How to Reduce Your Water Footprint

By Betty Dabney, PhD

Water may become the most precious natural resource in our lifetime. Only 0.3% of the water on earth is available for drinking, and unfortunately its location does not always occur where the populations are that need it. While we tend to take safe and adequate drinking water for granted, that is not the case in many areas of the world. Currently 1.1 billion – one out of seven – people in the world do not have access to treated drinking water.

San Antonio is one of the most progressive US cities in water conservation. This has been necessitated by our historic drought. The Stage 2 water conservation rules have recently been relaxed to Stage 1 by the San Antonio Water System (SAWS), but the need to conserve water still exists.

The US EPA says that the average person uses 100 gallons of water a day. But the indirect usage, including water used to grow and process our food and to produce our electricity, can be TEN TIMES that much! It would follow that one of the most effective ways to save water is by saving electricity – more about that in a future column. We encourage you to be mindful of your personal water consumption, and to look continually for ways to reduce it.

Here is a breakdown of direct water usage (without conservation) by an average US household. As you can see, toilets are the largest use. Because of their importance, we will talk a lot about toilets later in this article. You will become an expert on toilets, not to mention a great conversationalist at parties!

And here is how much water it takes to produce various consumer items:
• 1 glass of orange juice: 50 glasses of water
• 1 tomato: 30 liters
• 1 chicken egg: 450 liters
• 1 steak: 13,000 liters
• 1 ton of steel (1 car): 225,000 liters

This does NOT take into account the substantial amount of water required to generate electricity. When this and other indirect uses are added to our direct consumption, the average person uses over 1,100 gallons of water a day, according to H20

You can calculate your total water usage and find many ways to save water at the H2O Conserve’s Water Footprint Calculator. Here are some other suggestions:

• Don’t leave water running when you’re not using it. Duh! To most of us this is obvious, but what about the more subtle things such as water wasted while you’re waiting for hot water? You can put a bucket under the faucet and use this otherwise wasted water to water plants or for pets.

• Fix all leaks, especially the toilet. A leaky toilet can waste 200 gallons of water a day! SAWS has a pioneering “Kick the Can” program to provide FREE low-volume toilets to residential consumers whose toilets date prior to 1992. Please take advantage of this program if you haven’t already and can qualify for it.

• When remodeling, consider installing a dual-flush toilet. (Half-flush for the small jobs, whole flush for…well, you know.) Some municipalities such as San Francisco already require these in new construction. Typically the user can push one of two buttons on the top of the tank for the desired flush:

ROUS Dual-Flush Toilet

For more information on low-flush toilets, including infrastructure requirements, go here.

• If you want to go a step further, you can modify the top of your toilet tank to be a handwashing sink. Caroma sells such a toilet, which automatically dispenses clean water for hand washing when the toilet is flushed. The water then drains into the toilet tank for the next flush:

Caroma’s “Profile™ 5 with Integrated Hand Basin” toilet –
Saves both water and space

Then there is the ultimate water-saving toilet: the Clivus Multrum composting toilet that converts human waste into rich compost without using water:

We might as well get used to it – such technology may become standard in the future. I have seen composting toilets at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s headquarters in Annapolis, MD. To answer the obvious question: they don’t smell.

Granted, these toilets are not for everybody, but they are examples of how we can be innovative in saving water and space.

Here are some other tips:

• Don’t run partial loads in the washing machine and dishwasher.

• Replace existing shower heads and faucets with more efficient ones as they wear out. The EPA has a “WaterSense” label to help you identify fixtures that use at least 20% less water than conventional ones.

• The drinking water system in the US is poorly designed in that it uses finished (drinking-quality) water for all domestic uses. You don’t need to use pure water for non-drinking purposes. If you are building a new home or remodeling an older one, consider designing the plumbing to recycle the gray water (water from sinks and tubs) into holding tanks for further non-drinking use such as flushing toilets, washing your car and watering.

• And for those of you who drink bottled water, consider this before you take another sip of it. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, bottled water is 240 – 5,000 times more expensive than tap water. More than 95% of the cost is the bottle, label, lid and transportation. The bottled water market is $100 billion per year; HALF this amount could provide infrastructure and water treatment to the world. It generates 10 billion plastic bottles per year ( Plastic for bottles uses 1.5 million barrels of oil per year, enough to run 100,000 cars. Plastic water bottles can take 1,000 years to biodegrade in landfills and also contribute to pollution in the oceans. It takes 1.3 gallons of water to rinse the plastic dust from a new -gallon water bottle. Finally, the bisphenol A in the plastic bottle may be harmful.

These are but a few things that can be done to reduce water usage. Perhaps you can do even more.

Our future depends on it.

Copyright © 2012 by Betty J Dabney


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