Hand dryer efficiency and cost blows away paper towels

Alex Greenlee | The Free Press

Posted on April 29, 2013 in Perspectives, Sustainability and ME
By USM Free Press

Written by Shaun Carland

If you’ve spent time in an academic building’s bathroom over the course of the semester, you may have noticed that paper towel dispensers are disappearing and hand dryers are popping up, especially on the Portland campus. This is in due to an initiative by the Office of Sustainability to reduce external costs and work towards achieving carbon neutrality by 2040, as outlined in the Carbon Action Plan.

The transition to air dryers is a response to the forecast of budget cuts in the near future. Making the switch over to hand dryers has significant financial benefits. While each hand dryer costs $243.00, it only takes $36.20 for annual operation. Paper towel dispensers, on the other hand, have a low startup cost. The price to set up a new dispenser is $25.00. However, the operating cost of paper towel dispensers is much higher than hand dryers. It’s not just the cost of extra paper towels that racks up the bills – it’s paying for staff to refill dispensers and manage the thrown away towels. Restrooms at USM with paper towels tend to be messier, resulting in more resources wasted in cleaning them up. The annual cost for paper towels in 2012 was approximately $72,000.

The Harvard University Office of Sustainability in 2009 assessed the total environmental impact associated with hand dryers and paper towels. The experiment calculated the total net cost to manufacture, transport, use and dispose of paper towels and hand dryers. The assessment concluded that hand dryers used less natural and financial resources than paper towels. Because most American paper towel rolls come from well-managed commercial timberlands, where trees are replaced after harvest, the main environmental problem of paper towels isn’t deforestation. Rather, it is the greenhouse gasses released from factory machinery and log transport during manufacturing. The energy intensity in pulping, the process of turning raw timber into material, can also result in contaminated water around a processing plant.

The Office of Sustainability recognizes the uncertainties and concerns of the USM community and is dedicated to creating a campus that is friendly to the environment and convenient for those who work, study and live there. Noisy machines, one possible problem, are already being addressed. A survey of bathrooms was conducted in the fall 2012 semester that identified bathrooms where noise concerns may be present (e.g. next to an office or classroom). If you have any questions or concerns, you may e-mail ssweeney@usm.maine.edu, the resource recovery supervisor. And remember, every paper towel saved is one more step closer to achieving a sustainable campus.

Shaun Carland is a math major and a student employee with the Office of Sustainability. Shaun is also the president of Students for Environmental Awareness and Sustainability (SEAS).