Saturday, July 31, 2010

Dry Your Hands with Greenwashing

Have you been in a modern public restroom lately? It's an almost magical experience - one hardly has to actually touch anything anymore. For example, we now have auto flushing toilets:
Here's looking at you, brown eyes
(Photo Credit: TouchFree Concepts)

And the automatic sink is now commonplace (though Don Norman's critiques of them still apply):
Watch out: I spit
(Photo Credit: The Web Restaurant Store)
There are many reasons why these devices have started appearing all over the place. They ostensibly promote public health, save precious resources, and force good behavioral habits - all of which are goals that are hard to argue with (though whether or not God-like cleanliness is actually good for us is debatable).

Invariably, however, one of the reasons for installing devices such as these is "because they're hi-tech." I fully believe that this rationale, coupled with a bit of greenwashing, is the main reason why the automated paper towel dispenser has managed to flourish.
" =P "
(Photo Credit: Flickr: nickgraywfu)
The manufacturer websites of these products, like this one for the enMotion model pictured above, tout the advantages of these products with phrases such as "Reduced Waste" and "Lower Cost". And lest you doubt the technological determinism angle, Georgia Pacific specifically points out that they "enhance image" in their marketing page for the enMotion brand.

But, when you get right down to it, does the high technology implementation really improve on this?
Don't you love me anymore?
(Photo Credit: Stainless Rhino)
Dispensers such as this one (this particular one is a Model B-262 by Bobrick Washroom Equipment, Inc), which have been around for decades, provide access to the paper towels without needing to touch the dispenser itself (it's hygenic!), support one-at-a-time dispensing ("reduces waste"), and one could even say they enhance image (hey, retro chic is all-the-rage with the kids these days). 

In addition, this solution is way greener (the debate over towels vs driers aside). It uses no plastic and no electricity, and tends to be easier to clean, restock, and use. One could even stock them with C-fold towels with post-recycled content to get that extra pat on the back from your local Sierra Club.

So what's the lesson here? It's nothing new, really. Quite simply, while technology certainly does provide solutions to many, many problems and can even help make our world more sustainable if we use it right, it isn't a panacea. One should never use technology for technology's sake, not in a website, not in a "greener" product, not ever. Doing otherwise vastly increases the chances of hitting the bullseye of the wrong target.

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