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The essence of practical sustainability

The essence of practical sustainabilityStuart Matthews

As a writer and journalist, one whose phone number seems to be in the database of every PR firm in town, you get sent a huge variety of, well, strange things.

The usual routine is that the PR executives and their clients hope that free gifts will equal free column inches. Some of these gifts are utter nonsense; as a rule of thumb good stories don't show up in chrome-plated business card holders and three-month old leatherette diaries.

Now and again, though, you get an unexpected gem. A few years ago, one of these gems changed my mind about the minefield of sustainability. It helped me to realise that, really, all people need to start behaving more sustainably is some decent information. This was back in the day when sustainability was a nice idea, not the government-legislated set of hard targets it has since become.

Back to the gift. It was a shower head. My initial reaction was one of bemusement and doubt. I put the thing in my bag and took it home, wondering what to do with it. I had a perfectly good shower head already working just fine, thanks. I read the box. Apparently, it was low-flow and I'd use loads less water.

Now, it's fair to say that I was, and still am, pretty cynical about these kinds of claims. For reasons I can't recall I, taking a leaf out of the Enlightenment, decided to engage in some observational science to test this box-side bragging.

The shower head was duly installed. Installed makes it sound tricky; it wasn't. In fact, it just screwed onto the end of the existing shower fittings. Job done. As a control, I made a quick check of my Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) bill, to see how much water I usually use in a billable month.

I live by myself in a studio apartment, so my two primary uses of water are in the bathroom and the washing machine. By comparison, the kitchen tap consumption would barely register.

The shower head definitely felt different to use. It came with an estimated water consumption figure of about six litres per minute, at a pressure of three bars. There was discernibly less water, but, while the shower felt softer, I wasn't any less clean. In a couple of days I'd gotten used to the difference, which felt pretty negligible on the whole.

A month or so later my Dewa bill shows up. Now the cost hadn't changed that much. Like I said, my apartment is small, so 75 per cent of the bill in any given month is usually the Dh300 housing fee. But I was genuinely taken aback by the change in water consumption.

In a direct comparison of one month using the old-fitting to one month using the new, my water consumption dropped from 1,067 imperial gallons to 671. This 396 gallon drop was entirely down to the new fitting, nothing else had changed.

Looked at as annual consumption, the scale of the difference comes into focus. As a result of this unusual free gift, I use some 4,752 gallons of water less each year. That's nigh on four and a half months' worth of my typical consumption, before the fitting change.

Scale this saving up to a development, or even municipal level, and we're staring down the barrel of a comfortable 25 per cent reduction in potable water usage. Such a reduction would take a considerable strain off Dewa, which, let's not forget, has to manufacture the water using desalination.

Not only would this make us feel a little greener, it would save on energy and infrastructure costs, since desalination doesn't come cheap.

The point of this is simple: a small change can make a big difference. The amount of effort on my part to affect this change was minimal and my utility — to coin an economic term — remained more or less the same. Put simply, it was easy to change the shower head and I'm still just as clean.

For me, this represents the essence of practical sustainability. Changes need to be so easy to make there's no reason not to make them. The upfront cost needs to be minimal. And finally, the benefits need to be visible, preferably quickly.

Bring all of these factors together into one idea, one product or one service, and you'll soon see practical sustainability in action. Think about that the next time you take a shower.

Source: Stuart Matthews, Special to Property Weekly

Stuart Matthews is a journalist with 16 years of experience writing about the design, construction and property sectors. He has a great personal interest in clever engineering, great design and practical sustainability. These interests go hand in hand with the business and economic drivers that make change possible