When people come over to our house, they are often confused by the large plastic pails of water on the floor in the bathrooms. Each is filled with what appears to be dirty water and, to some, it’s just that—waste water that should be dumped. The word “waste” is often synonymous with disposable—something that can be discarded. But, to be clear, this isn’t smelly water. It’s also not useless water. We use it to flush our toilets and mop the floors. Let me explain:
When I first moved to China, I was amazed at how the sinks in my apartment didn’t have drains that led to pipes that disappeared into the wall. Of course, this tenement-block compound in which I live is thirty years old, but, nevertheless, these open sink systems are still quite common throughout the country. Water from the tap falls down freely from the sink’s bottom into a square “floor” sink with raised cemented edges to avoid flooding, which act as a second catchment. Sometimes soapy water sprays against one’s bare legs in the summertime as it splashes from sink to floor. It wasn’t long before I started to understand why the sinks were designed this way.
My mother-in-law is very fierce about collecting grey water. When she came to visit us in the early days before kids, she was militant about it and I was moved by her environmentalism. Later, I realized she was actually just ardently frugal, so it was about saving money and not the Earth, but I was already a convert by then. When I saw her matter-of-factly put smaller plastic containers in the bottom drains and transfer them (when full) to the larger plastic pails in the corners of the bathrooms, it was the first time in my life I’d witnessed a simple, innovative urban water conservation system. Our shiny, ceramic-covered, pipes-disappearing-into-the-wall, Western kitchen and bathroom designs disable this for us back home. We could do it there too! We just don’t. No one does. (Well, except those installing expensive grey water systems in their enviro-homes.)
I moved to a new unit in the same compound nearly three years ago now but this time into an apartment that had been “modernized.” In our current world, you’d think household water conservation would be the most modern thing of all, but, alas, the renovated bathroom sinks didn’t have accessible drains, thus contradicting the water- and cost-saving measures I’d learned to value in the previous apartment. So, to continue the water-saving practice, I collect the water from the washing machine and top it up with water saved from washing vegetables or hair or feet. And this is all accomplished by lining the sinks with plastic containers so that the catchment happens immediately.
As Earth Day comes up every year in April, I long for my old life as an environmental activist, but these days I’m ensconced in parenting and a crazy work schedule that rockets me through time. Staying on top of everything is hard enough, so this simple water-saving thing makes me feel better. And, my kids have become experts at it. That’s something.
In fact, the other day when I casually drained the water from a can of corn, my daughter gasped and said: “Mommy, you’re wasting water!” And, she was right. I could have used it for a soup stock or something but it was too late by then. That’s the problem with imparting our ideal values to our children; they’re the first to call us to task on our less-than-ideal practices.
I suppose that’s when we really know we’re doing this parenting thing right!
This article appeared on p45 of beijingkids April 2018 issue