When I moved to Beijing from Canada, I fancied myself an environmentalist. I’d been the head of the Environmental committee at both my high schools. I had been an activist outside of school as well and regularly attended rallies, wrote letters and campaigned for a cleaner Earth with my music. I particularly championed the water cause and wrote a song about it in 2004 called H20. So you can imagine how humbling it was when some simple water saving techniques were taught to me as a matter of course by my Chinese (then) boyfriend’s mother. The fact that I had never thought of them before was, well, embarrassing.
In the West, we are taught to put a brick in the back tank of our toilets to save water when flushing. That’s about it. It’s potable water we flush with, unless we have been smart enough to build a grey water system. But, since I hadn’t yet reached that level of domestic sophistication, the best I could do back home was to save the bath water from disappearing down the drain. Once a week, I’d use it to mop the floors.
But in our old-style apartment here in Beijing, the sink didn’t have its pipes covered in a decorative ceramic covering down to the floor (or a cabinet) like most sinks do back home. The sink’s drain funnels to an open spout that splashes the waste water down into a squared-in tiled drain area. Placing a simple bucket in this area with a scoop means that these precious drops of water aren’t lost forever. Every time you use the toilet, just scoop from the collected sink water directly into the toilet bowl and your human waste is naturally flushed down.
In addition to this trick, we have begun to catch the laundry water as well. Since Monday is laundry day, every Monday night the two bins in the laundry/bathroom downstairs are full to the brim with laundry water. We use it to mop the floors as well as to flush the toilets.When I use my "soap nuts," I also use it to water the plants.
As the volume in the buckets decreases over the next few days, all of the water from washing vegetables is added to keep it replenished.
We have two bathrooms in our apartment, so the second one uses the waste water from showers and baths, primarily. I have learned to keep an eye on which set of buckets is full before choosing which bathroom I’ll use!
In 2011, inspired by China’s water saving techniques, I wrote another song about water called "Wash Water" based specifically on the domestic saving of it—less so the political overview like the song mentioned above. That song can be found here. (Chinese version can be found here!)
Ultimately, there’s no perfect way to be an environmentalist, but my (now) in-laws have taught me that it’s the the daily personal efforts that make a real difference.
Photos by: Ember Swift & Guo Jian