The Quickest, Easiest Way to Save Water

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Published on October 9th, 2012  |  Discuss This Article  

I admit it: I’m kind of obsessed with saving water. Not only have I done everything possible at home (low-flow toilets, showerhead, washer/dryer, dishwasher, etc.), I even stealthily installed a faucet aerator in the bathroom of a favorite restaurant of mine. Since bathrooms in businesses get a lot of use, I couldn’t resist the 4.5 gallons per minute savings. But what if I told you that you could save even more water than me, without being a total weirdo? What if it was free?

In the United States, the average person uses about 69 gallons of water at home indoors per day (25,295 gallons per year) and about 100 gallons of water per day (36,500 gallons per year) if you include outdoor use like watering a lawn. While that is already a lot of water, this number doesn’t even represent all our water use. In fact, the water we use at home is just 3.6% of our total water use! Another 4.4% is industrial, and a whopping 92% is agricultural (food and fiber).

Home water use is declining in the U.S., and you can join in on the fun by saving about 25 gallons per daywith standard conservation measures (like low-flow showers). But if you really want to use less water, you can save far more than that by making one tiny change in your diet on a weekly basis.

The trick here is to reduce the portion of water use that goes to agriculture (92%) by choosing different foods. Just as we can calculate a person’s “carbon footprint” to measure their total contribution towards climate change, we can do the same with water. Your “water footprint” includes both your direct and indirect water use (e.g. the water used to produce products you buy), and includes both the consumption andpollution of water. In the U.S. the average annual water footprint per capita is 750,777 gallons; the global average is less than half of that at 365,878 gallons.

So, here’s the quickest, easiest way to reduce your water footprint: Once per week, eat a soy burger instead of a hamburger. That’s it. That single swap saves you a whopping 579 gallons each time, and if you do it once per week it adds up to saving 30,111 gallons per year (more than your total indoor water use at home).

If you also drink a cup of soy milk instead of cow’s milk you can save another 47 gallons each time (2,447 gallons per year if you make the switch once per week). So between the burger and the milk, that’s a total savings of 32,559 gallons per person per year, enough to take 814 baths. Trust me, choosing soy products instead of cow products is a lot easier than trying to save that much water at home (and way easier than installing aerators at restaurants, which requires stealth).

Think about that: you could shut off your water at home (no toilet, no shower, no washing machine, etc.) and still have less impact than switching from beef to soy once per week*.

Inspired? The average American eats 57.3 pounds of beef and drinks 20 gallons of milk per year; swap that all out for soy and save 115,396 gallons of water each year! If you don’t like soy, there are plenty of other options.

You can educate yourself on how much water various foods and drinks require at a fantastic web site put out by the Water Footprint Network. (Before you click over, let me warn you: you may not want to know.)

So if you find yourself pulling your hair out because you can’t afford a front-loading washer, or if it starts to seem like a good idea to leave a spare aerator and a wrench in your backpack (just in case), remember there’s an easier way.

* Note that if you wanted to offset your outdoor water use as well as indoor use, be prepared to switch another 1.6 cups of milk a week for soy milk.

For all of the actual calculations used in this article, see the spreadsheet I created.

(Image: Water drop. Source: Flickr user Casper H. Petersen via a Creative Commons license.)

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Comments: The Quickest, Easiest Way to Save Water

  •  Comment from Jon

    A number of people have had questions about the article including “what if I don’t like soy?” or “what if I don’t eat beef?” so I put a bit more information up at http://sciencejon.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-quickest-easiest-way-to-save-water.html

  •  Comment from Jude Capper

    I find it interesting that your numbers for water use in beef appear to be significantly inflated. The Water Footprint Network (WFN) includes the rainfall that falls onto pasture and crops as “water use” even though that cannot be controlled or used elsewhere. Furthermore, if you examine the assumptions made by the WFN you will see that they are not representative of the beef production system in the USA. They are representative of production systems in Brazil for example, but massively overestimate both the time taken to produce beef in the USA (3 years in their example vs. an average of 15 months in the USA) and they underestimate the amount of beef that an average animal produces (200 kg in their example, 274 kg in the US on average). Given those false assumptions, it’s not surprising that their figure for water use (upon which your article is based) is far higher than the figure published by Beckett and Oltjen in their paper in the Journal of Animal Science (http://www.journalofanimalscience.org/content/71/4/818.full.pdf) which is equal to 441 gallons per lb of boneless beef. I suggest you recalculate your figures.

  •  Comment from Jon

    @Jude Capper
    Thanks for the feedback. The inclusion of rainfall applies to the water footprint of both animal products and primary crops; one can certainly debate the merit of the approach but it is consistent for comparison purposes of two different foods (e.g. beef vs soy).

    The paper I cite is indeed using a global average for the water footprint of beef (as opposed to actual product lifecycle data which was used to calculate the water footprint for the soy burger and soy milk from a factory). One of the authors has another paper calculating water footprint of livestock by nation (http://www.waterfootprint.org/Reports/Report-48-WaterFootprint-AnimalProducts-Vol1.pdf), and they found that the water footprint for a 150g beef burger in the USA would be 562 gallons rather than 621 . That translates to a savings of 520 gallons of water for each soy burger consumed instead of an American burger (as opposed to the global average savings of 579 that I mentioned). That still works out so that eating a soy burger instead of beef burger once per week saves more water than the average total indoor water use for a week.

    In the paper calculating water footprint by nation, the authors (Hoesktra and Mekonnen) used FAOSTAT data to get the slaughter weight by country (310 kg for grazing in the US to 390 kg for industrial production). The average slaughter age for the US used in the paper was 18 months (up to 21 for grazing). The assumptions that most affect the results are the feed conversion efficiency and feed composition per production systems and country.

    A number of other authors have come up with similar numbers for the global average of beef (Zimmer & Renault 2003, Oki et al 2003), so while there is no doubt that there is room for disagreement about the best methodology to use, it is also true that the work I cited is not an outlier. If you like, I’d be happy to pass on some additional information I received from the authors about their methodology by email.

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