College considers removing paper towels from dorms

In tandem with recent budget cutting measures, the College is considering eliminating paper towels from dormitory bathrooms in order to cut spending as well as institute more environmentally conscious policies. After prolonged dispute over the financial cost and unnecessary waste that their use would create, paper towels were first installed in the dorm bathrooms about three years ago. At the time, the estimated cost of maintaining the paper towels, as well as soap, was about $8,000. Now, the provision of paper towels for dorm bathrooms costs the College over $13,000 a year, and the used towels themselves constitute 14 percent of the dorms’ total waste stream. Additionally factoring into the environmental impact associated with the paper towels are the water, energy and chemicals used in their manufacture, the fuels consumed in their transportation and distribution around campus as well as their contribution to the production of methane – one of the more potent greenhouse gases – once disposed of in landfills.
Diana Prideaux-Brune, associate vice president of Facilities, and Stephanie Boyd, director of the Zilkha Center, first suggested the initiative to eliminate paper towels from dorm bathrooms at a sustainability meeting in March, and the discussion has since grown to involve the Office of Campus Life, Health Services and College Council (CC).
“As we try to develop a more sustainable campus, we are striving to find a balance between financial cost, convenience and environmental impact,” Boyd said. Though a blanket elimination is not necessarily being proposed, “we would like to see paper towels eliminated wherever it is reasonable to do so,” she said.
In the coming weeks, Facilities staff will be meeting with neighborhood representatives to get a better sense of students’ needs. “College Council is working closely with Facilities on this issue,” said CC co-presidents Lizzy Brickley ’10 and Mike Tcheyan ’10 in a statement.
“We want to help Facilities cut down its budget while at the same time making sure that students maintain services that are important to their quality of life. While we are not in favor of removing all paper towels from dormitory bathrooms, we are looking for areas where residents may not be in such need of these amenities.”
CC plans to solicit the neighborhood governance boards for assistance in talking to students about this issue. “[The neighborhood boards] know the residential needs of their students better than CC does,” Brickley and Tcheyan said. “In that sense, we hope that they can either poll or talk informally with their dorm residents to figure out paper towel needs with student input. Student feedback will be taken into account on a more local level.”
Currently, the College is considering the installation of towel hooks in the bathrooms as a replacement for paper towels. According to Boyd, though there would be some water and energy consumption associated with cleaning towels, the environmental impact would still be less than that resulting from the use of paper towels.
In light of this initiative, CC is exploring the potential of a “cow-towels” program that would be similar to the distribution of CUPPS cups.
“Cow-towels would be small, highly absorbent, decorated hand towels that would be given to students at the beginning of each academic year,” Brickley and Tcheyan said. “With the addition of hooks in bathrooms that don’t already have them, we believe that this ‘cow-towels’ program could compensate for loss of paper towels.”
Though the initiators of the plan believe that it can benefit the campus, they acknowledge drawbacks as well. “The advantages [of eliminating paper towels] are a significant reduction in operating costs, which can be used for other priorities, and a significant drop in the volume of our waste stream to landfills,” Prideaux-Brune said. “[However], having paper towels in the bathrooms may encourage more students to wash their hands, and frequent hand-washing is important to keeping the individual and the campus healthy. We are concerned that removing the paper towels will somehow reduce the incentive to wash hands.”
“We have to consider what the [student] response to removing paper towels will be,” Boyd said. “If students choose to purchase paper towels to replace [those removed], we will have just shifted the financial burden from the College to the students and not reduced any of the environmental impact.”
Although the College is currently in talks about paper towel elimination plan, the viability of the plan has not yet been established. “The final decision will come from the senior administration based on our final recommendation,” Prideaux-Brune said.