Water

I’m awake. Why am I awake? It’s still dark outside – must be early. I look at the alarm clock beside my bed. It’s 5:30 in the morning; why am I awake?! Hang on, what’s that sound… It sounds like the shower is running. What’s going on? My husband is still in bed beside me. Did someone break into our house to have a shower??

I’m still half asleep and not thinking straight, but I stumble out of bed to go investigate. Opening the bathroom door I see water spurting out of a pipe beneath the hand-basin and a rapidly growing pool of water on the floor. Well fuck. My husband races outside to turn off the water at the mains. Then, with the immediate crisis under wraps, I call our landlord to ask for a plumber to fix the burst pipe, and we set to work mopping up all the water that has flooded the bathroom and surrounding rooms.

***

Water is a topical issue in New Zealand at the moment. Water quality in our lakes and rivers has been in decline for many years now. Dairy farming is the main culprit, but other factors also contribute, like overfishing and mismanagement of wastewater.

After years of scientists, environmental groups and opposition parties complaining about the poor quality of freshwater in our country, the government finally set out to do something about it. Unfortunately, that ‘something‘ amounts to weakening water quality standards so that more rivers and lakes can qualify as ‘swimmable’ without the government or dairy farmers having to actually improve water quality. Under the old standards, a river that was considered swimmable would cause illness in no more than 1 in 100 people who swam in it. The new standards allow for up to 1 in 20 people to catch a nasty bug like E. coli – a disturbingly high risk.

***

In the last couple of weeks, heavy rains have  caused massive flooding in many parts of the country. First, reports filtered through of flooding at friends’ baches (holiday homes) in the Coromandel, with lawns turning into lakes and road closures cutting off access to several seaside communities. Then the rains arrived in earnest in Auckland, with West Auckland suburbs being particularly hard hit – think waist-high flash flooding, sinkholes opening up and sewage overflows. A colleague of mine saw it as a kind of karmic retribution for letting our rivers and lakes become so polluted.

One consequence of the flash flooding and slips that accompanied the stormy weather was a lot of unsettled silt in the dams that supply half of Auckland’s water. As a result, the treatment plant is having to work harder than normal to clean the water, and Aucklanders have been asked to reduce our water usage by 20 litres each day or risk having our water supply topped up with partially-treated water that may not be safe to drink.

With Aucklanders using on average 160 litres of water per person per day, this water reduction request isn’t particularly onerous and we’ve so far managed to stick to it. But the possibility of not having drinkable tap water seems a far cry from what we’ve grown accustomed to in urban New Zealand (last year’s drinking water contamination scandal in Havelock North notwithstanding).

***

This Wednesday 22 March is World Water Day. Oxfam are running Taps Off Day, a challenge that aims to raise awareness about the many communities around the world who don’t have access to clean water, and to make us consider how we would manage in the event of an emergency that cuts off access to our regular water supply.

I’ve already experienced the frustrations of going without tap water recently. After the pipe burst in my bathroom earlier this year, my husband and I had several hours at home with the water turned off while waiting for a plumber to arrive. Having no access to running water made our usual morning tasks – like bathing, washing our hands, having a cup of tea with breakfast, rinsing our dishes – much more challenging. If we didn’t already have a 10-litre container of water left over from a camping trip then we wouldn’t have had access to any clean water for drinking or washing. (Yes, I’ve heard the old trick about using water from your toilet cistern, but having seen the inside of our cistern I’d rather not go there!) This experience made me appreciate just how lucky we are to have clean, running water. Running water makes simple things like washing your hands so much easier. And instant access to drinkable water is a privilege we shouldn’t take for granted – and essential for reducing the waste associated with bottled water.

It seems fitting that Taps Off Day is happening now. The events of the last few weeks highlight how vulnerable our water and wastewater systems are to extreme weather events, which are predicted to become more common as climate change progresses. Can you imagine a life without clean tap water? What would you do if your water supply was cut off for a few hours, a day, a week or longer? And how do we make our water systems more resilient in the face of an increasingly unpredictable future?

Advertisements

Choice! Putting the Power in Your Hands

Here in New Zealand, we’re lucky to generate 80% of our electricity from renewable sources like hydro, wind, solar and geothermal. Our main electricity source is hydro power, which is relatively easy to switch on and off at will and provides a stable baseline source (at least when the lakes are full). Wind power is also a significant source of renewable energy, but the amount of electricity generated varies greatly depending on current weather conditions and it can’t be stored. On the other hand, the 20% of electricity from non-renewable sources is primarily generated by burning fossil fuels.

As well as having a high overall proportion of renewable energy, some electricity “gentailers” (generator–retailers) in New Zealand produce electricity using 100% renewable energy sources. I used to think I could do my bit to reduce carbon emissions by signing up for power from one of these 100% renewable gentailers. But it turns out all the electricity being generated at a given point in time is fed into the grid and distributed throughout the country to where it’s needed, so the mix of electricity sources is the same for everyone, regardless of who your power company is. Continue reading

Summer in the Garden

I’m spending my summer holiday at home. There’s no better time to enjoy the garden than a lazy summer day.

A word on compostable and degradable plastics

At the end of Plastic Free July, bojblaz wrote an interesting comment about technological solutions for improving packaging, particularly whether there are more sustainable ways of producing and using plastic. I wrote a quick answer at the time, but I want to delve further into the available alternatives to traditional petrochemical plastics.

Just Degrading

One of the big problems with traditional plastic is that it takes hundreds of years to break down. “Degradable” plastics are often touted as the green alternative to regular plastics, and many plastic bags these days come with the statement “This bag is degradable” proudly stamped across their base. However, degradable plastics are not all they’re cracked up to be. Continue reading

Soft Plastic Recycling Comes to Aotearoa New Zealand

Here in Auckland we’re lucky to have a kerbside recycling system that accepts most types of packaging, but there is one conspicuous exclusion: soft plastic. Apparently plastic films and bags clog up the machines that sort our recycling, causing all kinds of chaos in the process.

Now I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that avoiding single-use packaging in the first place is more important than recycling it after the fact. However, there are some items I still struggle to find plastic-free, and I know many households still consider it normal to bring home a stack of single-use plastic bags from the grocery store each week. What’s more, I recently unearthed a great pile of soft plastic while clearing out some old boxes, and I’m loath to send it all to landfill.

So, with all that in mind, I was delighted to discover a new recycling initiative was recently launched to provide soft-plastic collection bins at supermarkets and The Warehouse stores. The bins will take pretty much any type of soft plastic you can think of, and if they’re well used they should make a big dent in the amount of waste going to landfill. The initiative is being trialled first in Auckland before being rolled out to the rest of the country over the next few years, so keep an eye out for them at your local stores.

While the soft plastic collected won’t be recycled into new plastic bags — it’ll be used to make park benches and other outdoor furniture and signs — providing any sort of recycling is undoubtedly better than sending the whole lot off to a rubbish dump.

Check out the following links if you want to find out more:

  1. Soft Plastic Packaging Recycling
  2. Press Release: Industry, Community and Government partnerships to recycle soft plastic bags gain momentum
  3. Plastic shopping bags to finally be recyclable in new project
  4. From metal to plastic: recycling soft plastic in NZ

A Plastic-Free Wrap-Up

Plastic Free July is over and you might expect me to jump with joy at all the foods I can now eat again: chips and biscuits, peas and pies! Except the experience of attempting to live plastic-free for a month has left its mark. The other night I walked into a supermarket while hungry — normally a recipe for disaster — but the sight of all that plastic packaging made me walk out again without buying a single snack.

Now that it’s August, here’s a summary of how I fared during PFJ and my thoughts on the experience.

How much waste?

In July my husband and I produced 780 grams of plastic waste, of which 270 grams was bought during July; most was put out for recycling but some went to landfill.

Apparently, the average New Zealander consumes 36 kg of plastic packaging per year, which works out to about 100 grams per day. That makes our tally of about 12 grams per person per day look pretty good — although I suspect the national per capita total may also include non-household packaging, e.g. for products being shipped from the site of manufacture to distribution to sale.

After doing Plastic Free July, buying 100 grams of single-use plastic packaging each and every day seems horrifyingly wasteful to me, and yet plastic accounts for just 8% of household waste in New Zealand; on average each person sends a whopping 500 kg of waste to landfill every year. Where do we get all that crap from? And, more importantly, do we seriously think we can keep doing it without any repercussions? (The July/August issue of New Zealand Geographic has some excellent articles on waste, and I suggest you grab a copy — or borrow mine!)

Continue reading

Aim low enough and you’re sure to miss the point completely

New Zealand’s Climate Change Minister, Tim Groser, yesterday announced the government’s new carbon emissions reduction target: an 11% reduction below 1990 emission levels by 2030. Far from being “a significant increase on our current target“, it’s a pathetic increase from our pathetic existing target — a 5% reduction by 2020 — and it gives us an extra decade of humming and hawing.

Let’s consider two points: Firstly, if we want a reasonable chance of keeping global warming below 2°C, we can only emit another 1,000 billion to 1,200 billion tonnes of carbon globally. At current emission rates we’re set to blow that budget within 30 years. In fact, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change, we need to immediately start reducing emissions by 5.5% per year in order to keep within this budget. (Note that 2°C of warming makes for a pretty hellish future and that “a reasonable chance” actually means we have a one in three chance of exceeding that limit 2°C even if we stay within the carbon budget — sounds great, right?)

Secondly, on a per capita basis, New Zealand is the 5th highest emitter of greenhouse gases among industrial nations worldwide, despite already generating almost 80% of our electricity using renewable energy sources, so we really ought to be pulling our weight when it comes reducing carbon emissions.

It’s obvious that our new carbon emissions targets don’t cut the mustard. While the world desperately needs change, New Zealand’s government wants to send us merrily down the path of business-as-usual, continuing to emit way more greenhouse gases than we have any right to.

Adding insult to injury, Tim Groser blatantly ignored the 16,000 submissions from New Zealanders calling for strong emission reduction targets because he reckons they aren’t “representative of New Zealanders’ views.” Honestly, there’s no arguing with that kind of logic!