Many of you Wesleyan students have probably noticed a change within the hallowed halls of many campus lavatories. At first, all seems normal as you go about your business: the familiar anxiety when you push open the stall door, the sigh of relief when you haven’t walked in on someone, and the awkwardness of unsynchronized tinkles pinging against the porcelain bowl. Finally, as most of us have hopefully been trained to do, you flush and wash your hands. It is here, in a moment of vulnerability—hands dripping, cell phone safely dry in your waistband or your mouth—in which one stumbles upon the change. Although the plastic paper towel dispensers remain, their friendly faces have been covered with a sign that reads: “This Dispenser Has No Paper. Why? Reduced waste* *waste audits indicate that Paper Towels represent 15% of the total waste stream at Wesleyan University. Use your own hand towel to dry your hands after washing or use the Hand Sanitizer provided in this bathroom.”
Before moving forward, I find it necessary to include that the following discussion of this problematic adjustment to Wesleyan facilities is written with appreciation for the existence of larger problems on campus (beyond paper towels), a recognition of more significant global issues relating to public health and the environment, and a nod to Wesleyan students’ continuing attempts to improve our campus and community.
That being said, I contend that the reason paper towels account for a staggering 15% of Wesleyan’s waste stream is likely more reflective of irresponsible use than of simply having access to them. In the past, when taking paper towels to wipe their hands after washing them, people have often taken way more than they probably need. This isn’t because we are purposefully wasteful or don’t believe in the importance of environmental activism, but instead it is a reflection of the natural inclination towards laziness. Or, sometimes the too-much-paper-towel issue may simply be a technological issue: pulling too hard on the piece of paper towel coming out often results in the ejection of many more squares than expected, and as the dispensers often get clogged, sometimes turning the knob on the side of the dispenser unlocks an unstoppable cascade of accordion-folded paper towel.
In 1973, psychologists J.M. Darley and C.D Batson published a study they had conducted titled “‘From Jerusalem to Jericho’: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior.” Batson and Darley, interested in examining the relationship between attitudes and behaviors, crafted an experiment in which one of the manipulated variables was how much of a hurry the subjects would be in when they encountered a clearly ailing man (a confederate of the study) on the side of the road. The results of the study revealed that the aid and degree of helpfulness given to the sick roadside man significantly decreased among those who were in a hurry (in other words, students offered less help when they needed to be somewhere soon).
While helping an ailing man certainly presents a more extreme moral dilemma than paper towel usage, the results of this study are relevant in what they reveal about behavior while we are in a rush. Considering that we are busy college students during an era of constant distraction, and plagued by pressure to overfill our schedules and social calendars, it seems like a fair estimate that the majority of the times we are rushing out of the bathroom, the amount of paper towels that come out of the holder is the least of our concerns. In fact, increased hurry is likely correlated with increased likelihood of poor paper towel form: the more of a rush you are in, the more quickly you tug the towel, the more excess paper towels will come out, and because you are in a rush, the more likely you will be to crumple them all up, aim at the garbage can, and then be too hurried to pick up your surely missed 3-pointer.
This combination of our constant rush (and resulting thoughtlessness) and the unfortunate logistical fact that the times we most often use the bathroom and/or need paper towels (right when we wake up, when we’re drunk or cleaning up a friend’s hangover, when we go to bed, after we drink/eat) are often also our laziest times is the fatal flaw. Our wastefulness and disrespect towards custodial services vis-à-vis paper towel usage is telling of an underlying lack of deliberate care and conscientiousness. There is a responsible and reasonable way to use paper towels. If we slow down (take an extra five seconds at most), narrow our focus to a singular task, carefully use both hands to gently tug on the inch of hanging paper towel, be conservative with how many we use, and clean up after ourselves and even each other, we can surely reduce both waste and the burden on custodial staff.
Additionally, the lack of paper towels in the bathrooms is also an issue from a public health standpoint. Especially on the petri dish we call a college campus, an environment in which close contact (hugging, touching, bumping, sharing, hooking up, self-serving our food, sharing our restrooms) is pretty much unavoidable, good handwashing practices are imperative to avoiding sickness and disease. According to the CDC, proper hand washing (which notably concludes with effective hand-drying technique) is an extremely useful method of preventing the spread of both microbes and germs. The Mayo Clinic website also recommends the use of a “clean or disposable towel or air-dryer” to dry your hands. In applying this medical advice to the suggestions offered by the signs on the paper towel dispensers, a critical issue lies in the signs’ suggestion to use ‘your own hand-towel.’ Considering the average college student’s laundry habits—or lack thereof—it is overly optimistic to assume that the personal hand towel they will be using (and carrying around with them everywhere?) will be anywhere close to “clean.” Furthermore, if the mission of the paper towel removal is to reduce environmental impact, the amount of water, detergent, and energy used to consistently have a clean hand towel available would lead to the creation of a substantial amount of waste. Ultimately, the efficient use of one or two disposable towels provides a better alternative for a healthy community than Wesleyan’s current suggestion to use “your own” towels and/or hand sanitizer.
True, as idealistic but sleep-deprived college students, we may often suffer from an unfortunate tendency towards sloth and apathy in the realm of self-care. However, the eradication of paper towels is infantilizing at best and unsafe at worst. Keeping this article’s original disclaimer in mind, I hope to invoke a critical dialogue about responsibility and conscientiousness, not invite arguments of ‘first-world’ vs. ‘third-world problems’. May paper towels (or their notable absence) be a catalyst for informed discussion, not a vehicle for, literal, shit-talking.
Solomon is a member of the Class of 2018.