Touch-free restrooms have become very popular for a couple reasons. Building owners and facility managers like them because they create a pleasing, modern appearance. They also reduce touch points, minimizing the spread of infection and creating perhaps the best and most cost effective measure to help protect health. Many of the technologies used in touch-free restrooms can also help save money by reducing resources such as water or soap and paper.

But while devices such as touch-free or automated dispensers for paper towels and tissue, hand soap and air fresheners, or automated faucets and flush valves can be aesthetically pleasing or control usage, it is important to understand the total environmental impacts of these technologies. Facility cleaning managers must take into account the batteries, photovoltaic cells, motors, circuit boards and other components of these devices.

Protecting health typically takes precedence in the decision-making process, but with so many dispensing options in the market, it is also important to understand all of the environmental impacts of those technologies.

Defining Green

As a framework for how to approach this issue, one must understand what it means to be environmentally preferable. The Implementation Instructions for Executive Order 13693 defines this as “products or services that have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing products or services that serve the same purpose.”

However, critical to this discussion is that the definition goes on to explain, “this comparison may consider raw materials acquisition, product, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, reuse, operation, maintenance, or disposal of the product or service.”

One of the key takeaways is that although reducing impacts on health and the environment is the goal, consideration should also be given to the impacts along the entire lifecycle of a product.

For example, a touch-free restroom dispenser may help improve healthy habits by encouraging building occupants to wash their hands. It might also reduce impacts on the environment by reducing or controlling the use of soap, water, paper or other resources. However, to fully understand whether there are any trade-offs that will influence the purchasing decision, consideration must also be given to how the products were made, used, maintained and ultimately disposed of.

When contemplating transitioning to automated restrooms and dispensers, it is these trade-offs that must be considered. Only then can facility cleaning managers make a fully informed decision about their product selection and use.

Power Of Batteries

Batteries are used in restroom fixtures, cell phones, toys, laptops and practically every modern device, resulting in the sale of roughly three billion batteries annually in the U.S. These batteries make our lives more portable and convenient, but they also contain heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium and nickel, which can contaminate the environment if they are improperly disposed of.

Collectively, disposable and rechargeable dry cell batteries contribute about 88 percent of the total mercury and 50 percent of the cadmium in the municipal solid waste stream. In landfills, these heavy metals have the potential to leach slowly into soil, groundwater or surface water. And according to Environmental Health and Safety Online, when burned, some of these metals may vaporize and escape into the air, or end up in the ash, increasing the potential to affect human health.

In addition to the disposal issues, the heavy metals used in batteries, circuit boards and other materials affect the environment and the workers who mine it from the ground, purify it, and use it in the manufacturing of batteries and other products.

So when selecting battery-powered restroom devices, it is important to consider the type of battery — single-use alkaline versus those that are rechargeable. While both may contain heavy metals, from an environmental perspective, it is advantageous to use rechargeable batteries as reuse significantly reduces the environmental impacts associated with raw material extraction and manufacturing.

At the same time, consideration must be given to the proper disposal of batteries after they are no longer effective. With the exception of California, most states allow for single-use alkaline batteries to be disposed of in the trash. Although simple disposal is permitted in most states, it is more environmentally preferable to recycle these batteries. This is especially true since many municipalities incinerate their garbage, which creates a greater potential for people to be exposed to harmful heavy metals.

Rechargeable batteries should also be collected and recycled. The easiest and most cost effective way to recycle rechargeable batteries is to contact the Rechargeable Batteries Recycling Corporation (RBRC), which is a nonprofit funded by battery manufacturers to address proper disposal.