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Unexpected outcomes

We all dry our hands after washing them. This process may seem insignificant, but our choice of hand-drying method actually impacts our contribution to environmental pollution. Photo: siam.pukkato/Shutterstock

In March 2019, the daily newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung published on its website that “16,900 kilometres of paper towels are used every year in Stuttgart’s municipal facilities”. This is the equivalent of the distance from Stuttgart to Sydney.1 Shocking figures such as these give us some idea of the considerable environmental impact our hand-drying methods alone have on the environment. They may also lead us to the conclusion that it is far more environmentally friendly to avoid this mountain of paper waste by switching to other systems, such as cloth towel rolls or electric hand dryers. The reality, however, is not that simple.

No simple solutions to environmental issues

For WALA, serious environmental protection strategies and honest efforts to become or remain more sustainable are not short-term measures or image-boosting claims – they have been a crucial part of the company’s philosophy since day one and are integrated into all aspects of daily business. Anyone who has grappled with environmental issues as intensely and for as long as we have will know that there are no simple answers to certain ecological questions. Some measures that seem environmentally friendly at first glance may, upon closer inspection, turn out not to be. To even get an approximate idea of actual environmental impact requires intensive research and consideration of all relevant factors. This also applies to the question: What is the most environmentally friendly way to dry one’s hands?

Every method has its pros and cons

WALA Heilmittel GmbH currently employs over 1,000 people. All of these employees wash their hands in company facilities on a daily basis. Our line of paper towel waste may not reach as far as Sydney, but WALA’s yearly consumption of around 1,000 boxes of recycled paper was reason enough for a company project team to investigate the environmental impact of this process. The group investigated five fundamentally different hand-drying systems: cold-air (jetstream) dryers, recycled paper towels, new-fibre paper towels, cloth towel rolls and hot-air dryers. The evaluation of the individual methods was based on findings from studies conducted by the German Federal Environment Agency and the University of Bradford, as well as in-house surveys. The team meticulously recorded the advantages and disadvantages of each method, including the associated methods of procurement, cleaning, maintenance and disposal, and the amount of waste produced. Electricity and resource consumption, purchase prices and total annual costs also played a role, as did greenhouse gas potential. Hygiene levels were also relevant – as a pharmaceutical company, WALA must comply with the relevant good manufacturing practice (GMP2) guidelines in all production areas.

One factor can change everything

Taking all factors into account, the individual methods were ranked as follows in terms of their environmental performance (descending):

  1. Cold-air dryers (jetstream)
  2. Recycled paper towels
  3. New-fibre paper towels
  4. Cotton towels / hot-air dryers (equal score)

Electric hand dryers that emit cold air are therefore more environmentally friendly than recycled paper towels. The latter, however, are a far better option than paper towels made of new fibres. They are also more environmentally friendly than cotton towels, which have to be washed after use, and hot-air dryers, which consume a lot of energy.

These results would have made WALA’s choice very clear, had it not been for another factor that changed the ranking of these methods over the long term: the question of waste generated by the changeover. Although this factor has nothing to do with the actual method of hand drying, its addition produced a very different result. Hundreds of paper towel dispensers are currently installed in WALA’s buildings, some of which have been there for decades. Disassembling and disposing of these would produce several tonnes of waste, making a switch to jetstream devices not only uneconomical, but also less beneficial ecologically. We therefore decided to continue drying our hands with recycled paper towels.

This just goes to show that sometimes, second-best is actually best. We believe it is important that society does not shy away from the effort and cost involved in investigating environmental issues to this extent, as relying on gut feeling alone can often be misleading.

1https://www.stuttgarter-zeitung.de/inhalt.staedtische-einrichtungen-in-stuttgart-so-hoch-ist-der-verbrauch-an-papierhandtuecher-jaehrlich.cf30c81a-a235-4c5e-a4ac-beff3252b125.html

2GMP guidelines ensure high and uniform standards are maintained in the authorisation and licensing of the manufacture and sale of food and beverages, cosmetics, pharmaceutical products, dietary supplements, and medical devices.