Is environmentalism just taking the piss?

Max Gray 17 October 2014

An interesting news story cropped up last week. It made me wonder about how students, in Cambridge and elsewhere view environmentalism and the efforts we might make to reduce out environmental footprint.

Two students at UEA, Debs Torr and Chris Dobson have been trying to persuade their whole student population to urinate in the shower in their #GoWithTheFlow campaign. This, perhaps unsurprisingly garnered some national news coverage. You’ll be glad to hear not a single news outlet that I could locate went with the headline “Golden Showers”, (although the Norfolk paper, the Eastern Daily Press went with a classy “To Pee, or Not to Pee”).

The campaign simply suggests that by taking a leak while showering, would save one flush worth of water per person per day.  Presupposing that an average toilet flush is 12 litres (a rough, but not unreasonable estimate, assuming no new, low-volume toilets are involved), this would save over 4000 litres of water per person per year.  Dealing in averages again, this is about 7-8% of one person’s water consumption. Over a year, if the whole university got on board, that would amount to over 65 million litres of water.

However, while not strictly speaking unhygienic, standing in a puddle of dilute urine doesn’t strike me as hugely appealing. And this is what made me wonder whether this effort is necessary at all? Exactly the same water saving effect can be achieved by the tried-and tested method of simply not flushing the toilet if all you’ve done is gone for a wee. I have no wish to disparage the environmentalist spirit behind this endeavor at UEA, but the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow” approach has the added bonus of being useful for those occasions when nature calls, and you don’t happen to be mid-wash.

What this news story has made me realize though, is that environmental issues are often dealt with in a very piece-meal and isolated fashion. This one, for example, only mentions water use. But there is a whole range of things that affect our environmental impact. Every year, average electricity consumption per individual is roughly 4,000kWh. I ran the calculations for how much of this is due to water consumption (~66m3 of water per year, if you were interested) and it comes out around 20kWh. Per year! That’s about 0.005% or your energy usage. That’s not a lot, is it?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to save water. Saving water is a great idea. It reduces water waste (i.e. it’s cheaper). It will also lower the demand on water catchments, which is environmentally beneficial for a host of reasons entirely unrelated to your energy consumption and carbon footprint.

What I am saying is that: firstly, peeing in the shower isn’t your best option for saving water; and secondly, there are many other things you can, and should, be doing to try to reduce your energy consumption