Piloting A Sustainability Initiative: Zero Waste At UC Davis’ Resident Halls

UC Davis’ Malcom Hall is piloting a waste reduction program to remove paper from its restrooms by encouraging residents to use their own cloth towel.

By. Daniel Adel

At CSSC, we are dedicated to advancing sustainability at our community and educational institutions. But how does our mission manifest itself in practice, and, at a level tangible to students? What factors make for a successful sustainability campaign or initiative?  These are recurring questions for many of us.

Currently, California colleges and universities are racing to become zero waste institutions. As I reported on last June, the UC adopted a zero waste resolution in 2008 with their complete diversion goal aimed for 2020. The system is already diverting 69% of its solid waste from landfills. Pilot zero waste programs now exist on most UC campuses, and some zero waste initiatives have become standard practice. Initial efforts have targeted the largest sources of waste, such as major events and building construction and demolition.

Hand towel holder at a Malcolm Hall restroom.

One of those pilot zero waste programs was funded by CSSC. Several years ago, we awarded a zero grant mini grant to UC Davis Student Housing and Dining Services for the purpose of piloting an initiative called Project Hand Towels. Originally running from 2014-15, Project Hand Towels was spearheaded by students and Student Housing staff to reduce the environmental impact of paper towel waste in the restrooms of UC Davis’ Malcom Hall. The project advocated personal change by encouraging residents to switch from using disposable paper towels to using hand towels provided to them while also being driven by the UC wide goal of going zero waste.

To check up on Project Hand Towel’s progress, I connected with Jenni Porter, who has been deeply involved with the project as the Student Housing’s Sustainability Coordinator.

“Since the completion of the original initiative in spring 2015, a program has been piloted in Malcolm Hall in which paper towels have been removed from the dispensers in the restrooms,” she said. This project picked up where the original left off, spanning the 2015-16 period. Porter clarified that the dispensers themselves were not removed, just the paper towels, in case needed for illness outbreaks. “We temporarily put papers towels back in the restrooms when there was a norovirus outbreak,” she mentioned. “Paper towels were left in the kitchenettes so residents would have access to them for guests or spills.”

To further motivate residents to make this switch during that period, Student Housing held a competition between Malcolm Hall’s four residential floors and provided a prize to the floor who had the largest paper towel reduction. The amount of paper towel rolls that were replaced in each bathroom were recorded each week and tallied per floor. The amount that a floor went through in a week was then compared to their baseline amount. This baseline was acquired by tallying the amount of paper towels a floor used on average per week during the four weeks prior to the competition. The competition winner was determined by which floor had the greatest cumulative decrease in paper towel usage over the four weeks in comparison to their projected baseline usage. The winner of the competition was floor 2, with a 16.7% reduction in paper towel usage.

Lockers at a Malcolm Hall restroom. Each resident has a place to store their towel.

Based on results and resident feedback, Student Housing will be running a another pilot project in Malcolm Hall, but taking a slightly different approach. Because many students chose to use their own hand towels over the free hand towels, they have encouraged the students moving into Malcolm Hall this fall to bring their own towel to use. Towel hooks and push in towel holders are currently being installed in the sinks for residents to hang their hand towel while washing their hands, brushing teeth, etc. The residents now have a place to store their towel in the restroom as each have access to a locker. Student Housing will be holding resident education programs to make the habit of using hand towels more ingrained.

According to Porter, the next step is to meet with leadership to see if Malcolm Hall can continue not providing paper towels in the restrooms and to see if the program can be expanded across campus. “Myself and my supervisor, with support from custodial, have proposed to leadership to remove paper towels from all, or at least one, of our three residential areas so that can run the pilot on a larger scale.”

2020 is now less than three years away. While it is too early to call the “race,” the efforts at UC Davis are commendable and worth exploring at other institutions.

Posted in _Featured, CSSC Blog, General Sustainability News, UC Campuses.