Friday, October 1, 2010

Dry Gulching

Ya know what bugs me? When we were in Yellowstone this summer, pretty much the big stink at all the lodges/inns/hotels/cabins/resorts/marinas/camp grounds/etc. was how "green" they were. Every square inch of the landscape was plastered with signs saying how this toilet used less water, the light bulbs used less electricity, the paper towels were recycled. Since I wrote the recent post on acting "green", I wanted to mention my loathing of "faux green" things, and in general the inappropriate use of technology to try to promote something that isn't so.

But there's so much of it around us every day, I don't know where to start. I bet I could find 100 things that fit the category (inappropriate use of technology, usually to make one think something is "green") just around my own home. So I decided to pick a random thing that irked my in Yellowstone to start with. Paper towel dispensers.

At the top of this post is a picture of the standard towel dispenser in use in millions of restrooms all over the world. It's inexpensive, has no moving parts (I'm not counting the door to refill the dispenser, I mean it has no parts that need to move to dispense paper towels), cheap to construct, hygienic (made from easy to clean stainless steel) and kind cute. How could we improve on it?

Add inappropriate technology, of course! Almost every place we went in and near the park had those new fangled "motion sensor" paper towel dispensers, like the one shown at right. Now, rather than easy to clean (and recyclable) stainless steel, we are greeted by germy plastic. Each unit now requires a mercury and/or heavy metal containing battery (or in-wall wiring, but I believe most of these were battery powered, as the bathrooms hadn't been built anticipating that someone would use electricity to deliver a paper towel).

Just to make things better, nearly every one was "broken" like I believe the one pictured is. Rather than deliver a paper towel when you approach it and wave a hand in front of it (like the inappropriate ones I see around NJ), it leaves a paper towel hanging in the air, collecting overspray, germs, etc. When one tears off a sheet of paper, another one immediately descends, in order to catch whatever germs it can before the next hapless user arrives.

Another solution is to forgo paper entirely and use warm air to dry hands. While this may use less energy in the bathroom than it takes to create a paper towel and cart it to the bathroom and then the landfill, it uses electricity which (may have) involved carting fuel to the power plant, burning it, transmission losses (typically 50% of power is lost in the electrical lines) and the inefficiency of blowing the warm air onto your hand.

I have not seen an in-depth energy budget for these things, but I would suggest that if you use waste industrial heat to manufacture your paper towels, and at the end of life burn them in a co-gen facility, the paper towels wind up being "greener". There are just too many variables to make that analysis.

Plus, aside from the green arguments, they are noisy, take a long time to dry hands (relative to a wipe of a paper towel), and as one article I read points out, blow air at the perfect temperature to promote bacterial growth. Add to that the fact that they can't be used to wipe a stain off a shirt, or in fact wipe up anything, and I am not a big fan.

One of the restrooms I was in had an even higher-tech "green" solution, the Dyson air blade. This device vacuums water off the hands, and claims to be faster and use less energy than the warm air drier. You simply insert your hands and the drier activates, blowing and sucking water off of them. Not only can't this device wipe anything, it can't even dry anything other than hands. Admittedly my hands are rather large, but I had a hard time getting them in and out of the slots in the device without rubbing against the germy plastic. I have no data on the reliability of the unit, but I'll note that the unsupported plastic arch sticking out looks like a target for being bumped, sat on, etc. and broken.

Note that, in addition to the above complaints, since most of these device must sense your hands, they uses electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, whether someone is drying their hands or not. I doubt that fact is advertised as a cost by the manufacturer.

All this to save the energy in a paper towel. While I support not wasting paper, is this actually a large enough issue to warrant the time, expense, and sanitary compromises made in order to use these high-tech solutions? Don't we have bigger waster and energy use issues to solve?

Admittedly, some of these technologies have some benefits to offset the disadvantages, but one does not. It delivers the same old paper towel, but with more waste. And so I hereby award the prize for most inappropriate use of technology in a restroom to the motion sensor paper towel dispenser.


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