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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that the bathroom is where over half of our household water usage takes place? What are some ways to take a bite out of that?
—Shelby McIntyre, Chico, CA

Some 60 percent of our household indoor water usage happens in the bathroom.

Photo © Hemera Collection/Thinkstock

Yes indeed, some 60 percent of our household indoor water usage happens in the bathroom. As such, updating old leaky fixtures and changing a few basic habits could go a long way to not only saving fresh water, an increasingly precious resource, but also money.

Undoubtedly, the toilet is the biggest water hog in the bathroom. Those made before 1993 use up to eight gallons of water per flush, five times what modern toilets use. “It’s a good idea to replace pre-1993 toilets if you can,” says Patty Kim of National Geographic’s Green Guide. (FYI, usually a toilet’s manufacture date is stamped under the lid if you want to check how old it is.) If it is older and you can’t or don’t want to upgrade it, Kim recommends rescuing a two liter soda bottle from the recycling bin and filling it partially with some water and sand or pebbles and then putting it into your toilet’s tank, where it will take up space and force your toilet to use less water every flush. Or get a Toilet Tank Bank for less than two bucks; it hangs in your toilet tank and displaces almost a gallon of water to save water on every flush.

Plumbing leaks account for some 14 percent of the total water usage in an average U.S. home. Toilets are often a major culprit. Kim recommends testing your toilet by putting 5-10 drops of food coloring into the tank, then put the lid back on but don’t flush. Check back in 15 minutes or so to see if any of the colored water leaked down into the bowl. If so, you have a water-wasting leak, and it might finally be time to replace that aging toilet after all. The EarthEasy website reports that replacing an older18 liter per flush toilet with an ultra-low volume (ULV) 6 liter flush model “represents a 70 percent saving in water flushed and will cut indoor water use by about 30 percent.”

The shower can also be problematic as a water-waster, especially if the shower head in question was made before new regulations went into effect in 1992 mandating lower flow. Kim says you can check to see if your shower head is older or not by turning the shower on full blast and catching its output for two minutes in a bucket. If the bucket is overflowing, then your shower head is an older, more wasteful model. Newer low flow shower heads won’t come anywhere near to filling the bucket after two minutes. A new shower head costs around $10 and is a great investment because you can save water and money with every ensuing shower. Regardless of whether or not you have a newer shower head, you can save more water by turning off the shower to soap up, then turning it back on to rinse. Eartheasy reminds us that even with a new shower head, even a moderately short shower can still use between 20 and 40 gallons of water. But that’s nothing compared to a bathtub, which can hold as much as 50-60 gallons of water.

Additional pearls of wisdom in regard to reducing bathroom water waste include turning off the faucet while brushing teeth. Better yet, fill up a glass with just enough water to rinse after brushing. Likewise for shaving, stop up the sink with a little warm water in it and wiggle your razor around in the basin between strokes. And if you suspect your faucet may be spraying harder than it needs to, unscrew the aerator tip where the water comes out and take it into a hardware store for a more stingy replacement.

CONTACTS: The Green Guide; EarthEasy.

 
 

 

Dear EarthTalk: I understand that some companies are now looking to cut down forests and burn them as “biomass” for generating electricity. Is nothing sacred?
—Audrey Barklay, Newark, NJ

In theory, burning any kind of plant material for energy is a carbon-neutral endeavor, but chopping down forests for ethanol is unwise because they cannot be regrown quickly.

Photo © Hemera Collection/Thinkstock

In theory, burning biomass (any kind of plant material) to derive energy is a carbon-neutral endeavor, meaning that the carbon dioxide released during the process is in turn absorbed by other plants and put to use in photosynthesis—and as such does not contribute to the greenhouse effect. Biomass is also flexible: It can be turned into ethanol to power up automobiles, or can be burned like coal to generate heat and/or electricity. Factor in that biomass feedstock is usually inexpensive, widely available and a seemingly perfect alternative to the carbon-spewing, foreign-derived fossil fuels we rely on so much these days.

Typically unmarketable trees, brush and logging debris becomes the feedstock for biomass processing plants or for coal-fired power plants equipped to “co-fire” with plant material. But environmentalists warn that some timber companies and their utility and state customers are taking things too far by levelling entire forests—including some within publicly owned national forest land—to generate more feedstock for otherwise underutilized biomass energy production facilities.

Among the negative environmental impacts, chopping down forests to burn for ethanol production—even if replanted as tree plantations—is like biting the hand that feeds you. “Natural forests, with their complex ecosystems, cannot be regrown like a crop of beans or lettuce,” reports the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental group. “And tree plantations will never provide the clean water, storm buffers, wildlife habitat, and other ecosystem services that natural forests do.”

Another negative for biomass is that burning it, like coal or anything else, produces air pollution including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and a variety of toxic substances. According to NRDC, these pollutants increase the incidence of asthma, heart disease, lung cancer and other respiratory ailments, and premature death.

But perhaps most troubling about plans to cut down forests for biomass feedstock is taking carbon neutrality out of the equation, given the fact that tree loss in and of itself is already responsible for some 20 percent of the world’s total carbon pollution. “When biomass is harvested from forests, carbon stored in the soil is released into the atmosphere,” reports NRDC. “This is in addition to the carbon that is emitted when the wood is burned for energy. And there’s no guarantee the lost trees will ever be replaced.”

NRDC concedes that there is still a place for biomass in the alternative energy universe, but cautions that “only biomass that is carefully chosen, grown responsibly, and efficiently converted into energy can reduce carbon and other emissions compared to fossil fuels.” The group would like to see Congress put in place tighter regulations on biomass harvesting and processing. “Biomass can be harvested and utilized in ways that reduce pollution and protect forest habitats, but only with sustainability safeguards and proper accounting for carbon emissions—including carbon released due to deforestation,” concludes NRDC.

CONTACTS: NRDC.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

 

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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