Why My Pants Were Damp Yesterday

While visiting Notre Dame this week I encountered bathrooms that had gone green. That is, they had signs that instructed me (while still giving me the option) that using an electric hand dryer was environmentally positive, while using paper towels was environmentally insensitive. Why, I wondered, was something that required electricity more eco-friendly than a piece of paper that could be recycled? Confused, I wiped my hands on my pants. Later, I received a little help for my dilemma and embarrassment from an article at Slate:

Calculating the impact of electric dryers is easy enough. A fair amount of energy goes into manufacturing metal goods with mechanical parts. But the fact that dryers last so long—typically between seven and 10 years—means that production accounts for a negligible part of the hardware’s total energy consumption. The vast majority of a dryer’s environmental toll stems from the electricity it requires; a typical warm-air dryer uses around 2,200 watts of power when switched on, plus about 2 watts while in standby mode. If you dry your hands for 30 seconds (as opposed to the 43 seconds required to get them fully water-free), then you’re using about 0.018 kilowatt-hours of electricity. Do that three times a day for a year, and your insistence on dry-hand decorum has run you 19.71 kWh of electricity, which translates into roughly 26.61 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.

There are several variables that can complicate the hand-dryer equation. The first is the emergence of a new generation of dryers, such as the XLerator and the Dyson Airblade, that claim to be at least 80 percent more efficient than their forerunners (due in part to much shorter drying times). You also need to consider how your local power grid generates its electricity—the more coal that is used, the more carbon a dryer will generate per kilowatt-hour. (As always, you can check out your grid’s fuel mix by using the Environmental Protection Agency’s Power Profiler tool.)

These complications, however, pale in comparison with those that bedevil the life-cycle assessment of paper towels. The main problem here is that there’s so much variation in how rolls are produced, starting with how the trees are harvested. The vast majority of American paper towels begin life in well-managed commercial timberlands, where trees are replaced after harvest, so deforestation isn’t a pressing issue. But one must account for the fossil fuels expended on machinery and log transport. Then there is the energy-intensiveness of the pulping process, which can result in the emission of harmful pollutants into nearby waterways. One must also consider the cost of trucking the towels from manufacturer to client, a data point that will vary widely according to the restroom’s distance from the paper mill. (Yes, dryers must be transported in this manner, too, but far less frequently, given how long each one lasts.)

The problem here is the experience of anyone who uses public restroom — the technology of hand-washing and hand-drying never abides for more than 18 months. I have long wondered, after seeing soap dispensers and paper towel holders and electric dryers come and go, how often the salesmen for these items visit bar and restaurant owners to push a new line of advanced products. We have long had a crisis in hand-drying and no one, not even the neo-Calvinists, seem to care!

Maybe the best option is for all of us to imitate professional golfers and carry around our own personal hand towel.

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33 thoughts on “Why My Pants Were Damp Yesterday

  1. I have long wondered, after seeing soap dispensers and paper towel holders and electric dryers come and go, how often the salesmen for these items visit bar and restaurant owners to push a new line of advanced products.

    DGH– Who cares about towels & blowers. See stepnpull.com and wizmark.com

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  2. What I hate about those air dryers is their deafening roar — an inhumane thing. You can’t blow your nose on one either. Environmentalism, like transformationalism, is a moving target with constantly changing standards and techniques. Bahhhh.

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  3. It’s called, Purell. Everything else is cross contamination and futile by the time you’ve handled the faucet or the door handle.

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  4. C-dubs, agreed on the colors (but quit hating on metros). All restroom apparati should be white. But without handwashing we’d still be in our sins.

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  5. Clearly the dryer is the friendliest to the environment. We hate the sound, we hate the chapped hands, we hate the time it takes and we sure aren’t going to wait in line to use it. Plus, many of us have seen body areas being dried that were unintended by the manufacturer and inconsistent with ANSI standards.

    So, really, it’s not being used. If I’m wearing blue jeans I first wipe lightly on the thighs and then do a finish swipe on the buttocks. If’ I’m wearing lighter colors or less absorbent material the water residue ends up entirely on my backside where I won’t see it.

    Have you scene the instructions on hand dryers scratched out and replaced with “4. Wipe hands on pants”? Yeah, that vandalism is my handiwork.

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  6. We may be missing the point here, folks. Bathroom habits, being important and all, it’s the professional golfer imitations, and what that might mean for every man, woman, and child, that I want to see explored in more comboxxes and blog posts. Let me see about writing a blog post, right after I sink this 15 foot putt (the greens seem a bit fast today..).

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  7. Zrim, that’s right, I forgot that soap was magic. Eight people in your family and everyone shares one bar of soap. It’s all good.

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  8. Sean, 8 people? What are you, Catholic (or a Reformed home schooler)? But I hear you. Ever hear of liquid dispensed soap?

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  9. I parked next to some salesman-gold chain guy at the liquor store the other day, and in his cupholder was a huge bottle of pump hand sanitizer. Not too manly. Probably had a box of Kleenex, too.

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  10. Zrim, that must be down the metrosexxy aisle. I’ll ask the wife.

    As far as the other;

    Every _____ is sacred
    Every _____ is great
    Every _____ that’s wasted, makes god quite irate

    Not sure why I’m being PG safe this morning, but there you go. I blame the OWN channel.

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  11. I use the dryer to dry my hands and the paper towels to turn off the water and grasp the door handle. That way I please nobody but myself.

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  12. You can’t use a blower to open the bathroom door that has been used by those who don’t wash their hands at all. Viva La Paper Towels!!!!!

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  13. MM,

    I am partial to the “Press Button, Receive Bacon” vandalism on blow dryers that have the red lines to illustrate hot air.

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  14. Step One: Turn On Sink
    Step Two: Dispense Paper Towel
    Step Three: Wash Hands
    Step Four: Use Dispensed Paper Towel To Turn Off Faucet
    Step Five: Throw Away Towel, Dispense Another Towel
    Step Six: Dry Hands
    Step Seven: Throw Away Towel, Dispense Another Towel
    Step Eight: Use Towel To Grab Bathroom Door Handle
    Step Nine: Throw Away Towel At The Nearest Trash Can

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  15. The Dyson Airblade really works well, though. (No, I’m not being paid to hawk their product, though if they’d like, I’d be happy to be.) That’s the one that you put your hands into, and move in and out, past a plain of moving air; it squeegees the water off your hands, and they really do get dry, if you do it twice; far better than any other hot-air dryer I’ve ever experienced.

    Mind you, a paper towel still works equally well, and quicker.

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  16. Here in Santa Barbara and other CA cities they are outlawing plastic bags at grocery stores for so-called environmental reasons. As a response people save plastic bags from other stores or buy boxes of plastic bags now offered on the shelves and the stores offer paper bags if you don’t bring your own.

    I remember when they started using cardboard containers at fast food places to keep from using the “toxic” Styrofoam ones. Now at some places cardboard containers are out and, in order to save the trees which are a replenishable plants, the Styrofoam is back. And the reusable bags offered by such food stores as Trader Joe’s have been now fingered as a source of disease due to the bacteria build up that occurs inside the bag from organic food residue.

    Progress…

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  17. o categories (wordpress tags) for golf at OL?

    That’s OK. It is a topic that kind of runs throughout, or is transcendent, if you will.

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