Students use a blow torch and cotton swabs to collect bacteria
samples from a paper-towel dispenser.
Don’t touch that paper towel. High-speed hand dryers are
cleaner, more environmentally friendly and save a bundle over
This is what some UB students discovered when they studied the
economic, environmental and social impact of paper towels and Dyson
Airblade hand dryers in campus bathrooms.
Equipped with blow torches and cotton swabs to collect bacteria
samples, the students found that six times more bacteria grew on
paper-towel dispenser push-and-crank handles than on the Dyson
And through the life cycle of each product, the Airblades
produced 42 percent less carbon dioxide and cost under $28 per year
in energy consumption, compared to paper towels, which cost more
than $900 per year.
The project won the students second place in the 2014 New York
State Pollution Prevention Institute’s R&D Student
Competition. Faculty mentors were James Jensen and Berat
Haznedaroglu, professor and assistant professor, respectively, in
the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental
The contest provides funding for the students, as well as the
opportunity to design solutions to real-world environmental
“These outstanding students represent the best of UB:
engaged, thoughtful and enthusiastic students devoted to making the
world a better place for others,” says Jensen.
For the study, the students examined four high-traffic and
low-traffic men and women’s bathrooms with Airblades and
paper-towels dispensers in two North Campus academic buildings.
Using life-cycle assessment software, the group examined the
manufacture, use and disposal of each product. The students
measured paper-towel consumption, used the Airblade’s power
meter to track the number of users and energy consumed.
Although the Airblade is more expensive up front — with a
$4,000 unit price — the hand dryer has a four-and-a-half year
payback period, the researchers say.
Bacteria were collected from several surfaces in the bathrooms
as well. While the paper-towel dispensers collected large amounts
of bacteria, hardly any organisms were found on the towels
Results also showed that few bacteria colonies grew on door
handles and light switches, says student researcher Cassidy
Edwards, a recent environmental engineering graduate.
Through a survey of bathroom users in one of the buildings, the
students discovered that 65 percent of people opted for paper
towels, spurning the Airblade despite its superior cleaning
“People in general think hand dryers are dirty,”
explains student researcher Alanna Olear, a senior environmental
engineering major. “But they don’t know a lot about the
Dyson Airblade, which is cleaner than normal hand dryers. So their
perception on regular hand dryers sways them to think that the
Dysons are bad as well.”
Unlike lower-end hand dryers, the Airblade contains an air
filter and blows unheated air at a high velocity, creating a bad
environment for bacteria growth, the researchers point out.
To combat Airblade misperceptions, the students are designing
signage for campus bathrooms. The signs will tout the environmental
impact of the Airblades by comparing carbon-dioxide savings to
practical terms, such as trees planted, miles travelled and money
The research team will use study results to encourage campus
officials to install more Airblades on UB campuses.
Over the summer, the students hope to publish their findings in
peer-reviewed journals to allow other universities to see their
work. They also will examine the collected bacteria samples to
determine if any are pathogenic.