I spent much of last year’s boiling hot, dry summer freaking out about drought. Baking days, hosepipe bans, parched plants and suffering wildlife gave me acute day-to-day anxiety and a real fear for the future. This year, I was determined to do something more productive than hand-wringing, so I resolved to cut my water consumption.
Then it rained for much of the summer. The UK had 170% of average rainfall this July, making it the sixth wettest on record. But that doesn’t make my efforts pointless: we still need to save water. Scientists have calculated that the climate crisis makes drought 20 times more likely, so one wet summer only offers short-term respite. The UN predicts that demand for fresh water will exceed supply by 40% by 2030 worldwide. In the UK, Sir James Bevan of the Environment Agency warned in 2019 that, without action, UK water companies would face the “jaws of death” – the point at which demand for water outstrips supply – within 20 years.
Also, saving water reduces your carbon footprint. Treating and transporting is energy-intensive business: approximately 12% of a typical gas-heated home’s energy consumption in the UK goes on heating water. Then there is the bottom line: an increasing number of people now have metered water consumption, so the less you use, the less you pay.
Would water companies tackling leakage – which amounted to more than 1tn litres in England and Wales in 2021, according to Ofwat – have vastly more impact than me dodging showers? Of course. But we can all make a difference. Many tweaks to household habits are easy to implement, plus there are bigger lifestyle changes to consider. This is what happened when I tried them out.
No one is trying to limit how much water you drink, but you can limit how much you waste – starting with the kettle. A surprising number of people insist on emptying and refilling theirs every time they use it. If you can’t break that habit, you can at least thwart it. Filling the kettle with millilitre precision so my preferred pint mug is perfectly full is my infallible superpower, but if you’re a less committed tea drinker, use your mug to decant the correct amount of water into the kettle for a few days to get a feel for it.
If you prefer cold drinks, filling a water jug in the morning before putting it in the fridge saves you from running the tap until the water is the right temperature every time you’re thirsty. I despise cold water, but my husband drinks lots, so I try the jug trick. He consistently forgets to use it, so if you live with other people, I recommend a note on the tap letting them know there’s chilled water already available.
Keep your cooking water
A classic water conservation tip is to reuse water used for washing fruit, vegetables or rice on houseplants or in the garden. You can also use cooled pasta water: “Plants really like pasta water because of the added starch,” says Stephanie Fox of water efficiency NGO Waterwise. This isn’t hard, but you do feel a bit like a toddler doing water play, splashily pouring water from recipient to recipient then precariously carrying it outside.
Run your dishwasher and washing machine full
Fewer loads reduce water consumption. The only issue is that in summer, with only two of us in the house most of the time, the dishwasher gets fairly ripe before it’s anywhere near full. A lot of fragile items get shoved in there to save us from the stench; most (not all) survive.
Since my sons left home, I barely wash any clothes – I’m a big fan of spot cleaning and airing rather than washing, and no one has complained about the smell (yet). Doing one full load a week is a decent water saving: a survey of 54 popular UK washing machines found they used an average of 48.8 litres a cycle.
Reuse ice cubes
I found this tip online – it won’t make a dramatic difference, but I quite enjoy chucking used ice cubes (and the ones that fall on the floor when I’m getting them out of trays) into pot plants: it feels efficient.
Sort out your sink
Obviously, I turn off the tap when brushing my teeth, which generates a 24-litre saving on average for twice-daily brushers. I also add an attachment to reduce the flow. I got a free two-pack along with various other water-saving gizmos when I filled in some consumption information on the Save Water Save Money website. They look like mini sieves and don’t work on all types of tap, but we managed to fit one in the bathroom, apparently halving flow from approximately 10 to five litres a minute (I can’t feel the difference).
Time your shower
Showers are one of the biggest culprits in home water use: “A shower usually uses between eight and 12 litres a minute,” says Fox. “See if you can swap out your showerhead for a water-efficient one. These add air to the water to make it seem like you’re using more when you’re actually using less.”
My old shower isn’t suitable so I’m left with the alternative: shorter showers. The recommendation is four to five minutes: the length of a shortish song. “We have a Waterwise playlist on Spotify,” suggests Fox. A word of caution: choose carefully from the water-themed bangers on the list, which include TLC’s Waterfalls, Singin’ in the Rain and the Stone Roses’ Waterfall. I go with Rivers of Babylon for my morning ablutions and can’t shake Boney M for weeks. I am an extremely swift showerer anyway – out and drying within three minutes. Maybe my alopecia makes it more efficient since I have no hair to tackle? It’s either that or I’m just a bit grubby.
Another tip is to shower with your feet in a bucket or basin to catch the runoff. I tried this during last year’s drought, but came to grief transporting my water downstairs and gave up. Fox suggests I use it to flush the loo instead. “When the bucket fills up, you see how much water you’re using,” she says, and it’s true: my basin is full alarmingly fast and it’s big enough for four generous flushes.
If your showers are usually longer than 10 minutes, a bath – which takes about 80 litres of water – might be more water efficient. “Don’t fill it all the way to the top, and when you’re done, leave the plug in and you can reuse that water to flush if you pop a bucket next to the toilet,” advises Fox.
Master your flush
Whether you “let it mellow” is between you and your notions of hygiene, but if you’ve got a dual flush loo button, do remember to use it. “Lots of people genuinely press both the small and big flush,” says Fox, a fact I confirm by looking at our downstairs loo properly for the first time and realising I always stupidly press both buttons at once.
Check for leaks
It’s also worth checking for leaks on dual flush systems. Put a piece of loo roll at the back of the pan and leave it overnight – if it has disappeared or is wet in the morning, you’ve got a slight leak. The culprit is usually a dirty or broken seal – you can find YouTube tutorials explaining how to clean and change these.
Our loos pass the test. We would probably know already if they were leaking, because our home insurance company supplied us with a free LeakBot. This gadget attaches to a pipe and detects leaks in your household plumbing based on changes in temperature (if there’s a leak, colder water will be being drawn in from outside), alerting you via an app. It works, but costs £149 if you buy one.
Fit a cistern bag
Depending on the accessibility of your cistern, you may be able to fit an old school cistern bag (Buffaloo, Hippo or similar); I remember having one of these 20 years ago, and it turns out they’re still a thing. Many water companies supply them for free (mine came with my pack of free stuff from Save Water Save Money). You literally open the cistern, fill the bag with water and stand it up in there. The space the bag occupies reduces the capacity of your cistern, which makes for a saving of one to two litres per flush.
Water butts capture rainwater that would otherwise just run into the drain from your guttering downpipe, diverting and storing it to reuse on the garden. This is one area where I can’t really improve my water efficiency: my spouse’s side hustle is apocalypse planning, so he acquired a 1,000-litre megabutt this spring and we’ve been using it on the garden ever since. Water butts can be expensive but there are bargains if you shop around: Screwfix has a 100-litre one for £29.99 at the time of writing.
Keep the water in
The more moisture you can retain around plants, the less you’ll need to use. A layer of mulch (usually organic matter such as compost, manure or bark) stops water evaporating, especially if you start early. “Mulching is really helpful for flower beds to retain the winter wet now we are getting early springs that seem to be becoming drier,” says Arthur Parkinson, container gardening expert and passionate conservationist (his new book, Planting a Paradise, is published in October). “Use wool as a pot lining – it helps retain water during the summer (and insulate over the winter).” I install the sheets of fleece that come with my dog’s frozen food in my pots; Parkinson uses old socks in his.
A word on all that grey water – the relatively clean but used water collected from your kitchen or bathroom and gathered in your many basins. If it’s soapy, avoid using on anything edible and pour on plants in pots rather than in the ground. There’s a fear household chemicals could have an impact on microscopic organisms in the soil and change soil structure in the long term. Experiments by the Royal Horticultural Society found that applying grey water had little impact on plants for a short period, but after six weeks, some showed signs of salt stress.
The bigger picture
Consider your diet
Your diet is almost certainly your biggest (indirect) source of water consumption: agricultural supply chains use 70% of global freshwater resources, according to the World Wildlife Fund. But all diets are not created equal and in most parts of the world, meat production is thirstier. For example, the Water Footprint Network estimates the water footprint for a beef burger produced in the Netherlands at 1,000 litres; a soy burger from the same country only uses approximately 160 litres.
Carnivores can reduce the water footprint of their diets without eliminating meat, however: research from 2018 suggested that following a recommended “healthy” diet (that is, following official guidance on what to eat in what proportions, such as the NHS Eatwell guide) reduced water consumption in France, Germany and the UK. The reductions varied from 11-35% for a healthy diet with meat, to 33-55% for healthy pescatarian, and 35-55% for vegetarian diets. Reducing your food waste obviously also helps: the Love Food Hate Waste website is packed with suggestions.
Cut back on clothes
Buying fewer clothes is a good idea for many reasons, but water use is among them. “To make just one pair of denim jeans, 10,000 litres of water are required,” according to UN Climate Change; that’s the water used to grow the kilo of cotton needed. “In comparison, one person would take 10 years to drink 10,000 litres of water.” A 2020 paper put total fashion industry water consumption at 1.5tn litres a year. I hate buying jeans at the best of times; this is enough to convince me not to bother.
It will be months before my next water bill shows me if any of my tweaks have noticeably reduced my consumption. But, in the meantime, my houseplants haven’t died and my conscience – if no other part of me – is cleaner.