OK, Johnny, Now Greenwash Your Hands

Submitted by: Joan MacKenzie 01/08/2012

Dead Tree Edition shows examples of anti-paper greenwashing at highway rest stops and reveals part of its plan to rejuvenate the paper industry.

November 26, 2011

One of the "joys" of traveling long distances on a busy holiday weekend is seeing how highway rest stops try to greenwash their way out of providing paper towels.

Shown here are two examples of hand dryers from my recent travels. The second one, in case you have trouble reading it, says "Save trees, eliminate paper towel waste, and maintain cleaner facilities with World Warm-Air Dryers."

Part of Dead Tree Edition's plan for reviving the paper industry is handing out little stickers saying "Wipe hands on pants". They could be placed under the hand dryer's instructions, right below "Rub hands vigorously under dryer."

Or how about one reading "This dryer powered by coal-fired electricity"?

Somehow, I don't think the state highway department (no, I'm not telling you which one) did a thorough environmental analysis before approving the message on the first example above: "We encourage the use of our high efficiency electric hand dryers as alternatives to disposable paper towels. By doing so, we reduce our carbon footprint and our impact on landfill capacity."

I'm not saying paper towels are more environmentally friendly than electric dryers. But I object to simplistic assumptions that all substitutes for paper are greener than using paper. (Dead Tree Edition has addressed this issue in such previous articles as Google Using Blatant Greenwash To Promote New Catalog App and Smackdown: Printed Editions vs. Digital Editions.)

Whether using an electric dryer has a lower carbon footprint and less impact on forests and landfills than paper towels depends greatly on a variety of variables, such as:

  • The energy sources of the dryer's electricity and of the paper mill. (In North America, coal is the most likely source of the dryer's electricity, while relatively benign energy sources like hydroelectric are fairly common at paper mills.)
  • The forestry practices used to obtain the towels' virgin fiber.
  • The proportion of recycled content in the paper towels.
  • The amount of deforestation caused by obtaining fuel for those power sources, such as via mountaintop removal for coal mining.
  • The energy efficiency of the hand dryer and the paper mill.
  • The proportion of people using hand dryers who end up saying, "Screw it" and finish drying their hands with toilet paper.
  • The carbon footprint of the bathroom's TP.
  • The disposal methods used for the bathroom's waste -- and the power plants' fly ash.