Vending machines used to just swallow your money. Now they sell anything from drinks to live crabs – and can even offer a lifeline in disaster-hit countries.

In the early 1990s, environmental campaigners in Japan used to highlight the fact that the nation's 3.6m vending machines collectively used electricity equal to the output of one nuclear power station. Such a comparison holds extra poignancy today, of course, especially when you consider there are now twice the number of vending machines in the country that famously just can't get enough of them. In fact, with the country experiencing rolling blackouts following the earthquake on 10 March, a grassroots campaign was launched to persuade Coca-Cola to switch off its 980,000 vending machines to help conserve energy. An executive from another drinks firm was quick to retaliate: “But vending machines constitute a lifeline for residents.”

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