December 1, 2010
My Chanukah miracle
Making one day’s worth of consumption last for eight
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
For one year, Beavan, who lives in New York City with his wife and daughter, tried to cut out as much of his family’s environmental impact as possible. The experiment, which he chronicled first on a blog and later in a book and a documentary film (all called “No Impact Man”) required the Beavans to stop shopping for new goods, cut out all trash, eat mostly locally grown, unprocessed food, eliminate electricity entirely and generally consume as few resources as possible.
Many writers have published books along similar lines in the last few years, but none seem to have attracted the kind of attention or galvanized as many followers as Beavan has. “Something like 20,000 people have done a No Impact Week so far,” Beavan told me, referring to a project he launched in 2009 that allows people to make some of the “lifestyle adjustments” and live for a week in the “No Impact” manner that Beavan did for a year.
What I was embarking on, it seemed, was a variation on that project: A “Really Low” or “12.5 Percent of Normal” Impact Eight-Day Challenge. The one major difference, however, was that I would have to measure what my normal consumption was — something Beavan hadn’t done. “I never worried so much about measuring my impact because I was trying to reduce it completely,” Beavan said.
When I tried to come up with a baseline measurement for my normal use, one of two things happened. Take water as an example: Either I found myself unwittingly limiting my water usage — once I started counting, I couldn’t help but start conserving — or I did the exact opposite, consciously increasing my water use in an effort to ensure that more would be available to me once I had to cut my consumption by seven-eighths.
Eventually, I decided to use estimates of the average apartment-dwelling Angeleno’s daily consumption as a baseline, and shortly after sunset on an otherwise ordinary Monday evening, I began keeping track and cutting back.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) estimates that residential customers living in multifamily dwellings use an average of 240 gallons per household every day — 83 gallons per person. The numbers are higher for people living in single-family homes — 350 gallons per household per day — and about 40 percent of all LADWP’s water is used for outdoor irrigation.
With no lawn to worry about, I had just over 10 gallons to use every day. Before the experiment began, I picked up a low-flow showerhead and an aerator for my bathroom sink — the LADWP gives them out free of charge. Instead of taking my usual five-minute shower, I washed, shampooed and rinsed in three separate 20-second bursts of water — using a total of one gallon of water each day.
Brushing my teeth using a half-full mug of water? Easy. Shaving, I found, can be done in the same manner. And even the most well-hydrated person probably doesn’t drink more than a gallon of water in a day.
Assuming I shaved every day — I didn’t — that all added up to two-and-a-half gallons a day, at most. Doing my usual two loads of laundry per week would have required 45 gallons of water, so that was out of the question. The Swiffer-like thing that we use to clean our floors has a removable, reusable cloth head and doesn’t require any extra water — just a cleansing agent in a bottle. That left me with just under eight gallons to do only three things: flush the toilet, prepare food and wash dishes.
I would need every drop. These three activities constitute the majority of everyone’s indoor water usage. If you have an Energy Star-rated dishwasher — many of which use just four gallons per cycle — the most efficient way to clean your dishes is to wait until you have a full load and hit the “on” switch. But if you find (as I did, on Day Three) that your 10-year-old dishwasher uses 12 gallons in each normal cycle, you’ll have to find another way.
My wife, who once spent a few weeks living in an environmental commune, suggested washing dishes in a bucket of soapy water and rinsing them in a bucket of clean water. She did rewash a few dishes that didn’t meet her standards of cleanliness, but her suggestion brought my average daily dishwashing water to about six gallons. When it came to the bathroom, she tolerated my decision to follow the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow” maxim, and she even participated in what I called my makeshift greywater system.