Paper towels cause relatively little environmental impact through deforestation, as most of the wood pulp going into them comes from well-managed commercial forests, as of 2015. Their primary impact is through the energy and chemicals used during manufacturing and transport. They also create more trash requiring disposal.
The environmental cost of paper towels begins with the fossil fuels used to power the machinery for harvesting trees and to transport the trees to the paper mill. Manufacturing paper is energy-intensive and also carries the risk of harmful emissions into nearby waterways. The paper towels then require transport to the point of use, consuming more fossil fuels. Using recycled materials lowers the energy cost of manufacturing, but paper towels themselves usually enter the trash stream after just one use. Restrooms using paper towels usually have to be cleaned more often, resulting in increased use of cleaning chemicals and garbage bag liners, which have their own environmental costs.
Using a single sheet of paper towel for hand drying has an environmental impact roughly equal to using an older-model hand dryer, according to Slate.com. However, a student research project at Buffalo University found that using the Dyson Airblade, a high-speed model, instead of paper towels significantly reduced energy consumption costs and reduced carbon emissions by 42 percent.