The Call of Nature: Sustainability in the Bathroom

Living in the dorms for the last 4 semesters has taught me many things, both from the unique perspective I have as a resident advisor and as a regular student. Dorm living has been a great way for me to practice sustainability in my daily life; I have been more thoughtful about how often I do laundry, how much I take the elevator, and how much waste I produce. The dining hall also makes it much easier for me to select vegetarian and vegan foods that have a lower carbon footprint. But, one thing that I did not expect was how my fellow residents treat the dorm. I was previously under the impression that my generation was pretty well-educated on recycling, but the state of the waste disposal closets tells a different story. I have even seen someone utilizing their recycle bin as a hamper, which I applaud them for the innovative thinking but question what they do with their recyclables. The worst offenses I have seen, however, have been in the bathrooms. 

There are many different cultural practices related to bathroom usage, and everyone has different routines; however, reducing waste in the restroom can be practiced by everyone regardless of background! 

1. Utilize the dual-flush system while using the toilet

Most University of Michigan bathrooms feature toilets with a dual-flush feature (pictured below). These toilets flush liquid waste away using less water than they use for solid waste. Traditional toilets only have a single-flush system, so for me adjusting to the dual-flush and reminding myself which way to pull the toilet lever was a small learning-curve. Dual-flush toilets are designed to dispose of liquid waste by pulling upward and solid waste by pulling downward. There are some disadvantages with this; most people are used to pulling down on the lever so they default to the more water-intensive method of flushing. Additionally some may use the wrong option, in which case the toilet will not be able to dispose of all the waste, leaving the next visitor an unwelcome surprise. Next time you use the bathroom, pay attention to the signage and make the appropriate decision to save water!

A sign sharing how to use a dual flush handle. Up for liquid waste. Down for solid waste.
An explanatory sign displaying up for liquid waste, down for solid waste.

2. Use the appropriate amount of soap  

Another situation I have frequently witnessed is improper soap portioning. Almost every Michigan bathroom features a foam soap dispenser, and while this form of soap is lighter and fluffier than regular soap, it does not mean you need a larger quantity to get the job done. The dispensers are designed to distribute the exact amount you need for a proper washing. Using more than one pump is wasteful and unnecessary, so this is an incredibly easy way to cut down on waste. For further reading, this CDC article outlines proper handwashing and when you should wash your hands.

3. Paper towel use

Research has shown that using an air dryer is more sustainable than paper towels. Paper towels require more resources and transportation to produce, both of which require a lot of energy. They also demand being restocked when they run out (which is daily in the dorm bathrooms). Air dryers, on the other hand, require the resources for assembly and transport, but after they are installed, they only need a small amount of energy and occasional repairs to operate. On average, a hot air dryer uses 3 times less energy than a paper towel, and a more modern air dryer uses 10 times less! If you decide to use paper towels, it is best to limit yourself to only 1 or 2 pieces to avoid waste. Alternatively, for students in the dorm it is easy to add a small washcloth to your shower caddy that can be used for hand drying. 

Image of a hand dryer and a paper towel dispenser in a bathroom.
A common bathroom setup with the choice of hand dryer or paper towels.

4. Sink use: teeth brushing and face washing

Using a communal bathroom for the first time, I was surprised to see how many people leave the sink running when they are not using it. I see many people leave the sink on for the full duration that they brush their teeth or while they wash their face, and many don’t seem to consider the amount of waste that is produced when they do this. The average faucet outputs 1-3 gallons of water per minute, meaning that anywhere from 2-6 gallons of water is wasted while students brush their teeth. And it’s not only water waste generated, energy is wasted as well. A lot of energy is used for every gallon transported, so leaving the sink on generates greenhouse gas emissions, something most people do not even associate with their faucet. This is a very easy change everyone can practice, it only takes a second to turn the faucet off and on. It is also simple to promote this behavior to others; if you catch a relative or friend leaving the sink on, you can gently inform them about how they can change to be more eco-friendly.

5. Taking showers

Showers are an easy place to forget about sustainability when it comes to water and energy use. It can become enticing to take a long, hot shower to destress and escape the cold in the winter; however, longer showers produce a lot of waste. The average shower head dispenses 2.5 gallons of water per minute, and the average shower lasts 8 minutes. Those 20 gallons, just like with sinks, take a lot of energy to transport, and even more to heat if you are a fan of hot showers. 

There are several ways you can reduce your environmental impact in the shower. First, you can take cold or warm showers instead of hot ones. This may be hard for some people (myself included), but if you are willing to make the change, colder water temperatures require less energy for heating. Another method would be to wash your hair less frequently. Hair washing takes up a considerable amount of time in the shower, so less frequent washing reduces the amount of time spent in the shower on average. This can take some training to get used to for those with oily hair, but plenty of guides exist online on how to do this! Finally, you can consider switching out your shower products for more sustainable alternatives. Single-use razors can be replaced with razors that have replaceable blades. There are also packageless shampoo and conditioner bars that have the same washing power as a normal bottle but lack the plastic waste. Looking for soaps that have more sustainable oils, such as coconut oil, is also another option. Even beyond the shower, there are a multitude of other sustainable bathroom products available!

The bathroom is something everyone utilizes, and is an easy place to make eco-friendly lifestyle changes. There are thousands of resources online detailing more methods to reduce restroom impact beyond what I have been outlined here, and tons of environmentally conscious products are developed every year. If you are interested in sustainable household goods, BYOC (Bring Your Own Container) in Ann Arbor is a great place to start. I visited in December for the first time, and they have every product you could think of, from toothpaste tablets, shampoo bars, eco-friendly soaps, and so on. I hope this blog inspires you to reconsider your bathroom habits. Even if you only make one change, you are still contributing to the health of the environment alongside many others! 

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