Have I got brews for you

Do you know how many litres of water you use a day?

When I was asked this for the first time, I immediately thought: “Well, I have at least five cups of tea a day, drink some water, brush teeth, shower, flush the toilet, wash the dishes etc. Hmmm, probably around 80 litres?”

No. My guess was way off. In the UK, every person uses around 150 litres of water a day and this number has been increasing every year by 1% since 1930, according to Waterwise. Although I was aware of the activities that used water, I didn’t realise how much water IS used. If you take a 5 min shower for example, this uses 45 litres of water. If you think about it, this is like tipping more than 20 big bottles of water over your head!

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I then started to wonder about the water that’s used in other daily activities and the products that I use and consume. This is known as embodied water or virtual water. If you take this into account, you actually consume around 3,400 litres of water per day.

Have I got brews for you…

I’m typing this post as I’m drinking my 4th cup of tea of the day. But how much water goes into making this cup of tea?

Around 40 litres of water is needed to make a smashing cup of tea. Approximately 30 litres of water is needed for the tea itself and 10 litres for a dash of milk (and for the sugar drinkers it would be another 6 litres per teaspoon of sugar).

It all adds up when you think about how much water is used in each stage of the production, use and disposal of a product. In this instance, water is needed:

  • to grow the tea leaves and food for the dairy cows;
  • in the manufacturing process including their packaging;
  • to generate the energy to boil the kettle;
  • to brew the tea in your cup;
  • to clean the cup; and
  • even to flush the toilet an hour later!

You can have even more fun thinking about how much water is needed to make the kettle or the cup you brew your tea in.

Why is this important?

Our water supplies are under increasing threat from climate change, rapid population growth and environmental pressures. Freshwater is a scarce resource and its availability is becoming more and more limited. However, demand for water is increasing and is currently unsustainable.

We will need to develop new sources (production) of water. There are several ways we can boost our water supplies. For instance, recycled water is becoming an increasingly important source and we could transfer water from areas with plentiful supplies, storing water in reservoirs or desalination. However, managing demand for water is absolutely key and the foundation of more sustainable water use.

Most of us don’t think about our water supply and use – we just turn on the tap and clean, fresh water pours out. This is what makes it easy to take water for granted and use as much as we can and want. That’s why it’s important to think about where our water comes from, how much water we consume daily, understand the challenges that threaten our water supply and consider the amount of water used to create the products we use. We’ve all heard about carbon footprint, but what about your water footprint?

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

For individuals, I agree that water footprinting every single product you use or consume isn’t easy, but there are good reasons to do so. Awareness is the first step in becoming more sustainable with water use and this may even lead to you comparing different products and choosing the one with least impact on water. Water efficiency is also something everyone should do – it’s about reducing the amount of water you waste on a daily basis (becoming more sustainable with your water use), not restricting what you use. You can do this by making small behavioural changes. Simple things will help cut down on wasting water, for instance:

  • Turning off the tap while brushing your teeth;
  • Having a water efficient shower head and a tap aerator;
  • Always having a full load in the washing machine or dishwasher; and
  • Filling up a glass bottle with tap water and keeping it in the fridge so the tap doesn’t  need to be run for ages to cool it down.

Both ourselves, larger communities, businesses and Governments need to focus on understanding and reducing water consumption. Currently, companies consume and waste a huge amount of water. However, when they do understand how much water is consumed by their products and the impact this can have, they can hopefully focus their efforts and make improvements. Businesses need to reduce their consumption of water while fully understanding the impact of water across each stage of their operations.

Something to think about when you’re next having a cup of tea…

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9 thoughts on “Have I got brews for you

Add yours

  1. Interesting and thought-provoking. Too much reliance on an unlimited water supply – we need to be more like Bermuda. More grey water reuse and collecting it as much as we can…

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  2. I really enjoyed your post.

    Water overuse is one of those things that sits in the back of my mind, occasionally making me feel a bit guilty, but something that I never really do much about. I may sometimes feel smug that I’ve remembered to turn the tap off whilst brushing my teeth or that for once I haven’t over-filled the kettle – but I also love long showers and living on my own, never put a full load of dirty laundry in the machine!

    It’s so clearly a case where the injection of market forces could make a huge difference. Water has for so long been considered virtually a free resource in the UK – and whatever a consumer’s good intentions, in some circumstances (such as this) the introduction of a pricing mechanism would surely do wonders to alter behaviour. (Although there are probably lots of interesting debates around subsidizing water usage for the poorest/most vulnerable).

    We are slowly waking up to the fact that water costs money. I was recently advised by my water company that I need to fit a water meter within the next two years – before new water pricing more closely aligned to consumption comes into effect. That’s two years for everyone in London to continue wasting a lot of water!

    I think about water consumption in my work too. I work on a project that supports marginal smallholder farmers in India to grow ‘sustainable’ cotton. It’s a great project and there are ‘wins’ all round as we help to boost the profits and incomes of these farmers and at the same time help them to reduce their environmental footprint through reduced fertilizer, pesticide and water use. But I sometime wonder if this is really helpful when in the long run, it seems that the amount of water required for cotton production is just too great. Should we instead (or as well as) be investing in longer term alternatives to cotton that, among other things require less water?

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  3. You had me at “brews”, even though I was a bit let down by understanding it’s tea we’re talking about 🙂

    Some interesting points are raised and i like the reference to your ongoing work near the bottom – asking oneself about short-term actions and their use in the long term is i think common to all jobs everywhere. Only in reflection we can see that without many small actions taken the big result would never happen.

    On the note of water consumption for various uses, I think recycling greywater and maybe even blackwater is so important – in Dubai it’s done a lot and if the latest developed water strategy (just completed by the Supreme Council of Energy) comes online in the timeline we set, recycled water will become a whole new sector of economy, with investment attraction potential.

    I still can’t come to terms that we desalinate seawater which is quite energy intensive and then use that same water to flush toilets here, even in the highly transformed desert, but still the desert! Surely, this can be done with recycled water.

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  4. Eye-opening article about a real problem, which is getting bigger everyday.

    The problem of worsening scarcity of sweet water that we need not only for drinking but also to sustain the ecosystems on which we depend, has been documented for quite some time. As an example, the following website is a good information source on the subject of ground water depletion: https://water.usgs.gov/edu/gwdepletion.html. The US Geological Survey (USGS) has also published an in-depth report on the subject of groundwater depletion related to 40 aquifer systems or subareas in the United States over the years 1900 to 2008. The concerned report (Groundwater Depletion in the United States (1900 – 2008)) (L.F. Konikow, 2013) defines groundwater depletion as the reduction in the volumes of groundwater in storage in the subsurface, which not only can have negative impacts on water supply, but also lead to land subsidence, reduction in surface-water flows and spring discharges. The report states that the estimated groundwater depletion in the United States during 1900–2008 totals approximately 1,000 cubic kilometers (km3). Furthermore, the rate of groundwater depletion has increased markedly since about 1950, with maximum rates occurring during the most recent period (2000–2008) when the depletion rate averaged almost 25 km3 per year (compared to 9.2 km3 per year averaged over the 1900–2008 timeframe). In this context, Konikow also states that groundwater depletion is rarely assessed and poorly documented, but it is nevertheless becoming recognized as an increasingly serious global problem that threatens sustainability of water supplies.

    So, the problem of water-depletion is known. And it is real and very serious, since it is evolving to become a threat to the ecosystems that our society need. Over the last years, we have been feeling the consequences. The combination of droughts and insufficient groundwater inevitably leads to problems in agricultural production, implying lower harvests, food shortage and increased food prices. Such may even have been a contributing factor to the so-called Arab spring in 2011, as suggested by an article by Scientific American (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-change-and-rising-food-prices-heightened-arab-spring).

    Furthermore, it is (again) a problem that humanity most probably has created. As explained in your post, each of us in the Western world uses approximately 3.400 liters per day. And the number of people who are doing so, is increasing. This combination is leading to problems at an increasing speed. Referring to the report of Konikow, the depletion rate is accelerating. And the current situation suggests that this acceleration will even increase: a growing global human population, with more people aspiring a Western affluent lifestyle and climate change are likely to drive water consumption. So, unless we act to decrease water usage, the problem of groundwater depletion will only get worse.

    But unfortunately not everybody is aware of this fact.
    A first important step to appropriate action is awareness and for this purpose, people need to be informed. In this context, numerous valuable information sources exist, such as the website http://www.waterfootprint.org.
    This website enables you to calculate the water footprint not only of products, but also of one’s own lifestyle.
    It also provides direct insight in the water footprint of the food we eat. A few examples can already give an indication: the production of 1 kg of beef requires 15.500 liters of water and 1 kg of chocolate has even a water footprint of 24.000 liters. The production of one kg of rice will take 3.400 liters of water. And a cup of tea of 250 ml requires approx. 30 liters of water.

    Staggering numbers and worrying conclusions.
    Since the problem of water scarcity is unlikely to disappear by itself, we should act proactively to address it by reducing our water consumption. We have the tools, we have the means. We now just should do it. Count me in.

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  5. I also enjoyed this. It’s a total coincidence but I was discussing environmental footprint of tea with a colleague today … compared to coffee. If you think tea is bad, you should check out coffee. I’ve just started researching and have found a paper that estimates one cup of coffee requires 140litres vs 34litres for a cup of tea. So you tea drinkers can chill out and drink two cups and you’re still saving the environment, or at least being “less unsustainable”. (Check out the paper by A.K. Chapagain, A.Y. Hoekstra which compares consumption in the Netherlands. “The water footprint of coffee and tea consumption in the Netherlands”). The 140litres is also supported by the report you reference.

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  6. I’ve recently been thinking more about the water that goes into the production of goods, as a country where fast fashion is king I think it’s so important that we start thinking more about the environmental impact. I’ve recently bought the ‘re-kanken’ by fjallraven as their eco-friendly bag is made of recycled bottles and dyed using SpinDye technology that reduces water required for the process: https://www.fjallraven.co.uk/re-kanken

    ASOS have also started their recycled range http://m.asos.com/women/fashion-feed/2017_09_10-sun/brand-buzz-remo-asos-recycled-jeans/ and individual products in the range state how much water is saved by purchasing it rather than regular denim products.

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  7. Great post! It has definitely changed the way I look at my morning cup of tea…
    Unfortunately, this is not the first surprise I have had when reading about the huge water footprint of products… For instance, the amount of water used to make a pair of jeans (including water used to grow, dye and process the cotton but also customer care) is estimated to be almost 10,000 gallons (37,900 liters).

    If at least one in four people worldwide will be affected by recurring shortages by 2050, (according to the United Nations), we should all be more conscious with our purchasing choices (how many pairs of jeans do you own?) but also about using them more years; making sure they are recycled (as Zoe suggested) and… washing them less often (with cold water!). According to Levi’s “by wearing jeans 10 times before washing, American consumers can reduce their water and climate change impact by 77 percent, UK and French consumers by 75 percent and Chinese consumers by 61 percent.” We can also make sure we buy from brands who are more environmentally conscious. A company I just recently discovered is Everlane, that claims to recycle 98% of the water they use at their factories.

    If any of you is curious about it, The Water footprint network’s website has some tools that show how much water is used to make a variety of products. It also helps to calculate your own personal water footprint.

    This personal footprint will vary according to many variables but one of them is dietary habits: being vegetarian or eating less meat will reduce the your water footprint. For instance, according the Waterfootprint, the global average water footprint of pig meat is 5990 liter/kg. This means that the average water footprint per calorie for pork is five times larger than for cereals and starchy roots…

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