How did you start your day this morning? First, I hope that well. Second, I guess that you did at least one of these: made yourself a coffee, brushed your teeth or took a shower. And to assume this, I don’t have to be particularly good in guessing. This is how millions of people start their day. But these activities have more in common. All of them would be either significantly different or even impossible without water running out of our taps. Luckily, clean drinking water is an infinite resource. Or isn’t it?
Just three days after having moved to Zurich, I moved again, this time only within city borders. I left a friend’s couch for a hostel to participate in ETHWeek. This 6-days event is a part of ETH Critical Thinking Initiative and made for very intensive start of my semester. Each year, it has a different theme, last year this was food, and this year it was all about water: the ways how it challenges us and also the ways how we can challenge the current status-quo.
The first two days of the program were concentrated on acquiring information, making sense of it and building our own perspective. Several inspiring speakers from research institutes and NGOs made their appearance on stage in rapid succession, highlighting five key challenges, one of which we were to address. During the first day we also visited sites of local agents that are, in one way or other, dealing with water and trying to offer their solutions to protect the environment or save costs. Ideally both at the same time, of course.
Having got the feel of what the current problems locally and globally are, we were ready to start working on solving them. In a team where none of us had any significant previous knowledge of the topic and in only three days. It felt like a sequel to Mission Impossible and failure was guaranteed. This was on one hand discouraging, on the other hand, it offered and unexpected freedom. We were not trying to save the world nor beat the other 18 teams anymore. We were just working hard and having fun.
At the end of the week our team came up with an idea how to save roughly 20% of clean water that gets used in a common household. This would be enabled by using so called “grey water” from your shower for flushing your toilet. Because, and this was shocking to us, an average European uses 50 liters of clean drinking water for showering and another 50 liters for flushing the toilet every day. This amounts to 2/3 of her direct daily water consumption.
“… an average European uses 50 liters of clean drinking water for showering and another 50 liters for flushing the toilet every day.”
Does flushing with used water sound like a trivial idea to you? Well that’s because it is. And don’t you wonder now why you still flush your toilet with drinking water? It is because innovating our bathrooms is extremely challenging. It is a very constrained environment; moreover, it may well be one of the first things ever to get “connected”. The water and sanitation system we use these days is conceptually almost identical with the one that was put into use more than 2500 years ago in ancient Rome. And therefore any change that is to be made must take into account the way it may affect the whole system.
These all are important hurdles, but there may be one even more significant. We may be willing to give a new smartphone a try, we may spend a month in a different country every summer, but we are generally very reluctant to make significant changes to something so personal as our bathroom. Moreover, it somehow goes without saying for us that water is an infinite resource and there is also no important financial rationale that would persuade more consumers to rethink the way they use water.
The idea that technical progress is going to offer solutions to many of our problems is widely accepted. Of course we may not have the solutions right now, but they are well on their way! Don’t worry! This corresponds well with how much effort gets invested into pursuing technical innovations. And these are, more often than not, only very incremental. But when it comes to something so ordinary as our bathrooms we already have all the means to start rethinking it. But we don’t, because it is uncomfortable. In this case, more than new technical solutions, we need to find a new perspective.
Being an engineering student, this was the most important personal outcome of the week. Something that will probably influence the way I think about where I put my time and effort in the future. And how about you? How much you are confident of engineering or scientific solutions? Do you have some doubts? And if you do, does this get to play out in your actions?
I am not asking to make you feel awkward. Rather to spur your interest and get you thinking. It may very well be you who helps a needed new perspective to take off, be it in your family, among your friends or anywhere else.
In the next blog post you can look forward to the impressions after my first month of studies at ETH. What makes one feel good here? Which things are annoying, and most importantly is it fun?.
Here you can find out more about me.
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