Recently I had lunch in Lima at a busy little garden cafe with lots of vegan dishes. I always wash my hands before I eat (and hardly ever get sick when I travel). In the restroom, instead of a roll of paper towels or air dryer, the restaurant had small cloth towels rolled up for individual use. I dried my hands, and then tossed the wet towel into the laundry hamper. I repeated this process after using the toilet after the meal, and left with nagging question in my head:
Paper waste is often looked down upon by the green lifestyle. But is it really better for the environment to use a separate cloth towel every time you wash your hands? Is it better to kill a tree or contribute to water consumption? I have asked this question to many friends since my experience, and I’ve received mixed answers.
How would you answer this environmental conundrum?
“Just don’t wash your hands,” was the advice of some people - but we all know well that washing your hands before you eat and after you use the bathroom is one of the best ways to prevent gastrointestinal illness. Paper waste and water consumption notwithstanding, eating with dirty toilet-germ hands is not a chance I am willing to take at home, much less in a foreign country.
“Dry your hands off with a reusable cloth towel – everybody shares.” Sharing is good practice for some occasions, but sharing toilet germs is probably not a good idea for anyone. We’ve all encountered a damp, dirty cloth hand towel in a public restroom – and you probably chose to drip dry or wipe your hands on your clothes to dry them off. Even reusable cloth towels at home can harbor bacteria if they are not washed on a regular basis...which brings us back to water consumption.
“Wipe your hands on your clothes” – Great idea if your clothes are clean. But what if you’ve been wearing the same jeans for two weeks? Sorry, but research shows that this option is just not hygienic.
“Don’t dry your hands” – This would solve the paper waste problem if wet hands weren't known to spread bacteria faster than dry hands. Like soap, drying your hands is an essential part of the hand washing process.
“Use an air dryer” – If a hot air dryer is available, this is indeed the greener option, as it eliminates paper waste. However it is not the healthiest option, as air dryers don’t dry as effectively as towels. Depending on how modern it is, one must use an air dryer up 45 seconds to achieve the same level of dryness as you would with a towel, and most people walk away long before their hands are totally dry. Even if you dry your hands completely with an air dryer, it still won’t remove bacteria as well as a towel would, either paper or cloth.
“Reusable cloth towels are better for the environment.” Despite my misgivings at the vegan restaurant, this appears to be true – especially if you purchase used towels made from organic cotton in the first place, and wash them with biodegradable soap. Producing and cleaning cloth towels results in less labor, resource, and water consumption than making a disposable paper towel, which is used once and then thrown away forever.
Being green is important – but so is staying healthy. You can’t protect the environment if you’re sick in bed. For best results wherever you are, wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap before every meal and after using the toilet – every single time, then dry your hands completely--regardless of what method you have to use.
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