Last Thursday, the Daily Nexus published an opinion piece about the Paper Towel Free Project, written by a student, Austin Yack. The Paper Towel Free Project provides a select group of residents with reusable cloth hand towels as an alternative to paper towels within the residence hall bathrooms. This project was created in collaboration with UCSB’s Zero Waste Committee, the Residential Hall Association and UCSB’s Housing & Residential Services.
While we, the co-chairs of the Zero Waste Committee, are open to criticism that is rooted in fact, we are not open to criticism that is based on misinformation and false accusations. Therefore, we would like to take this opportunity to address some of the claims that the author oh-so-boldly stated.
First, we’d like to set the record straight on the details of our project: there are currently a little over 200 students from both the Environmental and Black Scholars floors in Santa Rosa, along with the entire Cuyama house at Manzanita, piloting the project. Mr. Yack was misinformed when he claimed that we were solely piloting this project on the Environmental floor. In fact, two out of three of the students sampled are not from environmentally themed floors, a conscious choice that was made in order to create a more diverse pool of participants. Additionally, we’d like to clarify the purpose of our pilot project, which is to provide students with a sustainable alternative to paper towels. While the environmental aspect of our project is undeniable, its economic and social aspects must be acknowledged as well.
A waste audit revealed that Santa Rosa sends about 50,400 gallons of used paper towels to a landfill every year. Considering the fact that there are six other residence halls that use paper towels in their bathrooms, the total volume of paper towels sent to the landfill by Housing is several times higher. UCSB as an institution has committed itself to the UC-wide goal of zero waste by 2020. Obviously, UCSB cannot achieve this goal while sending this volume of paper towels to the landfill. While Mr. Yack believes that this goal is “lofty and unrealistic,” it is only unrealistic if projects such as ours do not get implemented.
If we have not yet convinced you about the significance of our project, maybe this next fact will: Housing has to spend an average of $43,351 per year on paper towels for the residence halls. On top of this expense, Housing also must pay for custodial services to supply the towels and collect and dispose of used paper towels, and for our waste hauler to take dumpsters full of paper towels to the landfill. These are all costs that could be eliminated immediately if the residence halls became paper towel free. The savings could instead be reallocated to other residence hall projects.
There are several overlooked benefits that our project offers. First, how many times have you walked into a residence hall bathroom and cringed at the sight of discarded paper towels coating the floor? We have received direct feedback from project participants noting that there is a significant difference in the cleanliness of their bathrooms versus bathrooms that still have paper towels. This aesthetic reward comes with the additional benefit in that custodial staff no longer have to spend time installing, removing, and cleaning up the paper towels. That time can now be spent more efficiently elsewhere.
Another issue that we would like to touch upon is the sanitation aspect of our project. There is no substantial evidence for a correlation between sickness and hand towel use. Mr. Yack argued that the inconveniences of washing their hand towels will prevent many students from doing so. Students are already responsible for washing their shower towels and sheets – adding a hand towel to this list should not be too inconvenient. Prior to move-in, participants were encouraged to come with extra hand towels so that they wouldn’t need to do laundry as frequently. Despite Mr. Yack’s bold accusation, our project does nothing to discourage personal hygiene.
Mr. Yack also criticized us for not installing hand dryers or considering composting as an alternative to the project. In fact, last year there was a pilot project in the residence halls that tested the possibility of installing hand dryers within the bathrooms. Unfortunately, they were considered by residents to be too noisy, making them an unsuitable alternative to paper towels. As far as composting, the Zero Waste Committee piloted a project last year in Ellison to test the feasibility of composting used paper towels. After considering the extra labor required combined with the additional cost of compostable trash liners, we determined that this, too, is not a viable alternative.
With this new information, we hope that Mr. Yack will acknowledge that we extensively explored all of his suggested options before deciding upon reusable hand towels.
Still not convinced that this project can work successfully? Well then, you should talk to UC Santa Cruz and UC San Diego who are both paper towel free within their residence halls. UCSB considers itself a leader in sustainability, and if we want to maintain this title, we need to adopt projects such as this one, where the benefits greatly outweigh the inconveniences. Gabriela Romo, a first-year student living in Santa Rosa perfectly touched upon this aspect when she wrote: “Although being paper towel free may seem inconvenient at first, students after a while realize that paper towels are in fact an unnecessary and wasteful part of our everyday life.”
In conclusion, for all of the many reasons stated above, we have no plans of tossing the project any time soon.
Izzy Parnell-Wolfe and Arriana Rabago are the co-chairs of UCSB’s Zero Waste Committee.