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Needlessly Electronic

ScattergoriesBy now you've I'm sure seen the news about the new "Here and Now" Monopoly, the one in which they replaced the wheelbarrow with McDonald's fries, the flat iron with a Starbuck's coffee, the car with a flying car. You may not have noticed, however, that the UK version of Here and Now also replaced the money with debit cards. I'm not going to get into what this may imply for the future our retail skills (although the American version did replace the real-world bank notes with bills on the magnitude of 200k and up). What I'm more interested in is that a previously people-powered game now requires batteries.

This summer, I went into the woods with some friends and a newly shrink-wrapped version of Scattergories. Imagine our gamerage when we opened the box to find the usual spring-wound timer replaced with an electronic one requiring batteries. And a screwdriver. Neither of which we had or were in proximity to having. What was wrong with the wind-up one? I'm assuming the battery-powered timer costs Hasbro a half-cent less to manufacture, and the rest of us that much more (for the batteries and the chemical waste). Middling, I know, but it all adds up.

Which brings me to the enMotion system of paper towel dispensers. They have quietly replaced every restaurant bathroom dispenser from here to everywhere in the past year or so. What was once hand-cranked now takes 4 D-cell batteries (and is apparently built not to dispense, the more frantically you wave your hands in front of it). Restaurateurs see it as a boon precisely because it is so hard to get the towels out. You can't yank out three yards, ball it up, and throw it on the floor.

What I want to know is: what's more of a waste? Chronic paper towel use or all the hundreds of thousands of batteries we're going to be tossing out? Anybody know how to figure that out?

Posted by Matt Ransford on 11/27/2006 | Permalink


I would argue that the advances in paper towel dispensing technology are a form of anti-consumer restriction. Ironically, though, like most anti-consumer restrictions on technology, this one is easily circumvented: simply wait two seconds and wave your hand over the sensor again. I wonder: Does this act of waving a second time constitute a violation of the DMCA?

Posted by: iandavid | Nov 27, 2006 7:05:57 PM

I always thought the hands-free paper towel dispensers were meant to be more sanitary because there are fewer places for germs to be exchanged. Now that I think about it though, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense...

Posted by: Jen | Nov 27, 2006 9:48:21 PM

Isn't that a debit card not a debt card? I'm assuming there isn't an overdraft allowed on the card...

Posted by: | Nov 28, 2006 1:05:34 AM

I agree about timers and the like... I am a supporter of the enMotion, though. It is more sanitary and in our case, where I work has been broken much less than the manual varieties. And, it does prevent the incredible amount of paper waste that happens in bathrooms. I would like to see a better power source, though. Maybe it could be odor-powered?

Posted by: dan | Nov 28, 2006 1:09:18 AM

Ha, odor-powered would be a great solution.

Posted by: Matt | Nov 28, 2006 9:38:01 AM

You're overoptimizing. Visit any local dump or transfer station (do they still have those in NYC?) and you will see the mountains and mountains of toxic solid waste being pumped into landfill. Scattergories timers do not constitute a meaningful portion of that landfill. Yes, eventually this digital timer will end up as landfill, but so will an analog timer. Consider that only about 18% of telephone directories are recycled: Now that's a real problem.

Posted by: John Byrd | Nov 28, 2006 10:51:48 AM

It's a statistically insignificant example, I know. It just came to mind because of a personal experience. I should spend a little more time thinking it through on a larger scale (which is where I thought of the enMotion dispensers). But I would argue—even on that small scale—that with both timers hypothetically in the landfill, the one without batteries is going to be leeching no heavy metals. And, sure, not recycling paper waste is a big one; no argument there. Speaking of, Dan, if you're checking back, does anybody recycle bathroom paper waste? I'd guess every bag of bathroom trash is 98% wet paper and nothing more. And that it goes directly into a landfill.

Posted by: Matt | Nov 28, 2006 11:15:29 AM

Just to play devil's advocate: there's always the production side of things to consider. If manufacturing an electronic toy uses up fewer resources than for a mechanical toy, then maybe on the whole, the electronic toy is better. I don't know that that's the case here, but that's why I rely on groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists for this sort of information.

Re the paper towels, I see hand dryers a lot these days. They're a pain to use, but presumably better for the environment.

Posted by: YodaYid | Nov 28, 2006 2:32:47 PM

I think there's little doubt that hand driers are the way to go. Not only are they even more hygienic than the touchless dispensers, I'm sure they cost less in the long run. The big impediment, I'm guessing, is running electric to them on installation.

Posted by: Matt | Nov 28, 2006 4:33:01 PM

at least those paper towel dispenser batteries have been powering punks' jam boxes since the first kid realized you could pop the damn thing open with a screwdriver.

Posted by: colin | Nov 29, 2006 3:11:02 PM

"does anybody recycle bathroom paper waste?" This is a great idea and I suspect that almost no bathroom waste paper gets recycled. I like this idea. I wonder if the recyclers can take towel waste?
I wonder about hand dryers, though. They take more to manufacture, I think and require electricity to operate, more than the enmotions, I think. Plus, they don't really work very well. Save a lot of energy and just put signs up, "Please dry your hands on your pants. the mgt."

Posted by: Dan | Dec 1, 2006 3:20:49 PM

I remember some research a year or so back that identified a significantly higher health risk to using electric hand driers than paper towels.

If only it was easy to evaluate the energy consumption in these things. As I recall paper cups consume more energy than plastic etc etc. Then how do we evaluate the 'cost' of waste disposal.

Certainly used paper towels, cardboard toilet roll tubes and the like can be composted effectively and cleanly.

Posted by: Andrew Steele | Dec 8, 2006 4:37:42 AM

This is an old entry, but I still want to respond:

life cycle studies have been done on the paper towel/hand dryer issue. Hand dryers use less energy (including manufacturing costs, energy of usage, production/transportation/disposal of large amounts of heavy paper, etc) IF the dryers are automatic, and actually are maintained so they go on/off when you wave your hands beneath them and move then away. If the hand--dryer has a push button OR if the handdryer stays on for a pre-determined amount of time once it senses you, THEN the paper towels are a better bet!

Posted by: Lisa | Dec 23, 2006 10:26:05 PM

By switching to touchless paper towel dispensors our facility is now using half as much paper towel stock and there is an increase in the use of our building. We have only had to replace the batteries once after over a year use of the paper towel dispensors. The GP enMatic also has the option for wiring it to AC power with an adapter which would now use 0 batteries. Does the price of 24 cases of 6 rolls of papertowels outweigh the few batteries that we do use? Also if batteries are disposed of as the manufacturer recommends, the majority of material is recycled, as apposed to the paper towel waste that is trapped in a plastic bag in a landfill. Seems like the only ones harming the enviroment are the ones who are unwilling to look into new ways to conserve.

Posted by: Zach | Jan 24, 2007 12:54:05 AM


That's actually really great to hear. I don't have any problem looking into new ways to conserve, I just want to know what's coming out on both sides of the equation. Not having any practical experience there, it's good that someone like you is posting the real-world results.

Posted by: Matt | Jan 24, 2007 1:34:43 AM

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