Wesleyan’s recent decision to remove paper towels from most residential buildings has provoked sharp opposition from students. While the decision may be unpopular, it also motivated me, an Eco-Facilitator for the Sustainability Office, to take a look back through the Argives to examine other monumental changes the University has implemented in the name of sustainability. 

2014: Sustainability Office Introduces EF Program

Some of Wesleyan’s most successful sustainability-related projects stemmed from the promising minds of students.

According to a 2014 article titled “Sustainability Office Launches Eco Facilitators Program” by then-Staff Writer Courtney Laermer ’17, Sustainability Director Jennifer Kleindienst introduced the idea during the spring of 2013. The first Eco-Facilitators (EF) cohort started in the fall of 2014 and worked in their positions for one academic year. 

EFs were tasked with promoting sustainable habits and environmentally responsible behaviors to their fellow peers. Furthermore, the EFs were responsible for implementing and organizing sustainability projects on campus. 

“We hope the EFs will foster an enduring culture of environmental awareness amongst the student body,” Sustainability Intern Rebecca Sokol ’15 said in the article. “The main goal is to inspire sustainable behavior change among students who may not be otherwise involved with the environmental scene on campus.”

The EFs were expected to participate in a multi-day retreat in August, weekly classes in the fall, and weekly meetings in the spring. According to the article, during the fall semester, the EFs were required to enroll in a half-credit course entitled “Sustainable Behavior Change” (ENVS300) to learn about local and national environmental issues and strategies that help change individual and collective behavior.

“Successfully promoting sustainable behavior change is something that takes a lot of time; I do not expect the program to transform the entire student body into compost enthusiasts within the first semester,” Sokol said in the article. “However, I’m hoping our pilot semester will get the ball rolling towards an increasingly sustainable student community.”

2015: Paper Towels Gone (Part One)

After a waste audit concluded that paper towels consist of 15% of campus waste, the University elected to remove paper towels from residential dorms and program houses. In a 2015 article entitled “To Reduce Waste, University Throws in the (Paper) Towel”, then-Assistant News Editor Natasha Nurjadin ’18 wrote that paper towels would still be available for non-hand washing uses in kitchens and lounges. For bathrooms, students were encouraged to bring individual hand towels, for which hooks would be provided. 

An EF survey on the previous year’s Butterfield residents found that only 39% of residents would be upset if paper towels were removed and hooks were installed to hang hand towels. 

“With the amount of waste reduction that would occur, I really don’t think it’s a big deal to walk down the hall and use a towel,” Paula Tartell ’18, an EF, said in the article. 

According to Nurjadin’s article, EFs in Butterfields A and C conducted an audit of paper towel usage. The audit found that removing paper towels was the most effective way to reduce waste in residential buildings—students still opted for paper towels when hand towels were accessible. 

“After we realized [eliminating paper towels was the most effective], we ran a couple of focus groups where we asked how [students] felt about removing paper towels and if it had a significant impact,” Matt Pelton ’17, an Eco Facilitator in Butterfield A, said in the article. “[We found] not many students were passionate about keeping them in the dorms.”

As a result, the EFs proposed the paper towel eliminations, specifically in first-year housing, to the Sustainability Office. The EFs hoped that by focusing on first-years, the students would continue to foster sustainable practices throughout their college years. 

The policy was suspended in 2020 due to COVID-19 protocol and pandemic health guidelines, which required increased usage of single-use materials such as paper towels to prevent the spread of the disease. With pre-pandemic practices now lifted, the University decided to review the paper towels policy once again. The University’s new policy removed paper towels from residential bathrooms, excluding one in each dorm for guests. In addition, paper towels are available for student purchase at WesShop and present in all other non-residential bathrooms.

2018: University Partners With Eversource Energy 

In an effort to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, the University signed a three-year agreement with Eversource Energy, the largest energy provider in the New England area. The partnership was officially announced on Oct. 31, 2018 when President Roth signed the agreement with Eversource Vice President of Government Affairs Margaret Morton.

In a 2018 article titled “Carbon Neutrality By 2050? University Partners With Eversource in an Effort to Increase Sustainability” then-Staff Writer Claire Isenegger ’21 wrote that the agreement is set to save the University 3.2 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. 

“This new agreement with Eversource makes energy efficiency more cost-effective for Wesleyan by locking in certain reimbursement rates, meaning that certain projects become less expensive,” Jennifer Kleindienst, Sustainability Director, wrote in an email to The Argus. “This may make previously financially infeasible projects viable.”

Isenegger’s article notes that the University has been working with Eversource Energy since 2005 and has reduced energy usage by 40% while saving $33.5 million in utility costs.

“Over the last 10 [years], Eversource Energy has funded nearly 30% of our major energy efficiency opportunities,” Facilities Business Manager Jeff Murphy said in an email to The Argus.

Eversource Energy’s partnership with the University helped equip Freeman Athletic Center, Olin Library, and the Usdan University Center with energy-efficient LED lighting. In addition, the Freeman Athletic Center’s cooling system was upgraded to end R-22 usage, a cooling chemical that harms the ozone layer when it’s released outside.   

The University’s decision to remove paper towels, for better or for worse, fits into a larger, longer history of Wesleyan’s sustainability efforts. While the battle to encourage individual action and correct systemic environmental injustices is far from over, I hope these accounts provide some context and clarity for worried paper towel users across campus.

Lyah Muktavaram can be reached at lmuktavaram@wesleyan.edu

“From the Argives” is a column that explores The Argus’ archives (Argives) and any interesting, topical, poignant, or comical stories that have been published in the past. Given The Argus’ long history on campus and the ever-shifting viewpoints of its student body, the material, subject matter, and perspectives expressed in the archived article may be insensitive or outdated, and do not reflect the views of any current member of The Argus. If you have any questions about the original article or its publication, please contact Head Archivist Sam Hilton at shilton@wesleyan.edu.

Comments are closed