Trial run explores composting paper towels from campus bathrooms

A pilot project that launches in the Lloyd Veterinary Medical Center next week could lead to used paper towels feeding campus plants instead of filling up landfill space.

Through the end of the spring semester, nine bathrooms in the medical center will have two disposal bins -- one for paper towels, one for other garbage. Custodians will keep bags from the bins separate, taking the paper towels to a dumpster that campus services will deliver weekly to the university's compost facility adjacent to the ISU dairy farm south of Ames.

If the pilot runs smoothly, devoted receptacles for paper towels could be available in some campus bathrooms as soon as this fall -- a potentially significant way to help the university progress in its goal to keep 85% of the waste produced on campus from becoming landfill trash by 2025. In 2020, 73% of the 11,349 tons of waste generated on campus was diverted.

How much of that trash was paper towels? The precise amount is unknown, but a lot of it was. In a recent audit of trash at Frederiksen Court apartment complex, more than 40% of garbage by volume was paper towels, said Ayodeji Oluwalana, recycling and special events coordinator for facilities planning and management (FPM).

"Restrooms are one of the few places we're picking up garbage every day, and most of the garbage there is paper towels," said Michelle Lenkaitis, FPM custodial services senior manager.

Compliance is key

The push to compost paper towels came from Student Government's sustainability committee, which began working on the project this fall with Oluwalana, Lenkaitis and sustainability director Merry Rankin. The group decided to begin with a pilot project to see how the initiative would work.

"Everything starts with a first step. Until you try it, you just don't know," Rankin said.

To send paper towels to the compost pile, the bags that contain them need to be compostable, too. Several options were tested over the two-month winter break, and all broke down quickly in the ISU compost facility.

The animal hospital was selected as the pilot site because it still has relatively typical occupancy. Beginning March 1, visitors will see a green compostable bag in the usual garbage cans, which will have signs indicating they are for paper towels only. The trash-only cans will be smaller. Signs describing the project also will be posted outside the bathrooms and in common areas.

"There will be a few cues to help restroom users," Rankin said.

Compliance will be the key consideration to study in the pilot. If the paper towel bins are contaminated with other refuse, it will disrupt the composting process. Getting feedback from custodial staff also will be important, as they're taking on additional work.

"It's an extra step, but one that we're willing to take to support the zero-waste plan," Lenkaitis said.

Incremental expansion

If the project is a success, broadening the effort would be incremental and likely start with just a few high-traffic spots.

There are a number of challenges to scaling up paper towel composting campuswide. One is the cost. The compostable bags can be three times as expensive as the university's regular trash can liners, though Oluwalana noted there would be savings from reduced landfill fees.

"Realistically, we have to look at budgets, as that's another element of sustainability," Rankin said.

Adding compost as another disposal option on campus would require finding places for compost dumpsters outside buildings, space many facilities don't have, Lenkaitis said. And even if the process works for custodial crews, that doesn't mean campus services has the staff for the deliveries to the compost facility -- which might not have the capacity to take on the entirety of campus paper towel usage.

"The pilot's going to be interesting, but there still will be a lot of work to do," Lenkaitis said.