Environmental stickers don’t stick to the facts

by Kiersten Ridgel

I

n a girls’ bathroom near Little Theatre 161, there’s a green and white sticker on a paper towel dispenser that reads, “Remember…These come from trees.” It isn’t the only one; these stickers have appeared in bathrooms across San Diego State. They’ve spread throughout the U.S. to at least 14 other countries. Universities, airports, office buildings and schools are using these stickers to eliminate excess paper waste.  However, the sticker makes a claim I find hard to believe: “This sticker will save up to 100 lbs. of paper every year.”

If each person who sees this sticker uses one less paper towel, lots of paper could be saved. But it’s outrageous to claim that one sticker can save 100 pounds of paper from one dispenser per year. In fact, the only field study for this claim was carried out in a single cafe bathroom in just one week.

The web address on the sticker leads to a blog written by creator Peter Kazanjy.

“A non-judgmental, helpful reminder at the moment of consumption can really help reduce down the amount of unintentional waste we produce,” Kazanjy wrote on the blog. He maintained the blog since he started the sticker project in February 2007. On the site, the stickers are available in various quantities, including a roll of 1,000 stickers for $149. It’s the buyer’s responsibility to place the stickers on any paper-dispensing machines they see fit.

The only study I found giving concrete evidence of paper towel conservation was the case of Hunt Valley Elementary School. This school reduced its paper towel use from 6,200 pounds to 1,800 pounds in one year by posting 50 of these stickers in its bathrooms. That means each of the 50 stickers saved about 88 pounds of paper towels, which is a lot, but not up to par with the 100-pound claim. This equates to an $840 reduction in janitorial supply costs and supposedly saved 18 trees.

However, those trees weren’t doomed to become pulp for bathroom paper towels. According to an article in Stanford Magazine, paper towels are “generally made from recycled paper.” Despite how much Kazanjy would like to blame paper towels for killing trees, most of those paper towels were papers of other kinds long before they made it to bathroom dispensers. “If recycled materials were not used, 3.5 tons of virgin wood would be needed in order to manufacture one ton of bathroom tissue,” according to Whole Building Design Guide’s Green Seal’s Report in 2004. That’s a whole lot more than what we really use because paper making fibers can be recycled five to seven times before it gets too small to even recycle, according to Stanford Magazine.

Unfortunately, those paper towels in bathroom dispensers have hit the end of the line. They are the last usable form of recycled paper before the paper fibers get too short to bond together and use again. Paper towels from bathrooms get thrown away because they are too hard to recycle, considering they are normally combined with other bathroom muck and germs that can survive the recycling process—which is one reason no one’s proposed recycling toilet paper.

The stickers have saved paper towels from use, yet they aren’t really saving trees the way they claim to. Those paper towels don’t come from trees. Most of them come from recycled paper, which doesn’t bode well for the myth about directly saving trees. Apparently, I’m not the only one who is skeptical about the sticker scheme. During the week I spent writing and researching this column, I watched as one bathroom sticker on a toilet paper receptacle was ripped, maimed and written on with preposterous claims that the toilet paper came from banana peels. The claim “These come from trees” is far-fetched and doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny of a public increasingly knowledgeable about conservation.

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