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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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2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage

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Natural Disaster Damage
Shutterstock / By Droidworker | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/droidworker

Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.

Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.

Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each

The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.

Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.

Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.

That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.

Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.

Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.

Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.

The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.

Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity

Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.

Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.

Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight

The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.

The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.

2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded

People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.

Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.

Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.

Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.

Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.

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Environment

How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018

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eco-responsible
Shutterstock / By KENG MERRY Paper Art | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/kengmerrymikeymelody

Nowadays, more and more people are talking about being more eco-responsible. There is a constant growth of information regarding the importance of being aware of ecological issues and the methods of using eco-friendly necessities on daily basis.

Have you been considering becoming more eco-responsible after the New Year? If so, here are some useful tips that could help you make the difference in the following year:

1. Energy – produce it, save it

If you’re building a house or planning to expand your living space, think before deciding on the final square footage. Maybe you don’t really need that much space. Unnecessary square footage will force you to spend more building materials, but it will also result in having to use extra heating, air-conditioning, and electricity in it.

It’s even better if you seek professional help to reduce energy consumption. An energy audit can provide you some great piece of advice on how to save on your energy bills.

While buying appliances such as a refrigerator or a dishwasher, make sure they have “Energy Star” label on, as it means they are energy-efficient.

energy efficient

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By My Life Graphic

Regarding the production of energy, you can power your home with renewable energy. The most common way is to install rooftop solar panels. They can be used for producing electricity, as well as heat for the house. If powering the whole home is a big step for you, try with solar oven then – they trap the sunlight in order to heat food! Solar air conditioning is another interesting thing to try out – instead of providing you with heat, it cools your house!

2. Don’t be just another tourist

Think about the environment, as well your own enjoyment – try not to travel too far, as most forms of transport contribute to the climate change. Choose the most environmentally friendly means of transport that you can, as well as environmentally friendly accommodation. If you can go to a destination that is being recommended as an eco-travel destination – even better! Interesting countries such as Zambia, Vietnam or Nicaragua are among these destinations that are famous for its sustainability efforts.

3. Let your beauty be also eco-friendly

eco-friendly

Shutterstock / By Khakimullin Aleksandr

We all want to look beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes (or very often) it comes with a price. Cruelty-free cosmetics are making its way on the world market but be careful with the labels – just because it says a product hasn’t been tested on animals, it doesn’t  mean that some of the product’s ingredients haven’t been tested on some poor animal.

To be sure which companies definitely stay away from the cruel testing on animals, check PETA Bunny list of cosmetic companies just to make sure which ones are truly and completely cruelty-free.

It’s also important if a brand uses toxic ingredients. Brands such as Tata Harper Skincare or Dr Bronner’s use only organic ingredients and biodegradable packaging, as well as being cruelty-free. Of course, this list is longer, so you’ll have to do some online research.

4. Know thy recycling

People often make mistakes while wanting to do something good for the environment. For example, plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, paper coffee cups and shredded paper cannot be recycled in your curb for many reasons, so don’t throw them into recycling bins. The same applies to pizza boxes, household glass, ceramics, and pottery – whether they are contaminated by grease or difficult to recycle, they just can’t go through the usual recycling process.

People usually forget to do is to rinse plastic and metal containers – they always have some residue, so be thorough. Also, bottle caps are allowed, too, so don’t separate them from the bottles. However, yard waste isn’t recyclable, so any yard waste or junk you are unsure of – just contact rubbish removal services instead of piling it up in public containers or in your own yard.

5. Fashion can be both eco-friendly and cool

Believe it or not, there are actually places where you can buy clothes that are eco-friendly, sustainable, as well as ethical. And they look cool, too! Companies like Everlane are very transparent about where their clothes are manufactured and how the price is set. PACT is another great company that uses non-GMO, organic cotton and non-toxic dyes for their clothing, while simultaneously using renewable energy factories. Soko is a company that uses natural and recycled materials in making their clothes and jewelry.

All in all

The truth is – being eco-responsible can be done in many ways. There are tons of small things we could change when it comes to our habits that would make a positive influence on the environment. The point is to start doing research on things that can be done by every person and it can start with the only thing that person has the control of – their own household.

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