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.)

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  1. Marina says:

    Can’t help with the armor, but I highly recommend this for paper towels (even brown ones):
    http://www.ted.com/talks/joe_smith_how_to_use_a_paper_towel.html

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  2. Jeff says:

    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.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FMBSblpcrc&feature=youtube_gdata_player

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  3. Alan Gunn says:

    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.

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    • RGJ says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • James says:

        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.

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      • JP says:

        Even if a vehicle is parked on a slight grade, and an occupant has to open the door against gravity, it can be extremely heavy. Lifting one straight up, depending on the vehicle (JERRV and MRAP espectially) can be damn near impossibe in a lot of cases. Youve been patrolling all day in 120 degree heat,youre wearing easily 50 lbs in gear, mental fatigue, it all takes its toll. Adrenaline is great but not all soldiers are giant studs who can press 200 or more pounds over their head. Oh, and what the hell are they supposed to stand on when the vehice is sideways? A lot of distance between the oposing seat back and the doors.

        Try to make fewer uninformed coments in the furure.

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      • RGJ says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • John Smith says:

        You seem to make a lot of low quality comments. You were doing so similarly, supporting the academic who took money for his drug dealer studies.

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  4. Holly Bell says:

    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.

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  5. Dustin says:

    Shake and Fold!!!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FMBSblpcrc

    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.

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  6. Midlife Singlemum says:

    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.

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    • JAM says:

      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.

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    • Michael says:

      I bet most people take more towels anyways, regardless of thickness or absorption power.

      If most people are taking more towels, then the University might as well buy the cheap ones.

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  7. Denis says:

    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.

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  8. Adam Bucky says:

    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.

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