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Hand dryers v paper towels: the surprisingly dirty fight for the right to dry your hands

The Guardian- April, 2019

This article was written by The Guardian. Read the full article here.

In the summer of 2005, a Chicago marketing consultant named George Campbell received a tantalizing call from a headhunter. Was he open to an interview at Dyson? The company was secretively preparing to launch a new appliance, and it needed a sales strategy for the US: that was all the headhunter would divulge. Campbell was excited; he saw Dyson as “a company with the iconic quality of Apple, and an ability to take a basic product like a vacuum cleaner and make an 80% margin on it”.

He went along to Dyson’s office, a factory-like space with lofty ceilings and timber beams next to the Chicago river. In his first few conversations, he recalled, they wouldn’t even reveal what the product was. Finally, Campbell was told in strict confidence: it was a hand dryer. And he’d thought he was joining Dyson for the glamour. “My heart dropped to my stomach.”

The Dyson Airblade, released in 2006, was no ordinary hand dryer. The first model – which asked for dripping hands to be inserted into its frowny mouth – had a curvilinear form and brushed silver body. It looked so futuristic that it was used as set dressing on the Star Trek reboot in 2009. Inside the dryer, the air blew at speeds exceeding 400mph; its filter claimed to capture 99.95% of all particles 0.3 microns or bigger in size from washroom air; it cost about £1,000. The Airblade was not the first high-speed dryer, but its luxe appeal and Dyson’s brash marketing revolutionised the restroom universe; more and more, the hand dryer began to seem like a vital accessory to class up a joint. After the Airblade’s launch, a battle began to boil, pitting the dryer industry against the world’s most powerful hand-drying lobby: Big Towel.

Public bathrooms offer three primary options to dry a pair of wet hands. First, there is the venerable crisp-pleated paper towel. Second, the old-style warm-air dryer: those indestructible metal carapaces that, through their snouts, breathe down upon our hands. And finally, the jet dryer sub-species of the sort Dyson makes, whose gale-force winds promise to shear away every drop of moisture rather than slowly evaporating it. In the quest to dominate the world’s restrooms, Campbell discovered, Dryer v Towel is a pitched contest of business strategy and public relations. “Expect to be lied to a lot,” Campbell told me. “It’s almost like the cola wars. You have Pepsi v Coke, and you have hand dryers v paper towels.”

The chief battleground for this duel is public hygiene. Science has tried and failed to come to a consensus about the hygienic superiority of one product over the other. Even so, the paper towel industry has funded or promoted a rash of studies claiming that hand dryers turn bathrooms into mosh pits of pathogens. These results almost always make news. Any sort of health scare is a gift to a journalist – an opportunity to write viral headlines such as “Hand dryers are blowing bacteria all over your hands” or “Hand dryers are germ-flinging bullshit”.

Once these fears have been mongered, their spread is irresistible. Last year, a student of microbiology in California stuck a petri dish inside the maw of a Dyson Airblade for three minutes and then incubated it. Over the next 48 hours, the fungi and bacteria deposited on the dish by the dryer multiplied, growing into thickets of grunge. When she posted a photo of the dish on Facebook, 500,000 people shared it in a week. Dyson piped up, protesting that the experiment’s methodology was too vague to be meaningful, but it went practically unheard.

As an invention, the paper towel isn’t much older than the hand dryer; the Scott Paper Company, based in Philadelphia and now owned by the tissue giant Kimberly-Clark, developed the first restroom towel in 1907, while the Airdry Corporation, in New York, patented the earliest “drying apparatus” in 1922. For most of the 20th century, the towel was the more dominant product. Dryer companies, by and large, just made dryers; their budgets were small and their influence limited. The biggest manufacturers of paper towels were behemoths such as Kimberly-Clark or Georgia-Pacific, which also produced a vast range of other items. Their pockets were deeper, their leverage over customers greater.

Only after Dyson arrived and other dryer firms shook themselves awake did the contest acquire any edge at all. The numbers still weigh heavily in favour of Big Towel. In 2020, according to the market research firm Technavio, the world will buy roughly $4bn (£3bn) worth of multi-fold paper towels, of the kind most commonly seen in public bathrooms; the same year, hand dryer sales will jump to $856m, having grown 12% every year since 2014. Between 2012 and 2020, a Dyson spokesperson reckoned, hand dryers will have sucked $873m out of paper towel revenues. This is why, he argued, Big Towel launches such regular broadsides at hand dryers.

For those making the decisions to purchase them, paper towels and hand dryers compete on other dimensions as well: cost, for instance, or eco-friendliness. But the public mind obsesses most over the cleanliness of the public bathroom. So many different kinds of people tramp in and out of these spaces, says Ruth Barcan, a cultural theorist at the University of Sydney, that we have become paranoid about them – “about what others might or might not do, leave or not leave, clean up or not clean up – about who’s the same as us or not the same as us”.

The holy grail for such phobists is the contactless restroom. In the industry, people speak with shining eyes about this ideal chamber, where our hands need not touch anything that other hands have defiled. Already, we enter some airport bathrooms through a brief switchback of walls, so that we don’t ever grasp a door handle. Once inside, sensors can eliminate the need to yank the flush, turn the tap, jab at the soap dispenser or pull a paper towel from the dispenser. The modern hand dryer, with no buttons to push, ought to fit neatly into this fantasy of the zero-contact loo. Instead, towel companies are convinced that dryers are the filthy exception to the rule, and that the singular safe item to touch in a public restroom is an old-school leaf of rough, thick paper.

The patent diagram for the very first hand dryer shows a nozzle projecting horizontally out of the wall, as if someone were sticking a gun into your ribs and demanding your wallet. You pressed down on a foot pedal to activate a puff of air, which evaporated the moisture on your hands. In 1922, in a journal called Hotel World, the American Zephyr Company bragged that its “warm air towel” could dry your hands in 36 seconds. A full seven decades later, dryer developers had managed to shave just six seconds off that time. The design stayed essentially the same: the nozzle now glanced downwards, and the foot pedal yielded to a round metal button, but it was still a motor driving a fan that whipped air across a heating element. This was not an industry in any hurry to innovate.

Through most of the 20th century, it was still uncommon to find a hand dryer in a public bathroom. When the British actor Jonathan Routh published the first edition of his Good Loo Guide (“Where to Go in London”) in 1965, he singled out the device for mention every time he found one. Only five toilets, out of more than a hundred, held hand dryers – of the pedal-operated kind that, in the 1965 movie Help!, inhale the jacket sleeves of Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. Mostly, Routh encountered towels of cloth or paper, and quite often, he had to pay to use these products. (“Do loos ever advertise their attractions?” he wondered, while extolling the virtues of the splendid restrooms of Hyde Park in the 1968 update. “Has anyone ever seen an ad saying ‘Just arrived – new free electric hand-drier at the so-and-so loos.’”) Even in the third and final edition of the guide, released in 1987, I counted more instances of electric razors, armchairs and pre-pasted disposable toothbrushes than of hand dryers.

For decades, the pre-eminent hand dryer manufacturer was World Dryer, a company so closely associated with the product that many people assumed its founder, George Clemens, had invented the thing. In 1948, when Clemens set up World Dryer near Chicago, a post-second-world-war wood shortage was causing a shortage of paper towels. Clemens released the Model A hand dryer, an enamel-white shell with a shiny round button, in 1951. Even as a succession of owners bought and sold the company, the Model A and its variations remained World Dryer’s stock in trade – its All-Stars sneaker, its Tabasco sauce. For years, the tank-like Model A was the apex of possibility – the best dryer on the market, now and for ever.

Even World Dryer seemed to believe that. In 1989, when Scott Kerman joined World Dryer as a salesman, it wasn’t a very ambitious company. It was unfair to judge it in hindsight, he conceded, but “back then, if someone were to go ask for money for R&D, he’d have been told: ‘Who the hell needs a better hand dryer?’” Nothing revolutionary seemed to be happening anywhere. Kerman remembered how, in the autumn of 1997, the president of a rival company, Nova Dryer, tried to poach him. He was flown out to Montreal, where Nova was based. The president took him into a dark office, turned on the lights and revealed an object with a sheet covering it.

“This is your future, whether you like it or not,” the president said dramatically, then whisked away the sheet.

It was a slightly quieter, slightly more efficient, slightly smaller hand dryer. (Kerman didn’t take the job.)

Still, customers bought them. Kerman pitched his products as inexpensive and durable. In the 1970s, McDonald’s installed World Dryer models in all its restaurants across the US. “That was a big win,” he said. “That was two by thousands” – industry-speak for a dryer each in the men’s and women’s restrooms, multiplied by thousands of locations.

The fundamental superiority of paper never looked to be in doubt, though. With paper, you didn’t have to wait restlessly for half a minute for the dryer to finish its bloviation. You didn’t have to fear a malfunction: no air at all, or infernally hot air, or even an explosion of the kind that pours flames upon an unlucky, damp-handed soul in the 1993 film Ghost in the Machine. You could dab at spots on your tie, or dry a washed face, or wipe sweat from your brow. In a famous sequence, an angry restroom tap drenches the front of Mr Bean’s trousers. The paper towel dispenser is empty. His only solution is to climb on to a bin and pump his pelvis around near the muzzle of a World Dryer Model A. He wouldn’t have been caught humping the hand dryer if the dispenser had been full. Paper is nimble that way.