The Opportunity Costs of Cheap Paper Towels

(Photo: Nick Gray)

My university uses thin brown paper towels in all bathrooms. They cost less than white paper towels.  My student claims that the opportunity cost of student and faculty time in extra hand-wiping because the brown towels absorb so little moisture means that the social cost of brown towels exceeds those of white ones. (I sympathize—my practice on this is take towel, rub, then finish drying hands on jeans!) This makes sense to me—with a captive group of users, the university is minimizing its private cost, not social cost.

Another student, an Iraq veteran, writes that the armor on the vehicles he rode in was too thin to offer proper protection to soldiers, government behavior that he claims is similar to that of the university—in this case, undervaluing its soldiers’ lives.  This seems less logical—surely the U.S. Army is greatly interested in protecting its soldiers and is willing to incur huge costs in doing so.  I hope/pray that my soldier-student is wrong.  (HT: JC.)


Can't help with the armor, but I highly recommend this for paper towels (even brown ones):


The paper towel problem canned fixed very easily. After watching this and turning it into habit, I have had no problems getting dry hands, regardless of paper towel thinness.

Alan Gunn

We used a lot of heavily armored Humvees in Afghanistan. Their drawback is that, if tipped over by an explosion, say, the armored doors are so heavy that the occupants can't get out. So heavier armor isn't necessarily better.


The ALIVE occupants can't get out?



Seriously. So the alive occupants are trapped in a disabled, possibly burning, vehicle while the jihadists who attacked it are potentially free to finish them off.

Holly Bell

Can students and professors increase the social value of the brown paper towels by finding additional uses for them? Would they make good coffee filters? Insulation around a drafty window? Leveling a wobbling table? Perhaps they are not being used for their best purpose making their value artificially low.


Shake and Fold!!!

Your jeans are absorbing the cost of inefficient use of the resource. Perhaps the university is putting the opportunity cost on you in hopes that you make more efficient use.

Midlife Singlemum

Most people surely use more towels when they are too thin. I take a wad of them to wipe my hands whereas I would only take one of the thicker more expensive towels. The University probably isn't saving anything.


I agree with Midlife Singlemum and many of the others who have commented here.

The university is likely shortsighted in anticipating that they will save money. However, I doubt they are devious enough to think that they are passing on their private costs as some form of other social cost.

On another note, the issue of the paper being brown vs. white makes me wonder if there is some other incentive going on behind the scenes that is distorting things such as recycling (using recycled paper). Maybe this is a good extra credit assignment for your inquisitive student to dig into deeper.

Hopefully he doesn't uncover too much dirt as these towels sound like they will help him afterwards.


I think thin paper towel may end my costing the university more at the end. My practice with those is to grab a huge load of them instead of one.

Adam Bucky

My response to the cheap brown paper towels has always been to just use many more of them. I used to think I was being greedy; now I see that if everyone were like me (instead of using articles of clothing for the purpose), the social cost would be priced into the university's incentive, potentially leading to greater social benefit.


I've never noticed any difference in effectiveness between white and brown paper towels, and either is far, far better than the places that only have blow dryers.

For the armor, I might hypothesize that it's down to the logistic pyramid. Heavily-armored vehicles consume more fuel (and are also less maneuverable, etc), which means you need to run more tanker truck convoys (= juicy targets), which means you need more armored vehicles to guard those trucks, which means you need all the additional support for their crews... which ultimately means that you've added a lot of vulnerable targets, potentially increasing the overall number of casualties.

Indeed, this parallels the evolutionary arms race taking place on American highways, in which individual drivers are persuaded that they are safer driving the largest, heaviest, "well-armored" vehicles they can afford, causing so many of them to drive large, heavy vehicles that the roads become less safe overall. (See e.g. Wenzel & Ross: "An Analysis of Traffic Deaths by Vehicle Type and Model")


Some random economist

I used to know some military helicopter pilots who pointed out that armoring the humvees made them more difficult to transport and defeated the purpose of they were designed for. They were never meant to be armored personnel carriers. They were designed as a replacement for the jeep, meaning they are supposed to be relatively light and fast.


I think a major tipping point for our society was when some thought leader decided lasers or whatever those light detector things were necessary for toilets and sinks.

No wonder the Muslims are pissed off.


True, but cheap Toilet Paper is the REAL problem

Holly Bell

Andy, I'm with you on this one. I can use my jeans to dry my hands if I have to!

Jim Cooper

My office restroom paper towels tear when you pull them out. I think a lower grade of paper towel is being stocked than the dispenser was designed for. This one thing has most significantly affected my on-the-job satisfaction, and my decision to more aggressively search for a new job.

Rod Salm

I would think that body armour is always a trade off between bulk (level of protection) and mobility (you have to move in situations where you are being shot at). Heavier armour means more protection but slower movements and a fast moving target is harder to hit.


Towels v Dryers


You want to close the loop? Put a guy who needs a job, or a perfectly healthy lazy guy who is used to a freebie check from the taxpayers, in there with a pile of cloth towels and a tip jar. Launder the towels from the tip money and the guy gets the rest, along with maybe some motivation to better his life.

The towels get laundered by.....uh......runoff rainwater powered by a treadmill exercising puppies from a no-kill shelter.

Everybody happy?

And, by the way, if we ever have a pandemic, I'm betting the CDC would be hoping everyone was washing their damn hands more like they would if they knew they could quickly and easily dry them.