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Earlier this week I ran out of paper towels and napkins at the same time. Whenever that happens and I have to make a special trip to the store to restock, I totter guiltily on the brink of a resolution to go paperless in the kitchen. Guiltily, I say, because I know I just can’t do it. While I have schooled myself to not reach for paper towels  to dry counters or hands generally, I still need them for covering foods in the microwave or draining my fried food like potatoes, zucchini, & bacon. I’ve read other people’s blogs about how they’ve gamely and gaily gone paperless, filling their kitchen with baskets of rags and hand-stitched little tea towels. I’ve concluded that while all that sounds inspiring, I’m just not there yet. But if I could get it down to replacing the paper towel roll only once every couple of months I’d feel alright about that. And listening to the guilt as motivator, in the case of plowing through non-renewable resources, is not a bad thing at all.

My friend Lisa Rosen recently wrote a great article that lives on ecology.com about conserving water and I wanted to share it with you. Since reading it, it really has helped me think through my habits at the sink, which I thought were not bad, but clearly could be much better. To her strong imagery that’s provided me with lingering reminders about not being wasteful, I will add this one: the sight of one of those gardeners I used to see so often in Los Angeles, pushing fallen leaves down the sidewalk into the street via pressure hose.  I don’t want to be in that league at the sink level, lapsing into using my water sprayer as a lazy-man’s plate scraper or gravity tool. This is potable water coming out of my faucet, after all.

Here is the article in its entirety. Thanks, Lisa!

Toilet Flushing  Okay so we already covered shower use. Now let’s turn our focus to the amenity that uses more water than anything else in the home. That’s right, this column is heading straight into the toilet.

A good friend says that future generations will look back on us, as we do the ancient Romans, and the thing that will cause the most amazement and horror will be: “They flushed potable water!” Ever since she said that, it’s haunted me. (Now it’s your turn.) So the first suggestion would be for everyone to convert their toilet to a gray water system, using water from washing their dishes or clothes. I don’t have that. I don’t know anyone who has that. Do you?

So, short of that, I go the old mellow-yellow route, which is grosser to talk about than to actually employ. You don’t even have to go full hippie, just flush half as often as usual. Easy peesy. Moving on. I also have a low-flow toilet, as do most homes at this point, seeing as a 1994 federal law mandated that all new toilets use a maximum of 1.6 gallons per flush. If everyone reading this already has a low-flow toilet that you’re flushing only as needed, fabulous. If not, here’s a site that recommends the modern version of a brick in the tank.

The ol’ timey brick can disintegrate and cause clogs, hence their newfangled water bottle suggestion. Plus, how’s that for a clever reuse? But note the warnings on the site, and experiment with the displacement size – if you can’t flush efficiently, you’re not saving bupkis.

Okay now it’s onto the bathroom sink, which runs at the rate of about two gallons a minute. Everyone’s already turning off the tap to brush the teeth, yes? And scrub faces, shave beards, put in contact lenses, the whole shebang. According to the EPA, simply brushing teeth without running the water saves an average of 2880 gallons a year per person. For a family of four, that’s a veritable Niagara of 11520 gallons.

If you have a leak in this or any other sink, get it fixed already. Even a small drip equals a few gallons down the drain each day. If it’s beyond your budget to hire a plumber, or beyond your apartment manager’s interest to do likewise, then at least catch the water with a bowl or watering can, and use it elsewhere.

Now let’s head to the kitchen sink. Once upon a time I was rinsing lettuce in my salad spinner when I realized big bowls of water were going to waste with every wash. So now I pour that water into the garden. Same goes for all produce – I rinse it over a big bowl and use that water on the plants. Dashing over to the stove for a moment, when I boil or steam vegetables, I let that water cool off and do likewise. My garden has no idea there’s a drought in L.A., although every now and then it smells like broccoli water. That tends to confuse the cacti. A pet-owning friend adds that the leftover water in the critters’ bowls can be used the same way, before refilling them with fresh water.

When I wash dishes, I put any dirty recyclables in the sink so that the water I’m using cleans them as I go. Using potable water to clean something bound for the recycling bin horrifies me just like those decadent Romans.

And one of the simplest, silliest saving methods just occurred to me a couple years ago. I hesitate to mention it, because it’s so duh, but just in case anyone else can benefit from my dunciness, I hereby offer this up: turn the water down. I used to feel the need to have it going full blast as I washed. But half strength works just as well for washing and rinsing. Added bonus for us klutzes: you’re much less likely to splash yourself this way.

If you’re one of those fancy pants people who has a dishwasher, wait until you have a full load before you use it. And don’t clean the dishes first. I know you already know that; this tip really isn’t for you, it’s for those other people. Like me when I was a kid.

We had a dishwasher when I was growing up, but we always had to wash the dishes thoroughly before putting them into the machine, according to my father’s decree. The washer was only for sanitizing the dishes, he said. In his defense, it wasn’t a great washer, so any detritus left on the dishes upon entering the dishwasher would still be there when the cycle was done. Just hotter and more stuck.

If you must rinse, do like the recyclables mentioned above, and put them underneath the hand-washables to pre-soak.

My dad also insisted on a complicated loading methodology, taking up every available inch of space in an efficient manner that would now be considered eco-friendly but at the time was just annoying. It also has, I believe, made me freakishly talented at packing and Tetrus.

(In more recent years, I’m happy to report, my folks have acquired a dishwasher that does more than just bake the dishes with hot water.)

You don’t have to go full flow there either. Unless you’ve got some heavy duty cleaning to do, using a light-wash setting will do the job while cutting water use up to 55 percent.

And if you need to borrow my father to load your dishes, he’s available. And very sanitary.

Lisa Rosen Lisa Rosen is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, CA. She has been writing about film, television, books, art, and design for the Los Angeles Times since the turn of the century. Her work has also appeared in Written By, Moving Pictures, and LA Architect, among other publications.

When not thus involved in the popular culture, she engages in activist work in support of human rights, justice and environmental movements in countries such as East Timor, Indonesia, Burma, and the U.S. 

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