What the Removal of Paper Towels at OCAD U Taught Us About Implementing Sustainable Practices
Sarah Holloway

This January, the paper towel dispensers were abruptly removed from OCAD University’s public washrooms. The removal process was overseen by the school’s Facilities Planning and Management unit in response to an internal survey conducted by the university that found roughly 8% of all campus waste is comprised of paper towels. Since then, the resulting community outcry in response to their removal has led the administration to reconsider its policy. Paper towels will soon be reinstalled in OCAD U’s washrooms.

Despite news of the policy reversal, the students and faulty of OCAD U should not move on and forget what has taken place over the last month. Rather, this incident should be used to better understand how to best implement sustainable practices on campus.

Lessons in How to Implement Sustainable Practices

Beverly Dywan, an OCAD U industrial design professor, suggests that it is through promoting a sustainable culture that the school can work towards become a more sustainable campus. The Valentine’s Day Sewathon, hosted in conjunction with the Repair Cafe (taking place from 11am to 2pm on the 1st floor of 100 McCaul) is Dywan’s response to the removal of paper towels and her attempt to find a better and more sustainable solution. The Sewathon is organized by a small group of volunteers who will be sewing a Japanese tenugui (personal cotton hand-towels) out of upcycled fabric. A tenugui will be given to all students and faculty who sign a sustainability manifesto. Dywan is hoping this event will promote effective yet sustainable handwashing practices.

Dywan decided to get involved when she noticed a potential health problem emerging after the removal of the paper towels as “students were often [not always] going ‘lite’ on the hand washing and drying… There was a radio piece on CBC about hand drying at this same time. The stats were that warm air dryers are less effective -- and can even spread viruses -- far more so than paper or fabric hand drying.” The radio segment that Dywan was referring to was an interview with Keith Redway, a Fellow in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Westminster. In the interview, Redway discussed his research on the use of hand dryers in public washrooms. He found that, when using hand dryers, viruses present on people’s hands were blown as far as 3 meters away, and we able to linger in the air for up to 15 minutes. Redway found that hand dryers are an inferior means of cleaning one’s hands, and that paper and fabric products were far more effective at containing viruses. Dywan’s Sewathon aims to provide students with a more sustainable alternative to paper towels, while promoting healthy hand-washing practices. With the help of the OCAD U community, Dywan hopes that the Sewathon becomes an annual tradition, and that the tenugui become a part of the school’s culture.

What makes Dywan’s approach especially laudable is its inclusion of students and faculty in both the design and execution of her Sewathon event. While investigating the issue, Dywan reached out to the Health and Sustainability offices for their expertise and discussed her ideas with students and faculty.

Lessons in Communication and Community Engagement

In contrast, with virtually no advances notice or consultation with students, OCAD U Facilities implements a campus-wide policy change that removed all paper towels from the school’s public washrooms -- provided that the affected washroom had at least one ‘functioning’ hand dryer. The lack of communication between administration and the greater OCAD U community left students without enough information to understand the sudden policy change or means to engage in the process. The signs that were places in the washrooms explained that the decision to remove the paper towels was made by the Facilities Planning and Management Green Initiatives, a council that when further investigated, could not be found or held to account.

Poor communication was evident in other areas as well. Dywan explained that when she spoke to Victoria Ho, the ODESI Sustainability Coordinator -- the only person at OCAD U who is responsible for advocating for sustainability -- she had not been told of the policy change until after the fact. Although the Facilities and Planning Management unit used sustainability reports produced by the university, Ho was not consulted in the decision-making process.

The administration’s failure to communicate internally, and with those most affected by the change -- students and faculty -- helps to explain the policy’s failure to gain acceptance. A strong argument for the removal of paper towels from OCAD U washrooms can be made. Eight percent of total waste is a substantial amount. If the issue was considered and discussed more openly with student and faculty, I believe that the policy could have been adapted to better fit OCAD U.

There are many changes that the school could implement to reduce paper towel water. Beverly Dywan’s Sewathon is one example of a creative solution. Another solution may be to compose paper towel waste from the washrooms. Paper towels cannot be recycled -- especially not paper towels contaminated with non-biodegradable materials such as paint or cleaning chemicals -- which may be why they were removed from the washrooms, but not any studio classrooms. However, paper towels that are just wet from freshly washed hands are fine to compost.

What Now?

It is a positive sign that OCAD U is attempting to cut down on waste, but we must also consider how our waste is being disposed of. OCAD U has yet to fully implement a composting system despite multiple suggestions from the student body to do so.

The removal of paper towels from OCAD U’s washrooms has taught us that moving towards more sustainable practices is difficult and multifaceted. With more purposeful community involvement, we can work together to create positive change.

Sustainability affects everyone, and the decisions that the administration makes should be made in conjunction with students and faculty. Successful design is built on collaboration and communication -- OCAD U needs to tackle sustainability in the same way.

What You Can Do

  • Attend the Sewathon!

  • Sign the sustainability petition!

  • Stay informed about how OCAD U is looking to promote sustainable change!

  • Participate in the Work Compost Workshop being held by ODESI, which can be found at the following web address: