Are Paper Towels a Form of Carbon Sequestration?

From a hygiene perspective, disposable paper towels are far superior to hot-air dryers. The friction of the paper towel has a cleansing effect, and the towel actually removes dirt and germs. The hot-air dryer, in contrast, leaves the dirt and germs in place (to the extent not previously removed by soap and water, which is not 100% effective), and many people are impatient and do not complete drying, so the hands are still somewhat wet.

Environmentally, however, it would seem that electric dryers consume fewer resources than paper towels. But I wonder if there may be an underrated environmental advantage to paper towels: Are they a form of carbon sequestration? After all, we’re taking a portion of a tree and putting it in a landfill. That seems like carbon sequestration to me. Offsetting that, however, is the carbon put into the atmosphere when the towel is manufactured and transported. What is the net effect of using a paper towel, from a carbon sequestration point of view?

Well, if the used paper towels are sent to an incinerator, then for sure no.

Short answer: no. Even if more carbon is contained in the paper towel than was released in its production and transport (which is doubtful), landfills are not a form of carbon sequestration. Landfills emit greenhouse gases bubbling up through the soil, mainly methane and CO2, so they are as much a part of the active carbon cycle as leaves and deadwood in a forest, which have absorbed CO2 and release it back again in short order.

I doubt our land fills are equivalent of putting coal/oil back into ground…

  1. We already collect methane from them, so they don’t intend to design them to trap C in the ground… They want it to send carbon up as CH4 !

  2. In the near future, land fills may be mined for their wealth of resources …

  3. land fills are not likely to be in a place where they will continue to be covered over be sediments and thus trapped so far below the lands surface that water and oxygen doesn’t get into them … They will remain near the surface, and while they are used for parks at first step after they are retired ( due to the instability they don’t want expensive infrastructure on them… or its just more expensive to build there… ) , but they will be developed over … which means foundations and drainage systems will be dug and thus put water and air into the landfill… its not in any way sequestration of the carbon… It will be released as CH4…

Wolfpup: Very interesting, and it does sound like landfill gases are a larger consideration than I would have supposed. However, it’s not as if carbon has to be sequestered permanently to have a positive effect on global warming. Nor is it the case that rubbish in a landfill immediately decomposes: typically newspapers that have been in a landfill for 50 or 60 years are still entirely readable. So it seems to me that a more quantitative answer is needed.

Snfaulkner: Yes, yes, you’re very clever. But if the paper towel is, in fact, sent to a landfill, as the OP says?

The original link has part of a quantitative answer …
Despite the heterogeneity of waste, the evolution of gases follows [a] well defined kinetic pattern. Formation of methane and CO2 commence about six months after depositing the landfill material. The evolution of gas reaches a maximum at about 20 years, then declines over the course of decades.
Such short-term delays aren’t going to be helpful, except if employed to buy time as part of a coordinated and committed emissions reduction strategy, which we don’t really have. Otherwise, all that happens is in a decade or two you get all that net carbon re-entering the atmosphere in addition to the ongoing emissions, creating an accelerated climate forcing which could potentially be even more destabilizing than a more gradual one.

Wolfpup: I find that a bit surprising, since my understanding (from the fascinating book Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage) is that most landfills have very little decomposition going on (and it’s not considered a very desirable development when it occurs, contrary to popular belief). However, I don’t have anything more concrete than that.

I had supposed that the major question was whether carbon released by production and transport would outweigh the carbon contained in the towel. At a minimum, you’ve convincingly shown that that’s not the end of the analysis.

Here’s the executive summary for an MIT study you may be interested in. It assesses various hand-drying systems in terms of global warming potential (GWP) quantified as grams of CO2 equivalents. It found standard hot-air dryers to be the worst in terms of GWP, and paper towels to be a close second, with most of the environmental impact of paper towels coming from the production process. You may want to take their final conclusions with some skepticism because, MIT credentials or not, Dyson funded that particular study and they concluded that his cold-air dryer had the lowest GWP. Still, it’s an interesting and credible comparison of the other technologies in an area where not a lot of studies have been done.

Worth pointing out that even a small conversion of the towel to methane is a problem, as methane is a significantly more potent greenhouse gas than CO[sub]2[/sub]. Burning the towel may actually be the better answer.

More modern rubbish disposal seems to be moving towards much greater segregation of rubbish types, and will concentrate organic waste into tips that will degrade quickly, whilst either recycling or sending to landfill waste that will not break down. Where I live we have three bins - one for landfill, one for recycling, and one for organic waste. Paper towels are explicitly mentioned for going into the organic waste, and thus would be expected to go to a tip where the environment is wet and actively breaking down - and thus releasing methane.

And when there no paper towels you have to open the door to a public restroom with your bare hands . I saw a woman leaving the restroom and not washing her hands ! :eek: I was glad I was able to use a paper towel to open the door after that woman touch it ! I also use a paper towel to turn off the after washing my hands , I was trained to do this when I was a health aide .

Although that is disgusting, it is probably not as unhygienic as when someone washes their hands and uses an air dryer that does not get the hands dry. The water remaining on the hands provides a medium that the germs can use to get to the door handle, and then from the handle to your hand. Dirty but dry hands present much less of a risk of contamination.

Bolding mine

For sure there’s no more carbon in the paper towels as in the trees they were made from. Burning coal and crude oil for it’s production and transport is all in addition to the biology. I agree that just burying the paper is no more “sequestered” than leaving it as a tree, to mean it’s still involved in the active carbon cycle.

I’ve had my fair share of jobs where I washed my hands before I used the toilet.

Young trees grow more rapidly, and therefore gather more carbon, than older trees. Carbon sequestration involving trees will involve cutting those trees and, of course, planting replacements. If the trees are being cut only for carbon sequestration (which as far as I know is not currently a practice), they will then be buried.

I see that Wikipedia’s article on carbon sequestration,, says that landfills represent a physical method of sequestration, although it doesn’t give a cite for that.

That’s an MIT study? I’m shocked at its incompleteness. :eek:

It utterly fails to assess the GWP impact of drying your hands on your pants, which is usually how I have to do it (no paper towels, defective dryers, etc.) :smiley:

Well, its cite is its own landfill article, which then tells you about landfill gases (which are mainly CH4 + CO2) and so therefore it isn’t. The confusing contradiction is simply that theoretically “carbon sequestration” can be anything at all that removes carbon from the atmosphere, including the CO2 in my can of pop, but in a practical sense sequestration has to be long-term to be meaningful, as stated in the first sentence of the sequestration article. Conventional landfills just don’t meet that criterion, although specialized ones potentially could.

Au contraire, my splotchy-panted friend! In this situation your pants are the equivalent of the “cotton towel rolls” cited in the article, which presumably includes the GWP of manufacturing and occasional laundering. If, however, you never wash your pants you get bonus points on Global Warming Potential although you may have other problems in life, like finding a romantic relationship.

Businesses go for these electric blowing hand dryers because think of all of the man hours it takes to check and refill those paper dispensers and then somebody has to come in and stuff down on the paper in the trash bin and eventually take the trash out and then you’ve got a huge bag of wadded up paper towels in the trash bin and you can’t put anything else in it.

It solves a lot of problems.

In a hygienic environment like a hospital, blow drying hands is considered bad practice. Part of the problem is that most people do not wash their hands thoroughly. If they then put them under a blast of air, any bacteria are likely to be spread far and wide. A new NHS hospital building near me was designed and equipped with air dryers - before it opened, they were all ripped out and replaced by paper towel dispensers.

[bolding mine]

Landfills are a form of carbon sequestration. They are also a GHG source. See EPA GHG inventory.

Note that landfilled paper as a sink gets counted under the forestry section.

[bolding mine]

jbaker, you may want to examine the actual science (PDF of full report), rather than resorting to either appeals to authority or ad hominems, which do not answer scientific questions.

It doesn’t quite address the main part of your question, nevertheless you may find this article interesting, which definitely wasn’t (as far as I know) funded by Dyson :).