Rolling out a hygienic alternative to jet air hand dryers

Paper towel dispenser in bathroom

Paper towel dispenser. Photo credit: Flickr.com/Nick Gray (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I am proud of my second home country Finland for many reasons, and lately I have felt particularly proud reading about all the great innovations being developed in the country. I was pleased to note that this wasn’t just my impression when Bloomberg released their Innovation Index for 2019 [1] and Finland ranked third. Finland has really been pushing the envelope in recent years to be at the forefront of green technology and sustainability. This post is the first in a series about eco-innovations, and many of the examples I will highlight are from Finland.

A few months ago, my mother shared an article from I Fucking Love Science [2] about a new study which concluded that jet air hand driers were a less hygienic than paper towels [3]. This came as no surprise to me, since properly washing your hands requires soap and water to loosen the bacteria and dirt properly, but also friction to wipe the loose bacteria off your hands and using a towel is one of the best ways to do that [4], [5]. Jet air dryers do not achieve the same level of hygiene because they are often not used long enough to properly dry the hands, and because they can become contaminated and fling bacteria into the air and onto nearby surfaces [5].

public restroom sign

Photo credit: Flickr.com/Mark Goebel (CC BY 2.0)

Just imagining that is enough to make me never want to set foot in a public restroom with one of those dryers ever again. This is made doubly frustrating when jet air dryers are touted as the green alternative [6]. It is true that the jet air dryers are dramatically more energy efficient than the old-fashioned warm-air dryers. They are also more resource efficient than paper towels, even the recycled variety, and they don’t produce problematic waste like paper towels do [6].

Does that mean that there is no good alternative then, since jet air dryers are unhygienic, and paper towels are unsustainable and fill landfills (and bathrooms) with waste? No, because there is a viable third option which is often overlooked, Reusable Cloth Roll Towel (CRT) dispensers [7]. These are large rolls of cloth inside a dispenser which mechanically rolls out a new clean section of towel for each user, and then automatically retracts the dirty used section [7] instead of leaving contaminated waste lying around.

Now when my mother originally shared the post from I Fucking Love Science [2] she suggested that we should go back to using cloth towel rolls. Her friends responded with disgust, exclaiming how they would never ever use a cloth towel someone else had used. I share their sentiment, but it is obvious that they were thinking of just a regular cloth towel, and not a CRT solution which is what my mother was referring to.

cloth towel roll dispenser in bathroom

CRT dispenser model used in public restrooms in Finland. Photo credit: Linnea Nordström

You see, CRT solutions are extremely common in Finland, and my mother has visited there several times so she is familiar with them. Last time I visited Finland for a work trip I made a mental note to keep track of what kind of hand drying solutions were used in the public restrooms I visited. A weird thing to keep track of maybe, but I was amazed by the results. In nearly every public restroom at shopping centers, schools, hotels, and even the Helsinki airport, I found CRT dispensers. I only came across one restroom using paper towels, and there wasn’t a single air dryer in sight.

Now this was not systematic research in the slightest, but it did demonstrate that CRT solutions are being used as a mainstream option in Finland. CRT dispensers are sold in Finland by a company called Lindström, which also offers a collection and washing service [8], like for hotel sheets and towels.

Now if CRTs are more hygienic than both jet air dryers and paper towels, where do they rank in terms of sustainability? It was difficult to find anything conclusive, and most of the studies I found were rather simplistic and only looked at the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of cloth towels compared with air dryers and paper towels [9]. Most studies did in fact rank jet air dryers well above all other alternatives [9], while some studies showed more promising results for re-usable cloth options[10] despite the energy needed for washing and growing the cotton for the cloth. However, when researching this post, I noticed that it is difficult to find un-biased research in this field, most of the studies I found were funded either by the manufacturers of paper towels [11], companies which rent re-usable textiles [10], or by the manufacturers of jet air dryers [12]. The fact that one of the most comprehensive studies in the field [12] was funded by the air dryer manufacturer Dyson is telling.

In any case, even the Dyson study ranked CRTs as a far more sustainable option to paper towels across a range of indicators. Combined with the hygiene aspect I argue that CRT solutions are certainly worth re-visiting, and they could be a better option for facilities such as hospitals, schools, airports, and other public places where good hygiene is of vital importance for public health.


References:

[1] These Are the World’s Most Innovative Countries (2019)
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-22/germany-nearly-catches-korea-as-innovation-champ-u-s-rebounds

[2] Hand Dryers Spread Bacteria So Dramatically That Scientists Think They’re A Public Health Threat (2018)
https://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/hand-dryers-spread-bacteria-so-dramatically-that-scientists-think-theyre-a-public-health-threat/

[3] Environmental contamination by bacteria in hospital washrooms according to hand-drying method: a multi-centre study (2018)
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhin.2018.07.002

[4] Outbreaks Where Food Workers Have Been Implicated in the Spread of Foodborne Disease. (2010)
http://www.jfoodprotection.org/doi/pdf/10.4315/0362-028X-73.10.1937

[5] The Hygienic Efficacy of Different Hand-Drying Methods: A Review of the Evidence (2012)
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2012.02.019

[6] Paper or Air: Which Method Is Greener? (2017)
https://medium.com/@stanfordmag/paper-or-air-which-method-is-greener-19d81f25ed0c

[7] New Research Proves Cloth Roll Towel Systems (CRT) More Hygienic than Air Dryers (2012)
http://www.dberkhoudtarchitect.com/2012/03/new-research-proves-cloth-roll-towel-systems-crt-more-hygienic-than-air-dryers/

[8] Hygiene product collection
https://lindstromgroup.com/services/hygiene-products/hygiene-product-collection/

[9] Analyzing uncertainty in a comparative life cycle assessment of hand drying systems (2013)
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11367-013-0606-0

[10] Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Reusable vs. Disposable Textiles (2014)
https://www.trsa.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/trsa-reusable-disposable-study.pdf

[11] Microbiological comparison of hand-drying methods: the potential for contamination of the environment, user, and bystander (2014)
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhin.2014.08.002

[12] Life Cycle Assessment of Hand Drying Systems (2011)
https://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/103115

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