Monthly Archives: March 2012

The true cost of our clothing

The Yangtze River. Pollution flows into this river from factories making clothes for the West. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

In July 2011, Greenpeace released a report entitled “Dirty Laundry”,  which examined hazardous water chemical wastes discharged from two large factories in China, the Youngor Textile Complex (Yangtze River Delta), and Well Dyeing Factory Limited (Pearl River Delta).

Chemicals found in the water discharged from these factories included both:

  • Alkylphenols (including nonylphenol), which are organic chemicals used in detergents, fuels and lubricants amongst other things. They are banned in the European Union due to their toxicity, persistence and ability to bioaccumulate
  • And, perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) which are persistent organic pollutants, which do not naturally degrade.

A Chinese problem you think? Well these two companies which I (and I am assuming you too) have never heard of are in fact suppliers to a number of major international brands (which I have heard of). These include:

  • Abercrombie & Fitch
  • Adidas
  • Calvin Klein,
  • Converse
  • H&M,
  • Lacoste
  • Nike
  • Puma

While these companies claim to only use the cutting and sewing faculties at these polluting plants, I would argue that by giving them their business there is a degree of irresponsibility to their actions.

 Researching this post, I discovered the term “Pollution Haven”, a theory that foreign investors are attracted to locating their company in a country with the lowest environmental standards. It seems fairly obvious to me, but I am amazed by the amount of study that has been done on this subject, a quick Google scholar search found me 139, 000 results! It’s a fascinating topic and I urge anyone who is interested in this to look further.

 I acknowledge that this report is not from an unbiased source, Greenpeace are an extreme and vocal environmental organization, and certainly not without their own faults. I am also aware that this is such a large issue, it is impossible to fully discuss in such a short post, however my aim is to introduce this topic, and give you something to think about.

 I do not aim to lambast these particular brands, only to establish a point, which is that these (and other) multibillion dollar companies have the power and ability to insist upon environmental responsibility in their supply chains. I believe that this is what we, as the consumer should demand of them.

 My suggestions? Buy locally made goods, goods produced by companies with good environmental policies, or products made in countries with strict pollution laws. We have a lot of power as consumers, and if companies do not listen to condemnation by environmental groups, they certainly will listen to the sound (or lack thereof) of declining sales.


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Ten Fascinating Facts About Water

King of the river... Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Today I had hoped to post on wastewater treatment in Dunedin, however the information available online was rather lacking as to what actually was happening with the $100 million upgrade to the Tahuna Wastewater Treatment Plant. When I called the DCC, a nice man called Guy told me there was no updated information available and to get this I would have to talk to the Wastewater Team who are currently all away enjoying the long weekend!

So I’ll put that on hold till next time, when hopefully I can provide those of you who do not know with the details as to what happens once your water disappears down the plug hole. And as for today? Im going to share with you some fascinating facts I have found about water:

1. Water can dissolve more substances than any other liquid including sulphuric acid.*

2. Plumbosolvency refers to the ability of water to dissolve heavy metals.

3. More than 25% of bottled water comes from a municipal water supply, the same place that tap water comes from.*

4. No substance other than water is naturally found on earth in the three forms: solid, liquid and gas.

5. Because water in the earth comes from a closed system, it is recycled over thousands of years. The water the dinosaurs drank millions of years ago is the same water that comes out of our tap today.

6. The Antarctic Ice sheet is the largest mass of ice on earth. It covers an area of almost 14 million square km and contains 30 million cubic km of ice. **

7. Dihydrogen monoxide is the scientific name for water, check out for a laugh.

8. Half of the world’s wetlands, our natural water filters have been lost since 1900.*** (More on wetlands to come on The Water Watch)

9. Irrigation increases yields of most crops by 100 to 400%, and irrigated agriculture currently contributes to 40 percent of the world’s food production.***

10. And finally, on a slightly different note, I was interested to find out that Hippopotamuses are only territorial in water, where a bull presides over a small stretch of river. **

I hope you learnt something new and interesting today, tune in next time for the rest of the pollution series.



** Wikipedia

***UN Water Statistics

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“It’s a dirty bird that fouls it own nest”

Agricultural pollution...Wairarapa New Zealand. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

So far I have been looking at the amount of water we use, and hopefully, managed to convey the idea that some things we do use a lot of water in a rather unsustainable way.

Luckily for us, the fresh water system is generally cyclic and renewable. However, there are some practices we as humans do, that have the potential to seriously (and irreversibly) damage the environment, and consequently harm ourselves. Today I’m going to introduce you to the issue of water pollution.

Now, this is a large topic, but arguably the main contributors to fresh water pollution are:

  • Domestic Sewage
  • Industry
  • Agriculture
  • Urban runoff

Domestic Sewage

It has to go somewhere, doesn’t it? While in New Zealand there is legislation in place regarding the treatment of your toilet bowls before it is pumped out to our rivers and oceans, many other countries are not so lucky. The United Nations  tells us the 2 million tons of human waste are disposed into water courses daily. That isn’t treated waste, or dirty water, that’s what comes out of us, and into our rivers and oceans.


Again, we are lucky to have regulations in New Zealand, but many developing countries do not. Having to treat waste before discharging it is expensive, so there is an attraction for factories to be built in places that are unregulated, therefore decreasing operating costs. Industrial processes often include by products such as PAH’s (more to come on this), oils, ores, acids, particulates (both organic and inorganic), pharmaceuticals, dyes, detergents, plastic, and more! In some places these contaminants flow out of a pipe and straight into the nearest river.


Stock effluent is high in nitrate and ammonium, and this combined with phosphate based fertilizers set up a perfect environment for eutrophication to occur. Eutrophication refers to nutrient enrichment, which typically promotes algal growth, decreases oxygen supply in the water, and damages the ecosystem. Eutophication may kill organisms including phytoplankton and fish, while toxic algae may harm humans and other large mammals (we often hear of dogs dying after they have been in contact with toxic algal blooms).

Urban Runoff

Our urban environment promotes runoff rather than infiltration, as buildings and roads create impervious surfaces requiring storm water drains to remove rain water, rather than natural processes. Heavy rain has the effect of washing away contaminants which have built up on the road surfaces. This typically includes by-products of transportation, such as petrol and oil, as well as heavy metals including copper zinc and lead.

It sounds dreadful, doesn’t it?

But really, we are in no position to vilify these polluters. We must stop and ask ourselves: Whose toilet is it that flushes into the rivers? Who buys the products from those who pump their industrial waste into waterways? Who demands cheaper produce from the supermarket? And finally, whose cars drive around the cities emitting noxious particulate pollutants?

Yes, we must take some responsibility for these issues. But! There is hope. By changing our perceptions, and telling those who make the decisions that we will not support poor environmental practices we do have the chance to put some of these wrongs right.

It is my belief that this is a very significant subject, and to gloss over it would be to do it an injustice. So, for my next few blogs, I aim to discuss each of these pollutant issues, looking at what is going wrong, and most importantly, what we can do about it.  

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Beef or Chicken?

Hamburger... (Photo source Richard Gibbard from

...Or McChicken? (Photo source Cefaclor).

I began to feel guilty after posting my last blog, as people who had read my blog and calculated their own water footprint kept getting significantly lower values than me. Do my do my friends have dubious hygiene practices I asked myself, or am I just a water criminal?

 Then I realized that all these people did have something that set them apart from me. They were vegetarians.

What it really comes down to is that farming is a very water intensive industry, and greatly contributes to global water use. There is so much that can be discussed on this issue that it could almost be its own blog, but today I’ll just pick meat production and focus on that.

It seems that often when I eat out, I am asked to choose between of beef or chicken (here I’m thinking burgers, nachos, sandwiches, and even the fajitas I had today for lunch). So I decided to compare the water input into each of these meats and see if there was a better option for all those confirmed carnivores out there.

Thankfully, all the hard work had been done for me. The article “A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products” provided plenty of information.

So where does the water go?

The vast majority of the water input into our meat is through feed for animals. This includes that water used to produce the various feed components, and the water required to mix the feed. Other water costs are the amount of water needed by animals as drinking water (a cow will drink up to 10% of its body weight per day!), and the service water needed to clean and maintain the environment. However, this study did not calculate the journey of your beef from the farm to the lovely juicy steak on your plate.

Blue Green or Grey…

Water footprints are divided into three categories, blue green or grey.

Blue water is surface and ground water consumed, and then lost to the system via evaporation. Green water is rainwater consumed, while grey water is the amount of fresh water required to assimilate pollutants released in the process. In this study, only the effect of nitrogen fertilization has been taken into account, so in reality, the grey water impact is likely to be higher, with effects of animal wastes playing a large part.

There is some bad news for NZ. Grazing systems actually require more water than mixed or industrial systems (indoors rather than outdoors, feeding concentrate rather than roughage).

However, industrial beef systems use more blue and grey water, while grazing uses far more green water. But… this varies from country to country, with US cattle grazing largely on maize (which is irrigated and fertilized) resulting in a higher blue and grey water proportion than a system where cattle graze on grass (eg. NZ).

In terms of chicken farming, it appears that industrial farming (think cage) unfortunately has a smaller blue and grey water foot print than grazing (aka free range) systems.

The bright side for us though is that water pollution and problems are generally due to blue water scarcity and water pollution, which are far more of a problem in industrial farming systems (such as the US) than grazing systems such as we have in NZ. However, demand for meat is rising, and this will result in intensification of farming systems, leading to more use of blue and grey water, rather than more renewable green water.

So… what to choose?

Water footprint per ton (m3/ton)

Green Blue Grey Total
Chicken  3,545 313 467 4,325
Pig 4,907 459 622 5,988
Sheep/goat 8,253 457 53 8,763
Beef 14,414 550 451 15,415

I’ll leave the final choice up to you, but as for me the obvious answer is chicken.

Hopefully now we will all be feeling a little better informed when it comes to deciding what kind of burger to choose next time you feel like McDonalds. However, there are many other considerations that complicate the matter, including animal welfare, health, hormones, ethics and more.

To conclude today, I’ll leave you with this fact…

37% of American food related foot print is made up from meat. If all dietary meat was replaced with crop products, there would be a 30% reduction in the water foot print of the average America.

For all us carnivores out there, that really is something worth pondering.


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Our water footprints

My first blog began by asserting how scarce and precious freshwater really is, so before tackling some of the large scale issues relating to mismanaged water use, I thought I’d start at the bottom. With you. Before pointing our fingers at large scale industry and agriculture, we need to examine our own personal water use, and how extravagantly we use this resource without even thinking about it.

After a quick Google search  I came across the webpage of the Water Footprint Network, a  “dynamic, international learning community… a platform for connecting diverse communities interested in sustainability, equitability and efficiency of water use.”

This is a fascinating group, made up of a large list of partners from wide ranging international backgrounds, comprises of academic institutions (including our very own Massey University), government agencies, non-governmental organisations, businesses (Nestle, McCain, Heineken amongst others) and international organisations (including UNEP and WWF). The site also contains a long list of publications, from books, peer reviewed journals, conference and corporate publications.

After a few minutes of browsing through the website, I was hooked. I was quickly able to ascertain my personal water foot print, using both the quick method (looking at the average water footprint of a female meat eater in my country) and the extended one, which examined my personal habits. Unfortunately New Zealand wasn’t on the list of countries, and for the purpose of this exercise I became an Australian.

For those who are unsure, your water footprint is: the amount of water it takes to produce the goods and services you as an individual consume.

It turns out that my water footprint is 1172 cubic meters per year (based on my rough- and probably highly inaccurate- estimates of the foods I eat). It seems that a big influence on our water foot print is our gross yearly income. It’s heartening to know that there are some bright sides to being a poor student!

So how do I compare to everyone else? (In m3/yr per capita)

  • USA: 2842
  • Australia: 2315
  • Brazil: 2027
  • Denmark: 1635
  • Thailand: 1407
  • Global average: 1385
  • Egypt: 1341
  • Kenya: 1101
  • China: 1071

After browsing through the different countries I began to suspect that my estimates had indeed been rather too conservative, however I was pleased to see that China, so often  a target for criticism over  poor environmental practices, had such a low footprint.

So how much water does it take to produce the things we consume? I checked on some of my staples to see how they stacked up…

  • Beef: 15, 415L per kg
  • Beer: 74L per 200ml glass
  • Coffee: 130L per 1 cup of coffee
  • Chocolate: 1700L per 100g bar
  • Cheese: 3178L per kg
  • Milk: 255L per 250ml glass
  • Potatoes: 287L per kg
  • Tea: 27L per 250ml cup
  • Wine: 109L per 125ml glass

So clearly the worst offender is meat (which I don’t think is news to anyone), but it does amaze me that it takes almost 2000L of water to produce a chocolate bar!

So why should we care how much water we use? I really don’t think I could say this as well as The Water Footprint Network who state:

Freshwater is a scarce resource; its annual availability is limited and demand is growing. The water footprint of humanity has exceeded sustainable levels at several places and is unequally distributed among people… The water footprint helps to show the link that exists between our daily consumption of goods and the problems of water depletion and pollution that exist elsewhere, in the regions where our goods are produced

I found this a good reminder that there are things I could personally be doing in the interests of conservation and sustainability, such as:

  • Eat less meat, or cut it out all together
  • Drink tea rather than coffee, beer rather than wine
  • Buy local: transport fuel uses a huge amount of water
  • Replace cotton clothes with artificial fibres (cotton is a very water intensive crop)
  • Reuse water on the garden, or collect rainwater

For more information, I would definitely recommend taking a look at the Water Footprint Network website, and having a go at calculating your own water footprint. It’s interesting and accessible, and this movement is commendable for their effort, and commitment to environmental sustainability.


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So why blog about water?

These Somalian villagers collect water that has been trucked in by Oxfam. Due to a severe drought, this is their only water supply. Each person get approximatly 7.5 liters per day, well less than the UN's estimate of daily water requirements. Source: Oxfam East Africa.

For us as humans water is vital. The United Nations estimate that a person need at the very least, 20 litres of water per day for drinking, cooking and cleaning. However, 894 million people worldwide (one in six) do not have access to safe, fresh water.

In the developed world this is little more than a sobering statistic, clean, drinkable water pours from a tap. But in third world nations 1.5 million children die per year from illnesses because they either can’t access water at all, or the little they can lacks even the most basic sanitation.

Yet even if we were to provide sanitation to every person in Sub Saharan Africa, we would still be faced with many unresolved issues surrounding water.

To begin with, there is physical scarcity. It may look as if there is water all around, but of the total 1.4 billion km3 of water (both fresh and salty) contained on earth, less than 1% is available for use by humans and freshwater ecosystems. The majority of the unavailable freshwater is trapped as ice and snow, while the difference is made up of groundwater, soil water, and atmospheric water.*

This leaves us 13, 000 km3 of fresh water, spread unevenly across the globe. In New Zealand we are lucky to have a surplus of this precious resource, while our neighbours across the Pacific are often challenged by drought, forcing them to restrict water use, and raising grave concerns for the future.

If we throw the looming threat of climate change into the equation, things become more fraught and uncertain. With summer ice and glacier melt being a huge source of water to millions of people, the loss of alpine glaciers is likely to have a devastating effect.

And the part that I find most frustrating? Despite all these challenges, New Zealand is both economically and geographically blessed when it comes to fresh clean water. Yet this is a stroke of luck we use and abuse.

A study conducted in 2009, which tested rivers across North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, found that the Manawatu River (located in the central North Island) was one of the most polluted rivers in the study. The Manawatu is contaminated with treated sewage, industrial waste and agricultural runoff.  This is a sad fact indeed for New Zealand.

With such a range of issues, from poverty to scarcity, climate change to wilful damage, there is a lot for me to discuss about water. But when it really comes down to it, I guess my motivation is the fact that freshwater is a relevant topic for every single person on the planet.

*Statistics from United Nations Water


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