Less consumption, more water

The writer and her husband now use a Cadet 3 low-flow toilet.
The writer and her husband now use a Cadet 3 low-flow toilet.

Pop quiz: Do you know how much water you use? While I can report that my husband recently replaced our faulty toilet with a very efficient 1.28 gallons-per-flush model, I have to wait for another month's water bill to see how it has improved our water-use numbers. Judging from the very short tank-fill cycle, I can tell it's a vast improvement from our last model.

But really, my question was not about efficient showers, toilets and washing machines. Just about everything manufactured or processed uses water in some part of its production. So how much water do we really use?

After my husband and I cut back on our meat consumption for health reasons, I happened to see an article that compared the water footprint (the amount of water used in its production cycle) of common food items and was stunned to read how water-intensive the meat and dairy industries are.

Water is used to produce the food crops, livestock drink large quantities of water and the processing of livestock and dairy products uses water.

An example: It takes 621 gallons of water to produce a beef hamburger and 42 to produce a veggie burger. We cut back on meat and dairy for health reasons but our decision has, by chance, reduced our water footprint.

My curiosity led me to look at other comparisons just to see how my choices fared.

I am a tea drinker and given a choice between a good cup of PG Tips tea with milk versus a cup of coffee, tea wins. In reading about the water footprint, I found that it takes 30 gallons of water to produce one cup of coffee but only nine to produce a cup of tea. So I found other benefits to my cup of tea.

We made a decision to cut back on plastic disposables whenever possible when we do boat picnics or have outdoor get-togethers with friends, so I use regular plates, cups and silverware. They perform better than plastic ones but I do understand they require washing afterward, so I always wondered if there really was any gain to be made.

I did some research and found that it takes 24 gallons of water to produce one pound of plastic. In addition, nearly 10 percent of U.S. oil consumption -- about 2 million barrels a day -- is used to make plastic.

Oil is a non-renewable resource. So on balance, even though the reusable items will need water and energy to wash, at least we get to use them again and we are not adding more items to our trash. Admittedly I will use paper plates on occasion and when I'm out I will succumb to buying the odd bottle of water, but I try to make it the exception rather than the rule.

There's always a choice to be made between cost, convenience and sustainability. Living in the Keys, where our water is pumped in from the Biscayne Aquifer, our trash and recyclables are trucked up to Broward County and we are surrounded by the beauty and the delicate ecosystem of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, our choices tend to lean toward sustainability.

Shirley Gun is a member of the Keyswide nonprofit Green Living & Energy Education. She writes about green living and the four Rs -- reducing, reusing, recycling and rot (composting). She can be reached at