You Won’t Believe How UC Davis Replaced Paper Towels With Hand Towels

Cutting trees causes landslides and flooding, and takes away homes from wildlife.  

Here at California Student Sustainability Coalition (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?  

Currently, California colleges and universities are racing to become zero waste institutions. As I reported last June, the University of California (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. “Me 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, General Sustainability News, Magazine, UC Campuses and tagged , , , .

For me, a San Francisco Bay Area local, social and environmental advocacy is deeply personal. I have a strong sense of place shaped by my region’s majestic setting before California’s interior waterways and the vast Pacific Ocean. Raised in a working class, immigrant Bengali family, I developed a checkered identity and a knack to challenge dominant narratives of our world and society at an early age. My thirst for equity and justice came of age when I entered higher education and was introduced to its inspiring communities of organizers, their tireless work, and of others around the greater Bay Area. An advocate of many trades, I campaigned for fossil fuel divestment in the halls of San Francisco State University, and I marched to bring awareness to climate and environmental justice issues in my ancestral South Asia, and along the refinery corridor of the Northeast San Francisco Bay, where my hometown of Benicia, CA resides. A storyteller at heart, I have written for the Earth Island Journal, and have performed writing, communications, and social media outreach roles for Sacred Fire Foundation, Turtle Island Restoration Network, Bioneers, and Save The Bay.  

School: San Francisco State University, 2014; Humboldt State University (expected graduation 2019)
Past roles with CSSC: 2014 Fossil Fuel Divestment Convergence Organizer
Major: B.A. Environmental Studies (Environmental Sustainability and Social Justice); M.A. Candidate, Environment and Community
Hometown: Benicia, CA