Students at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay (UWGB) may have noticed signs across campus restrooms that say, “Paper towel dispensers are out of service! Please use hand dryers in lieu of paper.” Is there a reason for this? Before COVID-19, there were restrooms on campus with paper towels, some with hand dryers, and some with both. In response to the pandemic, hand dryers were deactivated as a health and safety measure, and more paper towel dispensers were installed in restrooms.
While some people believe hand dryers are better for the environment as opposed to paper towels, many UWGB students seem to prefer paper towels. Despite this preference, UWGB Facilities Planning & Management has been leaning towards hand dryers as the campus returns to more “normal” operations and not stocking the paper towel dispensers. Daniela Beall, the Sustainability Coordinator at UWGB, said, “Blow dryers are more environmentally friendly for a variety of reasons, incur fewer costs (paper products), and require less labor to maintain (stocking, emptying waste).” Beall did validate that nothing is set in stone just yet. “There isn’t currently a plan to transition restrooms to be uniform. However, this could be something that the sustainability committee and facilities discuss,” said Beall.
After conducting a survey on the topic, we (the team of Ciera L’Huillier, Brooke Caldwell & Grace Prust) received 30 student responses overall. It seemed more students preferred paper towels out of the two options. When respondents were asked if they preferred hand dryers, paper towels, or no preference, 68% said that they preferred paper towels, 13% of them were in favor of hand dryers, and 18% had no preference. One student respondent who prefers paper towels said, “The hand dryers available are hard to work. They don’t turn on when you want them and they shut off too quickly and you cannot start it up again. If I am using the bathroom before or during a class, I do not have time to be figuring out the hand dryers; I need to be in and out. If it takes longer for me to dry my hands than it is to pee, that’s an issue.”
While paper towels took popularity by a landslide, there are noticeable arguments for implementing both and giving students the option to choose. One survey responder said, “I have sensory issues, so the loudness of the hand dryers and the feeling of them on my hands is extremely overwhelming. It would be nice to have both options and not be forced to have one or the other.” Another student suggested a potential solution for the campus, “Why not install the washable towel in the dispenser? I’ve seen these before in public. You pull down for a fresh dry towel to dry off. This saves both paper and electricity. It’s a thin fabric material that dries fast, and if you wash your hands, they should be clean enough for sharing.”
In the survey findings, students are arguing that they have been told that hand dryers tend to carry a lot of bacteria, and they feel germs are spreading when they use them.” A greater number of studies favored the use of PT (paper towels) over air dryers based on comparisons of bacterial count trends on surfaces or in the air. Some studies found higher counts on PT dispensers.” (Reynolds et al., 2021). While this does validate students’ concerns, after further research, it seems as if it can go both ways. “Even hands-free towel dispensers were reportedly contaminated due to frequent contact with dispenser exit surfaces. Levels varied with malfunction frequency and user height (Harrison et al., 2003).” With being aware of this information, studies have shown that combining the two may be effective for the campus to incorporate if students are concerned with sanitary measures. “One study recommended a combined approach using towels followed by warm air-drying to minimize bacterial transfer rates and maximize drying efficacy (Patrick et al., 1997). Given that wet hands transfer more bacteria between surfaces, improved efficacy of air dryers was an identified benefit in some studies.” (Reynolds et al., 2021).
Another respondent to the survey expressed how they think about how unsanitary hand dryers can be and the downside if no paper towel is available. “…It is sucking the bathroom air and blowing it directly onto your hands. But also, if you happen to need to blow your nose, and there is no paper towel, you’re kind of out of luck unless you wanted to use toilet paper.”
In the student survey, the question of sustainability was asked to the respondents. Within the data collected, 54% of respondents said that hand dryers are sustainable, 18% said that hand dryers are in no way sustainable, and 27% were neutral on the issue. The future is uncertain on whether or not hand dryers will be more readily available, but how students feel about the two options is clear: more UWGB students prefer paper towels, as most of them view hand dryers as the ultimate host of bathroom germs.
Reynolds, K., Sexton, J., Norman, A., and McClelland, D. (2021). Comparison of electric hand dryers and paper towels for hand hygiene: a critical review of the literature. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 130, 25-39. https://doi.org/10.1111/jam.14796