The world’s most impressive recycling system

National Recycle Week – Day 2

Today, on this dry and sunny day, I’m thinking about water.

The Water Cycle (from NOAA – The US National Weather Service)

Water is one resource that gets naturally recycled: clouds drop rain on the earth, which gets soaked up by the soil, used by plants or flows into lakes or the ocean, before some of it evaporates to form clouds again. Round and round it goes, sometimes being stored, sometimes being created (all living things make water when they respire, and it’s released during combustion) and sometimes being used as a building block (plants use water along with carbon dioxide in photosynthesis to create carbohydrates). This global cycle carries on unnoticed for the most part, although humans do interfere with it, for example by extracting water stored underground or by channelling it so that it flows quickly through the landscape and doesn’t soak into the earth.

Humans also, however, pollute it. We use it to wash away waste, thus requiring some sort of treatment before it can safely be returned to the environment. So, we need sewage treatment plants andΒ  tailings pools and filters and all sorts of other ways of cleaning up the water we have used. Sometimes we also make it warm and then discharge it directly into the environment, thus upsetting the natural systems in the area (this is known as ‘thermal pollution’ and is a particular problem with power plants and industries that use water for cooling)), at least in part because warmer water contains lower levels of dissolved oxygen.

Pair of butts collecting water off the roof of the house at the back

Pair of butts collecting water off the roof of the house at the back (the are awaiting new positions with the limery construction under-way)

On a more personal scale, it’s interesting to consider the water we use in our own homes. In most cases, there’s not a lot of cycling goes on in this context, but we can be much more efficient with our water use and make sure that we contaminate as little of it as possible. Generally in domestic situations, our biggest source of contamination is sewage – every time you flush the toilet, you send 5-10 litres of polluted water down the drain, and that water will have to be processed (thus using energy) before it is safe to release back into our rivers and seas.

The best thing we can do as individuals is to reduce our water use, using our water as many times as possible before sending it out of our homes. Grey water – such as what comes out of the washing machine – can be used again to water plants or wash the car, thus doubling up on use and reducing the amount that needs to come out of the mains (which will save you money too if your water is metered). Chez Snail, we collect lots of rainwater for use around the house and garden and this means that, wherever possible, we are not using the processed water that comes out of the taps for jobs that don’t require it. For example, all the concrete that has been mixed during our building work has used rainwater… after all, it made no difference if it was a bit gritty or contained some algae.

From the Guide to Sustainable City Living

From the Toolbox for Sustainable City Living

It’s even possible to build your own little gray water treatment plant at home if you wish. I have a book entitled Toolbox for Sustainable City Living that provides detailed instructions on building a wetland out of three recycled bathtubs to filter washing machine waste water… it’s not the answer for all of us, but if you live in a city and want to process your water for re-use there are options. Chez Snail we will continue to water the plants with our used washing-up water and flush the toilet with rain water and grey water and in these ways we will help mother nature in her grand recycling operation.

Leave a comment


  1. I am impressed. And feeling guilty. I am a bit wasteful of water. I shall try harder this week. We do collect rain water and the water I use to wash vegetables goes on the garden or in the bird bath. And we do follow the advice about” If its yellow……

  2. And of course, there’s always the great Australian poet, Anon., who invented this little ditty for our water-starved country: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down”. Many people in remote areas – who have only their rainwater tanks to survive on – go as many as 5 times before they’ll flush down a pee. Personally, I’m greatly in favour of the clean and odourless ‘long drops’ in use at motorway rest areas in Australia. Not a drop wasted, and the handwash basins use collected rainwater.

  3. “Onya!” Kate Chiconi :). As a fellow Aussie I am agreeing with everything you say. Having 4 acres out in the sticks allows Steve to wander at will when it is time to “Point Percy at the porcelain” (another great “Anon” moment πŸ˜‰ ) but I use a bucket and use my “byproducts” to create wonderful fertiliser for the garden. It’s all relative and we are ALL relative to this situation.

    • I encourage the Husband to ‘water’ the citrus trees when the need arises – they love the potassium! And every so often I bring the Garden Tea jug indoors to add my own contribution to the brew in the big black bin – our neighbours are a bit closer than yours… The big thing to remember is to avoid contributing when you’re on antibiotics.

  4. Thank you for this important reminder about one of our most vital resources! Having spent a long time in California, I am familiar with what it’s like to live in a water-scarce area. But, as you suggest, it’s what we are putting *into* the water that is also a factor. Not just “regular” sewage but chemicals of all kinds. Even with treatment, lots of stuff remains.

  5. I have a native (and very, very, very beautiful garden) which needs little water. We in aussieland are of course very water scarce. Your post has inspired to look into some water collecting for the veggies and fuchsias when it is hot. ❀

  6. Many of us became more water conscious during our very long drought in Australia. I still use a bucket in the kitchen sink to collect water while it warms up, the pasta water, etc. I am always annoyed that our toilets are plumbed to use good drinking water to wash away the waste. I have seen a couple of toilets where the hand basin is incorporated into the cistern. The water you wash your hands in go directly into the cistern. Now why can’t all toilets be like that?

    But I think your broader point is very valid. Not only do we have to be conscious about our water usage, we have to be aware of what nasties are being flushed into the system.

    • I’m right with you there – why on earth is it acceptable to use treated water to flush toilets? I tried to find a supplier of toilets with an integrated handbasin, having seem a picture of one once, but I’ve never succeeded. We are low tech – collect water and transfer it into the cistern manually, but it would be nice to me a little more automated. Actually I’d like a composting toilet in the house, but Mr Snail isn’t keen.

  7. I applaud your efforts! I looked into a grey water system a year ago, but my husband was less convinced. We are hoping to purchase a rain catchment system, but with four years of drought, we’ve had very little rain to catch. It’s been said before: water is the new oil, a precious commodity that we can no longer take for granted.


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