Dear Umbra,

As an environmental science instructor, I’m often asked which is the better choice when drying one’s hands in a public restroom, assuming both options are available: paper towels, with their associated disposal issues, or hand dryers, with their use of electricity, much of which is wasted. What’s the answer?

Curious in Iowa,

Dearest Dawn,

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Patient multitudes have written repeatedly with the insistent query: “Hand Dryer or Paper Towels???” Who can sleep at night while this haunting question goes unresolved? The public restroom has become a place of agony and indecision for many Gristers, and I’m sorry that I’ve let it go on for so long. In celebration of spring, let’s banish the anxiety that wet hands can bring.

But how did she dry her hands?

First, dear environmental science instructor, this question would be a great class project. Students could learn about solid waste, life cycles, and activism through working with your educational institution to measure waste and electrical outputs. That said, let me sketch out what I believe to be the most environmental visit to the public restroom. First, do not choose to use the disposable seat cover. Might as well flush, because if you don’t the next person will. Wet your hands, turn off the water, soap up, and scrub; turn the water back on, rinse, turn off the water. Dry your hands with … the blow dryer. (Yes, the scanty amount of research I could find indicated that hand dryers were better than paper towels, not only in terms of energy costs and solid waste, but in maintenance and janitorial costs as well.) As you exit, turn off the lights, leaving your comrades in the dark. Better to pee in the dark yourself, actually. Practice at home first.

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For the record, all this sarcasm is not only to amuse myself and the two of you who have been amused, but also to remind us all that it doesn’t matter very much whether you use the blow dryer or the paper towel. The impact of how you dry your hands is so small that you’d be far better off spending your time and energy on more important issues, and those where the environmental payoff is clearer — such as converting the lighting in all those public restrooms to energy-efficient light fixtures (or convincing the powers that be to do the converting). If, however, you happen to be the manager of a building with lots of public restrooms, it would be worthwhile to investigate and install the newest, most efficient air dryers.


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