The three golden rules of ecological sensitivity are to reduce, reuse and recycle, and these apply just as much to water as to any other resource. Since the first widespread droughts in the early Seventies, people in the United Kingdom have had to relearn what they knew until the end of the Nineteenth Century, that unlimited, clean, pure drinking isn’t ours simply by right.
Reduce and Reuse
The first step, that of reducing water usage throughout the home, is part education and part technical. Families need to be reminded about water use, that, for example, leaving taps running and taking baths instead of showers, is no longer acceptable. The technical work involves various devices; spray tap and showerheads, bricks or other items in lavatory cisterns and the like.
But although it’s more common on the continent, reusing and recycling water is something that very few people in the UK do. Reuse and recycling of water requires systems to store, clean and redirect it.
There are three types of water to be dealt with, clean drinking water and soiled water (i.e. from the lavatories) being two of them. In between those two is ‘grey’ water. This phrase has entered common use in the last decade or so and describes water that has been used but doesn’t carry particles that are considered a health hazard. This might be washing up water or water from a shower, bath, washing machine or dishwasher.
Reuse of Rainwater
Rainwater can be considered to be grey water; it would be unwise to drink it without filtration but it can be gathered from the guttering downpipes, saved in butts and used to water gardens or wash cars immediately. To use it inside the house, perhaps for washing, or flushing the toilet, it has to be collected in a closed tank, which can be underground if space is tight, and filtered before being pumped back into the house for reuse.
Filtration of rainwater is necessary to remove any larger particles that come down from the roof, which would eventually block the plumbing. It also stops the water going stagnant in the system. Systems that do this are referred to as rainwater harvesting systems and there are a number on sale in the UK today.
Reuse of Grey Water
Similar systems collect grey water from the outflows of sinks, washing machines, baths and the like and, again after filtering, it can be used to flush toilets or water the garden. Opinions differ as to whether grey water can be used on the garden without filtration. Some believe that it’s fine as long as natural biodegradable soaps and wash powders have been used (in particular sodium and phosphorus should be avoided), other still feel it needs filtration.
The major work involved in installing one of these systems is usually the re-direction and doubling up of piping systems. This is because toilet waste and grey water often share the same pipes on their way to the sewer. The grey water has to be collected in a new separate system of pipes which then has to be extended, usually with pumps, to put the cleaned grey water back into the house or out to outside taps for the garden, or perhaps to wash cars and bicycles.
Can You Drink Grey Water?
Finally, it’s worth taking into account that local processing is not always the best thing for the planet, when everything is taken into account. While it is possible to clean and filter grey water or rainwater for drinking or cooking, it is very expensive and creates a lot of waste by-product from the filters.
Most ecology commentators believe that it’s best to use tap water for this purpose, as the environmental damage from the centralised cleaning of water is lower per head of population than doing it individually.