Restroom Recycling Aims to Reduce Paper Towel Waste

January 20, 2011

Following a successful pilot in Huntsman Hall, a project to recycle paper towels in restrooms will be expanded to additional buildings over the next couple months. Since many Penn buildings do not have electric hand dryers installed in restrooms, paper towels used to dry hands can quickly add up to a considerable amount of waste.

Due to the nature of the paper recycling process, recycling paper towels in the past often proved to be a complicated task. Every time paper is recycled, the fibers get shorter. After being recycled five to seven times, the fibers become too short to bond into new paper. New fibers are added to replace the unusable fiber that wash out of the pulp during the recycling process. A single sheet of paper may contain new fibers as well as fibers that have already been recycled several times.

After summer facility upgrades allowed for more materials to be accepted by Penn’s recycling hauler, Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES) staff began discussing the logistics for a pilot project to recycle paper towels. Huntsman Hall served as the first test location after data from a 2010 Earth Day waste audit revealed that paper products such as towels and napkins accounted for approximately 30 percent of the building’s waste stream.

Grey and black trash bags were switched out for blue recycling liners in restrooms, making the transition seamless for housekeepers. Combined with other ongoing waste reduction initiatives in the building, the paper towel recycling pilot has helped raise Huntsman Hall’s overall recycling rate from 16 percent to nearly 30 percent, and reduce overall waste by approximately 13 percent (from 21 tons/month to 18 tons/month) since the project began in September. Wharton also launched a deskside recycling pilot at Wharton Computing in Vance Hall earlier this month. After removing all deskside trash cans and improving central recycling stations, the volume of recyclables tripled over the course of two weeks.

FRES plans to expand the paper towel recycling pilot to more campus buildings with continued success in Huntsman Hall and other test locations, including its own offices in the Left Bank.

UPDATE: In December 2010, the School of Medicine launched paper towel recycling in all of its public restrooms, an effort that the school anticipates will significantly increase the overall percentage of materials recycled on campus.


There are approximately 7,000 trees on Penn’s campus—568 of which are in Penn Park.

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