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Why don't sustainability professionals take reducing paper towel usage seriously?

Posted on 4/22/2013 in Hand Dryer Sustainability

The curious debate of paper towels vs hand dryers has been going on for quite some time now, and as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it seems to me to be kind of silly.  The real question sustainability (and facility) professionals should be asking is, “What is a good strategy for my organization to reduce operating costs and improve the carbon footprint in a way acceptable to users.”  The answer to that question in regards hand drying is usually to somehow incorporate hand dryers (not always as a replacement, but often in addition to paper to reduce usage).

What is interesting is that sustainability professionals don’t seem to take this issue very seriously.  In fairness, there are many competing agendas in play for your typical sustainability professional.  Reducing power consumption (especially HVAC) and water usage are important.   Finding ways to make the products that they manufacture (if they are a manufacturer) more friendly to the environment can also be a priority.

Still, after talking to hundreds of people in this field, I’ve found that the main reason that reducing paper waste from restrooms to be low priority is the fact that many of these people just simply prefer paper towels and do not want to offend anyone else by removing them.  It is ironic that recycling office paper is now a nearly ubiquitous procedure, but that reducing paper waste that cannot be recycled is of little or no priority.

I would argue that it should take on a higher priority.  One doesn’t need to eliminate paper towels.  Adopting a strategy that incorporates strategically-placed hand dryers can reduce paper towel usage by 40-90% while still keeping all users happy.

Why should sustainability professionals care?  Paper towel resources, manufacture, packaging, delivery, and disposal are all bad for the environment.   Most sustainability professionals (including those involved in LEED accredited facilities) purchase recycled-content paper towels.  This helps slow deforestation, but changes little in the overall environmental impact caused by paper towels.

Although funded by Dyson, this study done by the M.I.T. Materials Systems Laboratory in 2011 is the most thorough comparison of paper towels and hand dryers from a total carbon footprint perspective, and the study builds on prior studies conducted by both independent sources and studies funded by both paper companies and hand dryer companies.  This report concludes solidly that the carbon footprint generated by paper towels (roughly 16 grams of CO2 equivalent for both recycled-content and regular paper towels per dry which is 2 towels or 8 grams per towel) is 4 times the weight of the towels themselves.  It concludes that the materials, whether recycled content or not, matter little to the environmental issues involved in the manufacture (10 grams) or transportation (2 grams) or end-of-life disposal (1 gram).

This makes such intuitive sense to me.  Obviously, paper needs vehicles to move the raw materials to the plant and move the paper to the distribution centers and customers and then to a landfill.  Paper factories, while they have improved tremendously, still are nasty places from an environmental point of view.  Bleaching techniques used in Europe are considered too expensive in the U. S.  Plants release poisonous dioxins and literally tons of wastewater.  The paper industry is the 3rd largest industrial consumer of energy in the U.S.  Further, the Asian market is buying more and more of the recyclable paper, causing higher paper prices in the U.S.

As tissue products, paper towels can be made of recycled content but cannot be recycled.  Mostly they are landfill, as composting that kind of volume is rarely prudent.  Of the roughly 250M tons of landfill that the U.S. generates into landfill, nearly 29% is paper products.  I estimate that between .7 and 1M tons are commercial paper towels (see this post for an analysis).

So here’s what I don’t understand.  If the environmental impact of paper towels is so clearly evident, and reducing it so easy, why are there so few sustainability professionals getting involved?  The financial savings are tremendous and make for an easy 6-18 month payback.  The carbon footprint impact is also obvious and generous.  I would urge more engagement on this issue.  I enjoy paper towels as much as anyone, but this is an issue that is still well under the radar and deserves more exposure.