Free Laundry on Campus?

Willa Wang, Managing Forum Editor

I received a laundry card on the first day of my first-year orientation. It’s from a company called CSC ServiceWorks, and the card reads, “Treat this as cash — Do not throw away!” That day, my friend who went to high school in the U.S. exclaimed in surprise, “It’s the same card I used in high school!” I then knew it would cost $3 in total whenever I wanted to wash and dry my clothes at Bates.

When I came back to campus after winter break in January, Clason House’s laundry machine was broken and could not process our laundry cards. After a couple of days, the custodian put a piece of paper on the machine that said, “Washer and dryer temporarily set to free. No card needed. Just push your cycle.” From then on, Clason residents were able to do their laundry for free. It was amazing! I did not need to reload my laundry card with cash in Commons or rummage through bags and cabinets to find my card in order to do a load of laundry! Right now, it’s still free! I’ve even noticed that some students from neighboring houses have been doing laundry at Clason to save that $3.

Over the past few weeks, Oyuka Lyndon ’25 and Manuel Machorro Gomez Pezuela ’25 ran to become co-presidents for the BCSG in the next academic year. One of their plans was to make laundry free at Bates. In light of this idea, it’s the time to think about laundry, a necessity of college life — why do the $3 matter? Should laundry in college dorms cost money? How does CSC ServiceWorks work with college dorms?

Back in the 1950s, Bates students had three ways to do laundry: mailing back to their home, hand-washing or going to Hobby Shoppe, which had several laundry machines in the basement of what is now the Bates Security and Campus Safety office. Alternatively, some students chose to sign up for the laundry service. Bill Heidel ’59, a former campus agent for men’s laundry, recalled how the service functioned: “Male students would leave their laundry in marked bags on their dorm’s ground floor on a specific day of the week, and it would be picked up by laundry employees.” Back then, Bates students collaborated with the Norris-Hayden Laundry Co. of Auburn to facilitate the laundry service for students on campus. Laundry, therefore, has always been a business opportunity. 

CSC ServiceWorks, the company that provides laundry machines at Bates today, used to be two companies: Mac-Gray and Coinmach. Mac-Gray began selling washing machines and ice boxes door-to-door in the Boston area in 1927 and was coin-operated and pay-as-you-use at first; it became the leading laundry service provider to colleges in the 1950s and committed to implementing cashless and energy-efficient laundry. Coinmach was established in 1946 and started out with single coin-operated washing machines and dryers in an apartment building in Queens. By the 1980s, Coinmach oversaw the largest coin-operated laundry business in the metropolitan New York area, which they expanded to Eastern Europe. Coinmach acquired Mac-Gray in 2013 and rebranded as CSC ServiceWorks, which is the company we now see on our laundry cards. Over 1,000 academic institutions in the U.S. are using CSC’s services 

For CSC ServiceWorks, college laundry is part of their business, but for Bates students, laundry is a part of our lives and it needs to be done in the most convenient way. The question then turns to be: should laundry at Bates be a business? Is it necessary to have this third-party provider?

Two considerations might stop Bates from running laundry machines on our own. Firstly, CSC ServiceWorks has already provided services at Bates for several years and has established a stable partnership with the college. They own more than 70 washers and dryers and six card machines around the campus, which also include repair and maintenance. If Bates were to end its partnership with CSC suddenly, the college would face the problem of purchasing laundry machines for each dorm, finding staff to monitor the laundry system and navigating issues of repair and running services. Bates usually sets financial plans five to 10 years in advance, so “free laundry” might not be immediately possible in the upcoming years. 

Moreover, environmental issues are also a consideration. Bates is known for its commitment to sustainability. Because laundry needs lots of water and electricity, Bates has to limit the number of times students can use the machines. Laundry is different from the meal plan; how many resources we use and how much waste we create depends on the number of times the machines are used, while food waste is largely dependent on how much food Commons provides. Therefore, it would be unfair and unsustainable if some people did laundry more frequently than others; thus, dorm laundry is run by a third-party company to help juggle those additional fees. 

However, can we find solutions to these problems if free laundry improves students’ quality of life and experience at Bates? How is the laundry system run at other colleges? While Wellesley and Bowdoin also cooperate with CSC ServiceWorks, Middlebury and Grinnell don’t charge any fees or set limited times for laundry on campus. McGill University in Canada runs laundry on their own and charges two Canadian dollars — which equals 1.6 USD — each time. Even though students only spend a small amount of money for each load of laundry they do, the total cost adds up and makes a difference between these schools. Some students may even consider laundry policies and prices when they decide what school to enroll at. 

Should Bates charge a fee on laundry? Should we continue to cooperate with CSC ServiceWorks in the long term? Oyuka and Manuel’s research on the subject found that it is possible to make laundry free on campus — or at least cheaper than it is now — while diminishing its environmental impact. Some other colleges’ laundry programs, including Wesleyan and BU, became free through their student governments’ efforts. These questions are tied to others about whether or not the freedom to use resources is compatible with an environmentally-friendly campus. How can we build a healthy and green campus while maximizing the quality of student life? I think this might be a task that the new presidents of the BCSG will face in the coming year. I personally think Bates should take on this challenge, and free laundry is the first step!