Dear EarthTalk: Can you settle this age-old question for me once and for all: Is it greener to take showers or baths? And how can I save water either way? — Tim Jackson, Queensbury, NY
Like most good questions, it depends. The main variables are how long the shower takes and the flow rate of the shower head. A typical bathtub holds 36 gallons of water, but most of us only fill it up partially. For baseline purposes, let’s assume a typical bath uses 25 gallons. Meanwhile, a typical shower head doles out 2.5 gallons per minute (GPM). (In 1992 the federal government mandated that all new shower heads sold in the U.S. had to be 2.5 GPM, although California, Colorado and New York have since instituted even lower limits for their own states.) According to this scenario, a 10-minute shower would use as much water as a 2 5-gallon bath.
If you can spend less than 10 minutes in the shower, all the better for the environment. Likewise, if you install a low-flow shower head –some models go as low as 1.5 GPM now — you can save even more water and money on your water bill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) “WaterSense” label marks shower heads that are particularly miserly when it comes to water usage.
But just because a new shower head is low-flow doesn’t mean it has to feel like it, given the genius of engineering going into new products from fixture makers. Delta may be leading the pack with its “H2Okinetic” design that uses physically larger water droplets to provide what it describes as “the feeling of more water without using more water.” Its budget-oriented 75152 model ($30 online) can be toggled between 2.5 GPM and a stingy 1.8 GPM, and is a top pick on leading review site Wirecutter. “On its 2.5 GPM setting…the Delta 75152 delivers a powerful, soaking spray through its four nozzles, which create a much denser spray pattern than the ring of spray holes found on most budget showerheads,” reports Wirecutter.
Yet another way to cut down on water waste in the shower is by using a so-called “shower timer” that lets you know how long you’ve been scrubbing. Waterproof timers go from anywhere between $6 and $20 online; it might be the best investment in water conservation you could make. A more elaborate version is the $149 Shower Manager, a battery-powered device that you install between an existing shower head and its supply pipe in order to ratchet down the flow significantly or shut the shower off completely after a pre-set period of time.
For those of us who just can’t give up our baths, there are some things we can do to keep the water waste to a minimum. For starters, plug the drain before you start running the water and adjust the temperature as it fills up. Also, only fill up the tub to the minimal level you’ll need to get your body wet and washed. And truly committed environmentalists can find a way to reuse the “graywater” from the bathtub to irrigate your garden or water your houseplants, either by rigging up some kind of hose system or just with a plain old bucket.
Contacts: EPA Watersense Showerheads, www.epa.gov/watersense/showerheads; Delta’s “H2Okinetic” Design, www.deltafaucet.com/design-innovation/innovations/shower/h20kinetic-showers; “Best Showerhead: Reviews by Wirecutter,” thewirecutter.com/reviews/the-best-shower-head; Shower Manager, www.showermanager.com.
Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that the chemicals we use to unclog backed-up drains are harmful to our health and the environment. Can you suggest safer alternative products or methods? — Amy Smith, Rome, NY
Chemical drain clog removers do contain some pretty harmful stuff. The three main types available to consumers — caustic, oxidizing and acid — work by using harsh chemicals that heat up clogs to melt the congealed grease impeding the outflow. All three are acutely toxic to humans and animals if swallowed, and coming into contact with them can burn your eyes, skin and mucous membranes. Even the fumes can cause respiratory distress. These chemicals can also explode inside your home’s pipes — especially if inadvertently mixed with other chemicals or cleaners.
Unfortunately, you’ll have to look hard to find drain clog removal formulations that don’t come with big risks. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) Guide to Healthy Cleaning gives drain clog removers from the likes of Amway, Clorox, CVS, Drano, Liquid Plumr and Safeway an “F” grade, given their toxicity to humans and animals and harshness to the environment. And don’t be fooled by a product’s branding, as an eco-friendly name can sometimes belie toxic ingredients. To wit, EWG also gave an “F” to Up and Up Drain Pipe Opener and Earthworm Family-Safe Drain Cleaner for their environmental and health dangers.
EWG found that a few products — Biokleen Bac-Out Drain Care Gel, Drainbo The Natural Solution Natural Drain Cleaner and Earth Friendly Products’ Earth Enzymes Drain Opener — did a decent job unclogging drains without using especially toxic chemicals, but it’s always better to try to avoid the problem in the first place.
In the kitchen, refrain from putting eggshells, coffee grounds, pasta, potato peels, rice, flour, produce stickers, paint and cleaning products down your sink drain, even if you have a garbage disposal. As for keeping grease out of the drain, try to scrape or mop it up with a paper towel and throw it away. Also, keeping your garbage disposal clean — pour a little dish detergent down the drain and run the disposal under cold water for a minute or two each night after doing the dishes –will also prevent back-ups.
As for the bathroom sink, shower or tub, hair — whether from dad’s shaving or sister’s styling — is likely the chief suspect in clogs. A hair catcher like the TubShroom (or SinkShroom or ShowerShroom) could help. This ingenious little mushroom-shaped device pops into the drain and attracts and coils hairs around itself before problems start. Pop it out every couple of weeks, peel off and dispose of the collected hair in the garbage, and start the process all over again.
A little preventive maintenance goes a long way to keep drains clear. Health and wellness site Mercola.com suggests filling sinks with a mix of white vinegar and warm water, then releasing the drain so this all-natural dynamic cleaning duo can do its work degreasing your outflow pipes. If the drain still runs slowly, pour in several tablespoons of baking soda followed by a white vinegar chaser.
Contacts: HowStuffWorks’ “How Drain Cleaners Work,” home.howstuffworks.com/home-improvement/plumbing/drain-cleaner2.htm; TubShroom, tubshroom.com; Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning, ewg.org/guides/cleaners; Mercola.com, mercola.com.
Dear EarthTalk: What are so-called “intentional communities”? And are there any in the U.S. that are sustainability focused? — Elissa McNeal, Washington, D.C.
By definition, an “intentional community” (IC) is a planned residential community built around commonly held values that usually foster social cohesion and shared responsibilities and resources. Some such communities are centered around religion, but others primarily seek to live more lightly on the planet. Collectives, co-housing communities, ecovillages, monasteries, survivalist retreats, ashrams and yes, even communes, are all forms of ICs that still exist today in the U.S. and elsewhere.
“Humanity thrives when people work together,” says the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), a Missouri-based non-profit that promotes the development of ICs and the evolution of cooperative culture in the U.S. and Canada. “An ‘Intentional Community’ shows what happens when people take this premise to the next level — by living together in a village of their own making which reflects their shared values.”
ICs that focus on sustainability as a key tenet are usually referred to as “eco-villages,” a term first coined by Robert Gilman in In Context Magazine in 1991. What sets an eco-village apart from any old IC, according to Gilman, is the focus on “human scale, healthy and sustainable development, full-featured settlement, and the harmless integration of human activities into the natural world.” Gilman added that eco-villages shouldn’t take on more than 150 residents for a well-functioning social network.
These days, more than 140 different “eco-villages” are in operation across the U.S., according to the Scotland-based non-profit Global Ecovillage Network. Perhaps the granddaddy of modern day ICs is the EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI) in Upstate New York. Founders took five years to build out the basics of their community before inviting residents to move in during 1996. Given the shared resources and focus on sustainability, an EVI resident’s ecological footprint is about half the U.S. average.
“Homes in the village are built for maximum energy efficiency,” says resident Clara Changxin Fang, who moved into EVI back in 2009. She adds that each of the community’s clustered duplex housing units is situated for maximum solar gain and feature super insulated walls and high-efficiency triple pane windows facing south to take advantage of natural light and heat. A shared hot water system is designed to service eight homes at once with minimal heat loss. Development is clustered to maximize open space.
EVI is hardly the only established sustainability-oriented IC in the U.S. Some others include Arizona’s Arcosanti, Oregon’s Lost Valley, Vermont’s Cobb Hill, Earthaven in North Carolina, Hawaii’s Hedonisia, Altair in Pennsylvania, Dancing Rabbit in Missouri, Wisconsin’s Dreamtime and Paz in Texas.
Meanwhile, for those looking to get in on the ground floor of sustainability-oriented communal living, many other new eco-villages are springing up coast-to-coast. Vermont’s Headwaters, Missouri’s Dogtown, Texas’ WildCraft. Michigan’s Earthen Heart and Kansas’ Creature Conduit Sanctuary are among dozens of new ICs rooted in sustainability that are actively seeking like-minded individuals to live together according to their values.
Dear EarthTalk: What is so-called Regenerative Agriculture and why are environmentalists so bullish on it? — Jess Mancuso, Montgomery, PA
Regenerative Agriculture (RA) describes farming and grazing practices that help reverse climate change by rebuilding the organic matter in soil and restoring degraded soil biodiversity.
“Specifically, Regenerative Agriculture is a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density,” reports California State University’s Regenerative Agriculture Initiative (RAI). “Regenerative agriculture improves soil health, primarily through the practices that increase soil organic matter. This not only aids in increasing soil biota diversity and health, but increases biodiversity both above and below the soil surface, while increasing both water holding capacity and sequestering carbon at greater depths.” The net result is a drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and the improvement of soil structure to reverse human-caused soil loss.
According to Terra Genesis International, which helps businesses integrate sustainable farming practices into their everyday operations, key principles guiding the implementation of RA include: progressively improving whole agroecosystems (soil, water and biodiversity); creating context-specific designs and making holistic decisions expressing the essence of each farm; ensuring and developing fair and reciprocal relationships among all stakeholders; and continually growing and evolving individuals, farms and communities to express their innate potential.
How these lofty goals are achieved also involves the implementation of many of the practices that are now commonplace in organic agriculture, including permaculture design (utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems), agroforestry (incorporating the cultivation and conservation of trees), keyline sub-soiling (to loosen compacted soils), no- or low-till farming (leaving it alone to do its thing), pasture cropping (growing annual crops in dormant perennial pastures), multi-species cover cropping and crop rotations (to introduce genetic diversity), the use of animal manure (to build up the resilience of the soil biota), encouragement of bees and other beneficial insects (for fertilization), the use of organic soil amendments such as biochar or terra preta (to enhance yield while sequestering carbon dioxide), ecological aquaculture (using water not land to grow food), perennial crops (they live on beyond one growing season) and silvopasture (integrating trees with forage and livestock production).
“Over the centuries, agriculture has caused the loss and degradation of fertile soil, leading to the downfall of civilizations worldwide,” points out John Roulac, founder and CEO of the organic superfoods brand, Nutiva, and an outspoken advocate for RA. “Modern industrial agriculture is doing it even faster.”
More and more farmers are starting to realize that their survival may well depend on whether they can pivot toward RA as the world warms. “Regenerative agriculture is an approach to food and farming systems that works with nature’s rhythms and technology to feed our growing population, regenerate topsoil and enhance biodiversity now and long into the future,” concludes RAI, cautioning that it’s critical to change synthetic nutrient dependent monocultures, low-biodiversity and soil degrading practices. Indeed, our very existence may depend on it.