As published in the Lake Travis View, July 2023
The culturally embedded phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” often is associated with trash: how much you create and what you do with it. Its origin can be traced back to the 1970s, after the growing popularity of single-use items in the 1950s, as people increasingly recognized the importance of managing air pollution, waste and water quality. With today’s heightened awareness of environmentally sustainable practices, this phrase has taken on greater meaning, including how we use water.
The waste management hierarchy is a tool that seeks to replace “the three Rs,” turning it into an inverted pyramid of waste management strategies from most to least environmentally preferred. While reduce, reuse and recycle are included, prevention is the preferred method and disposal is a last resort. It aims to help consumers and producers extract the maximum practical benefits from products while generating the minimum amount of waste.
This hierarchical approach considers the whole life cycle of the products we use (including water), from raw material extraction all the way through to disposal. While consumers can make use of this approach in their daily habits, government incentives and regulations are evolving to ensure businesses are considering the possibly unintentional consequences of their operations to make decisions that impact more than just their bottom line.
Top priority within the waste management hierarchy is reducing the amount of raw materials sourced to create the products. In the water industry, we routinely promote the message of conserving water, or reducing your water use, so that we can pull less water from our raw water source (such as a lake or aquifer) to produce clean drinking water. This starts by consciously being aware of how you are using water and then taking steps to use only what you need. Many water utilities are now able to provide software to their customers that shows how much water their household is using, as well as where and when they are using it.
The Lakeway MUD, for example, implemented WaterSmart after switching to advanced metering infrastructure, or “AMI,” water meters in December 2021. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, each American uses an average of 82 gallons of water a day at home. But beyond household water use, consider your water footprint: all products (cars, jeans, cell phones, hamburgers, etc.) and even services (such as electricity) use water to produce in varying amounts, so what you consume impacts how much water you use. The United States has the highest per capita footprint of all other countries, equivalent to about 2,200 gallons per person per day, according to Water Footprint Calculator.
When you can’t reduce, your next effort should be to reuse or repurpose. This could be as simple as shopping at a consignment store for second-hand goods or refilling a reusable water bottle rather than buying single-use drinks. You also could capture water from your shower, sink, washing machine and rain gutters to be used to irrigate your plants.
In actuality, all water is reused because there is no new water on the planet: the same amount of water exists today as it did billions of years ago; where it is in the water cycle impacts its usability. Only about 3% of Earth’s water is freshwater and of that, only about 1.2% is accessible for drinking water. This is why we say that every drop counts!
Recycling is the process of dismantling and remanufacturing a product so it can be used again. While recycling plays an important role in environmentally sustainable practices by cutting down on the need for raw materials, it does take energy to produce so it is near the bottom of the waste management hierarchy. In the industry, “water reuse,” also known as “water recycling” or “water reclamation,” is gaining traction. It’s the process of highly filtering and treating wastewater to standards for land application use, such as irrigation, which accounts for about 60% of water use in our service area.
The Lakeway MUD was one of the first in the state to implement a water reuse system to irrigate the Yaupon Golf Course in 1975. Today, we have storage for over 90 million gallons of recycled water that is used for irrigating several local golf courses, the city’s medians, parks and various commercial and some residential locations.
Some cities are taking water recycling a step further: El Paso, for example, a city in the northern portion of the Chihuahuan Desert that was predicted in 1989 to run out of water by 2020, is furthering its investments against drought. It aims to become the first major American city to implement what industry professionals call “direct potable reuse” or “advanced purification.” The media often irreverently refers to this as “Toilet-to-Tap.” This innovative process takes water reclamation to a new level by treating wastewater to drinking water standards.
Singapore, a densely populated island where freshwater is in short supply, has been successfully producing and adding their “NEWater” to the country’s drinking water supply since 2003. This supply currently meets 40% of Singapore’s water demand, according to media sources.
While continuing to evolve environmentally sustainable practices of your own, vote with your dollar on what’s important to you: buy from brands that support sustainable practices as part of their business model. Corporations have shifted their practices, which in turn changes entire industry standards, based on consumer influence. We each can make a difference when we adjust our habits toward a world we envision for the future.
Written by Stephanie Threinen, public information liaison for Lakeway Municipal Utility District. Earl Foster is the general manager of LMUD.