Saving the Planet - One Drop at a Time

Photo: Nora Dunn

More and more catastrophic storms. Global warming. Droughts and floods. It seems that we have entered an era of extremes in planet earth’s saga.

With global environmental issues becoming bigger and harder to ignore, there are things we all can work on to help do our part. You may argue that we should stop making “the little guy” pay and change their habits when it is really the big corporations who exponentially consume that should be held to a higher standard.

But truly – if we are to continue to foster a planet for future generations to enjoy, we have to start somewhere. Being an example and teaching our children how to conserve resources is the first step to getting the “big guys” to listen; some of our children will eventually be in those positions of power and influence to enforce greater changes than we could ever imagine. All we have to do is give them the proper building blocks.


I am currently traveling through Australia, a country that has suffered terrible drought for over a decade now. So here in Oz, water conservation is not a nice thing to do for the environment; it is a necessity.


Here are a few ways you can save the planet, one drop at a time:


2 Minute Showers

You heard me: two minutes. Public showers at some campgrounds in Australia actually have timers. If you aren’t done in the allotted time, you will be one soapy dude for the rest of the day.

At home, you don’t necessarily have to complete your shower in two minutes. But see if you can run the water for just two minutes by turning it on and off as needed. Myscha wrote a great article about how to get the greatest use out of the least amount of water while sudsing up.


Brushing Teeth

I’m sure it goes without saying, but if you aren’t tuned in yet, let’s get with the program! Turn off the water while you are brushing your teeth, okay? It involves no sacrifice other than the laborious action of turning a tap on and off a few more times.


Washing Dishes

For anybody who has camped and had to haul their dishwashing water from a nearby river or tap or wash using a sink that’s way too small, you are already a good chunk of the way towards washing your dishes in a water-friendly way. Every kitchen is set up differently for washing dishes, so techniques for how to get those plates clean while using the least amount of water will vary.

One technique I have found useful is to fill the sink with rinse water (not too much!), and rinse dishes creatively instead of running the tap to do so. Use glasses and bowls to scoop up the water and pour it over the awkward dishes, killing two birds (or rather, rinsing two dishes) in one shot. And at the end, if your rinse water isn’t too grimy, leave it in the sink to soak your next set of dirty dishes.


For those with dish washers, seriously consider cutting down or eliminating your usage. It is a pig on both power and water, while ultimately being totally unnecessary for survival. At the very least, only use it when it is absolutely fully packed. Even then…


Watering Your Garden

Using a hose to water your garden is the perfect way to waste a ton of water. Instead, try using a bucket and scoop. You will concentrate your watering efforts on exactly the plants and spots that need watering, and you’ll get better exercise hauling the bucket. In Australia, this is how even some commercial growers water their produce; so you can too.

If you are an avid floral gardener (and thus not able to consume the product of your watering efforts as with a veggie patch), consider the types of plants you are landscaping with. If you live in a dry climate and plant with a water-hungry plant, you are doing no favors to anybody and satisfying no more than your own sense of aesthetics. Try instead learning about drought-bed techniques, and planting things that do well even in dry conditions.

For those with a new property and a small patch of lawn, try not laying sod down at all. There are lots of grass-free landscaping techniques that are very attractive, virtually maintenance free, and dry as a bone.


If It’s Yellow, Let It Mellow

Do you have to flush the toilet every time you pee? Arguably, no. Ladies: don’t use a half a roll of toilet paper (one or two squares will do – this is also environmentally friendly) to wipe, and you can get lots of extra mileage out of a toilet flush without clogging the pipes.


Catch the drips

Most taps drip, even if very slowly. Think about all the taps you have; outside taps for hoses are the biggest culprits. Bathtubs are close followers. Catch those drips! It may not be aesthetically appealing to have a bowl or bucket under the tap, but at least perfectly potable water won’t be wasted.


Get Creative

Every time you turn on the tap, think about how you can either reduce your usage, or get some extra mileage out of it by reusing it. Some people water their gardens with their gray water (from washing dishes with biodegradable soap). Others install water-saving taps and pressure reducers. By calculating how every single drop of water gets used, you can actually turn water conservation into a creative exercise that is stimulating and even enjoyable! Present it as a challenge for the whole family to participate in. Put the right slant on it, and saving the planet – one drop at a time – can create a more sustainable world for us to live in, and actually be fun too.


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Guest's picture

On dishwashers:

It turns out that the question of which is more green, handwashing versus dishwashers is not exactly straightforward. Sure, if you have a 20 year old clunker, it's not exactly water or energy efficient. But if you have a newer EnergyStar model (post 2003), it is reasonably comparable to best handwashing practice, and beats "handily" sloppy handwashing practice which is more the norm (i.e., letting the water run at high pressure, rinsing instead of scraping food, not using a cold water rinse, etc.) See here for a comparison:

I read somewhere else (EnergyStar's homepage, I think) that part of the secret is more efficient use of water in the newer machines, but also a turn towards heating at the machine, instead of relying on the house's central water heating to get the water temperature up high enough.

It all sure surprised me! I was poised to handwash forever, but I was persuaded that (given my husband's handwashing technique) that the dishwasher was the greener choice.

Guest's picture

I agree with Diane above about dishwashers being much more eco-friendly than they used to be.

I agree with you on everything else and do all of the things you mention at least part of the time. Other small helps include using the leftover water and melted ice from our glasses to water plants and saving water from boiling potatoes for bread recipes.

Hubby is less watchful of water usage, so I used to keep a plastic wash pan under the kitchen faucet to catch water that he would otherwise let go down the drain (overfilled ice trays, waiting for water to get cold enough, waiting for water to get hot enough, etc.) I used it to fill my washing machine. I can't do that anymore because I now have a front-loader. After much nagging on my part he's getting better about his water usage and waste.

Guest's picture

Dont forget the classic: placing a 1 liter pop bottle full of water in the upper deck of your toliet so you use 1 liter less with every flush automatically!

Guest's picture

We recently acquired an energy star rated dishwasher. If you use the fast setting with the eco setting it supposedly uses a gallon and a half to run the cycle. Our sink holds more water than that. It has the two drawers so there is the benefit of being able to run a half load. We do try to make sure it is completely full before running. If we hand washed two drawers worth of dishes we would use far more between rinsing and having to refill the sink with clean water multiple times. As far as the old dishwasher, I don't even want to think how much water that thing was using.

I do try to put all of the silverware in a cup full of water beside the sink to cut down on rinsing. I also pulled out the spatula. That is what my mom used to get dishes ready to wash in the days before garbage disposals were the norm.

In the summer we use the dirty water out of the fish tank to water the veggie garden. We run a dehumidifier in the basement in the summer. Water from that goes to watering plants or garden beds.

Guest's picture

I grew up in Australia, so I know well the water saving tactics. After all, being the driest continent on earth, we are on constant water restrictions. When I moved to the USA a year ago, I was truly horrified at the amount of water wastage. To this day I cringe when I walk through my Californian neighbourhood and see the amount of sprinklers watering the sidewalk.

As for the water saving method of adding a bottle to your toilet cistern: In Australia every toilet is dual flush. Half flush for #1 and full flush for #2. I think this toilet should be implemented in every household.

Guest's picture

I'd agree with most of these, save for two. The dishwasher one (for the reason the first poster mentioned) and the "if it's yellow let it mellow" one. Leaving urine in your toilet can actually stain the bowl over time due to the uric acid in ones urine. Now if you don't mind the stains, by all means I guess.

Guest's picture

While I agree with most of this article..... One to two squares of toilet paper?! You've got to be kidding! Half a roll is obviously too much, but maybe you're just trying to make a point.....

I used to live in an RV and travel a lot. The shower heads in RV's have a turn off switch so you can turn the water flow off and on. When you turn the water back on to rinse, the water temperature is not affected. And it's very easy to reach. I really like that feature, and miss not having it in my home shower head. Any inventors or designers out there who can design one for the home?

Guest's picture

These already exist! Look for one with a "flow control valve". It's typically a knob to twist or a button to push, can shut the water completely off or just reduce the flow.

Guest's picture

Unless you are taking high-dose B vitamins, your urine should be clear.

If not, you need to drink more water.

Guest's picture

I have heard about people here in Seattle having large rain catches that store rain water from their gutters. Some people even pipe it into their plumbing for flushing toilets. I have not really researched this for myself, but it may be a way to save on my water bill.

-Dan Malone-

Guest's picture

If you are serious about saving water, want a toilet that really works and is affordable, I would highly recommend a Caroma Dual Flush toilet. Caroma toilets offer a patented dual flush technology consisting of a 0.8 Gal flush for liquid waste and a 1.6 Gal flush for solids. Caroma, an Australian company set the standard by giving the world its first successful two button dual flush system in the nineteen eighties and has since perfected the technology. Also, with a full 3.5″ trapway, these toilets virtually never clog. All of Caroma’s toilets are on the list of WaterSense labeled HET’s and also qualify for several rebate programs currently available as well as LEED points. Please go to for more detailed information or visit to see why they actually work better than any US toilet. Best regards, Andrea Paulinelli

Guest's picture

For dishwashing, I live in an apartment with a single sink. The way I minimize water use is to fill the very bottom of the sink with soapy water and soak then wash the smallest stuff in this, usually silverware and tupperware (and by tupperware I mean yogurt and cottage cheese tubs) lids. Then I rinse these under running water into the sink, and this fills it up enough to soak the next largest things, plates and cereal bowls, then continue up to the biggest pots and pans. I usually leave my dishes for awhile (just laziness here, not for water saving purposes), so I have lots to do at once, and most of the time drain the sink halfway when it gets too full. I figure that I use about one and a half sinkfuls of water for a very large load of dishes. When I am doing smaller loads, I use the same process, but do it in a large salad/mixing bowl or the liner to my crockpot.

About the 'let it mellow' issue, I refuse to do this. My parents did this for years when I was growing up, and I have a friend who's family did this as well, and both of their bathrooms ABSOLUTELY REEKED of urine. When I returned to my parents home after being away for several months, the smell was almost intolerable even after they had stopped doing this for a long time. I think it soaked into the wallpaper, or the floor or something, and even after they replaced the wallpaper, the linoleum, the tiles around the bathtub, the sink vanity, and most of the rest of the bathroom, there is still a faint but distinct smell of urine everytime you walk in there. I do keep plastic bottles full of sand in the toilet tank though, to reduce the amount of water used per flush.

I also use the 'wasted water' from the kitchen tap (waiting for it to be hot or cold, rinsing something, etc) to water my plants.

Guest's picture

It should actually be "if it's brown, be mellow". Urine decomposes quickly into ammonia gas and other unpleasant things in the absence of carbon, such as you would find in a sawdust toilet or similar composting system.

If you really want to save water and still want to use your water-flushed toilet to "go" in, keep some 2 liter plastic soda bottles or 1 gal milk bottles (with caps) and guys can pee into those, then cap them off. No smells.

Women need a funnel to make this work.

In general, this is a class of toilet management called "urine diversion"--which is intended to keep the urine sequestered bcs it's the URINE not the **** that smells most.

after you go in the bottle and cap it, try your #2. #2 can sit in the toilet all day and the next without smelling.

Then when it's time to flush, you empty the bottles into the toilet and flush--once a day or every two days.

The obstacle here is that #2 is considered "gross" and "disgusting", so most people are embarrassed to leave it in the toilet. YOu would need to have an agreement with all household members to pull this one off.

For areas that have SERIOUS water shortages, a sawdust bucket carry system and outdoor compost pile would be the best options, as outlined in the Humanure Bible by Jenkins, which is a very funny and good read on the subject written by someone who knows his subject well.

Guest's picture

Installing a system to store shower greywater for use as either (a) water for the wash cycle of a clothes washer or (b) for use to flush toilets or (c) irrigation for landscaping is worth considering as an option.

Also, it is possible to rerig the outflow of your washing machine to a barrel (like a big trash barrel) so that you save the rinse water of one load for the use as the wash water of the next load, thus saving 50% of the water you would normally use. There are also automated systems to do this, but the basic way is to manually pour the rinse water from the bucket into the washer once the new wash cycle has begun.

Guest's picture

"Grey water system" cracks me up, but we have one. "System" sounds so technical. It's as simple as running our drain hose into a trash can. The trash can is set up on bricks and has a hole in the bottom attached to a pool hose. The hose is directed at whatever is thirsty in the yard. The only thing we have to be careful about is the type of soap we use.

Of course, we wash and dry outside so....

Guest's picture

We plug our bathtub, take our showers and use the tub water to flush the toilet (with a bucket). We have enough tub water to never need to flush the toilet. Every 10 days or so, I also use the tub water to wash the dirty socks. The kids socks get so dirty that they usually need two washings; the first pass is done with used shower water. We also use the tub water to water our garden, flower beds and compost bins (we have a chlorine filter on the shower).

Guest's picture

Maybe if your vagina were the size of a fish egg, 1 or 2 squares would be sufficient, but even though I religiously wash up, I prefer to not get urine all over my hands while I'm wiping. BLEGH.

Some people take this eco crap too far. Leaving pee and/or poop (gross, Steve) in a toilet with 1 square floating on top is absolutely below my level of comfort. (And I'm grateful I don't live with any of you people who do it. I hope I'm not friends with you either.)

Andrea Karim's picture

When I was traveling, I had to carry toilet paper with me at all times, because Chinese bathrooms don't offer such amenities. I learned that one or two squares of toilet paper was sufficient, if all you were doing was peeing.

I've also never peed out of my vagina, though, so maybe that has something to do with it.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

Andrea - I love you. You rock!

I am digging the forum here....and getting lots of great water saving ideas. I'm especially jazzed about commenter #16's bathtub trick. Any recommendations for somebody with a stand-up shower? 

Keep the great ideas and your water-saving methodologies coming!

Guest's picture

for a stand-up shower, just install a water-saver button. I think ours was $10 at Home Depot. You just take off the shower head, install the button (it screws in -- make sure to use teflon tape to reduct dripping), and re-attach the shower head. Now you can just push the button in to turn the stream off without turning the water off.
One warning, though: If you shower with hot water, be prepared for a blast of cold when you turn the stream back on! :)

Guest's picture

Reading the other comments reminded me of the largest water-saving change we did, 8 years ago:
front-loading clothes washer. Our current washer uses about 13 gallons per load, holds more than a standard washer, and uses less detergent. A reg washer uses up to 60 gallons of water per load!! *faint*

Also, we've never used the "dry" cycle on our dishwasher. That doesn't save water, but it does save electricity. :)

Guest's picture

Here is a little idea I use to take a shower. It's from Japan actually, I take a 1 or 2 gallon bucket with a scooper and use this. I fill it with warm water by first turning on the hot water only at a trickle and letting it fill the bucket. By the time the bucket is full the water is hot so you end up with a warm bucket of water. I take the scooper and pour a few scoops of water over my head and body, then soap up, and then scooper rinse. I usually can take a shower in this method using around 4 gallons of water or less. This will not be a surprise to any Asians out here since this is a normal method of bathing; however for non-asians this will probably sound new. You save a lot of water and a lot of electricity.

Aloha Guill.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Guill - Of course! I have showered using this method in Asia, but it is usually arrestingly cold water. What a great way to save water and be conscious of your usage at the same time (and a little warm water makes it easier too)!