Imagine if just one sticker could make a lasting sustainable difference in consumer use of paper towels. For Andrew Nettels, treasurer of the Green Fund at Northern Arizona University, one sticker did, and now it serves as the catalyst for his idea to launch the Paper Product Waste Mitigation project on campus.
While visiting family at California Polytechnic State University, Nettels was drying his hands in a restroom when he paused to read a sticker on the towel dispenser that said, “Remember…These come from trees.” He said it made him stop and think about his personal impact on the environment by using paper towels.
“When we are in public restrooms and press the towel dispensing lever, we don’t think about our true environmental impact,” Nettels said. “Two single sheets of paper towels will get the job done, but I have experienced a lot of people—including myself—who use more, essentially wasting paper towels and contributing to NAU’s environmental impact.”
His project, advised by facilities project and interim sustainability manager Andrew Iacona, seeks to change overall consumption habits of paper towel users at NAU by implementing more than 700 “These come from trees” stickers in nearly 300 university public restrooms free of charge to the university. Its goal is to combine wide-scale cost savings and NAU student involvement to raise awareness of sustainable practices, encourage student involvement with the Office of Sustainability and save the university money.
Nettels would like to reduce campus-wide paper towel usage by 10 percent. He has worked closely with University Purchasing and estimates a 10 percent decrease would correlate to a savings of approximately $8,000. These calculations are based on data from the past two years when it’s likely the university experienced the lowest total purchasing costs due to building vacancy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The stickers are part of the large-scale experiment, These Come From Trees, a national effort in environmental activism, viral marketing and user interface design founded by Peter Kazanjy, who runs the “These Come From Trees Blog.” For more than a decade, the experiment has engaged hundreds of institutions, organizations and businesses across the United States.
The stickers operate under the Value Belief Norm, a psychological theory where a person has a set value or belief, but if they violate or contradict their own view, it causes them to act in a way that mitigates their behavior. By placing these stickers next to dispensers, they serve as psychological signals or “nudges” to cause self-reflection as the individual reaches for a paper towel.
“Basically, what happens is when the user sees the sticker, they’re reminded of their ecological worldview and think ‘Maybe I shouldn’t use seven paper towels; maybe one paper towel will get the job done,’” Nettels said. “And it reminds them we’re wasting paper towels when one would be just fine.”
Putting the project in motion and making it happen
Nettels started the project by reaching out to several universities, such as the University of Toronto and the University of Washington, who already had implemented the stickers or have plans to.
“Andrew and I worked together on a communication and implementation plan,” Iacona said. “I advised him on the approvals necessary, the resources available and helped identify the avenues for making a business case for the project based on Andrew performing research on how other universities and organizations implemented and realized waste minimization impacts. These findings were used to propose NAU’s potential savings and impact reductions.”
Nettels discovered that most institutions paid their janitorial staff to implement the stickers, but that’s where he saw the opportunity to increase awareness of sustainability through public outreach and student engagement, especially since the pandemic has thwarted many campus involvement opportunities.
“The goal for me is to get students that are non-sustainability majors involved with sustainability,” Nettels said. “It’s been an amazing opportunity for me. I’ve learned so much and I want other people to have the same experience I did within the Office of Sustainability because there’s a lot of opportunity for student involvement.”
Nettels didn’t start with a background in sustainability. Currently, he is a junior majoring in business and plans to go to law school after graduating.
“This past September, I went on Instagram and saw the Green Fund was looking to hire a treasurer,” Nettels said. “I didn’t know what the Green Fund was and barely even knew we had an Office of Sustainability, but I looked it up and thought it was cool that student funding was paying for student projects and research on campus. Since then, being the treasurer has been an amazing experience so this project is a way I would like to give back to the university.”
He has already recruited more than 60 volunteers and paired them up with at least 90 buildings to implement stickers across the campus. COVID-19 measures have been set in place to help keep everyone involved safe.
“I’m excited to meet and work with other student organizations to create tangible change on campus and change consumption habits,” Nettels said. “There’s a lot of subsidiary organizations within the Office of Sustainability. It’s been gratifying to reach out and provide them with this project and the resources to get involved with the office.”
The project kicked off this week and though a reserve fund has been secured with the Green Fund, Kazanjy recently donated more than 700 stickers to the university so the project is currently costing the university nothing.
“When many people think of sustainability, they’re hesitant to get involved or to implement sustainability initiatives, especially in their own lives,” Nettels said. “They’re hesitant to do something that might save the environment if it’s going to cost them money. This project will hopefully send a huge message out saying, ‘Hey! A more sustainable place doesn’t have to cost money at all.’”
The outcome of the project will be tracked using post-implementation surveys and data from NAU Purchasing. Surveys will ask students about their experience with the project implementation and will quantify the overall satisfaction and optimism toward the project. Data will look at quantities and frequencies per fiscal year of the janitorial paper products purchased after project implementation.
“I am looking forward to analyzing the university’s paper towel procurement data a few years from now to see how something as simple as a small sticker and simple message has made an impact on behavior change and waste minimization on our campus,” Iacona said.
While implementation is taking place on campus, Nettels is sending his project proposal to other universities including Arizona State University and the University of Arizona to both encourage implementation and show other institutions how students can contribute to their campus’ overall culture of sustainability.
“NAU has a wonderful culture of sustainability, but it’s important we have this project campus wide during COVID so we can continue our culture of sustainability,” Nettels said. “We don’t want to lose students during this time so keeping students engaged through this outreach campaign is huge.”
He also has plans to contact local Flagstaff businesses about implementing stickers.
“Even after stickers have been implemented on campus, the project doesn’t have to end. We can still get volunteers to post stickers later. There will always be a way to continue adding to this project, especially since there is no cost associated with it.”
To get involved, contact Andrew Nettels at email@example.com for more information.
About the Office of Sustainability and the Green Fund
The Office of Sustainability works to create, maintain and enhance campus through continuous improvement and sustainable practice. It strives to make NAU a leading university for sustainability and inclusivity by creating forward-thinking, impactful and resourceful leaders.
The Green Fund is the university’s main source for sustainability funding and provides money for projects that reduce the university’s environmental footprint and encourage more sustainable practices across campus.