We rely on biometric scans for all sorts of security. We use thumb or hand prints or facial scans to secure doors and personal electronics. Basically, we all use technology that was once associated with super secretive government agencies (and James Bond villains) to keep our stuff safe.
Now China is using the same technology to keep safe something much more common: toilet paper.
The Temple of Heaven in Beijing, a major draw for tourists and locals alike, has provided free toilet paper for 10 years in its public toilets. That free toilet paper, however, sometimes doesn't get used in the park's toilets. According to China Radio International, people would take far more toilet tissue than they would need, saving it for later use at home, or they would just abscond with the whole roll.
High-tech toilet paper
To combat the TP thieves, officials have rolled out automatic toilet paper dispensers that use facial recognition software to distribute the toilet paper.
Here's how it works. Before entering the bathroom, people stand in front of the dispenser for the facial scanning. Then, two feet of toilet paper is dispensed for the visitor's use. If they need more, it's a nine-minute wait before the machine will dispense another two feet of TP.
The machines were installed in late March for a two-week trial period, and while the official results are still forthcoming, visitors to the Temple of Heaven have an opinion on the matter.
"The people who steal toilet paper are greedy," He Zhiqiang, told the New York Times. "Toilet paper is a public resource. We need to prevent waste."
Others were less than enthused. Per the Times, some people have banged on the machines — which cost $720 a pop — in frustration, and one woman complained to the Times that the sheets were simply "too short" for use.
Still, it seems like a slightly better system than what's available at other locations throughout China. Some public bathrooms provide a communal roll for the entire bathroom, while other don't provide any paper at all.
A 'toilet revolution'
Squat toilets, like these public ones in Beijing, are still fairly common throughout China. This one at least provides dividers; many do not. (Photo: Robert Ennals/flickr)
The face-scanning toilet paper dispensers are a part of a wider initiative launched by China's National Tourist Administration in 2015. Called a "toilet revolution," the program aims to upgrade the quality of the toilets in public spaces, and this includes building about 34,000 new toilets throughout the country and renovating another 23,000 toilets. Those installations and renovations suggest the adoption of Western-style "sit-down" commodes as replacements for the more common squat toilets. Those public toilets tend to askew dividers and doors, which really puts an emphasis on the public aspect of the toilets.
The program was spurred by China's middle class traveling more widely and expecting, if not demanding, better facilities in which to do their business. As such, the ultimate goal "is to have a sufficient amount of toilets which are clean and odorless and free to use," according to Zhan Dongmei, a researcher with the China Tourism Academy.
"We can't accept the situation that a lot of investments have been made to build toilets and they turn out to be unsanitary and poorly managed," he said.
Sanitation isn't the only improvement for the toilet situation in China. Shanghai, the country's financial hub, opened gender-neutral public bathrooms in November in an effort to increase convenience and efficiency.
Around $3.6 billion has been spent since the program began, and Zhan thinks the revolution is about 90 percent complete. The last 10 percent is expected to be completed by the end of the year.