But, I have to wash my hands and I have to dry them. Yet, every time I grab the paper towels, I feel a tinge of guilt. So, I started trying to find ways to conserve paper towels.

First, I decided to cut down to just one paper towel. Yeah, my hands were still a little damp when I left the restroom, but they air dried within a minute or two. Still, with one paper towel per hand washing, I was using at least 1,200 paper towels a year. Not good enough.

Hand Towels… The Greenest Option

This has been bugging me for a while. Finally, one day I had an epiphany. If I were to use one of those quick drying microfiber towels that hikers and campers use, I could just keep that in my pocket and use it to dry my hands anywhere I go. AND they are made with some sort of anti-microbial/germ fighting thing that helps prevent them from getting getting germy and stinky.

I know that it takes more resources and energy to make one quick-dry towel than it takes to make one paper towel, but I’m not so sure the same holds true vs. 2,400 paper towels – especially when you consider the paper towels are virgin paper. My guess is I can get at least a couple years use out of the microfiber towel. Weighing that against nearly 5,000 paper towels I might use over two years, and it’s a no-brainer — microfiber towel wins!

So, I am going to start pushing a new mantra that’s similar to the bring your own shopping bag slogan that is starting to catch on. Bring your own hand towel. If you are wondering whether using a paper towel or a hot air hand dryer is the better choice, the best choice is neither — bring your own hand towel!

I was at a sporting goods store with my wife’s parents over the weekend and I found a small microfiber hand towel that even comes in its own cute little nylon pouch. I bought one as a gift for my wife’s birthday in May and I asked her to get me one for mine, which is later this month.

I will reduce my carbon footprint even more with this little towel. And I’ll save some trees, too!

Turns out there’s a company based on this concept: People Towels. And, of course, we’ve got numerous organic hand towels listed in our product comparison engine.



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About the Author

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg is the founder and editor of sustainablog. You can keep up with all of his writing at Facebook, and at



  • Mike Weston

    I’m currently doing the one towel thing, but you’re right.

    I have a friend who carries a handkerchief to avoid the waste of kleenex. I’m not there yet, but I’ve ended up following him on many of these issues, so I probably will eventually.

  • http://gas2.org Clayton

    This is great! The same thing has bugged me for years: I worked at a university for the last 2 years, and every day before getting some exercise I would marvel at the overflowing 100 gallon trashcan in the lockerroom that was filled with nothing but paper towels! Every day!

    There’s got to be a better use for trees than wiping your hands. I played around with the same thing for a while – attaching a small towel to my backpack and using that instead. I eventually found that I don’t really need anything. If you flick your hands off they tend to dry in about 2 minutes. So drying your hands really isn’t a big deal unless your going to immediately shake someone’s hand.

    Thanks for posting this!

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  • http://sustainablog.org Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    You know, I’ve always found the argument against electric hand dryers (“They don’t dry my hands completely”) a little odd, just for the reasons you all mention… is that really such an inconvenience? Of course, David’s solution renders that moot…

  • http://www.shipgreener.com Justin brown

    It really is an issue in office settings, school and general gathering places. I like what the other poster said “we don’t have anything better to do with our tree than to wiping our clean hands on them”? good post

  • http://ariwriter.blogspot.com Ari

    Towel or not, dryer or not, automatic faucet or not, what irks me are the doors. Most bathroom doors are pulled from the inside, not pushed. And when you consider the number of men and women who don’t wash, or even rinse, their hands after doing their thing, the door handles get greasy and bacteria-heavy.

    So, either you grab a paper towel and use that to open the door, then throw the towel over your shoulder into the trash… or you take your microfiber towel to open the door but that defeats the purpose as your “clean” towel is now laden with other bacteria.

  • pjlioness

    The only problem with this is that there are too many people who don’t wash/use soap after using the restroom (and restrooms don’t always have soap). I like using a paper towel to open the restroom door when I leave. (If it is just a push-open door, I use my foot.) Of course, I could carry two towels – one to wash and one to touch the door, now that I think aboput it. *sigh*

  • http://aguanomics.com/ David Zetland

    Whatever you do, wash your hands (entry on our grubby bodies).

    I find the wipe on pants scenario works well, but you could always use someone else’s towels: Assuming they didn’t snot in them, they are often full of the same wet you have on your hands :)

  • Jill

    I had the exact same idea, and found this site by googling “bring your own towel”, only I thought you could sew a little velcro loop on the towel, so you can attach it to the belt loop of your pants and let it air dry. It could even be a new green fashion statement. Then you could put it in your pocket when it’s dry. But people would still use a paper towel because they don’t want to touch the dirty door or sink handles.

  • http://www.jjsea.com Sfun

    the idea was good. my office is currently practising it (just started on 1st october 2008). each employee has a personal hand towel to use now, not compulsory though ! but hey, it’s a good start…imagine my office has 38 ppl..so at least we have ‘saved’ roughly 66,000 paper towel per year !!!
    everyone should do their part in reducing carbon footprint

  • Mike

    All of you should try this product — http://www.peopletowels.com
    Same idea but specifically designed for this purpose.
    They are great!

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