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Low-Volume Flush Toilets and Stingy Paper Towel Dispensers – Part I

Modern efficiency and conservation are wonderful things . . . except when they aren’t. Efficiently conserving, that is.

I’m not a wasteful person. I save all my old twist ties so I can reuse them. We store our emergency water supply in empty 2-liter bottles. Our kids draw their pictures on the backs of sheets of paper that have printing on one side. Yesterday’s worn-out clothing is today’s cleaning rags. But some cost-cutting, resource-conserving ideas are ill conceived and poorly implemented.

Take automatic paper towel dispensers for example. Your hands are really wet because it’s a public restroom and you wanted to be extra sure to clean them thoroughly. You wave frantically in front of the sensor on the automatic paper towel dispenser only to be rewarded with a postage-stamp-sized piece of towel. The waving action probably dried your hands more than that non-absorbent scrap of paper (that the machine reluctantly spat out for you) ever will. Because the machine is so stingy, you’ll end up wasting time trying to convince an inanimate object to dispense enough paper towel for you to dry your hands and to protect your newly-cleaned hands as you pull the door open.

Out of spite do you ever keep coaxing more paper towel out of the machine than you really need? All feelings of concern for the environment and/or gratitude for this convenience go right out the window because you’re now entitled to an adequate amount of hand-drying material.

Who wins in that exchange? Nobody. Whoever is paying for the towel ends up buying more because you took more. Whoever keeps the miserable machine full has to stop by more frequently, or worse, the next public restroom patrons come by with no visible means for drying their hands. The landfill ends up with more waste. You spent extra time in the bathroom, and you go away frustrated. All because you had a need that wasn’t met. Somebody “had it all figured out” and knew how to save money, resources, and the environment (though not necessarily in that order).

One of my favorite authors is Dave Berry who loves (or loved) to make jokes about the US Government’s regulations requiring new toilets to use less water:

The plague of the low-flow toilets, which is so bad that even in Miami, where you can buy drugs just by opening your front door and yelling “Hey! I want some crack,” you can’t even sell your first born to get a normal-flushing toilet

Perhaps statistics would show that less water is actually used now with the newer technology. That’s especially likely if the vast majority of trips to the bathroom are done for #1 reasons. My experience is, however, that the number of times that a toilet must be flushed to adequately eliminate all traces of a #2 visit more than wipes out (punny, eh?) any supposed savings from the lower volume per flush. In fact, becoming used to inadequate performance means adjusting your habits to accommodate for it. Do you ever instinctively flush a second or third time, not out of necessity, but because it’s a conditioned response?

If you are responsible for designing systems that people interact with, you may want to consider studying the way that people use your product because of these (evidently) unpredictable behaviors I’ve described. Maybe anthropologists and psychologists really do have something to contribute to humanity after all!

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