Chances are that you have probably heard of the importance of conserving water. Dozens of governmental and non-governmental organizations have orchestrated campaigns trying to convince the average person to reduce the amount of water that they use. From high efficiency laundry machines to shower heads that are in line with the current national energy policy act standard, most advocacy for conserving household water use focuses on having us use less water.
While reducing the amount of water we use is undoubtedly important, reutilizing water is a strategy and approach that is very rarely considered. Greywater recycling constitutes a way to reuse the water that goes down our drains. When done correctly, it comprises no danger to human health while also leading to greater ecological resiliency.
What is greywater and how much of it do we use every day?
Every day most people send hundreds of gallons of greywater into sewer and septic systems. Greywater, or the water from our sinks, showers, dishwasher and laundry machines, differs from black water (from toilets) and contains mostly soap residues. This water can easily be recycled into the landscape allowing for an extra water source and source of fertility. Even in the driest regions, greywater recycling can allow you to create an oasis from the water you normally waste.
In places like California and the desert southwest, we read headlines almost on a monthly basis of how severe drought is causing problems for households. People are advised to take shorter showers and stop watering their lawn, but virtually no attention is given to what to do with the water that does go down our drains.
It is estimated that between 60% and 80% of residential waste water is wash water that comes from our dish washer, sinks, showers, tubs, and washing machines. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the average American family uses 400 gallons of water per day, around 280 gallons of which is most likely from greywater sources.
In one year alone, then, a typical American family allows over 100,000 gallons of water to go down the drain, both literally and figuratively.
Is it safe to irrigate with greywater?
One of the reasons that the majority of water conservation advocacy efforts are focused on reducing water use is because the idea of reusing our sink water is stomach-turning to many people. Those of us who live in the industrialized world have come to think that the only sanitary way to deal with our waste is to have it taken as far away as possible from us.
Our trash is picked up weekly by large trucks and dumped somewhere usually dozens of miles from our homes. Similarly, the black water and greywater from our homes is either buried deep underground in a septic system or shuttled through pipes to a distant water treatment plant.
Taking direct responsibility for our waste requires us to question the myths and assumptions our industrial culture has created about the potential pathogens and health dangers of our waste. It also requires a greater sense of responsibility that comes from grounding our lives and livelihoods in place and actively participating in how our wastes are reincorporated back into the natural ecosystem in a healthy and safe manner.
Greywater recycling systems, when set up correctly, are safe and pathogen free. Greywater most likely contains dirt, hair, food leftovers, soap residues and other household cleaning products that do not pose any sort of significant health risk on their own.
While many under developed countries without sewer system infrastructure may simply send their greywater into streets where the water stagnates and harmful bacteria and pathogens can flourish, a proper greywater recycling system sends this water into the top soil where plants can utilize the water and nutrients and erase any potential health risk. The soap residues that come with greywater are a healthy and abundant source of phosphates, one of the main nutrients that all plants need. The soap from your dishes , laundry, and showers, instead of simply filling a sewer or septic tank, will bring added nutrients to the plants growing around your home.
It is estimated that there are over eight million grey water systems in the US alone and there has not been one documented case of grey water transmitted illness. Instead of throwing away a potential source of water and fertilizer for your garden or plants, it makes much more sense to recycle that water into the ecosystem.
Some methods for greywater recycling
The best way to recycle your greywater is to move that water from your sinks, tubs, and washing machines into the top soil where the roots of flowers, fruit trees, and other plants can reuse the nutrients and excess water while getting rid of any potential pathogens that can develop from stored or stagnated greywater.
While many companies and consultants may design complex greywater recycling systems with electric pumps and intricate piping systems, a general rule of thumb with any greywater system is: the simpler the better. More complex systems can lead to the pooling and stagnation of water should any of the many parts fail.
A simple greywater recycling system is to connect a hose or pipe that runs directly from your sinks, tubs, or washing machines to a small orchard or flower garden around your home. If you live in a wet area where you fear that excess irrigation could cause problems for your plants, flowers, or trees, simply digging a basin around each tree can help with water infiltration.
In the dry season or during extended droughts, this water source allows you to grow an authentic oasis around your home without wasting fresh water sources. If you have several greywater outlets in your home, you can dig a series of small basins around the plants, fruit trees, and flowers that you will be irrigating. By using a regular garden hose to move your greywater from your home to the landscape, you can easily move those hoses to different plants or trees if you see the ground around those plants getting waterlogged.
If you dislike the idea of continually moving exposed greywater hoses around your yard, you can bury those pipes or hoses and develop a planting plan following from which basins will receive the most water. For example, your bathroom sink will generate much less greywater than your washing machine, so it makes sense to plant water loving plants such as elderberry, cattails, or calla lilies where your washing machine drains to.
If you generate large volumes of greywater, you might also consider building a greywater wetland. While this option requires more investment of time, energy, and resources, it is perhaps the best way to purify and reutilize large amounts of greywater.
How greywater recycling leads to healthier ecosystems and nicer homesteads
Any healthy ecosystem needs an abundant and steady supply of freshwater for irrigation purposes. For us human beings to effectively become a contributing part of the ecosystems where we live, we need to learn how to recycle our wastes into the natural environment in a way that contributes to the overall health and functioning of that environment.
The water that we use in our homes can and should contribute to the ecological health of our places. The excess nitrates and phosphates from the soaps we use can constitute vital nutrients for the plants that grow around our homes. The water can sustain these plants in times of stress from prolonged droughts and even extend the growing season.
Our homes, instead of looking brown and drab because of municipal prohibitions of lawn watering due to droughts, will look like an eternal oasis of healthy, green plants.
Using less water is important, but so reutilizing and recycling the water that does go down our drains. Recycling the greywater from our homes is an easy way to contribute to the health of our local ecosystem while growing quality fruits, flowers and other plants. If you are interested in learning more about how to recycle your greywater, Brad Lancaster has written a three-volume book on Rainwater Harvesting and dedicates many chapters to discussing the different ways to recycle greywater into the immediate landscape around your home.