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Technology will solve our water problems — if we let it

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Water scarcity is a major challenge the world faces but many people dislike the idea of ‘recycled’ water, Daniel Faris looks at the reasons why and what can be done to change perceptions.

Water is one of the most important resources we need to survive. Without food we can last for days or even weeks, but without a proper supply of fresh water we’ll last only a fraction of that time. And yet, clean water is scarce in many third-world countries. It’s a problem that’s growing harder and harder to solve with current strategies, volunteers, and resources.

A 2012 community report compiled and written for the US state department claimed that within the next decade, “many countries important to the US will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure”. While alarming, this is actually old news; water has been a scarce resource in many regions of the world for decades now.

A new venture, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, may be able to change all that. It’s called the Omniprocessor, and it’s capable of converting even raw sewage into clean drinking water. The main plant is based in Seattle for now, but eventually the technology will be used elsewhere to improve living conditions in many of those third-world countries that lack a clean water supply.

It’s promising news indeed, but there’s one momentous hurdle left. It has nothing to do with the research and funding behind such a project. Instead, it has everything to do with human psychology.

If someone handed you a glass of crystal clear water and told you that, while it was safe to drink now, it had been human waste just a couple minutes ago, would you drink it? You’d probably at least have to give it some thought, right? Well, Gates did give it some thought—and then downed a whole glass of the stuff.

As Gates so enthusiastically confirmed, “It’s water.”

On his personal blog, he wrote, “It tasted as good as any I’ve had out of a bottle. And having studied the engineering behind it, I would happily drink it every day. It’s that safe.”

Despite the fact that Gates has made public appearances where he drank the recycled water, it seems that many people are still turning their noses up at this potentially game-changing technology.

Studies show that recycled water is considered taboo

Recycled water is clean. In fact, it’s cleaner than unfiltered tap water, but even after learning this, it’s likely that many of us still won’t want to touch it.

Researchers Paul Rozin, Brent Haddad, Carol Nemeroff, and Paul Slovic hosted a series of studies where they polled over two thousand American adults, along with hundreds of college students. The purpose of the study was to collect a general consensus about the idea of recycled water. The subsequent findings were published in January’s edition of Judgment and Decision Making.

In the first study group, adults from five different cities were asked to divulge their backgrounds, their political and personal views, and their thoughts on ‘recycled water’. The results showed that most adults were extremely uncomfortable with the idea. Even when it was explained to them that recycled water is actually safer to drink than unfiltered tap water, they still expressed a desire to avoid it.

“The problem isn’t making the recycled water, but getting people to drink it,” Rozin said. “And it’s a problem that isn’t going to be solved by engineers. It will be solved by psychologists.”

Some 26% of the study participants were so grossed out by the idea of turning waste into potable water that they stated for the record, “It is impossible for recycled water to be treated to a high enough quality that I would want to use it.” In other words, it doesn’t matter how much evidence you can provide to support the idea that recycled water is safe to drink and exceptionally clean; most people will not even entertain the thought of drinking it.

This phenomenon is commonly referred to as contagion. Feelings of disgust are often deeply seated in our psyche, and exist for more than just emotional output; they exist to protect our bodies from harm. Instinctively, humans are programmed to find things gross because these elements can actually harm us. We’re aware of this on a primal level. In most cases, disgust can signal a dangerous substance, chemical or environmental, that is likely to harm us physically.

Unfortunately, a common side effect of disgust is that it can permeate our emotions and cause us to become turned off to things that aren’t really dangerous. According to Rozin, in a prior study he conducted, participants refused to drink a favourite beverage that had been ‘contaminated’ after a ‘fully sterilised’ cockroach was dipped inside. They were so disgusted by the insect and their predispositions that rationality was abandoned altogether. They absolutely would not drink the beverage, despite the fact that it would cause them no harm.

Another example? Vaccinations. With outbreaks of the flu and measles becoming a concern in the US, debates over the safety of vaccinations has reached a fever pitch, despite the near scientific consensus regarding their safety. Incidentally, many of the vaccines we’ve come to rely on contain water as a main ingredient, which is often purified from a variety of sources before making its way into our medications. It’s a double dose of potential (and largely unnecessary) controversy.

In the case of recycled water, being disgusted by it is a natural but absolutely ridiculous response. This is because, as Rozin points out, all water is sewage at some point, “Rain is water that used to be in someone’s toilet, and nobody seems to mind.” The real problem is that recycled water is a bit more obvious than rain water. Rozin says this is exactly why people are blatantly refusing the idea.

“If it’s obvious—take shit water, put it through a filter—then people are upset.”

How the ‘gross’ factor can be solved

In that case, how can such a problem be overcome? How can we reprogram our minds to accept that recycled water — recycled sewage — is ‘pure’?

Strangely enough, it may be as easy as adopting some clever marketing techniques. Not the kind that would see celebrities drinking the recycled water in public, but the kind that helps restructure our beliefs.

During his water study, Rozin found that 39% of participants are more willing to try recycled water if it’s held in an aquifer for a period of ten years. Some 40% admitted they’d be willing to try it after it travels a stretch of one hundred miles, as opposed to just one. For some peculiar reason, distance seems to reduce the ‘disgust’ factor.

Probably the best solution is to offer a more detailed explanation to the general public about what’s involved in the filtration process and how much the water actually has to go through before it’s considered drinkable. Of course, Bill Gates has been bragging that the Omniprocessor converts sewage and filth into drinking water in just five minutes. Could a marketing campaign that explains the water recycling process reframe our feelings of disgust? It’s possible.

Then again, maybe public appearances by celebrities really could help shed the stigma surrounding recycled water. Many of us respect Gates for the amazing things he’s done, both for the world of technology and for the modern world as a philanthropist. Watching someone like that gulp down a glass of recycled water may encourage others to give it a try.

Daniel Faris studied business and creative writing at Susquehanna University, and has been writing for a global audience ever since. He is a contributor for the London School of Economics and Political Science, and in his spare time he blogs about politics, technology, and progressive music.

Photo: Dave Millet via Flickr

Further reading:

Half of world could face extreme water scarcity by 2095

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Economy

How Going Green Can Save A Company Money

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going green can save company money
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By GOLFX

What is going green?

Going green means to live life in a way that is environmentally friendly for an entire population. It is the conservation of energy, water, and air. Going green means using products and resources that will not contaminate or pollute the air. It means being educated and well informed about the surroundings, and how to best protect them. It means recycling products that may not be biodegradable. Companies, as well as people, that adhere to going green can help to ensure a safer life for humanity.

The first step in going green

There are actually no step by step instructions for going green. The only requirement needed is making the decision to become environmentally conscious. It takes a caring attitude, and a willingness to make the change. It has been found that companies have improved their profit margins by going green. They have saved money on many of the frivolous things they they thought were a necessity. Besides saving money, companies are operating more efficiently than before going green. Companies have become aware of their ecological responsibility by pursuing the knowledge needed to make decisions that would change lifestyles and help sustain the earth’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Making needed changes within the company

After making the decision to go green, there are several things that can be changed in the workplace. A good place to start would be conserving energy used by electrical appliances. First, turning off the computer will save over the long run. Just letting it sleep still uses energy overnight. Turn off all other appliances like coffee maker, or anything that plugs in. Pull the socket from the outlet to stop unnecessary energy loss. Appliances continue to use electricity although they are switched off, and not unplugged. Get in the habit of turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. Change to fluorescent light bulbs, and lighting throughout the building. Have any leaks sealed on the premises to avoid the escape of heat or air.

Reducing the common paper waste

paper waste

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Yury Zap

Modern technologies and state of the art equipment, and tools have almost eliminated the use of paper in the office. Instead of sending out newsletters, brochures, written memos and reminders, you can now do all of these and more by technology while saving on the use of paper. Send out digital documents and emails to communicate with staff and other employees. By using this virtual bookkeeping technique, you will save a bundle on paper. When it is necessary to use paper for printing purposes or other services, choose the already recycled paper. It is smartly labeled and easy to find in any office supply store. It is called the Post Consumer Waste paper, or PCW paper. This will show that your company is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources. By using PCW paper, everyone helps to save the trees which provides and emits many important nutrients into the atmosphere.

Make money by spreading the word

Companies realize that consumers like to buy, or invest in whatever the latest trend may be. They also cater to companies that are doing great things for the quality of life of all people. People want to know that the companies that they cater to are doing their part for the environment and ecology. By going green, you can tell consumers of your experiences with helping them and communities be eco-friendly. This is a sound public relations technique to bring revenue to your brand. Boost the impact that your company makes on the environment. Go green, save and make money while essentially preserving what is normally taken for granted. The benefits of having a green company are enormous for consumers as well as the companies that engage in the process.

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Energy

5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable

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sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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