Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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11 Jun 2008

Water, Carbon Emissions and Mind Training

I have to confess I had never really thought about this before. I strive to be mindful in daily life of not using more heated water than I need to, to keep energy bills and CO2 emissions down, and also of not wasting cold water, particularly for watering the garden, due to its being a precious resource. However, I had never really considered the carbon implications of the water that emerges from our taps.

According to a piece by Waterwise, the whole process of getting water to and from our houses, as well as cleaning it and making it safe to use, uses a whole 1% of the total UK energy budget. Makes sense I guess when you think about what decontaminating the water into which we chuck God knows what would entail. Although Waterwise’s headline grabbing statistic that “the average family emits the equivalent of two transatlantic flights in carbon through their water consumption each year” has to be taken with a pinch of salt given that it also includes the energy taken to heat the stuff, I have to say I was still surprised.

South West Water (my local water company) estimate that water generates 177g of CO2 per cubic metre (1000 litres) and sewerage processing emits another 322 g per cubic metre. So compost loos and living on rainwater are clearly a desirable way to go, although I’m not there yet in my 1963 dormer. Clearly making water go as far as possible is a desirable thing anyway, but it appears it is also a key part of a family carbon reduction strategy. It got me thinking anyway.

So, this week, I have done two things as part of doing my bit. Firstly I bought a monster rainwater tank (see right), which takes 750 litres (enough to fill 80 watering cans). That is my bit of infrastructural change, and I hope it will mean I almost never need to use a hosepipe to water my veg beds. Unfortunately I am having a spot of bother installing it, given that the filter and all the connections are designed for people with round downpipes and mine are all square, but I’ll figure it out. This delay in installing it does however mean that I missed all of last week’s torrential rain, which probably would have filled the thing.

The second thing is one of those “train yourself to do it” things… a behavioural adjustment rather than an infrastructural one. In my own life I find that once the infrastructural changes are in place they become commonplace. The harder bits are actually taking the step to putting them in in the first place, and making behavioural changes.

So my behavioural thing is this. In my house, when I run hot water in the kitchen, it takes a while for the hot water to come through, and in the meantime I am stood like a lemon watching water go down the plug hole. So what I do now is I keep my watering can by the sink, and every time I wash up I put the watering can in the sink first, and when the water is coming hot, I whip it out and pop the washing up bowl in instead (you can see my watering can finely poised, left; apologies for the rubbish picture, it was a bit dark and I don’t have any light bulbs left in my kitchen, but that’s another story…). Seems to work so far, and during the day, three lots of washing up, doing this three times, gives me almost a full watering can!

So, do me a favour and help me out here. Email me in a month and check if I am still doing it… Getting our heads in gear so they are just in a pattern of doing things in a particular way is one of the big challenges we have, and nagging ourselves into developing good habits is one of the things we need to help each other with. Next thing, anyone know a good place to get watersaving shower heads, and are they a fiddle, or do they just screw in to replace your existing one?

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


11 Jun 6:41am

I’ve got a couple of old plastic milk bottles by the kitchen sink, to do exactly the same thing. Once you get into the habit it becomes impossible to watch water just pouring down the plug hole. I haven’t gone as far as getting a bucket in the bathroom to do the same for the shower though….

[…] Rich Crusco wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptI have to confess I had never really thought about this before. I strive to be mindful in daily life of not using more heated water than I need to, to keep energy bills and CO2 emissions down, and also of not wasting cold water, … […]

11 Jun 6:50am

Hi Rob,

All credit to you for your efforts, but I must confess to a slight chuckle over your ‘monster’ rainwater tank. We have 3 tanks…0ne 9,000 litres and two 4,500 litres, and I still worry about having enough for the garden in summer.

Of course this is Australia and we’re in drought conditions and with emptying dams and on water restrictions and you’re in wetter (I presume) England, so a small ‘monster’ tank is allowable πŸ™‚

Also doing what you’re doing in the kitchen but with a 10 litre bucket instead of the can. Other ways to save in the kitchen…do you rinse the teapot with hot water to pre-heat? Into the can. Washing the vegies? Wash in a large bowl and that goes into the can as well. Since I started doing this I’m managing to save a couple of buckets of water a week from just the kitchen.

Bev in Australia

Jane Buttigieg
11 Jun 9:00am

This water issue is something I have been thinking about for a little while. Someone I know who works for the local water company told me that unless water can be brought into a city downhill it will need pumping too, so more energy again. I recently set up a system of putting a bucket in the bath until the shower runs hot. I still believe that the biggest problem in most houses is over flushing of the toilet, so I started to use this saved bucket of water for the toilet cistern, along with my used shower water which I collected using buckets and put by the side of the loo until needed.
I saw a quote recently that someone used in their loo habits:
“If it’s yellow, then it’s mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down”
How often do we flush away eight litres of water when we have done a wee of about eight fluid ounces? This is possibly more of an issue than the water used on veg beds.
I have to admit though, the system goes out the window at times as it is a bit of a hassle, so I can see why Rob wants us to make sure he’s still doing it in a month’s time, which reminds me…time to get my system going again!

Stephen Watson
11 Jun 9:40am

At my last house I had the bathroom renovated and I had a waterless urinal fitted, as seeing all that water flushing pee was too much. I’ve since sold the house so the urinal sits in my (rented) hall cupboard for now.

It absolutely amazes me that almost any man in this country would expect to find a urinal in a public toilet, cinema, pub, restaurant, office block, school, etc, etc. But not in his own home!

11 Jun 10:31am


great stuff – I at least try to get a pint of “waste water” for my courgettes when I’m getting cold water for drinking or hot water out. I guess the real solution is a switcher in the outlet to either go to a storage tank or into the drain but…

Have you seen ? As with most things, I’ve looked but not bought yet..

I’m reading David Holmgren’s Permaculture Principles, and him talking about using water for bathing then washing clothes then eventually for watering his plants made so much sense.

11 Jun 10:34am

PS I loved the book. All things being equal I’ll be going to Kinsale for two years next autumn πŸ™‚ I’m sure you get comments like this all the time, but by God its an eye opener when you realise you don’t have to do things the stupid/commercial/consumer way – and that there are other people on the same path and think the same way as you.

I’m not crazy! I’m not alone! HOORAH!

11 Jun 12:05pm

I have been doing the ‘if it’s yellow let it mellow’ routine for the last year. People are very fussy about this though, and the two girls i share the house with are not interested in taking up this new habit. I’ve been reading recently about the high value urine actually has in terms of nitrogen. So rather than seeing it as a waste product we should be making use of it. I’m fairly use i can’t use it for me vegetables, but i may develop a system and habit of using it for the wildflower garden i intend to start.

Another option for taps is fitting a valve to the piping which reduces the maximum flow rate. You may also want to consider diverting the water from the sink pipe into a smaller water butt. This could probably be used for watering non-veg stuff.

11 Jun 12:38pm

How to save hot water:
Boil the kettle once a day.
Make your tea / coffee etc.
Save the excess in a thermos.
Get hot water from the thermos to make drinks all day (no need to wait for the kettle to boil again).
Next day do the same again, and use yesterday’s now-cooler water to fill your water bottle with clean, boiled water (The government says our water meets international standards, but I wouldn’t drink it neat).
Of course, I can’t really tell if the saved heat and water makes up for the production of the thermos, but if you’ve got one anyway…

Harriet Stewart-Jones
11 Jun 1:13pm

The link between water and energy was brought home to me when my local water company applied to build an 850 kW wind turbine (enough to power about 500 houses I believe) but that it would supply only 60% of the power used by the treatment works.

Mark O'Sullivan
11 Jun 2:17pm

Good on you, Rob.

About the use of water for flushing toilets, Jane: If you’re in a city house with older flush toilets, like me and no means of humanure composting, putting a one or two litre bottle of water into the toilet cistern can save as much water per flush, which still works fine. Add that to your bucket from the shower and the water savings are significant.

11 Jun 3:42pm

You can get water reducing showerheads from the natural collection. They are really easy to use – just unscrew the old one and screw in the new one. Ours works by aerating the water, so you use less water, but don’t notice a major drop in power.

Steve Atkins
11 Jun 4:36pm

Humanure, someone said HUMANURE!…hooray, my fave subject!

I’ve come to the conclusion that the current water flush toilet is utterly ridiculous, bonkers mad. It’s taken a few years to work it out…

from the outset I hated my potty…cold bendy plastic surface, splash back, the stench, the spillage, the tears. Hated it. A real bad experience.

for thought; reflect, hypnotherapy, lavender smells, birds tweeting, butterflies fluttering on a summer breeze, fluffy sawdust

back to the future

STOP pooping in the drinking water !

we all compost our poo and live happily ever after (and grow even better vegetables)

x steve

Tracey Todhunter
11 Jun 4:50pm

I know you can buy proper rainwater filtering systems to use rainwater to flush the loo – but if you look back to Permaculture Magazine issue 51 page 8 there is a piece on how to do it diy using a water butt(and instructions for a diy compost toilet). I’ve passed the article on to dozens of people over the past few months and no-one has told me it doesn’t work…the pumps you can buy to siphon off bath water are pretty good too I’m told.
We wash up using BioD and the water goes on the veg patch when it has cooled, doesn’t seem to have killed anything yet. Months of living with just a standpipe at the end of the street in the 1970’s cured me of water wastage!!

Rob W
11 Jun 10:24pm

Hey Rob, good to be back in touch. What you say about mind training is very important for me too. You enabled me to see the depth of my own blindness: For years and years I haven’t been able to brush my teeth with the tap running – Id rather bite my arm off. Yet I stand there waiting for the water to run hot in the kitchen for flippin ages. I thought I was fairly bright too πŸ™

Rob W

12 Jun 12:11am

You can buy a converter peice that takes the square end of the dowwnpipe and converts it to a round end to go to the tank (or vice versa)…at least in aussie you can, hopefully there too!


Don Latter
12 Jun 1:16am

In my part of Hong Kong we have septic tanks which we get emptied every year or so, and the man who empties them trundles the contents away and probably dumps(!)them in a bit of wasteland or uses them around his fruit trees. Less scrupulous residents get a jobseeker from over the border to empty their tanks and tell them to dump it – still in the black garden bags – along the path leading to my allotment. Thanks. What I’d like to know is how safe human excrement is for growing plants. The Rodale composting book says it’s best not to, if I remember rightly, because of the toxins in it, but others recommend using it after hot composting. It still gets used in these parts by the few people who still bother to grow things, as far as I can tell/smell, but probably without composting it. What’s the best thing to do?

Nicola Dobiecka
12 Jun 9:44am

Isn’t it funny the things we do that are so inconsistent?

When I was staying with family in Australia I would happily save the shower run-off water and stand by the washing machine to siphon off the rinse water…

Back in the UK and it just doesn’t seem to enter my head in the same way. I know we have to conserve water here too and I too can’t brush my teeth with the tap running, yet I can pour clean water away when waiting for it to get hot so I can wash up!

Since reading your piece I’ve brought the watering can inside…

… and my boyfriend and I had a debate this morning (far too early for me, I wasn’t making any sense) about how we wash – we’re renting a place which doesn’t have a shower so we fill a basin and sit in the bath and a have bucket wash.

It definitely uses less water than having a bath and we wondered if it might use less water than having a shower (depends on the shower type and duration of showering I imagine).

It definitely is another ‘behaviour change’ thing though.

Joanne Poyourow
12 Jun 1:38pm

Hi Rob –
Here in Southern California 19% of our state’s electricity useage goes toward pumping and
processing water. Yes, 19%, I got the stat from the water company. And much of our state’s electricity is generated by coal. So saving water is definitely a global warming mitigation measure around here!
I had to laugh that Jane had just heard the yellow/mellow rhyme – it was around in the drought of the 1970s here. You mention Liquid Gold in your Transition Handbook – I have heard it is a wonderful plant fertilizer, and we know from experience what a fantastic compost starter it is!
When I talk with people about water, I remind them that all the water saving measures that our water companies broadcasts are mere CONSERVATION measures: how to use a bit less. But you’re still using from the same source, which is so costly to our carbon emissions. It’s up to us renegades to challenge people to think about alternative SOURCES like rainwater harvesting and greywater.
With water–like so many things–we have developed a “use it once and send it away” attitude. But how many times can you use it before it eventually leaves your property? And does it need to leave via the sewer or septic tank, couldn’t it filter into groundwater basins beneath you through the soils beneath your trees, etc.
I realize your geography is a whole lot wetter than ours; here replenishing the groundwater basins is a big issue, because if we don’t – i.e. if we whisk all our rainwater away to the ocean – Southern California coastal cities are faced with seawater incursion of groundwater basins. If we don’t replenish our groundwater with storm water, we must import water from far away (with related carbon emissions) to be pumped into those basins to keep seawater out. Ah, the wonder of modern technology! Some local cities like Santa Monica, California, are wising up now, and requiring a certain % of hardscape on your property be permeable (sidewalks, driveways, etc), to cause rainwater to percolate back into those groundwater basins.
Greywater here is a whole other issue. It is technically illegal, so anyone doing it has to stay a bit covert. I can understand why it needs to be – when the general public doesn’t understand the difference between potable, greywater, and blackwater, they can so easily put the wrong thing in the wrong place, thus having a city authorize a gravity-fed greywater project at this point is pretty risky. But the public education must happen (it’s up to us), and meanwhile brave pioneers must test systems to find solutions that are simple, inexpensive, and easy to maintain (dare I raise my hand?).
My “Water Wisdom” resource collection:
Tracey mentioned “proper systems to flush the loo” — take a serious look at them. Many of those “proper systems” are not power-down because they require an electrical pump!
Don, my understanding is that human waste used uncomposted can perpetuate bacteria and diseases. (For the same reason we’re advised not to use greywater on the edible portions of our plants) The hot composting technique kills those pathogens off.
Does anyone have info on John Todd and his Living Machines for water filtration? These are on-site water cleansing ponds. I read about these in the first of the Bioneers books, but there seems to be little detail available on how to construct this kind of filtration, what plants (botanic names) are the work horses, how big the filtration area needs to be per volume of water, what needs to be at the floor of the pond, etc. If anyone has filtration pond resources to recommend I’d be interested in hearing of them.

Neil L
12 Jun 1:59pm

You might want to contact Nicky Scott at the Devon Community Composting Network ( about the nitty gritty of composting your own poo – he recently won the Resource Publishing Award for Outstanding Individual Contribution to community waste management and enlightened us all about the benefits of humanure during his acceptance speech.

12 Jun 3:13pm

Here in Gloucestershire we had a taste of what it would be like to live without drinking water last year. The entire population of Gloucester & Cheltenham had no tapwater at all for over a week, and it was over 3 weeks before you could drink what came out of the taps. Drinking water came in bottles and water for the loo and everything else from bowsers on street corners. People just got used to managing with less.
And some people are still in caravans or temporary accommodation because their houses arent habitable yet.

Klaus Harvey
12 Jun 6:11pm

I started taking cold showers instead of hot to save energy and water. You don’t spend as long under a stream of cold water funnily enough. It’s much more refreshing than a hot one, so a great way to wake up in the mornings and very good for the circulation and digestion. Once you get past the initial shock (especially in winter) it’s fine. I think most of us have become a bit spoilt in the developed world with a seemingly endless supply of hot water on tap which we take for granted.

Neil L
13 Jun 9:30am

Came across this in an eNews that I get sent…

The other footprint: the water footprint

By now, you’ve all heard of the Carbon Footprint – the measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide. Today, KGG sheds light on the other foot; Your Water Footprint.
ENN reports that the Water footprint of an individual is defined as the total water used for the production of the goods and services consumed by the individual. It can be estimated by multiplying all goods and services consumed by their respective virtual-water content.

The water footprint of a nation shows the total volume of water that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the inhabitants of the nation. The water footprint consists of two parts: Use of domestic water resources and use of water outside the borders of the country. The water footprint includes water withdrawn from surface and groundwater and the use of soil water (in agricultural production).

A Few Facts

The production of 1 kilogram of beef requires 16,000 liters of water.
To produce 1 cup of coffee we need 140 liters of water.
The water footprint of China is about 700 cubic meter per year per capita. Only 7% of the Chinese water footprint falls outside China.
The USA water footprint is 2500 cubic meter per year per capita.

Coffee Case Study

Background – Coffee is, in dollar terms, the most important agricultural product traded in the world. Producing coffee requires a lot of water.

Objective – A case study performed by A.Y. Hoekstra and A.K. Chapagain was conducted to calculate the volumes of water required to drink coffee and tea in the Netherlands.

Results – “We found that for drinking one standard cup of coffee in the Netherlands we need about 140 litres of water, by far the largest part for growing the coffee plant. A standard cup of coffee is 125 ml, which means that we need more than 1100 drops of water for producing one drop of coffee. Total coffee consumption in the Netherlands requires a total of 2.6 billion cubic metres of water per year, which is equal to 36% of the annual Meuse flow. The Dutch people account for 2.4% of the world coffee consumption. All together, the world population requires about 110 billion cubic metres of water per year in order to be able to drink coffee. This is equivalent to 15 times the annual Meuse runoff, or 1.5 times the annual Rhine runoff.”?

What’s Your Water Footprint?

If you’re interested in finding out your individual water footprint, please use the extended calculator provided by

Neil L
13 Jun 9:37am

And in the same eNews…

SMF – the Social Market Foundation – has just published a report looking at whether people can change their behaviour and based on successful case studies what effort has been made to apply these insights in policymaking. The study has looked at a wide range of examples from across the international public policy spectrum to better understand the drivers behind people’s choices and behaviour, and distilled the messages into a tool for policymakers to improve the future development and design of policy solutions.

Download the report from

Ben Brangwyn
13 Jun 10:08am

A 45 second cold blast from an electric shower on half power delivers about 3 litres of water – plenty for soaping up and rinsing. It’s way less than a bucketful, and as Klaus says, very envigorating on a winter’s morning. The side benefit is that it builds personal resilience – when I’m in my cold shower mode, I almost never get ill.

Now, if I had a glorious mane of flowing locks, I doubt 45 seconds would do it.

Shave your head for the planet!

14 Jun 11:51am

Thanks, Rob, for this piece. It resparked a debate we’ve been having on the CRAGs forum ( We’ve done some digging into the figures, and here’s what we’ve come up with (see the thread for more detail).

Typical carbon emissions per person for water use (UK, 2006/7) would be:

  • Supply: 20 kgCO2eq/person/yr
  • Sewage: 35 kgCO2eq/person/yr
  • Infrastructure = 73 kgCO2eq/person/yr (this seems high??! not clear what it includes)
  • Road Transport = 2.2 kgCO2eq/person/yr

Grand total = 130 kgCO2eq/person/year or 2.4% of a typical briton’s footprint (of 5.4t).

So a pretty small proportion of your overall footprint, and certainly not a priority compared to electricity (16%), gas (27%), petrol (19%) & flights (34%). But once you’ve shrunk towards 1 or 2 t overall, it is certainly worth doing.

However, we must remember, of course, that water’s a precious resource that will be under pressure from climate change (in this country?). The same report shows shocking levels of waste – 25% of all supply!

Harriet Stewart-Jones
16 Jun 10:03am

Hmm, you’ve lost me there guys (Klaus and Ben). There’s a lot I’d do for the planet but an icy cold shower on a winter morning? I don’t think so!

16 Jun 1:01pm

Good idea about the watering can. I’ve been wondering what I should be doing about the not-so-hot water I’ve been watching going down the plughole.
What to do with the water post-summer when the garden really doesn’t need any more watering though?
I can’t see that using it to flush toilets is really going to work for us in practice (too much effort to lug upstairs). We’ve vaguely pondered a grey water system but can’t see the benefits at the moment & don’t have much space. Is it possible to set up a system that takes grey water if it’s available, & tap water if it isn’t? After toilets, the biggest water use has got to be the washing machine, but I’d want it to use grey water only for the initial stages & a clean water rinse at the end. I don’t know if such systems / machines exist.

Josef Davies-Coates
16 Jun 10:54pm

One of the homes they’ve visited on Peak Moment TV simply didn’t have the kitchen sink plumbed in at all but with a bucket underneath.

18 Jun 11:29am

Rob, as mentioned above we know a bit about water saving in Australia, so you might like to look at Sydney Water the web site for Sydney’s water suppliers. Have a look at some of our plumbing suppliers too eg Caroma, most of their toilets use 4.5 litres. A Sydney couple converted their terrace house so that it was independent of the mains water and sewer, read about it in Sustainable house: living for our future by Michael Mobbs ISBN 094727748X.