Have you ever thought about how many paper towels you use each day? We all know that it’s important to wash our hands to prevent the spread of germs, but what do all those disposable paper towels mean for the environment? Most people use about 3,000 disposable paper towels outside of their homes each year, and all these paper towels make up about 35-40 percent of waste from college campuses. While one solution may be to simply recycle these used paper towels, the material out of which they are made is actually not recyclable so they still go to the landfill. Another possible solution is the use of hand dryers over disposable paper towels. While this would significantly decrease the amount of waste we produce, hand dryers are often extremely noisy and still leave major carbon footprint from their manufacturing process and energy use.
The easiest solution to this wasteful problem can be found by looking at other cultures. In Japan, there are no disposable paper towels available in public restrooms. As a result, everybody carries a reusable hand towel around with them. This widespread use of reusable towels comes from a societal mindset very different from what is seen in the United States. Japanese culture does not place the same value on disposable products that American culture does. This difference in values likely comes from the minimal land area available in Japan for landfills. While the United States may have more space in which to put waste, we are filling up landfills at an alarming and unsustainable rate.
So how can the Colgate community begin to reduce our reliance on disposable paper towels? The easiest way to make a difference is to bring a hand towel with you when using the bathroom in your dorm. You likely already have a towel hanging on the back of your door so just grab it on the way out. To go a step further, a small hand towel can easily be kept in your backpack for use around campus. When making new changes like these, it can be easy to forget at first. However, after about three weeks new habits will form, and you’ll be amazed by how many paper towels you previously used.
Despite our widespread societal valuing of disposable products, some colleges are taking major steps to decrease the amount of paper towels in their waste stream. University of California (UC), Santa Cruz went paper towel free in 2013 after a successful pilot program in one of their dorms the year before. UC Santa Barbara also recently removed paper towel dispensers and provided all students with a small reusable hand towel.
Here at Colgate, the Office of Sustainability is working with the reusable hand towel company PeopleTowels to determine the feasibility of college students accepting this shift away from disposable towels. Since disposable paper towels make up so much of waste streams on college campuses, a shift towards reusable solutions may significantly decrease environmental impact. According to PeopleTowels, after one year of implementing reusable towels each person can “save a quarter of a tree, reduce landfill waste by 23 lbs, conserve 250 gallons of water, and cut carbon emissions by 34 lbs.” Hopefully, seeing what a big impact such a small change can have will inspire all of us in the Colgate community to think twice before using disposable paper towels.