Wow! One Bag of Trash in 26 Months

 

shawn williamson
Shawn Williamson explaining how to slash your trash

By Stephen Leahy

On Aug. 10, Shawn Williamson put out his family’s first bag of trash in 26 months. That’s right, 26 months and just one bag of trash for Williamson, his wife, Monica, and their 7-year-old daughter Alyssa.

The Brooklin family recycles, reuses or composts 99.3 per cent of their waste, Williamson calculates. “It’s easier and cheaper,” says the management consultant, who specializes in environmental challenges.

“In my office, there’s a container for compostable materials, one for paper and a small one for garbage.” Asked what’s in the garbage container, Williamson says “cut-up credit cards, old pens, some plastic wrapping … I empty it every four or five months.”

There are only two other small garbage containers in the home. But there are plenty for recycling, composting and a couple of large containers destined for the Goodwill donation centre.

Driving by, no one would guess this is a near-zero-waste home. Williamson insists they don’t have a Spartan lifestyle. In fact, he feels a bit sorry for the rest of us: “If you’re putting out three bags of garbage, you’re wasting an awful lot of time and money.”

It all starts at the store, especially the grocery store. Buying pre-packaged and ready-made food not only creates a lot of trash, it is much more expensive and less nutritious than buying fresh. The Williamsons hit the supermarket once a week with their 12-year-old green plastic baskets and preprinted shopping list, with the weekly essentials listed to make shopping more efficient and eliminate impulse buying.

“We still buy things like potato chips occasionally, and those bags can’t be recycled.”

They also buy in bulk. Toilet paper comes from an office-supply outlet in a giant box that barely fits in the car. Staples such as rice come in 50-pound bags. The house is outfitted with more shelving than most homes but Williamson insists it doesn’t look like a warehouse.

“Try eating only fresh for a few weeks and you’ll see a health improvement . . . you’ll feel better,” Williamson says.

When the family does order takeout, they bring their own plastic containers. “We bring the big ones and the take-out places tend to fill them up for the same price.” Most of this is just common sense on how to be more efficient, and Williamson believes it has saved his family hundreds of hours.

“Just take a few seconds once a week to think about how to do something better and do it.” Before you know it, you will be living better, saving money and maybe losing a bit of weight, says Williamson.

Nearly all food waste and organic matter goes into a back-yard composter, to be turned into rich top soil for the vegetable garden. Williamson says he gets a bit of a workout digging in the compost and he finds it very relaxing. And it beats driving to the gym.

“It’s really all about living better, living simpler and living smarter.”

Incineration vs. diversion

The Williamsons live in Durham Region, where 60 per cent of residential waste is now being diverted from the landfills in Michigan, where much of Ontario’s waste has been going for the past decade. But Durham and York regions are proceeding with plans to build a $230-million garbage incinerator in south Courtice, near Lake Ontario. To operate efficiently, the natural-gas-powered furnaces will need to be fed thousands of tonnes of garbage around the clock. That will take the emphasis off waste reduction and the need to improve recycling programs, says Shawn Williamson, whose family diverts 99.3 per cent of its household waste.

“The simple solution to Ontario’s perennial garbage problem is not to create any waste,” he says. “We saw a big change by converting all our garbage cans throughout the house into recycling bins and putting a tiny container for garbage inside.”

Ontario’s overall waste diversion rate has risen from 21 per cent in 1992 to about 44 per cent. Toronto’s diversion rate was 45 per cent last year, far short of its target of 70 per cent. San Francisco and Los Angeles are already at 70 per cent. More than half of Toronto’s households are in townhouses and high-rise apartments or condos, where recycling and composting must be taken down to basement bins and the diversion rate is a paltry 15 per cent

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First published in The Toronto Star October 21, 2011

‘We Have Nothing Without Water’ – Treehugger Interviews Author of Your Water Footprint

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 11.06.18 AM

Why care about your water footprint?

"Your water footprint" by Stephen Leahy

© “Your water footprint” by Stephen Leahy. Groundwater comes from aquifers that take thousands of years to fill. Globally, aquifers are being drained faster than then can refill.

Margaret Badore (@mbadore) Science / Clean Water

November 18, 2014

We learn in elementary school that water is in a constant cycle of evaporation and precipitation, making our crops grow and flowing from rivers into oceans. While the amount of water on Earth remains fairly stable, its distribution around the globe is changing, and this change is being accelerated by human activities.

A new book, “Your Water Footprint,” by environmental reporter Stephen Leahy, takes a close look at the “virtual water” that surrounds us in everyday life. This isn’t just the water we use to boil pasta or take a shower, it’s the water that’s used to grow our coffee beans and power the local energy plant. As the demand for this kind of water increases, the more threatened our access to fresh water becomes. At the same time, pollution makes vast amounts of water unusable.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Leahy over Skype.

TreeHugger: What were your goals for writing this book?

Stephen Leahy: To help people understand this other aspect of water that we use, that we don’t see. This virtual water concept: the water it takes to make things, the water it takes to grow our food, to make our products, to make our clothing. This is that unseen water that we don’t think about, and because we don’t see it, we’re not really aware of it.

It’s an enormous amount of water that we end up consuming every day without realizing it.

TreeHugger: The book is very number heavy, which makes it easy to compare how much water is used in different things. How did you go about finding all the data?

Leahy: It was a nightmare actually, the numbers. Especially for a person who’s a writer, not a numbers guy.

What I did, and this was based on covering science for many years, was figure out a baseline. Who is the best researcher? Who has the best data collection of water footprints? It turned out to be the University of Twente in the Netherlands, and they actually pioneered the concept of water footprints. They’ve developed a whole methodology about how you calculate it, and they’ve done piles of studies of the various water footprints of various products. Sometimes not in the way we think of products. So, they would do a water footprint for wheat, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a burger bun or bread, so I did that. I figured out how much wheat goes into a loaf of bread and did that part of the calculation myself.

So, University of Twente was a godsend, because there are lots of different ways of calculating water footprints, and there’s different numbers out there.

TreeHugger: In the introduction, you discuss this concept of the “water-food-energy nexus.” I’m hoping to can tell us a little more about that.

Leahy: Most people realize that we need water for food, but what most people don’t understand is that we also need water for energy. There’s no form of energy that doesn’t need water. We have a growing population, and a growing shift in diets from vegetable-based to meat-based, which uses a lot more water. At the same time, there’s a billion people who don’t have access to electricity and they of course want to get electricity. As we look to produce more energy and more food, we’re going to need more water. This is the point of the nexus: we don’t have enough water to do all that in the future.

TreeHugger: So, looking forward, we need to reduce our water footprint. I think a lot of our readers are going to be familiar with the concept of reducing a carbon footprint, and in a lot of ways these concepts overlap. So, from your perspective, what are the ways the two footprints don’t overlap?

Leahy: Certainly on the energy side they overlap a lot. But on the food side, that’s probably the best example. If you switch from a meat-based diet to a vegetarian diet, you could reduce your daily water footprint by 1,300 liters. So, that’s an enormous amount of water when you put it over a year, nearly half a million liters in savings.

The other thing you can do is swapping beef for chicken. Swapping beef for chicken for a family of four would save 900 liters of water.

Food waste is another example, 38 to 40 percent of food in North America is wasted, and that’s a huge amount of water embedded in that food. The “best before” dates are actually problematic in that regard, because it doesn’t really mean the food is bad, it just means the company’s not guaranteeing the flavor.

TreeHugger: I also wanted to ask you about how you think about the trade-offs between the water impact of a product and some of the other impacts of a product. I was thinking about tee-shirts, because I write about clothes a lot. So, on one hand, we could say cotton is natural, it can be low in toxins if we use natural dyes and it’s biodegradable. On the other hand, cotton has a high water footprint. Then if we look at polyester, it has a lower water footprint, but there are concerns about it releasing toxins as it breaks down and contributing to micro plastic pollution. So, how do you look at these kinds of trade-offs? Do you have advice for weighing them?

Leahy: This gets a little bit complicated, because a big number for a water footprint is not necessarily indicative of something that’s bad. If you’re in a water-rich area and need a lot of water, and you’re not polluting this water, that’s going to be okay.

It’s kind of site-specific and product-specific, so this does make it quite a bit more complicated. On the clothing side of things, if you’re growing cotton in a country that has reasonable amounts of rainfall and preferably it’s grown organically, that is it’s grown without pesticides and chemicals, you’re greatly reducing the contamination of water. And if you’re using rain-fed cotton and not depleting an underground source, those are some conditions under which we could talk about products being truly sustainable, because you could continue this for quite a while.

TreeHugger: So, as we look to the future, there are many areas that will soon be facing the collapse of “water bubbles.” Do you think we need to see a shift in water policies or do we need to reduce our personal water consumption? Or is it both?

Leahy: It’s both. From a government policy point of view, water needs to be respected a lot more in terms of managing it long-term. There are places like California that don’t have any rules about how much ground water you can take. Anyone can take as much groundwater as they like—and that’s not uncommon.

The other side of course is consumers. I think consumers need to raise the issue more with both their elected leaders but also the industry. Some industries have responded, Levi’s has greatly reduced their water use for the production side, although it’s not exactly waterless since it takes a lot of water to grow cotton. So, that’s a role for consumers: asking, ‘Where is this product made? Where did it come from?’

Because there are certain things that don’t make any sense. For instance, Egypt is the number two exporter of oranges in the world. Egypt, well it’s is basically a desert, so why are they exporting all these oranges? There are actually all these economic reasons that don’t make any sense from a sustainability point of view. So consumers can make a decision and say, I’m not going to buy a product that requires a lot of water from the desert, because that’s just dumb.

The point about the virtual water is that we have very little without water. So, we’re extraordinarily dependent on water in ways we just don’t realize. And yet, we under-price water, water is very cheap, and water doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

This interview has been shortened and condensed.

Original post

Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products

October 2014 Firefly Books, 160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics only $19.95 Paperback (Also avail in hardcover) Order today

In US:  AmazonPowell’s Books; Barnes&NobleIndiebound

Canada:  Chapters-Indigo Signed copies avail at Blue Heron Books – Stephen’s home town bookstore

UK:  WH SmithAmazonWaterstones

Australia: Angus & RobertsonBooktopia

New Zealand: Mighty Ape

Free Public Talk on How You Consume 2000 Gallons of Water Every Day

Stephen Leahy sml

 [I will be in the L.A. area Feb 9 to 16 and available for interviews and book signings – Contact me

Critically Acclaimed New Book Investigating The Enormous Amounts Of  ‘Hidden’ Water We Consume Every Day

It takes more than 7,600 liters (2,000 gallons) of water to make a single pair of jeans. That morning cup of coffee required 140 liters (37 gallons) of water before it found its way to your table—water that was used to grow, process and ship the coffee beans. When we spend money on food, clothes, cellphones or even electricity, we are buying water  — a shockingly large amount of water.

WATER IS MORE VALUABLE AND USEFUL THAN OIL

Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products reveals how water is essential to our way of life in ways we never imagined. While water usage continues to soar, shortages now affect more than 3 billion people including millions of Americans and Canadians. A decade from now 3 out of 5 people will face water shortages.

Your Water Footprint provides essential information to reduce your water use which will help you save money, be prepared for shortages and ensure our children and grandchildren will have abundant fresh water.  Water-wise choices is all about smart substitutions and changes, rather than sacrifice and self-denial.

 

“…a brilliant and shocking exposé on precisely how much water we use…” – Publishers Weekly

…exceptionally lucid narration with arresting, full-page info graphics”  — Booklist

Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products

October 2014 Firefly Books, 160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics only $19.95 Paperback (Also avail in hardcover) Order today

In US:  AmazonPowell’s Books; Barnes&NobleIndiebound

Canada:  Chapters-Indigo Signed copies avail at Blue Heron Books – Stephen’s home town bookstore; In Ottawa visit the legendary Octopus Books

UK:  WH SmithAmazonWaterstones

Australia: Angus & RobertsonBooktopia

New Zealand: Mighty Ape