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Paper Towel or Electric Hand Dryer – Which is Better?

By Alison Mitchell, Friends of Willow Park and Wodonga Urban Landcare Network

Maybe I’m alone in asking that question, but it does raise a bigger question – how do I know which is the best alternative of any product if I want to live more lightly? 

One tool to help us answer this question is a “Life Cycle” or “Cradle to Grave” Analysis.  These analyses help us understand the environmental impact of a product all the way through its production stage, that is, from the raw material to the time it becomes your property or you choose to use it and the disposal of a product. 

Life Cycle Analyses are readily available on the internet for a multitude of products, but rather than being a definitive tool to make a choice, they are most useful in helping us to think critically about our choices and the systems that these products are involved in as part of their production.  That is, we should use Life Cycle Analyses we find on the internet with some caution and a good deal of critical and systems thinking.

You probably have a number of things that you are uncertain about choosing.  The paper towel or the electric dryer is one example.  A disposable or reusable cup is another.  A rechargeable or disposable battery is yet another example of where Life Cycle Analyses might help us choose.

However, if you use a search engine and the internet to research the Analyses associated with your choice you are likely to come up with contradictory results.  There are a number of reasons this might happen and you will need your critical thinking hat to determine if any or all of them are at play.  Analyses can be commissioned by the product-maker and those results will require further investigation. 

Many assumptions will be used in any Life Cycle Analysis, primarily because a full analysis would take an enormous amount of time and expense.  Analysts will use assumptions such as how far the product is transported to you from the manufacturer and what type of transport is used. 

Furthermore, Life Cycle Analyses don’t yet consider the economic or social impacts of production or the costs associated with the use of the product, for example, running electric gadgets.  Having said all that, Life Cycle Analyses are very useful in helping to focus our thinking and make decisions on the inherent trade-offs associated with living lightly choices. 

And in case you’re wondering – I find my jeans a useful hand-drying tool.