The Paper Towel Free Project: Reducing Waste Output One Paper Towel at a Time


Janani Ravikumar
Staff Writer

At the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, the Paper Towel Free Project, a collaboration between the Zero Waste Committee and University of California, Santa Barbara’s Residence Hall Association (RHA), was launched.

“The project is basically giving out a hand towel to each resident,” said Arriana Rabago, a third-year chemistry and environmental studies major and one of the co-chairs of the project. “[The residents] are expected to use that instead of paper towels… They’re expected to take it with them to the bathroom when they need to go and wash their hands, and they’re expected to take care of it.”

In order to reduce paper towel waste produced in residence halls, a small group of students was provided with cloth hand towels as an alternative to single use paper towels. Students in the Environmental Floor of Santa Rosa Hall and Cuyama House in Manzanita Village are now expected to bring their hand towel with them when they go to the bathroom, and the paper towel dispensers in the bathrooms on their floors have been emptied. In addition, hooks have been installed in bathrooms for students to hang their towels.

According to the official site, UC Santa Cruz inspired the movement here at UCSB and has already implemented such measures by removing paper towels from bathrooms in all residence halls across campus as of fall 2013. UCSC hopes to be a university committed to zero waste by 2020.

According to, while producers of paper towels claim that they use 100 percent recycled paper, in reality, paper towels contain an average of 50 percent of post-consumer recycled paper. In addition, paper towels themselves cannot be recycled, so most go to landfills.

In the United States alone, about 3,000 tons of paper towels are thrown away every day. Robert Gogan, the recycling and waste manager at Harvard University, reported that paper towels often account for 20 to 40 percent of waste, by volume. The Paper Towel Free Project seeks to combat this.

“The basis of the project is all about eliminating waste where waste needs to be eliminated,” said Izzy Parnell-Wolfe, a fourth-year global studies major and one of the co-chairs of the Zero Waste Committee. “Single use paper towels are extremely wasteful, and they account for a significant portion of what we send to the landfill at UCSB.”

Air dryers are a popular alternative; however, they unfortunately proved to be too noisy for residence halls, so students are now expected to use hand towels to dry their hands. Some students saw the project as impractical.

“Someone should get a big pack of paper towels from Costco and sneak it in during the night,” commented a Reddit user on UCSB’s Reddit page.

Opponents to the project believe that eliminating the use of paper towels entirely in residential halls is impractical, as paper towels have other uses besides drying wet hands. To combat this, paper towels will only be eliminated in the bathrooms, and a small supply of paper towels will be provided to the kitchenette and laundry room for spills and emergencies in which using a hand towel would be inappropriate.

Many students who were initially against the project eventually warmed up to the idea.

“I was expecting residents to be more resistant to [the project] than they have been,” said Henry Morse, the RA of the Environmental Floor. “They’ve even made ‘Towlie’ a floor mascot. Even the few who were first opposed to it have come around to support it.”

While the Paper Towel Free Project does face some controversy, our school may soon join the ranks of UCSC and take one step closer to saving resources and reducing landfill waste.