Keeping Water Waste to a Minimum

by Sherri Brooks Vinton

Published: 5/17/18, Last updated: 5/23/19

Reducing water usage might not seem like an important priority. If you live in an area with plentiful reservoirs or a city where the endless labyrinth of underground water mains makes the source of your H2O a mystery of urban development, water scarcity can seem like an “over there” problem. But this natural resource, abundant for many, is becoming increasingly scarce worldwide. Increasing global temperatures and population, contamination due to faulty and aging infrastructure and agricultural runoff are several of the factors that are putting pressure on the domestic water supply right here in the United States.

When we talk about reducing water usage in our homes, the conversation is often directed to bathroom activities. Low-flow shower heads, water-efficient toilets and aerated faucets are a few of the appliance-driven tools that consumers buy to reduce their water usage. Eco-minded water warriors develop habits such as shorter showers, necessity-only flushing and closed taps when brushing or shaving. These are all important and valuable ways to reduce water usage.

The biggest use of water, however, is in our kitchens. From field to plate, the drops add up. The wet stuff that flows from the faucet is part of the picture. How we use the spigot impacts our water usage, sure. But how food is grown and produced before we bring it into the kitchen accounts for an even greater segment of water usage. Both the water use in the kitchen and the water that we don’t see, the “virtual water,” make up our “water footprint,” a calculation of all of the water demands that add up according to our eating and other lifestyle choices. You can see your own water footprint by using the Water Footprint Calculator.

Reducing your water usage doesn’t have to be a burden. There are a number of small changes that are easy to adopt but can still have a big impact on your water footprint. There are others, such as dietary changes, that you might not want to enact entirely, but even when practiced in part can drastically reduce the amount of water you depend on. Here is a list to get you started:

Saving Water When Washing Up

Often when we prepare to wash dishes it goes like this: We open up the hot water spigot and let it run until it is nice and hot, turn up the cold to meet it and let the water flow while we wash, rinse and repeat. It is a method that uses more water than it has to and one that, with a few tweaks, can be made much more water efficient.

Keep a jug or bucket handy and collect the water that runs while you are waiting for the hot water to start flowing. Keep this pre-wash water handy for washing produce or watering plants.

Don’t try to speed up your pasta prep by using hot water from the faucet for your cooking water. You will waste water waiting for it to come hot out of the tap. Hot tap water often carries microscopic sediment from the accumulated mineral deposits in your hot water heater, particularly if it’s old. And you won’t save much time – hot tap water isn’t hot enough to make much of a difference. If you want to shave seconds off of the clock, put a lid on your pot and don’t remove it until the water boils. (It’s true that a watched pot never boils – or at least takes longer to do so. The trapped steam that builds as the water heats is hotter than boiling water and speeds up the transition of water from cold to boiling. Lift the lid and you will have to wait longer.)

Not all dishes need hot water to come clean. Lightly used items, such as water glasses, can be washed just as effectively with cool water. No need to wait for the temp to rise.

Plug up your sink or use a sink insert, such as a basin, to create a dish bath. Add a few drops of dish soap and scrub up. Rinse under a trickle of water or use a separate basin of clean water as a dish rinse.

Combine both of the above ideas. Turn on the hot spigot and let it flow into the tub. By the time you have the water you need, the tub will be filled with water warm enough to do the trick.

Dishwashers are much more effective than handwashing. Just be sure to fill it up before running.

Water Saving Tips for Food Prep

Use a basin or large bowl full of cold water to wash produce, rather than holding it under running water. Throw the dirty water on your lawn or use it to water indoor or outdoor plants. Consider planting a window box or container of herbs or plants outside of your kitchen to drink up your waste water.

Defrost food in the refrigerator, not under running water.

Plan your boil. If you have a number of ingredients that need to be boiled for a meal, don’t use a separate pot for each. Boil them in succession and scoop out each batch with a spider or slotted spoon.

Steam rather than boil when you can.

Use the water from boiled vegetables and grains as a “stock” to use in other dishes. Barley water is considered by many to be a powerful health tonic.

Pasta water is essential for binding the sauce to the noodle. Add a cup or so to the sauce while it is still in the pan, add nearly done pasta and cook for a minute or two until the pasta is tender and the sauce has thickened up again.

Buy Local

Buy food that is grown locally. It will reduce the resource intensive process required to process, ship and store your food. Avoiding the mainstream supply chain, which often precludes small to medium scale farms from participating, means that you are also more likely to enjoy foods that are raised by smaller, family run operations that employ more natural growing methods.

Avoid Thirsty Crops

There are a few items that are the most water intensive. While animal products require the most water (see below) coffee, nuts and soda require a tremendous amount of water to grow and produce. Consider cutting down on these grocery items to lighten your water burden.

Reducing Food Waste Means Saving Water

  • Food waste is water waste. Learn more about the good food you are throwing away and taste it, don’t waste it. A few quick tips to avoid wasting food:
  • Organize your refrigerator so that you eat the most perishable items, such as tender greens and herbs, first.
  • Shop your refrigerator before you go to the market. Use items that are soon to expire as the starting point for your meal planning.
  • Only buy what you will eat before your next trip.
  • Eat from nose to tail, root to stem. Turn bones into stock. The stalks of chard, the leaves of celery are delicious.
  • Eat your leftovers. It doesn’t have to be a rehash of your last meal. Upcycle them into something new and fresh. A little bit of leftovers can be used in fried rice, anything is good in an omelet or frittata! Get creative and you will save money and water.
  • Freeze it for later. If you aren’t going to finish that pasta sauce, soup or stew, give it the big chill. Instant fast food!

Saving Water with Your Diet

Meat Eating

Consider the meat you eat. Conventionally produced meat, raised under factory farmed conditions, is extremely water intensive. Crops such as corn and soybeans have to be grown, processed and shipped as feed, using water all along the way. The animals living areas and waste facilities are often the cause of contamination either from spills or runoff.

Pasture raised animals, on the other hand, thrive in full or in part on fields irrigated by rainwater. Their diet grows under their feet — it is not grown, processed and shipped from somewhere else. Their imprints their hooves leave in the field capture rain water, allowing it to sink into the ground slowly and steadily. The pasture benefits from the fertilizer they deposit which breaks down from the sun and insect activity and returns to the earth, nourishing the rich mat of water retaining roots that grow deep into the soil.

To reduce water usage, consider shifting all or part of your meat consumption to grass-fed meat. You can also reduce the meat you eat by adopting a Meatless Monday (or any day) strategy that consciously shifts into vegetarian mode one or more days per week. Or perhaps you avoid meat for breakfast and lunch and only enjoy it for one meal per day, not at two or all three.

Produce

The more chemicals applied to your food, the more water required to grow it. If you’ve ever visited a farm that does not use chemical inputs to beat back weeds, you may admire, as I always do, the complicated dance of it all. Scruffy frills of grass and volunteer plants might fringe the bottom of the tomato stakes, strips of whatever happened to find purchase grow green between the crop rows, orchard floors are thick with growth that, without a mow or visit from a hungry herd of goats or sheep threaten to creep up the trees. It is a scene that is strikingly different from the isolated, evenly spaced plants on an industrial farm that look as if they have been punched into a test scoring sheet of dirt.

Yet, it is the complex mishmash of plants on the untreated farm that make it less thirsty. The non-edible plants, when allowed to grow to a point that doesn’t overtake the food crop, provide shade which provides evaporation and heat stress. They prevent topsoil erosion from wind and rain. Most importantly, they create a sponge of organic material that not only retains moisture but also provides habitat for the beneficial insects, birds and bats that reduce the need for applied fertilizers and pesticides that destroy the mat of microbiology and could potentially cause contaminating runoff.

To reduce your water footprint from the produce that you eat, buy foods that are raised organically, that employ integrated pest management (IPM) practices, or use minimal inputs. Use the Environmentally Working Group‘s list of the “Dirty Dozen” most contaminated crops to avoid those that use the highest levels of chemical inputs.

Seek out farmers that are experimenting with “dry farming,” reduced or no-irrigation, for crops of tomatoes, beans, grains and more. Wine made from grapes that use the dry farming method are believed to be more flavorful, having not had their flavor diluted by irrigation. This belief is so strongly held in areas of Europe that it is illegal to water vineyards in some places during the growing season.

Recipe

Roasted Dry Farmed Tomatoes

You can, indeed, make this recipe with any variety of tomato. But dry farmed tomatoes, which have such concentrated flavors, make for a deeply delicious version of this recipe. You won’t find them in the grocery but they are becoming increasingly popular in farmers’ markets. Serve this with hunks of good bread for dipping. Make extra and use it as a bruschetta or pasta topping, slather it on a sandwich or serve with grilled meats or vegetables. Bring it to a summer potluck and everyone will beg you for the recipe.

Ingredients:

2 pounds dry farmed tomatoes, cored and cut into 2 inch chunks
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
A handful of fresh basil leaves, torn (optional)
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 F.
  2. In a heat proof 2-quart casserole dish, combine the tomatoes, garlic, oil and basil, if using. Season generously with salt and pepper.
  3. Roast until the tomatoes are no longer throwing liquid and the top edges are beginning to brown, about thirty minutes.
  4. Remove from the oven, sprinkle the cheese on top and serve warm or at room temperature.

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