Paper Towels / Dispensers Vs. Hand Dryers

Hand Dryer TED Talk on paper towels or hand dryers

Hand Dryers vs. Paper Towels / Paper Towel Dispensers

You may have seen this TED Talk by Joe Smith floating around the social web. In it, he claims to have the secret to saving 571,230,000 pounds of paper towels (versus the 13 billion overall) per year. His advice is summed up in two words: “shake” and “fold.”

The gist of the lecture is that after you’ve washed your hands, you’re supposed to shake your hands off above the sink twelve times (“the biggest number with one syllable”) and then use one paper towel, which you fold in half first. Smith is an unlikely presenter based on his background of being a lawyer, a member of the Oregon House of Representatives, and an Oregon Attorney General. But he’s apparently quite active in the Oregon community as an advocate for “proper paper towel use.” And if you take five minutes to watch the video, you’ll see that he’s both passionate and knowledgeable on the subject.

Well…maybe not completely knowledgeable.

Smith might have discovered the best technique for drying your hands with a paper towel, but using a paper towel still isn’t better than using a high speed energy efficient electric hand dryer. Third-party studies show that the XLERATOR® electric hand dryer outperformed paper towels for environmental-related concerns over a ten year period. In fact, the study found that the “XLERATOR also reduces the use of non-renewable energy impacts on ecosystems and emissions that damage human health.” Not to mention, the XLERATOR takes less time to dry your hands than Smith’s method.

Not only do paper towels dry your hands less quickly than electric air hand dryers electric hand dryers are way more hygienic too. Electric hand dryers protect against the spread of H1N1. As well, this Life Cycle Assessment shows that electric hand dryers reduce a building’s carbon footprint by 50% to 70% compared to paper towels! That saves a lot of trees! Using paper towels is practically like pillaging mother earth.

If you’re ever in a public washroom that only has paper towels, by all means use Joe Smith’s shake-and-fold technique. But if you have a choice, paper towels vs. hand dryers,  choose the option with no folding required.

Hand Dryer vs. Paper Towel Dispensers

There are many different types of paper towel dispensers ranging, from simple surface mount dispensers to more complex automatic units. These dispensers range in price from just £8.00 to units costing more than £775.00. When outfitting your washroom with the ultimate hand drying solution, it is important to consider not only the upfront cost, but also the long term cost and the environmental impact of your chosen solution.

This post explores the different types of paper towel dispensers and their initial equipment costs.

We also strongly encourage you to review these resources to get a better sense of the actual costs and environmental factors that paper towels present.


Styles of Paper Towel Dispensers

  • Surface mounted paper towel dispensers are just that: mounted on the surface of a wall or other stable, flat surface. By installing a surface mounted commercial paper towel dispenser, you save valuable counter space while providing washroom users a hand drying solution right near the sink. ASI, San Jamer and VonDrehle are just a few of the manufacturers of surface mounted paper towel dispensers.
    surface mount paper towel dispensers
    Average Cost: $10 – $400
  • Automatic paper towel dispensers, or roll towel dispensers, come in a variety of styles. Keep in mind not all roll towel dispensers are automatic, but all automatic paper towel dispensers do have a roll! Sound a little confusing? To operate non automatic roll towel dispensers, you have to grab and pull the paper towel out of the bottom of the dispenser. Automatic dispensers, or sometimes referred to as a free flow paper towel dispenser, yield paper towels when users wave their hands in front of the sensor. These dispensers allow users to obtain paper towels without touching the dispenser. Hands free dispensers are available from a variety of manufacturers such as Merfin, Bobrick, San Jamer and others.


Typically the automatic or free flow paper towel dispensers are available in plastic or stainless steel.

free flow paper towel dispensers
Average Cost: $25 – $350
  • C-Fold and Multifold paper towel dispensers are similar. The “C” in C-fold stands for centre folded paper towels. These paper towels are manufactured to lay one on top of the other. M-fold or multifold paper towels are produced to interlock with one another. These folded paper towel dispensers are available with or without a waste receptacle, are typically recessed into the wall, and commonly available in stainless steel, although some manufacturers produce a plastic version as well.


Some of the waste bins are removable while others are not, and bags need to be changed on the spot. These dispensers can lead to waste as the average person typically pulls out as many as three to four towels for a single use.

C-Fold and Multifold paper towel dispensers
Average Cost: £7 – £775.00
  • ADA compliant paper towel dispensers, one of which is manufactured by Bobrick manufacturers, are available in surface mounted, C-fold or multifold, and touch-free styles.
  • Lever pull paper towel dispensers, or crank paper towel dispensers, are often found in low traffic washrooms and require users to pull a lever or crank to get their desired length of paper towel. Keep in mind lever pull paper towel dispensers are not a hygienic hand drying solution since you have to touch the handle everyone else touches. Like other paper towel dispenser styles, these are available in metal, plastic or stainless steel. These units tend to run out of paper towel quicker than other styles because people normally use more than the intended amount of paper per use.
Lever pull paper towel dispensers
Average Cost: £15.00 – £200.

Summary – Paper Towel Dispenser Selection Considerations

If you are in the market for washroom supplies to keep your customers’ hands dry and clean and are considering paper towels and associated dispensers, there are certainly a lot of options to choose from. Beyond the different towel types and dispenser materials and styles, there remains the cost of the solution.

This post provided a price range for the cost of various styles of paper towel dispensers, but in addition to that initial investment, you have to consider the recurring costs like the cost of paper towels and the labour cost associated with discarding used towels. Walk into a washroom with garbage cans overflowing with used, wet paper towels and the importance of this never ending maintenance is immediately evident. trash full of paper towels

Our research shows that using hand dryers instead of paper towels generates up to a 95% cost savings over paper towels.

We should also consider the environmental impact of using paper towels. Our peer reviewed Life Cycle Assessment shows the dramatic difference in carbon footprint between the different drying solutions. Here’s a sneak preview.

Hand Dryer Carbon Footprint

Energy costs/usage between different hand drying options is an important consideration too. This chart, below, from the Go Green section of our website shows that paper towels/dispensers are anything but green. In the next section you can find out more about this issue.

Ecology and sustainability – Excel Dryers in focus.

If you’re in charge of a building, your perpetual, twofold mission is clear: go green and save green. You make no move without the mission in mind, always on the lookout for opportunities to support it. Have you checked the washrooms? When you think about potential areas for eco friendly improvement, your washrooms may not immediately come to mind. In fact, if you’ve got manual paper towel dispensers, proudly filled (for the moment, anyway) with recycled fibre paper towels, you may reason that your toilet are as green as grass. In terms of the other, traditional green, your thoughts on washrooms may border on resignation: They’re a messy, demanding cause of inevitable expense, and always will be. If your beliefs are along those lines, the facts may blow you away. As confirmed by a peer reviewed (per ISO 14040 standards) Life Cycle Assessment of the high speed, energy efficient XLERATOR® Hand Dryer:

  • Paper towels are not the environmental friend they seem to be. When compared to 100 percent recycled paper towels and traditional hand dryers, XLERATOR reduces the carbon footprint of hand drying by up to 75 percent.
  • Paper towels are the root cause of many washroom expenses. XLERATOR hand dryer provides a 95 percent cost savings versus paper towels, eliminating their associated labour, maintenance, and waste and creating a more hygienic washroom environment.

Hand Dryers Energy Per Use Graph

At first, you might wonder how this can be. After all, side by side, an electrical appliance looks costlier and more power hungry than a roll of recycled paper. And therein, friends lies the deception.

If these towels could talkBathroom Clog Remover AKA Hand Dryer

Though silent and plain to the eye, a paper towel would have quite a tale to tell if it could. When considering washroom paper towel use, it’s important to understand the full journey of this unassumingly brown sheet. Where did it come from? Where will it end up? Typically, a paper towel’s short life cycle looks like this:

  1. Material production: Today, most paper comes from reasonably sustainable sources, either recycled materials or commercially grown forests. However, trees must still be cut (for virgin paper), and recycled materials must be collected, sorted, cleaned and processed.
  2. Transportation: Trucks must carry tons of logs and other raw materials to production sites, deliver cases of the finished product to businesses and regularly carry away the used product (read: trash).
  3. Manufacturing process: All paper is born through mechanical or chemical pulping, then sorted and packaged using any number of materials. Again, though much greener than in decades past, these processes inevitably impact the environment.
  4. Use: Here is where paper towels may seem to earn their green star. They don’t expend much energy on the job, but they’re probably already exhausted from what it took to reach the workplace. And once used, who knows where the towel goes… did that toss even reach the waste bin? Paper towels can make quite a mess of washrooms, littering the floor, blocking sink drains and, for a bonus expense, clogging toilets. Then, after a string of high maintenance situations, the kicker: constant, costly restocking of the culprit.  
  5. End of life: Some take the term recycled to mean recyclable. Unfortunately, they mean very different things. Even a 100 percent recycled paper towel—that is, one made completely from recycled content has no post consumer value. Unless its weave also contains fibres of gold, a used paper towel is destined for one place: the landfill.

As you can see, a paper towel incurs a host of monetary and environmental costs at each phase of life. Unlike a single investment in high efficiency hand dryers, a commitment to stocking paper towels means an endless loop of repetition and expense, from creation through disposal. Longmeadow High School adopted XLERATOR Hand Dryers as part of its sustainability focused, total reconstruction, happily ending the resource sucking cycle for good.  As you ponder new ways to fulfill your green building mission, go ahead and crumple up those long standing myths you’ve heard about the power of paper. Of course, just be conscious of where you toss them.

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