by Catherine Breese
A recent discussion in my home about using paper towels in the kitchen evolved into a brief and silly argument. The discussion traveled a bumpy, winding route ultimately arriving exactly nowhere. I assume that is how many discussions about our environmental concerns must go. It’s a sticky mess, trying to be good to the earth and make both logical and ethical decisions about the minutia of living: paper towels, grocery bags, cleaning products, car mileage, home improvement construction materials, bla, bla, bla.
One problem with our debate–we do not know enough about how things are made, nor do we understand the actual environmental impact of the products. (That didn’t stop us from debating, of course.) When I did the research, I discovered more anxiety than answers. In summary:
· Paper towels are convenient and sanitary, but mostly really, really convenient. Who doesn’t love clean, dry hands and no laundry? What else are you going to sop up doggie vomit with?
· They aren’t generally recyclable or compostable (New York Times reports these pilot project exceptions). Paper towel waste is at least some part of the 30% of paper-related waste going directly into landfills. Paper waste takes up valuable landfill space as it decomposes, expiring methane gas and contributing to global warming.
· The production of paper towels uses bleach. A certain bleach called Elemental Chorine is terrible for human health and the environment. Some other bleach called Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) might be less harmful. Either way, a nice bright white color is both the aesthetic ideal for a paper towel and a bad deal for the earth.
· Plenty of energy is involved in the making of a paper towel. Then they are shipped across oceans, or at least across the country to a store near me. Like all things that travel distances to a store, paper towels have a big carbon footprint.
· I almost forgot the biggie–paper towels are made from trees, a lot of them. Yes, trees are renewable. Great! However, humankind is using trees faster than it is replacing them. We need trees as much as we need clean water. In addition to being fun to climb and offering shade, trees absorb carbon dioxide, helping the earth’s atmosphere stay both cool and breathable.
· Cloth towels, at least the good quality ones, last many years, thus making them more cost-effective. Surely, a clean dry dishtowel is as pleasant to use in the kitchen as a paper towel, and often works better depending on the job.
· A sparkling spot-free Martini glass can only be achieved through proper wiping with a 100% cotton towel called a “bar mop”.
· Cloth towels retain bacteria, viruses, and germs; they must be washed often.
· Washing towels uses water—and soap, which is likely to contain phosphates and other chemicals that pollute the earth’s fresh water.
· Cloth kitchen towels, too, have a production cost. Let’s not forget that the fibers used to make them can be organic materials grown using methods either mindful of the environment or sprayed with noxious chemicals. Or, they can be synthetic, made from petroleum products and I know you don’t want me to go down that road.
AND…what about all those paper towels that we devour in our public and workplace restrooms? The paper towel vs. electric hand dryer battle rages on in restrooms everywhere. But in this case, the answer is obvious, and here it is:
The Dyson Airblade. It is the Official Hand Dryer® of Alta Blue Skies! In the few places that I have used one, it is the most effective, fastest, cleanest all-around super-fantastic electric hand dryer. It uses a clever design of fast, cool, filtered air to whisk the moisture right off your hands. According to Dyson’s figures, it’s 69% more cost effective than other electric hand dryers and 97% more cost effective than paper towels. Their environmental impact is far less than either alternative. Even if Dyson’s figures are exaggerated, it still beats every other choice, with the exception of drip-drying or wiping your hands on your pants. Why doesn’t every business have a Dyson Airblade in their restrooms? Cost, silly. Over the life of a hand dryer, however, this thing is the top monkey in the tree. It’s a must-have item if you want a four-star restroom rating from Alta Blue Skies.
What if there is no Airblade? If you must use a paper towel because that’s what is offered, watch this TED Talk video. A small change in behavior can conserve a lot of trees.
Yes, it appears that drying one’s hands is a perplexing decision. But let’s not get into such a tizzy that we don’t do something to demonstrate our love for the planet. So put down the anxiety meds because here’s what we’ve decided. One, when possible, air dry our hands. Two, we are going to use paper towels for a small number of jobs such as dog vomit or spilled paint, so we will buy the kind made from recycled paper that also doesn’t use chlorine bleach in its production. Today we bought Seventh Generation brand. Mostly, we will use cloth towels. Three, we will spend the extra 20 seconds it takes to shake excess water from our hands before we use paper towels in a public/business restroom.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Earth! We will try to love you the best we can, but as in all real love, it’s complicated.