Emvironmental Love: Water

Posted on 05 May 2009

I thought I’d share a list of things I try to do to lessen my personal impact on the environment.  To start, here are a few that relate to water–the world’s most valuable natural resource, whose importance is predicted to surpass that of oil in the 21st century.

1. Brush your teeth (and shave!) with the water off.  I remember learning this in 4th grade, when a lady came to our school and give a presentation on water conservation.  I don’t remember the exact figures she gave us, but I remember being very impressed; and I’ve never brushed my teeth with the water running since.  All you really need the water for is to wet your brush in the beginning, and rinse it off at the end! 

2. Keep your watering can in your bathroom.  Why, you might ask?  Because the shower water usually takes a few minutes (maybe 1 to 2, if you have a good heater) to warm up.  While it’s getting to that point, grab your watering can and catch the cooler water, until the can is full–thus helping you waste less AND collect water to feed your house or outdoor plants.  

3. If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.  One of my college roommates practiced this philosophy like a die-hard, and believe me, we all made fun of her for it.  But since having my own apartment I’ve become a full-blown convert!  I mean, if it’s just you using the toidy all the time–who cares?  And contrary to what you might expect, this practice doesn’t even dirty the bowl that much more than would be the case, otherwise.  This way, you can maintain your old cleaning schedule AND save thousands of gallons of water each year (the average person flushes about 6 gallons of water literally “down the toilet”, daily).

4. While we’re on the topic of toilets, here’s another of my favorites: controlling the automatic flush mechanism, at work.  Over the past ten years, many workplaces have been outfitted with motion-censor toilets that are supposed to conveniently flush when you’re done, so you don’t have to.  Lovely!  Except that, at least at my office, I have quickly found that the toilets tend to be more than a little trigger-happy–turning the normally stress-free experience of relieving oneself into an agonizing game of “freeze or flush!”  Nine times out of ten, the toilet flushes just as you’re reaching for the toilet paper–which means that you not only might be subject to some, ahem, deflected spray, but you’ve just been signed up to flush again once you’re really done.  Wha?!  Given this unpleasant predicament, you’ll be happy to hear that I have devised a clever scheme to resolve the whole issue.  Before settling in to take care of business, I drape a small piece of toilet paper over the flush censor “eye” (tricky bastard), thereby fooling it into thinking that there’s nobody in the stall.  Then, once I’ve finished (in peace and tranquility), I simply remove the scrap of paper and throw it in the bowl–just in time for the flush.  HA.  Take that, sneaky auto-flusher!

5. Use only cold (occasionally warm) water to wash laundry, dishes and hands.  I admit, sometimes it’s just nicer to use warm water–especially in the winter (i.e., if you can’t feel the dishes in your hands, you might want to turn on the warm before your break something).  But according to tests, using warm water to wash dishes, hands and laundry doesn’t kill germs any better, and only cleans marginally better, than cold water would (see http://www.health.uab.edu/17728/).  Particularly for hand washing, the temperatures necessary to actually kill germs are higher than most people’s hands can stand (and therefore unlikely to be coming out of the average bathroom sink faucet).  So just be sure to scrub and use soap, and save the energy and extra water it takes to get warm water, if you can.  

6. During the summer, when you’re using water to hydrate your lawn and garden, set out buckets under your roof gutters to catch runoff when it rains.  This way you don’t have to draw on your town or city drinking supply.  The same goes for water from vases or fish tank water-changes; save it and use it to water plants!

7. Turn your water heater down to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  Even though you may be a hot-water lover and think you can tell the difference, it’s highly unlikely that you actually can.  To provide some perspective: the hottest temperature recommended for hot tubs by the Consumer Product Safety Commission is 104 degrees Fahrenheit; the hottest water that most people can stand is around 110 degrees; and anything above 125 degrees burns your skin.  So 120 degrees should be more than sufficient for those hot showers you love!

8. Along similar lines, turn off the water while you’re soaping up in the shower.  Although this may seem a bit daunting (i.e., won’t the water be cold when you turn it back on?), as long as you don’t spend more than like 3 minutes scrubbing, the water temperature should remain basically unchanged during that time–so when you turn it back on you won’t freeze your lil’ tootsies off, and in the meantime you will have saved a few gallons of water (the average shower releases around 1.6 gallons per minute).

9. When you use a dishwasher, make sure it’s full when you run it.  If you prefer to wash by hand, practice the “cycle” method, a term I am coining; ready to hear about it?  🙂  The cycle method is something I’ve been using for the past few years, because I began to feel guilty about having the water just running away for 3 minutes while I scrubbed crusty cheese off a plate, or whatever.  It works best if you have a two-part sink, but even if you have just one sink you can divide it into parts or put soapy dishes on the counter until they’re ready to rinse.  First, you’ll want to collect all the dirty dishes over on one side of the sink.  As you soap up each dish, it should go into the opposite corner of the sink (or onto the counter, or into the second sink) for rinsing later–this way you don’t get dirty dishes cavorting around with clean ones.  The cycle method involves three steps: 1) SOAK–if you can, put a little water in the dishes as soon as you’re done using them, or while you’re washing other ones, so that the food on them has time to loosen; 2) SOAP–at this point, you shouldn’t need to use hardly any water before soaping things up–because things were already soaking.  Dump the soaking water into other dishes that aren’t wet yet and scrub up with a soapy sponge or whatever, until they’re clean; then put them aside with the other soapies until all the dishes are “soaped.”  It helps to start with one of the bigger items so then you can put smaller soapy things into it (you can then even let the faucet drip into the soapy bowl or pan to soak the smaller items, while you continue soaping); 3) RINSE–once you’ve got a big pile of soapy dishes accumulated, move the faucet over them, turn on the water and start rubbing off the soap–starting with whatever’s on top.  This way, water trickles over everything and by the time you get to the bottom of the pile you’ll often find that much of the soap is already washed away.  Ta-da!  Repeat and cycle, doing your best to turn on the faucet only for the rinsing phase–until all of your dishes are clean.

10. Always use only a thin stream (i.e. barely more than a trickle) to wash your vegetables.  You’ll be surprised, how far it can go!  Hehe.

11. If it isn’t dirty, don’t wash it.  I didn’t come to appreciate this rule until I began doing my own laundry–at which point I naturally became interested in finding ways to avoid extra work.  But it’s a great one!!  Try not to just automatically toss clothes you’ve just worn into the hamper; they may often be good for another go-round!  So if you’re unsure about how dirty they’ve gotten, don’t hesitate to give ’em a whiff or a once-over, to verify that they’re ready for a wash–this way you don’t waste the extra water and soap to wash clothing that’s basically clean. (Ahem, please NOTE: this rule does not apply to underwear)

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