It’s often been observed that we’re surrounded by more technology than ever these days, but if there’s one thing that hasn’t advanced much, it seems to be the restroom hand dryer. Sure, they’ve gotten fancier, and they’ve certainly gotten louder, but I’m not so sure they’ve gotten better, because ultimately I just find myself wiping my hands dry on my pants.
Hand dryers can be a bit of a contentious issue, and the conventional wisdom seems to be that 1) they’re bad because they incubate bacteria and blow disease around, and 2) they’re better for the environment because they don’t use trees. I kind of have my doubts about either of those things being true, but I suppose both points are kind of half-true. There aren’t a lot of good hand dryer studies (I think we can all agree, Ebola is rather pressing), and those that have been conducted seem to be funded by paper towel companies. I’m as health conscious as anyone, but I’m fortunate to have an immune system robust enough to permit me to use the average public restroom without incident. Since I can’t tell the provenance of each and every cold I get (did I get it from the bus? a park bench? an inadequately-washed restaurant fork? or, most likely, a person who passed within four feet of me?), I just go on with my life, and hope that accumulating continuous tiny exposures to microorganisms throughout my day will gradually inoculate me against more potent doses. My time is better spent doing things that don’t involve embarking upon some microbial witch-hunt, wherein I accuse every inanimate object around me of being contaminated.
As for the environmental angle, I haven’t done enough research to know one way or the other. While all commercial hand dryers seem to be electric, I doubt they’re solar powered, so they’re most likely making their heat from energy harvested from some manner of fossil fuel. And then of course there’s the mining involved for all of the metal parts, since they’re probably not often made from recycled materials. But, of course, paper towels aren’t real great for the environment either. While paper towels could theoretically be made out of virtually any cellulose, like corn stalks or tree leaves, they’re probably most often made of tree pulp from someplace overseas. And the industrial paper making process isn’t exactly an environmental ideal either: it involves a lot of heated vats, so a lot of energy, and a lot of water. And paper towel holders require constant replenishment– most hand dryers will operate without need for maintenance or replacement for quite a while, whereas a paper towel dispenser will need to be frequently refilled. Ultimately, the laws of thermodynamics seem to dictate that if we’re worried about saving the environment we should just dry our hands on our pants and ignore wall-mounted solutions altogether.
In truth, I think my biggest objection to hand dryers is the noise. They seem uncouth, and disruptive. But, I suppose I should focus on the important things in life, and not the minutia of minor inconveniences that will be forgotten within 10 minutes. Let us consider ourselves lucky, for example, that the “Dyson Airbowl” toilet has not yet been invented, allowing public restrooms to provide paperless, air-dry “solutions” for our posteriors.