Virtual water (or hidden water) use makes up the majority of our water footprint. This unseen water use includes the water it took to produce the food we eat, the products we buy, the energy we consume and even the water we save when we recycle.
Your Hidden Water Use Water Might Surprise You
Drought remains an all-too-common news story in the US but there is a silver lining. A growing number of people are curious about how they can cut back on both their water waste and their virtual water use, and in many cases, they are willing to think outside the box to do it.
Enter the water footprint.
This clever measure of direct and virtual water consumption helps people understand the many ways we all use water.
The “direct” part of a person’s water footprint is the amount of water they use in and around their home, school or office throughout the day. The hidden or “virtual” part includes the water it took to produce the food they eat, the products they buy, the energy they consume and even the water they save when they recycle. Virtual water makes up the majority of our water footprint.
As people learn about virtual water use they realize that water isn’t an infinite resource and there is plenty they can do to use water more efficiently – which benefits both the environment and their wallet.
Here are eight ways we use water virtually where we could use less and even stop wasting it.
- Food’s Virtual Water Use: The food we eat makes up the largest part of our overall water footprint – more than half, on average. The more processed foods, meat and dairy we eat, the more water we consume. Diets that include large amounts of meat, dairy and eggs generally require more water than diets that consist mainly of fruits, vegetables and grains. Similarly, diets that are made up of highly processed foods (like candy, chips and ready-made meals) require far more water than those that incorporate more whole foods like fruits and vegetables.
- Wasted Food Equals Wasted Water: About 21 percent of water used to grow food in the US is wasted because of wasted and discarded food. A 2016 report by ReFed described the amount in this way. If we grew all of our country’s wasted food in one place, “This mega-farm would cover roughly 80 million acres, over three-quarters of the state of California. Growing the food on this wasteful farm would consume all the water used in California, Texas and Ohio combined.” Ending food waste is a great way to help end water waste.
- Energy’s Virtual Water Use: Many people find it shocking that their electricity consumption factors into their water footprint, too. That’s because the nation’s power plants – nuclear and fossil fuel-fired plants in particular – use a tremendous amount of water. Many of these thermoelectric power plants rely on outdated cooling technology that withdraws millions of gallons of water daily. In all, thermoelectric power plants account for a stunning 41 percent of total water withdrawals in the United States, including both freshwater sources such as lakes, and saline water sources, such as estuaries.
- Renewable Energy Sources: Most renewable energy sources require little to no water to produce electricity. Switching to renewable energy – particularly wind and solar – can put a big dent in a personal water footprint. These technologies are becoming increasingly popular in the US. For example, rooftop solar photovoltaic system installations increased from 2020 to 2021 in the US, in spite of issues brought on by the pandemic and materials and labor shortages. Capacity across the country grew from 2.9 to 3.9 gigawatts during that time.
- Wasted Energy Equals Wasted Water: We can also waste less water by using energy more efficiently. This means doing things like converting to energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs. Conservation can also help, e.g. turning off or unplugging electronics and appliances when they’re not being used. Five to 10 percent of residential electricity use today is lost as “standby power,” feeding our plugged-in electronics and appliances when we’re not even actively using them. By plugging electrical equipment into a power strip and turning it off when it’s not in use, we can cut power to several devices – TV, DVD player, surround-sound system. Or we can use “smart” power strips which are surge protectors that cut power to other devices while a primary device is left on.
- Transportation Fuels Use Water Too: Gasoline and oil consumption are also tightly bound to water use, in drilling and extraction as well as oil refining, all of which require large quantities of water. For instance, it is estimated that the United States withdraws 1 to 2 billion gallons of water to refine nearly 800 million gallons of petroleum products every day. Driving less, driving responsibly, carpooling and using public transportation as much as possible are good ways to avoid fossil fuel use which, therefore, saves water.
- Water and Wastewater Treatment: Moving and treating water takes electricity. So does the process of moving drinking water to faucets, as well as the processes at the plants that treat water and wastewater. There is plenty of virtual water embedded in all that electricity as well. By using water more judiciously e.g., wasting less water in general and capturing rainwater for certain uses around the house and garden, we save water and electricity.
- No More Bottled Water: Even bottled water has a water footprint. The amount of water that goes into making the plastic bottle is about one and a half times more than the water inside the bottle. Want to kick the bottled water habit? Here are some helpful resources.
Hopefully, those of you who weren’t familiar with the virtual water concept before can see now why so many are interested in this subject.
Check out our other water saving tips – we have more than 100 of them.
Originally published at GRACE’s former blog Ecocentric by Kyle Rabin on 03.22.2015. Updated on 01.11.2023.