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Carbon Footprint/Life Cycle Analysis of Paper Towels vs. Hand Dryers

Posted on 11/27/2013 in Dryers

In our last post, we used the best available sources to estimate the dollar and weight volume of the U.S.  commercial paper towel market, which we estimated at around $2.486  B and 710,000 tonnes per year.  Today, we are going to try to put the environmental impact of all of these towels into context using carbon footprint.

Carbon footprint is a concept that is becoming the prevalent measurement of the environmental impact of competing products or ways of achieving the same results.  For example, how to you compare making electricity from coal with hydro-electricity?  To make these types of comparisons, experts and scientists have created a system to measure the overall impact on the environment in terms of the total amount of greenhouse gases the overall product or process generates.   Hydro-electricity has a low carbon footprint because it does not create emissions at all, where as burning coal emits lots of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that contribute to global warming.  In addition, coal requires delivery from mines to power plants, and those vehicles also emit greenhouse gases.

Carbon footprint is measured in grams of CO2.   The coal vs. hydro electricity is a relatively easy calculation, as they are relatively similar processes - both make a measurable amount of electricity and use a measurable amount of resources.  In the case of paper towels vs. hand dryers, it’s tricky.   To make these trickier calculations, scientists use something called Lifecycle Analysis, or LCA, where they look at the overall lifecycle of the product from cradle to in-use to end-of-life.  For paper towels, they have to measure the resources used to manufacture paper, the pollutants from the manufacturing process, the packaging and delivery to the end user, and the disposal.  For hand dryers, they have to measure the resources to manufacture hand dryers, the packaging and delivery, the electricity to use them, and the disposal at end of life.

There have been many attempts at making this comparison, but the most reputable and detailed analysis was performed by the Materials Systems Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  They used the ISO standards 14040 and 14044, which are the accepted scientific methodologies for measuring LCA carbon footprint (see this link for a detailed discussion of these ISO standards).   I will preface this discussion with a caveat that this study was sponsored by Dyson.  However, MIT is about as reputable institution as we can think of.

According to the study, paper towels had the equivalent of 15.5 grams of CO2 for each dry (it assumed 2 towels per dry – so that each towel was 7.75 grams).  You can view the entire study here.  It is very detailed but very interesting.  For example, almost all of the carbon generated by hand dryers comes from the use of electricity during use.  For paper towels, most of the carbon generated is from the manufacturing process, but transportation and raw materials were also significant.  Most interesting is the result that shows that paper towels made with recycled paper content have nearly the same overall carbon footprint as paper towels made with virgin wood pulp!

Globally, the standard unit of carbon footprint equivalent is the MtCO2e or Metric Tonne Carbon Dioxide Equivalent.  So, we calculated last time that the U.S. market uses approximately 355.14 trillion paper towels per year.  If each towel has a carbon footprint of 7.75 grams, then the impact of paper towels is 2,752 trillion grams, or 2.752 M tonnes of CO2 equivalent.  In other words, each paper towel weighing only 2 grams contributes 7.75 grams of CO2!!  The waste from the resources, manufacture, packaging, transportation, and waste creates more greenhouse gases by weight than the paper itself by almost 4 times!!

Again, if you are still reading this, think about it.  You don’t need to get rid of paper, just let NetDryers help you create a sound strategy to reduce your paper usage by strategically using paper towels.  We are here to assist you in this journey without experiencing any customer complaints!