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Monday, April 30, 2012

May 2012 Sustainability Profile: The Paper Towel Debate

Did you know that paper towel waste makes up 40% of the trash that UC Santa Cruz produces--by weight? Even if you didn’t know that, anyone who’s ever used a restroom stocked with paper towels knows how quickly those trash cans fill up with half-dry paper towels, which are often barely used to their maximum absorbency before another paper towel is pulled from the dispenser. We hardly think about it in our day-to-day lives, especially since many people use cloth hand towels at home. In the dorms at UCSC, however, paper towels are in every bathroom, and they are a huge contributor to campus waste.

Five years ago as a freshman in Stevenson College, Aidan Ward noticed the wastefulness of the dorm paper towel dispensers. Since then, he’s been working on getting the disposable towels removed and encouraging fellow students to bring their own cloth hand towels to the restroom. After years of various tactics, and now with the support of Path to A Greener Stevenson (PTAGS) and the Sustainability Office’s Zero Waste Team, paper towels have been removed from dorm restrooms in Stevenson’s Sustainability House (Casa Segunda) in the first phase of a pilot program aimed at removing all paper towels from residential dormitory restrooms on campus.

Sound like a shocking proposal? In fact, the paper towel debate is a hot topic among UC housing managers from across the state. On April 17, during the UC Housing System Facilities Summit at the University Center on the UCSC campus, a system-wide meeting of housing managers focused on sustainability initiatives. When Chris Attias, UCSC Director of Housing Services & Facilities, began discussing waste reduction and paper towels during his presentation on UCSC housing and sustainability topics, hands went up around the room with details about various UC campuses’ experiences with the paper towel waste issue.

Sanitation Concerns
The first question that arises in discussions about paper towels is why they’re there in the first place, and the answer is sanitation. A number of years ago, paper towels were installed in the UCSC dorm bathrooms to decrease the likelihood of people getting sick. Paper towels can help with sanitation because they get the germs off of your hands completely after washing, and both the paper towel and your germs end up in the trash. There’s also, of course, a convenience factor, but the main concern regarding their removal in the dorms for is sanitation.

A paper towel dispenser in a Stevenson Casa Cuarta restroom. You can see how full the trash bin next to it is with used paper towels. "These Come From Trees" signs are posted on many of the paper towel dispensers in dorm restrooms, but paper towel waste remains a huge contributor to overall campus waste.
Sanitation concerns are certainly not an unknown obstacle to Ward’s campaign to remove the paper towels. As a freshman, and again last year, Ward purchased used hand towels at thrift stores and hung them in bathrooms throughout the Stevenson dorms in hopes that students would use them instead of paper. He asked other RAs in Stevenson to tell their residents to wash the hand towel whenever they did laundry so that it would be washed regularly. Unfortunately, there was no way of knowing when the towel had last been washed, and there was a concern among students and staff that the towels weren’t being cleaned or were being contaminated with germs. So the towels were removed.

Why Not Compost?
One of the next questions that comes up regarding paper towel waste is, Why not compost them? As we just learned, paper towel waste is 40% of the waste stream by weight, which seems enormous since paper towels weigh so little. “It adds up,” remarked Silas Snyder, Safety, Training and Conservation Coordinator for UCSC Housing and Dining, after sharing this statistic during the UC housing managers meeting. The paper towels are compostable, but because of the large amount of them being thrown away, they will not break down. For compost to work, there has to be enough carbon-rich, wet material to break down the drier materials. On a small scale, this is possible to achieve, but there are just too many paper towels in the waste stream for this to work in the dorms.

Hand Dryers
What about hand dryers? This is one solution that Ward discussed with PTAGS, but the cost, noise, and energy-use were concerns that just didn’t make sense when paper towels could just be removed instead. At other campuses, hand dryers were actually piloted in one dorm bathroom, but because they’re noisy and so close to students’ living quarters, students in the pilot dorm were reluctant to use the dryer and requested that the paper towels be put back. A Sustainability Director at UC Davis actually researched the data on electric dryers versus paper towels, and found that if the paper towels were composted, they would have a smaller net carbon footprint. Additionally, dryers require maintenance, which adds to their overall cost.

Simplest Solution
The simplest solution seems to be to remove the paper towels. One of the UC housing managers mentioned that they simply do not have paper towels in their dorm bathrooms. Another housing manager from UC Davis said that they have lockers and cubbies in their restrooms, like the cubbies in UCSC dorms. Students can leave their personal toiletries and hand towels in these cubbies so they don’t have to remember to bring them with them. Even if students don’t have their cloth hand towel with them, as long as they wash their hands well, letting them air dry is another great solution. 

The Pilot Program
With the help of PTAGS, Ward submitted an official proposal for a pilot program, which was well-received by Sue Matthews, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Colleges, Housing and Educational Services, who expressed her concerns but has approved the initial phase to gather results on waste reduction and student and staff response. Changes such as this can cause pushback from custodial staff who stock and clean the dorm restrooms, but fortunately, Ward has been in communication with the Sustainability House custodian regarding the change and the steps required to measure the paper towel waste. So far the process has not generated any negative responses.

Two weeks ago, signs went up in the Sustainability House restrooms that read: 
A sign in one of the Sustainability House restrooms where paper towels have been removed as part of a pilot program to reduce paper towel waste and encourage students to think and behave more sustainably.

Paper towels are no longer being stocked in the Casa Segunda restroom dispensers, but a small stack is there in case of emergencies. PTAGS purchased a few hand towels for students who didn’t already have one, but other than that, students are expected to bring their own hand towel to the restroom or do without. Later in the quarter, PTAGS will conduct a survey for students to see how they feel about the change. Zero Waste Team member David Boyle has been active in working with PTAGS to obtain data from the waste generated from the Stevenson dorms, and he will continue to work on this project for the rest of the quarter. If all goes well with the pilot program, PTAGS plans to expand the project to all of the Stevenson dorms and, eventually, to the entire campus.

Hopefully the pilot program will be a success in Casa Seguna. It's fitting that the program begin in this house, since it's Stevenson's Sustainability house, "a house where events and community involvement tends toward creating a more sustainable college,” Ward remarked. He lives in this house as an RA, so he will be able to experience the paper towel removal project first-hand. “It’s all about encouraging students to adopt sustainable behaviors. Hopefully they’ll stick.”

Aidan Ward standing with a new sign in a Sustainability House dorm restroom. Only one stack of paper towels are being set out each week by custodial staff to encourage students to bring their own hand towels. The paper towels are there for emergency spills.

With the paper towel removal project and its future expansion possibilities to all of UCSC, sustainable behaviors such as using cloth hand towels in place of paper towels in the restroom will become a day-to-day reality for students in the dorms--and hopefully these sustainable behaviors will follow these students throughout their lives.


Aidan Ward will be graduating this year with a bachelor’s degree in health science. His plans after UCSC include “playing music as much as possible” and attending medical school. We wish him the best of luck in his future, and we thank him for the great foundational work he’s done in making Stevenson, and UCSC, a more sustainable community.

This Sustainability Profile was written by Melissa Ott, Internship Coordinator Assistant and Newsletter Editor for the Campus Sustainability Office. If you know of a person or group on campus that you think we should profile, or if you would like to be profiled, please email Melissa.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Every small personal action to protect our planet and resources for future generations adds up! Congratulations to Aidan Ward and UC Santa Cruz!