If you’re in charge of a commercial building, your mission is clear: go green, clean, and save green. You make no move without the mission in mind, always on the lookout for opportunities to support it.
Have you checked the restrooms?
When you think about potential areas for eco-friendly improvement, your restrooms may not immediately come to mind. In fact, if you’ve got manual paper-towel dispensers, proudly filled (for the moment, anyway) with recycled fiber paper towels, you may reason that your bathrooms are green as grass.
In terms of the other green (money), your thoughts on restrooms may border on resignation: They’re a messy, demanding cause of inevitable expense, and always will be. Furthermore, if a hygienic hand drying solution is what you’re after, these messy paper towel systems don’t quite fit the bill there either. If your beliefs are along these lines, the facts may blow you away.
Hand Dryer vs. Paper Towel Dispensers
There are many different types of paper towel dispensers ranging, from simple surface mount dispensers to more complex automatic units. These dispensers range in price from just $10 to units costing more than $1,000. When outfitting your restroom with the ultimate hand drying solution, it is important to consider not only the upfront cost but also the long-term cost and the environmental impact of your chosen solution.
This post explores the different types of paper towel dispensers and their initial equipment costs. We also strongly encourage you to review these resources to get a better sense of the actual costs and environmental factors that paper towels present.
- Cost calculator – paper towels vs. hand dryers.
- Environmental Life Cycle Assessment – This eye-opening peer-reviewed study documents the environmental impact of various hand drying solutions, including both paper towels and recycled paper towels.
Styles of Paper Towel Dispensers
Surface-mounted paper towel dispensers are just that: mounted on the surface of a wall or other stable, flat surface. By installing a surface-mounted commercial paper towel dispenser, you save valuable counter space while providing restroom users a hand drying solution right near the sink. ASI, San Jamar, and VonDrehle are just a few of the manufacturers of surface-mounted paper towel dispensers.
Automatic paper towel dispensers, or roll towel dispensers, come in a variety of styles. To operate non-automatic roll towel dispensers, you have to grab and pull the paper towel out of the bottom of the dispenser. Automatic dispensers yield paper towels when users wave their hands in front of the sensor. These dispensers allow users to obtain paper towels without touching the dispenser. Hands-free dispensers are available from a variety of manufacturers such as Merfin, Bobrick, San Jamar, and others.
Typically the automatic or free-flow paper towel dispensers are available in plastic or stainless steel. The notion of a touchless solution falls apart when the batteries fail and the paper roll jams forcing the user to reach in or spin the dial to advance a paper towel…not a very hygienic solution.
C-Fold and Multifold paper towel dispensers are similar. The “C” in C-fold stands for center folded paper towels. These paper towels are manufactured to lay one on top of the other. M-fold or multifold paper towels are produced to interlock with one another. These folded paper towel dispensers are available with or without a waste receptacle, typically recessed into the wall, and commonly available in stainless steel, although some manufacturers produce a plastic version as well.
Some of the waste receptacles are removable while others are not, and bags need to be changed on the spot. These dispensers can lead to waste as the average person typically pulls out as many as three to four towels for a single-use.
ADA compliant paper towel dispensers, one of which is manufactured by Bobrick manufacturers, are available in surface mounted, C-fold or multifold, and touch-free styles.
Lever pull paper towel dispensers, or crank paper towel dispensers, are often found in low traffic restrooms and require users to pull a lever or crank to get their desired length of paper towel. Keep in mind lever pull paper towel dispensers are not a hygienic hand drying solution since you have to touch the handle everyone else touches. Like other paper towel dispenser styles, these are available in metal, plastic, or stainless steel. These units tend to run out of paper towels quicker than other styles because people normally use more than the intended amount of paper per use.
If These Towels Could Talk
Though silent and plain to the eye, a paper towel would have quite a tale to tell if it could. When considering restroom paper towel use, it’s important to understand the full journey of this unassumingly brown sheet. Where did it come from? Where will it end up? Typically, a paper towel’s short life cycle looks like this:
- Material production: Today, most paper comes from reasonably sustainable sources, either recycled materials or commercially grown forests. However, trees must still be cut (for virgin paper), and recycled materials must be collected, sorted, cleaned, and processed.
- Transportation: Trucks must carry tons of logs and other raw materials to production sites, deliver cases of the finished product to businesses, and regularly carry away the used product (read: trash).
- Manufacturing process: All paper is born through mechanical or chemical pulping, then sorted and packaged using any number of materials. Again, though much greener than in decades past, these processes inevitably impact the environment.
- Use: Here is where paper towels may seem to earn their green star. They don’t expend much energy on the job, but they’re probably already exhausted from what it took to reach the workplace. And once used, who knows where the towel goes… did that toss even reach the trash bin? Paper towels can make quite a mess of restrooms, littering the floor, blocking sink drains, and, for a bonus expense, clogging toilets. Then, after a string of high-maintenance situations, the kicker: constant, costly restocking of the culprit.
End of life: Some take the term recycled to mean recyclable. Unfortunately, they mean very different things. Even a 100 percent recycled paper towel—that is, one made completely from recycled content—has no postconsumer value. Unless its weave also contains fibers of gold, a used paper towel is destined for one place: the landfill.
Summary – Paper Towel Dispenser Selection Considerations
As you can see, beyond the different towel types and dispenser materials and styles, the cost of the solution looms large.
We should also consider the environmental impact of using paper towels. Our peer-reviewed Life Cycle Assessment shows the dramatic difference in carbon footprint between the different drying solutions.
Energy costs/usage between different hand drying options is an important consideration too. This chart, below, from the Go Green section of our website, shows that paper towels/dispensers are anything but green.
As you can see, a paper towel incurs a host of monetary and environmental costs at each phase of life. Unlike a single investment in high-efficiency hand dryers, a commitment to stocking paper towels means an endless loop of repetition and expense, from creation through disposal.
Longmeadow High School adopted XLERATOR Hand Dryers as part of its sustainability-focused, total reconstruction, happily ending the resource-sucking cycle for good. As you ponder new ways to fulfill your green-building mission, go ahead and crumple up those long-standing myths you’ve heard about the power of paper. Of course, just be conscious of where you toss them.