Student entrepreneurs “hack” their way to sustainability

The screen on the front of the dispenser communicates the volume and cost of usage. - SFU News

An interdisciplinary team of SFU students has won the Sustainability Trophy in nwHacks, an engineering competition or “hackathon,” for their sustainable paper towel dispenser they have dubbed “PullMeNot.”

The invention dispenses paper towels while displaying the impact of consumption to the user and collecting data to help businesses and organizations make more sustainable choices.

Siv Padhy, a fourth year communications student, said that the dispenser “does two things. On the front end, it shows [the] immediate impact of waste in using paper to the user. On the back end, it tracks data on usage for businesses and organizations to use for their own needs.”

The dispenser tells the user via a screen how many paper towels they have used in real time, the monetary cost to the organization, as well as the total carbon dioxide emissions that would be released if everyone used the same amount.

It uses Wi-Fi modules to communicate this information to a server. Padhy explained the strength of this feature in comparison to the water bottle filling stations which, in part, inspired their idea: “The problem with those is that they are not networked, meaning [that] they don’t send data anywhere.”

Hacks is the largest hackathon in Western Canada. This year the theme was “sustainability” and there were judges from Google, Facebook, and Apple. The hackathon occurred over three days, non-stop with little time for sleep. Padhy remarked, “It’s kind of like finals but even harder.”

Padhy said that the team, which included arts, computing science, and business students, used their diverse backgrounds to their advantage.

“We said ‘let’s build something cool, but let’s have some impact tied to it,’” Padhy continued, “Something that quite clearly, even if you weren’t an engineer, you could see some value in it. So that’s what kind of set us apart.”

The PullMeNot team plans to further develop their project “horizontally” and “vertically.” Essentially, they want to improve the design of their dispenser to make it better suited to a customer’s needs. They also want to expand into other products.

Richard Arthurs, a first year mechatronic systems engineering student, explained, “One of the important takeaways is that this doesn’t stop at paper towel. It’s just kind of the beginning. We have to make sure our modules — the stuff that deals with the Wi-Fi — can connect to any sort of sensor for something we want to measure. [. . .] If we have a modular system, half the work is already done when we want to monitor something else.”

On the business end, they are currently in talks to pilot the project at SFU’s Surrey campus. Arthurs explained that they are looking into optimizing the dispenser for manufacturability, power use, and ease of installation. Team member Steven Huang is developing a web-based dashboard which will illustrate data to the customer by using graphs and tables.

Padhy commented, “It’s one thing to be able to track anything and everything but if it’s not useful it’s just noise. From a social point of view, we want to make sure we’re equipping people with the type of info they need to reduce consumption both on a consumer scale and a larger scale.”

He continued, “On the front end — consumption — we can immediately show people their impact on a larger scale beyond just their action. The analogy I like to use is: if 7 billion people threw one penny into a pot, that’s a lot money.”

The problem is, as Padhy laid out, “No one sees the penny or the pot.”