Bath-room for Improvement


Elena De Schutter

The empty paper towel dispenser next to the air dryer in the B building bathroom.

Elena De Schutter

Wilcox High School bathrooms are nothing short of average: clean kept and available to students. However, one mystery of the school bathrooms remains a mystery to students; Where did the paper towels go? At the beginning of last semester, the paper towel dispensers were either locked or never restocked, and the truth is it was a districtwide decision. The paper towel dispensers were only installed when students returned after the pandemic. Due to the cost and waste of paper towels, the Santa Clara Unified School District opted to take them out and go back to using hot-air hand dryers.

The limitation of paper towels decreases the amount of waste and reduces littering within the bathrooms but they are more favored by students as a hand drying system. “Paper towels are more accurate and sanitary and they are multi-use making them substantially better than air dryers,” said Wilcox senior Chris Bosquez. 

Science does say that air dryers, now the only form of hand drying available at Wilcox, spread more bacteria than they get rid of. Scientists at the University of Connecticut and Quinnipiac University conducted an experiment to test this theory. They exposed petri dishes to bathroom air and then the hot air produced by hand dryers and the results were shocking. The dishes exposed to bathroom air grew up to 1-2 colonies of bacteria after two minutes whereas the dishes placed under the hot-air dryers for only 30 seconds grew an average of 25 colonies. “Hand dryers and jet air dryers are likely to increase the risk of the transmission of not only bacteria but also fungi and viruses compared to other hand drying methods such as paper towels,” concluded Keith Redway in his summary of the study. Students at Wilcox have said that, without paper towels, they avoid using air dryers completely. Some use their clothes to dry their hands, while others just shake them dry. “They’re not only unhygienic but they’re really loud,” said Wilcox student Belen Le Ray. “I always feel like I’m disrupting classrooms or bothering other people in the bathroom.” 

The argument to keep hot-air dryers and get rid of paper towels comes down to the price and the environmental efficiency. When asked about why the paper towel dispensers were emptied, head janitor Kevin Miller said “Due to cost and waste (the School District) asked us to stop filling them. We were spending a couple hundred thousand a year on paper towels just for the school. It was a big cost factor on that. That’s mainly the main reason why they took that away.” Paper towels are known, on average, to cost two to three times more than hot air dryers each month. Even though the upfront payment is more expensive for hand-drying machinery, they tend to pay for themselves after a month of heavy use. In a school setting where about 2,000 students are using a bathroom and washing their hands everyday, the cost is a huge factor. Contrary to the popular belief, modern air dryers are actually very eco-friendly. As they use bursts of air to dry their hands, they only use small amounts of energy at a time. Compared to paper towels, even recycled ones, which are quickly thrown away and often used two or three towels at a time, modern air dryers do not harm the planet as much.

The paper towel scarcity is not the only issue with the school bathrooms, as many stall doors have broken locks that are yet to be fixed. In the girls’ locker room, there are six stalls, three of which have broken locks. “I think that in a bathroom, especially in a locker room, you need to respect people’s privacy and a lot of people change in those bathrooms and they can’t do that with broken locks.” continued Belen. Oftentimes, the line to the bathroom leads all the way into the locker halls because of the limited stall availability. 

There is a lot of room for improvement in the school bathrooms based on Wilcox students’ concerns. But is it the right choice to restock paper towels when they are worse for the environment and cost more? Or should the student’s hygienic preferences trump other factors? “I believe that it is a permanent decision to take away the paper towels,” said Wilcox Vice Principal, George Niczewicz. “I think the reason that they were initially put in was for Covid protocol and then once those ended they stopped restocking them.”