Cloth hand towels or Paper towels?
Countless staff meetings are held discussing the substantiality of drying hands across Australia, but before you yawn and skip away I might have some answers for you! Here are the take away points from relevant research condensed for you. Including….drum roll…a winner!
I have sifted through many of the studies on hand dryers vs paper towels to get to the bottom of this once and for all! What is the carbon cost for us and our planet of drying hands?
Before we get into the nitty gritty, we need to acknowledge that cotton and paper towels are the most hygienic way to dry hands (Liew, 2009) because dry hands resist bacteria (Huang, 2012) in middle of a pandemic this must be a consideration and to go down that path, it seems to me that handling, drying and storing cotton cloths is going to impact how hygienic this option is.
I looked at the 3 common options in ECE services:
1. A hand towel that comes to the service with the child and returns home to be washed and gets used throughout the day.
I list this one for all the services that make this work! Hats off to you! It seems that many families forget though, and there is no control over line drying or ‘green’ laundry practices or even washing at all between days. And, of course, this towel is used by the child through the day, building up any of the bacteria that survives a 3 or 4 year old’s hand wash practices.
2. Face washers for single use, washed and dried in the service
3. Paper towels. Paper towels can be bought as a recycled product, and this article assumes this is the case for services.
Notes on cotton:
Firstly we need to really consider the issues with cotton (as we should with all our off the shelf purchases), which has a host of very real concerns from pesticides and herbicides to GMO seeds. Production, dyes, damage to biodiversity, water use, shipping and unethical working environments for some of the world’s most vulnerable people are all part of this story (Kooistra, 2006), and although the Australian Cotton Sustainability Report (Australian Cotton Industry’s Sustainability Group 2019) paints a slightly more positive picture cotton is still a very real concern for humanity. This article isn’t the place to dive right into cotton and fast fashion, so we will just look at the carbon cost of washing and leave the ethics and costs of transport etc for another day.
2 educators told us that their NSW services have or will have families donate old towels which are repurposed for hand washing cloths. To make it simple, this review is going to assume you are repurposing cotton cloths and then composting them at the end of their life negating the carbon cost equation.
Op shops or somewhere like Reverse Garbage would be the other place to go for ethical purchases
The Guardian states that each paper towel has a carbon cost of 20g CO2e, however research from the University of British Columbia (Liew, 2009) puts the cost at 56g of CO2 emitted per 2 paper towels and includes the costs of transport and other factors. This is confirmed in other sources. We will go with the research paper’s findings of 56g per CO2.
2 paper towels equals 56g C02
My poll of early childhood teachers says what I expected: children are encouraged to use 2 pieces of paper each wash, and experience says that there are the occasions where children use way more! Let’s go with 2 per wash.
Cloth hand towels or washers for drying hands
To make these numbers relate to early childhood services, I requested information from member on an Early Childhood Teachers group on facebook. From those who could provide numbers of towels per load, I took an average, and it seems that we wash 112 cloths per load per day, sometimes with other items, sometimes not.
The whole point of this article is so you don’t need to spend hours working out the carbon cost per towel, but I would like to explain parts of this process so you can look into it for your individual machine, if you choose.
If the cost of washing and drying a load from Canstar worked out for my own big family machine to be an average of 1.15kWh. Obviously, each machine and setting will give a different result, for how to work out your machine’s cost visit here.
Converting the cost of electricity per load into C02 is fairly simple even for an artist like me (email if you would like my calculations) with the result of 4.57g of C02 per individual cloth for washing and line drying. This compares very well with the C02 emissions for 2 pieces of paper which is 56g.
Washing and line dry: roughly 4.57g C02 per cloth
An condensor average dryer uses costs 4.6kWh which equals 1.91kg C02 per load! Divide that 112 cloths gives a carbon cost of 17.13g per load =21.7g for washing and drying.
By comparison, the Guardian (Berners-Lee 2010) must have worked out the C02e emissions for a different washer/dryer combo and individual cloths comes to 21.4g C02e.
The study by researchers at University of British Columbia (Liew, 2009) found worked out the cost of one cloth as 0.01715 kWh (8) came to a few grams less than these calculations, however this for a roll of continuous dispensing cloth, with a similar amount of use potential.
Washing and Machine Dry: roughly 21.7g per cloth
Composting used paper towels
Composting paper towels is said to reduce C02 by 50% but I am still looking for the research to support that. I does seem reasonable, so my estimation that composting the paper towels will bring the cost in C02 down to 28g.
There are commercial services that will collect and compost waste for you. There are also countless articles about composting paper towels in your compost system, here is one of the many. To make a long story short, yes! so long as the paper towel does not have oils or chemicals, or other contaminates on it (soap and water is fine), compost away!
Your local council will most likely have an environmental education officer who can help you start your composting journey, or contact EarthConnect for Sydney composting incursions and set up. Many NSW services already compost their paper towels, please comment below with any tips for the rest of us!
WINNER: Washing and line dry: roughly 4.57g C02 per cloth
Washing and Machine Dry: roughly 21.7g per cloth
LOSER: 2 paper towels: 56g C02
2 paper towels composted estimated: 28g CO2
And because we know it happens: washing and flicking water around the room: exactly 0.0g CO2 😉
Hand washing practices are one way we can educate for sustainability, helping children make appropriate choices around water use and landfill. It is important that the conversation does not stop at hand drying practices though, as the carbon footprint of paper products are reported to represent 1% of the total (for US households in 2018) (The Two Sides Team, 2018). As many services and individuals have pledged to do, small things like buying local and turning off the air con may have a greater impact on climate change than our paper towel consumption.
I honestly thought that we would find that running a dryer every day would be comparable to composting paper towels!
In my most recent service, we opted for recycled paper towels, but turned off lights and heating or cooling and grew much of the food we used for cooking. We hoped to start composting our towels, but covid came and that was dropped pretty fast! I share this because in my opinion, it is not about getting sustainability perfect, but supporting each other and staying firmly on the journey towards it. Please get in touch below or on the community and let us all know what you are doing!
- Australian Cotton Industry’s Sustainability Group (2019), AUSTRALIAN COTTON SUSTAINABILITY REPORT 2019 https://www.crdc.com.au/sites/default/files/pdf/Australian%20Cotton%20Sustainability%20Report%202019%20-%20single%20pages.pdf
- Berners-Lee, Clark, D, (2010) What’s the carbon footprint of … a load of laundry? https://www.theguardian.com/environment/green-living-blog/2010/nov/25/carbon-footprint-load-laundry
- Huang, C, Wenjun, M, Stack, S, (2012) The Hygienic Efficacy of Different Hand-Drying Methods: A Review of the Evidence Mayo Clinic Proc, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3538484/
- Kooistra, K, Termorshuizen, A, Pyburn, R, (2006) The sustainability of cotton : consequences for man and environment, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/40115240_The_sustainability_of_cotton_consequences_for_man_and_environment
- Lieu, J, D’Souza, A, Straka, A, Chua, S, (2009) An Investigation into the Sustainable Attributes of Three Hand Drying Methods: Paper Towels, Cloth Towels and Hand dryer University of British Columbia https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/undergraduateresearch/18861/items/1.0108236
- The Two Sides Team, (2018) Our carbon footprint: How do paper products fit in? https://twosidesna.org/US/our-carbon-footprint-how-do-paper-products-fit-in/