How to Use a Paper Towel

This week’s blog post is from WCO Graduate Assistant Lily Cason.

What is the first thing you do every morning? The last thing you do at night?

I’m willing to bet it is usually the same (and probably involves water).

When I wake up I get right to my morning routine: go to the bathroom, wash my face, brush my teeth. In that order. I do the same thing every day without thinking about it because it is a habit—a behavior so engrained that I don’t have to think much while I am doing it.  Research shows that repeated behaviors can become habits—meaning we use a different part of our brain to perform those tasks and therefore use less brainpower to complete them. A cue (such as waking up) tells your brain what habit to perform, you enact that routine (ex. brushing my teeth, etc.), and then your brain gives you a sense of reward (ex. feeling fresh and awake).  Once you establish a habit it is difficult to change.  But once we are aware of our habits we can try to improve them by creating new habits.

After reading a little about the science of habit change I started to wonder about my own daily routines: are there things I am doing unconsciously that I could change for the better?

Then I watched a Ted Talk by Joe Smith on “How to Use a Paper Towel” and something clicked.  It made me think about my hand washing habits in public restrooms (something I had honestly never given any conscious thought to before).  Usually I wet my hands, soap them, scrub a bit, rinse off, grab a few paper towels to dry off and I’m out the door.



But according to Joe Smith you only need ONE paper towel, regardless of what kind it is (see his Ted Talk here:  When I first watched his video I realized that it had never occurred to me how many paper towels I was using that I didn’t need (despite having seen those “These come from trees” stickers plastered on the paper towel dispensers).  The production of paper towels requires water (as does the production of most things) so by using less of one resource we conserve water as well.

After watching Joe Smith’s video I became aware of my bad habit and that gave me a way to change. The cue is the same (my hands are wet) and the reward is the same (my hands will be dry and clean). The only thing that changed is the routine in the middle.

How does he get dry hands with only one paper towel you are wondering?  He adds in two simple steps: shaking your hands twelve times (or so) to get the excess water off, much like a dog does after getting a bath and then folding the paper towel in half before using it.  Now when I wash my hands I challenge myself to use as few paper towels as I can (aiming for only one but sometimes needing another).

Becoming more aware of my own resource use and my engrained habits is making it easier to align my knowledge and beliefs – and conserve water by something as simple as using fewer paper towels. Like trying to eat healthier or quit smoking, the hard part of changing is finding a good habit to replace the bad habit.

Now you’ll know what I’m doing if you see me in public somewhere shaking my hands like crazy!


2 thoughts on “How to Use a Paper Towel

    • We at the Water Conservation Office have all been taking the “one paper towel challenge”. We have also started noticing the fancy turbo hand dryers in some businesses. Gone are the days of using a weak hand dryer for 5 minutes! The new ones work better and faster so less electricity is used, saving water too!

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