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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Logic Laguna

First, I would like to say that I am very much enjoying my story and that I am now past 27k words. I just hope it ends up at least 50k!

Now onto the main part of this post. I have always had a logical mind. I think things through from as many possible angles as I can. And I tend to do a good job getting all the angles. I blame my father, who is a systems engineer, and raised me to see ever problem with a series of inputs and outputs. All you need to do is identify ALL of those.

It irks me to no end when I hear a claim that has nothing to back it up, yet is accepted universally. This happens much more often than you might realize.

Let me give you an example. I recently saw a hand dryer that claimed it was more environmentally friendly and more sanitary than using paper towels. I would like to see evidence. Allow me to give you the inputs and outputs of each.



First, sanitation. Many models are now hands-free, using infrared or some other sensor to determine if someone's hand is beneath it. This is actually a good thing, if programmed correctly. They should stay on for as long as your hands are beneath, and you don't have to touch anything. In this case, there are no inputs (other than the flow of air), and the item is, indeed, as sanitary as you can get. There are other problems with this, but I'll get to that later. However, the model I looked at was NOT a hands-free version. It was one of the ones we all know and hate. Push a great big shiny (and usually damp) button to turn it on. Put yours hands beneath. Rub them until it turns off. Then, either rub your hands on your pants (which is very unsanitary) or turn it on AGAIN until it actually gets your hands dry. Then turn off the water and open the door. In the process of washing your hands, you have touched surfaces that dirty hands have touched 4 times since you rinsed the soap off.
Let's try a paper towel dispenser. some paper towel dispensers are, admittedly, terrible. Pull on one and you pull out a hundred or rip several to shreds. Others involve having to wind something that is wet to get the towel out. However, many allow the user to simply pull on a sanitary paper towel, not having to touch anything which has ever been touched by man before. Either way, you can then turn the water off WITH that paper towel AND open the door with it. Do this correctly, and you have touched 0 surfaces (or 1 surface, depending on the kind of dispenser) since you rinsed the soap off your hands.
So, unless your hand dryer is infrared, it is actually LESS sanitary.

Next, we'll tackle the environment. Now, this one deals with a lot more variables, so there really is no winner. However, as you will see, it is not clear cut and easy to define. In fact, the environmental impact may very well depend on where you are washing your hands.

Both products are made with many metal parts that all have to be manufactured in a factory. However, the hand dryer has decidedly more and more intricate parts, thus requiring more energy and resources (and designing) to produce. The hand dryer is then hooked up to the grid. If you have an infrared sensor in it, it will supposedly only turn on when actually in use, thus saving energy. The one caveat is that sometimes things other than a person with wet hands can activate it. However, most hand dryers still use the classic button. These usually have to be activated twice to actually get your hands dry. They will also often be activated and used for only a quarter or half the time it is on, then abandoned and left to just run (there is no way to turn it off). To heat a coil requires a good deal of energy, so every time someone uses your product, it is taking energy from the grid. This is in turn being provided to the grid by a variety of local resources. It could be that the only power plants near you are coal plants or oil plants. This means you just spewed quite a bit of waste into the environment. If you're lucky, you live near a solar plant, hydro plant, wind turbines, or a nuclear plant, thus not spewing anything into the environment (with nuclear, however, the waste must still be dealt with).

Let's look at this further. A nuclear plant? Really? Yes, really. Nuclear, despite common misconceptions, is remarkably safe. You aren't getting exposed, and you aren't going to see mutant fish like in the Simpsons. The waste is stored at the plant to taken elsewhere to be buried, where it is monitored by the NRC. It is contained and will not be affecting the environment, barring an act of God like a 9.0 earthquake.
But Spencer, why only power plants nearby? Surely the electricity on the grid is shared by all plants providing power to it! Not true. The fact of the matter is, the wires that we use to send electricity are not perfect and have resistance (ohms). This resistance means that for every mile or so of wire that the electricity has to pass through, so much of it is lost. Thus, a power plant can only provide power in a specific region. Anything beyond this region has more resistance in the wires than the plant can dish out, so none of it reaches that far.
So what are the most environmentally friendly power plants? Those which use renewable resources without waste products. These would be water, solar, wind, and geothermal, with wind and geothermal being the most environmentally friendly (due to the materials and power output). Water is higher if it is not given by a dam, because damming up rivers has a major environmental impact.

Back to the discussion. If you use a hand dryer, you are heating a coil AND powering a fan of varying intensities for a specific amount of time, all of which is drawing power. At the very least, it costs the establishment the bathroom is located in money in power bill. At the worst, you're also polluting the environment. And chances are, a good deal of that energy is wasted on an abandoned dryer.
Now let's look at paper towels. A paper towel is most likely created using paper from a tree that was grown in a tree farm. Paper... we should look into paper a little more.

An estimated 95% of the paper we use comes from tree farms. Tree farms are places where trees are grown row on row for the purpose of making paper. They are not home to many animals and do not provide much shelter, since most tree farms are fenced off. A tree is cut down, another is planted in its place. The owner will NOT allow his trees to all be cut down or he'll go out of business! We will ALWAYS have trees. In fact, by cutting down the trees in a tree farm, trees in forests are saved from the logger. Now, unfortunately, making paper is a dirty business, and so is cutting it down and transporting it. But on the plus side, planting a crap-ton of trees has several positive benefits to the environment. So it is hard to say just how much of an environmental impact it has. One thing, however, is certain. Recycled paper is bad. It is transported, bleached (it requires more bleach to get rid of the markings on recycled paper than it does to turn wood into paper in the first place), processed, and then repackaged and transported again. This puts TONS of chemicals into the environment, and the paper is only good for about one round of recycling before it would fall apart. Just buy new paper to keep the tree farms alive. Throw your paper out, especially if you live near a landfill that has methane collectors. Most of the negative impact from landfills is from methane, not used land, and paper is the biggest contributor of that methane. However, when paper breaks down, it helps to break down other things near it, which helps the landfill turn its junk into usable land. And with methane collectors, that greenhouse gas is suddenly being used to put electricity into the grid instead of polluting the air. Win-win.

So, back, again, to the argument. I usually only use one or two paper towels per visit; it is enough to get my hands dry. So, the REAL argument here is this. Does it cost more to your wallet and to the environment to power a hand dryer for two blasts or to produce two individual sheets of paper towel?

You know, my money is that hand dryers cost more.

And this, unfortunately, is not the only instance of a lack of thinking. It spreads to everything! Let's say you are emailed an important document. You want to keep it, so you archive the email. Let's say your entire office is "paper free" and depends on paperless products - i.e. electricity - to run. Does it cost more to send and store those emails or to just print it out and file it away? Emails are information that can only be accessed with a computer (which requires electricity). They are stored on a server somewhere, which must remain up and running and must dedicate some portion of itself to maintaining and retrieving that email's information. Often that email will be sent to several computers and servers, possibly all over the world (and some of those recipients you will probably never even know about). Now there are a dozen servers all dedicating a small amount of energy and storage to maintaining and retrieving that one email. If it is not deleted, enough of those emails add up until a new server has to be added - a server which could potentially hold nothing but emails that are never accessed. And to send the information back and forth, who knows how much energy is being sent through thousands of miles of wires and fibre optic cables. Your server may not even be in the same country as you (although if you are running a decent-sized business, this is likely not the case). Now suddenly that small email is taking a pretty decent amount of energy and creating a real, measurable environmental impact. You could, however, print the email, then fax it around. Now, I'm not saying this is "better" or that it is even more environmentally friendly. The simple fact is, I don't know WHICH is the better option. But it's not simple to see, is it? It would actually take some real work to figure out the TOTAL environmental impact of any given email.

And what about texting? That is sent to a satellite or a cell phone tower, and from there it runs just like an email. Your phone is essentially a computer that only takes electricity from the grid when you plug it in, but it is STILL getting its energy from the grid. Now think of the energy your phone uses when all you are doing is texting? Think of how many billions of texts are sent per day... per HOUR... around the world. Think of how much energy that takes.

These examples can go on and on and on. But what pisses me off the most is when someone who claims to (or actually does) hold some sort of authority makes a decision or publishes something without actually taking into consideration all of the facts. The Worldwatch Institute claims that 43% of all paper used comes from recycled sources. Ecology.com claims this is a good thing. If you actually take into consideration how much more pollution it takes to recycle paper than to cut down a new tree, this is actually a very BAD thing. You're not "saving a tree." That's bullshit. You are actually just taking money away from a tree farmer. When the tree farmer makes less money, he can't have as much land. And what does that land become? Not a forest, dear dreamer. It becomes a parking lot, a Wal-Mart, a factory, a strip mall... it becomes whatever the highest bidder for that land wants it to become. And I GUARANTEE that the highest bidder is not going to turn his investment into a forest. So no, you are NOT SAVING A TREE by recycling. You are just turning land that once had a tree into land that is covered in asphalt.

Now, I challenge you to counter these arguments. I believe they are sound, but if they are not, show me. Discussing these matters can only be good, for it is in friendly, informed discussion that we find the truth and disseminate it.

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