In my design course, when discussing sustainability, I make the point that the average consumer is grossly mis-calibrated about his or her environmental footprint. For instance, many of us self-righteously eschew styrofoam coffee cups but routinely fly across the U.S. I calculate that one round-trip flight in an efficient jet consumes the equivalent fossil fuel as producing 250,000 styrofoam cups…PER PASSENGER! If we avoided one full airplane flight (holding say 400 passengers), we would save the footprint of roughly 100 million styrofoam cups.
Similar mis-calibration is playing out for California emergency water policies. For instance, the state has mandated that restaurants only serve drinking water upon request. Huh? Let’s do the math. This is how many glasses of water (at 8 oz / 250 ml each) are embodied in the creation, production, and distribution of other items on the restaurant’s menu.
a glass of beer = 300 glasses of water
a pat of butter = 500 glasses of water (no kidding)
a cup of coffee = 600 glasses of water
a slice of pizza = 630 glasses of water
a bowl of rice = 1000 glasses of water
a “quarter pound” burger = 7000 glasses of water
These calculations are rounded global average values (using some arithmetic) from the very interesting website Waterfootprint.org
You can see the lunacy of displacing water with, for instance, beer (at least from the standpoint of water conservation). Of course not all of these items are produced in California (e.g., coffee), but many are. Serving water on request is a symbolic gesture, and maybe it will build awareness, but it masks the fact that most water consumption is embodied in the goods we consume. Even just one person eating pizza instead of a burger would let more than 6000 diners enjoy a glass of water guilt free.