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Sustainability and LEED

For many, saving money is only part of the reason that they install hand dryers.  Another big reason is the increasing desire for many organizations to “go green.” So how do hand dryers contribute to sustainability and can they help you achieve LEED certification?

I always chuckle a little bit when I visit sustainability conferences, and the biggest booth is the paper companies showing off their latest ideas to “reduce paper usage.”  It’s a little like the tobacco companies saying you should “smoke low tar cigarettes.”  Those annoying dispensers where you wave your hand across a sensor to get a 2 inch bit of paper are sold to customers as a way to limit the amount of paper people use (and to make a lot of money selling the special paper that goes in them!).

Paper towels are considered a “tissue” product.  Tissue products can be made from recycled content, but tissue can not be recycled.  So, once paper towels are used, they are either landfill or compost.  But once they are in plastic garbage bags, those bags decompose over hundreds of years.  So, most of the time, paper towels contribute massively to our landfill problems.

Manufacturing paper towels, whether using recycled content or not, is not a very nice process for the environment (have you ever seen what happens to a river with paper plants on it?)  It is a very water, energy, and chemical intensive process.  And finally, how do you think paper gets from the plant to the customer to the landfill?  Big diesel trucks.  Think of all of those trucks delivering (and taking away) all that paper towels mass to every bathroom in the world.  Don’t believe me that paper isn’t perfect for the environment?  Check this link out.

By contrast, while making electricity is by no means perfect from a sustainability perspective, the amount of electricity hand dryers use is so small that, from any study that has been conducted, hand dryers (even the ones that are not so efficient) are a better option than paper.  Even when you include manufacturing and delivering the dryers, the carbon footprint is significantly less than paper.  The method to evaluate the sustainability qualities of competing yet different products (paper towels and hand dryers) is called Life Cycle Analysis.  When performed with the right diligence and science, you can compare the full life of the product, from manufacture to transportation, to use, to disposal.  The measurement scientists use is called the carbon footprint of a product.  And while the paper companies object to these studies, it appears (and it’s intuitive) that hand dryers (especially the very efficient ones) win over paper.  Here are two such studies provided to us by Dyson and Excel.

LEED is the US Green Building Council (USGBC) designation for buildings that apply for certification that they are indeed using products and doing things that contribute to a high level of sustainability (i.e. they reduce water and energy and waste).  Most hand dryer companies and paper companies are both members of USGBC, and they use the USGBC logo to show that they are participating with the Green movement.  But the question I always get asked is “Do hand dryers give you LEED points?”  Or else I get, “Is that hand dryer LEED-certified?”

First of all, USGBC does not “certify” products, so no specific product (or hand dryer) can claim to be “LEED certified.”  USGBC can recommend certain things that help a building become more sustainable (and reducing waste is definitely more sustainable).  And yes, MANY buildings that are LEED certified installed hand dryers to help get their rating.  But only some buildings go through the rigorous process to get LEED certified.  It’s expensive and time consuming and you really need to hire a LEED consultant, who produces a huge document on the building and submits it to the local USGBC chapter for assessment.  The assessment is not always straightforward, as any assessment that uses human judgement can be.  It’s like watching figure skating or gymnastics at the olympics.  You can kind of tell who did well, but it’s all up to the judges!  If you eliminate paper in a building, I’m quite certain that this contributes to LEED points in the point system.  But it’s really all about the presentation and the way they are used in the building.

In general, hand dryers can help you obtain LEED points in the following categories:

Energy & Atmosphere
- Minimum Energy Performance (EA Prerequisite 2)
- Optimize Energy Performance (EA Credit 1)

Materials & Resources
- Materials & Resources (MR Prerequisite 1 & 2)
- Sustainable Purchasing: Ongoing Consumables (MR Credits 1.1 – 1.3)
- Solid Waste Management: Ongoing Consumables (MR Credits 7.1 – 7.2)

Hand dryers are more likely to help you get LEED credits if they are low energy.  So, if you are also interested in assessing which hand dryers are the most environmentally friendly, the 2 key assumptions to make are 1) low energy is better (and you can assess energy by the combination of watts used by the unit and the dry time) and 2) covers made from plastics/ABS/Polycarbonate materials are more sustainable than those made from metal materials.

Yes, hand dryers are a great way to contribute to your sustainability projects and they will save you money right away.  But don’t get too caught up in the LEED debate.  If you are working for certification, use your consulting expert to help you make the assessment.