Living Green in the Dorms: Easing into It

As a first year, there is so much to take in: classes, new people, a new home, and maybe a little culture shock. Making environmentally conscious decisions may not be a priority while you adjust to life at UVa. Little changes can go a long way, though, and don’t disrupt your day at all! In this series of “Living Green in the Dorms,” we’ll explore different ways to reduce negative impact on the environment through your daily life on-Grounds.

Students pose with Dean of Students Allen Groves at Sunday’s Honor Convocation.
WWDGD? (What Would Dean Groves Do?) Photo: Sanjay Suchak, Taken from

Let’s start with something simple: paper towels. Ah, the shining beacon of hygiene in our dorm bathrooms. According to a study published in 2012 in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, “paper towels are superior to electric air dryers” regarding the spread of bacteria (Huang, Ma, & Stack). The reasoning behind this finding is that wet hands spread bacteria more easily than dry hands; we are more likely to completely dry our hands with paper towels rather than with an air dryer. While I am all for cleanliness (especially in the time of “dorm plague”), an incredible amount of waste is produced by paper product use around the world. Estimates of global bathroom tissue waste fall around 250 million tons of waste per year (“How to Reduce Your Paper Towel Use,” 2014). Paper products make up about 40% of landfill volume (Green Seal “Bathroom Tissue and Paper Towels,” 2004). A small part of our day can add up globally.

Our paper towel dispenser in Balz-Dobie
My hand towel (and my bloom-less mums)

Because paper towels are such a small part of our daily lives, it’s easy to adjust to an eco-friendly alternative. Whenever you go to the bathroom in your dorm, bring a hand towel. As long as you hang the towel to dry after each use and switch it out once or twice during the week, this is a sanitary method of hand drying. The Mayo Clinic’s study also concentrated on how fast different hand drying methods absorb water, and cloth towels won out over paper (Huang, Ma, & Stack, 2012). Dryer hands means cleaner hands, people!

You may be wondering if the additional water used to wash these towels offsets the resources you save by not using paper towels. If you’re like me and you only have two or three hand towels, you’ll need to wash them once a week. One load of laundry per week adds up to 27 gallons of water used, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Water Use Calculator (a handy tool; check it out here). By measuring how much energy it requires to produce a week’s worth of paper towels, we can figure how much water was consumed to produce that energy (surprisingly, water is used in most energy producing plants, including natural gas, coal, and nuclear plants). PeopleTowels, a company producing reusable cloth towels, estimates in their report on paper waste that a person using a public bathroom 5 times a day for a week consumes 23 lbs of paper. It takes 3 gallons of water to produce a pound of paper towels (far more to produce finer quality paper), so we end up with approximately 60-70 gallons of water consumed each week through our use of paper towels (Chan, 2012).

In short, it is far nicer to our friends, trees and water, to use cloth towels over paper ones. It’s still early in the semester, and there is ample time to form this waste-reducing habit. Remember: just because we bleed orange and blue doesn’t mean we can’t be GREEN, too!



Chan, Casey. (2012, June 21). It Takes a Hell of a Lot More Water Than You Think to Make Jeans, Burgers, Pizza, and Other Stuff. [Web log]. Retrieved from

Green Seal (2004, March). Choose Green Report: Bathroom Tissue and Paper Towels. Retrieved from

Huang, C., Ma, W., & Stack, S. (2012). The Hygienic Efficacy of Different Hand-Drying Methods: A Review of the Evidence. Mayo Clinic Proceedings,87(8), 791–798. (2014, June 19). How to Reduce Your Paper Towel Use. [Web log]. Retrieved from

PeopleTowels. (2015). Environmental Impact Facts. Retrieved from

Piro, Lauren. (2014, Nov 26). How Often Should You Wash Your Towels? Good Housekeeping. Retrieved from


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