Thinking global, acting local: Plumbing perils and Cowspiracy

I’m still partially out of action due to newly expanded family tiredness so I hope you’ll forgive me but it’s another multiple post this time, as I’m struggling to keep to a regular posting schedule for the time being…

Plumbing perils at home

A weeks back I had one of those ‘put your money where your mouth is’ or rather ‘put your mouth where the water is’ moments that I guess are fair for a ‘water’ person, as my friends, family and colleagues typically refer to me. One of our toilet flush units failed. With young ones under my care and no ideal repair services nearby I decided to fix it myself.

Photo: A bit of a mess, mid-fix during our recent plumbing peril.
Photo: A bit of a mess, mid-fix during our recent plumbing peril.

The more I do DIY on our home I realise:

  • Building work on low budget, new build homes like ours can be really shoddy and rushed;
  • Even for a ‘new’ home, house designs, practices and technologies generally aren’t very ‘modern’ or sensible;
  • Houses should be easier for their own users to maintain, repair and enhance; and
  • Generally home fixtures and fittings are over-complicated, not built to last, and have fiddly, fragile (often cheap plastic) components.

All these observations applied to our toilet! The seal design on the flush inlet fill valve was poor, and hard to access, making a simple swap out of the rubber washer part tricky and likely to break the whole (plastic) assembly:

Photo: Our recently failed bottom entry inlet cistern filling valve (left) in our toilet. Taking the top off to replace the rubber washer proved impossible (for me at least!) so a full swap-out was necessary.
Photo: Our recently failed bottom entry inlet cistern filling valve (left) in our toilet. Taking the top off to replace the rubber washer proved impossible (for me at least!) so a full swap-out was necessary.

Where, how and presumably in what order the toilet had fitted in our bathroom also meant the side of the bath needed to come off for ever so slightly easier access, and the whole cistern had to come off the wall to allow me to be able to unscrew the inlet valve:

Photo: Problem area for our toilet repair shown in RED.
Photo: Problem area for our toilet repair shown in RED.

I was able to detach the bottom of the inlet assembly from the water supply pipe but physically couldn’t unscrew the plastic screw that mounted it to the cistern. No spanner in our house would fit and access through the inside of the cistern was impossible too. With a slightly different toilet design and more thought given the fitting placement, this whole task would have been a doddle. Instead I wasted several hours here, mainly working out how I was going to unscrew the old, failed inlet valve unit!

Thinking a bit more global from this local water-related incident, it made me think about whether passive or active technology in houses is best (after all, the passive so-called ‘flush-and-forget’ approach of most households to domestic water and sanitation infrastructure  is lamented by water companies, policymakers and academics). I remembered my colleague Prof. Kevin Anderson more than a decade ago working on an idea for houses where room functions would be rotated, season by season to fit best with the changing climate throughout the year. This would be like ‘spring cleaning’ in that you move your lounge area to the inside of the house to make it easier to keep warm in winter, then move it back towards the outside of the home in summer. This would be a seriously active, mindful and hands-on home to be in, and would increase connection to the seasons, I expect.

Anaerobic digesters for the home could be another option here – even home composting (although I’ve read up on that before and it’s surprisingly more work than most people might think to start it off and keep it going effectively). Awareness, agency and training would be necessary here of course otherwise there’s more chance of things going wrong. Our home, and many others in the UK no doubt, is quite passive – even though we have more eco-features than the average home. All our water fixtures and fittings are decidedly passive, fit-and-forget types though, in my opinion. And probably they are likely to cause us trouble in future (leaking glycol from our solar hot water I’m betting will be next) that we are not trained up to deal with. This is both disappointing and disempowering and leaves us with fewer options to manage actively the operation and maintenance of our home.

‘Cowspiracy’ on the water and carbon footprints of animal agriculture

Thinking even more globally about things that could be changed locally, last month I got the chance to see the documentary film, Cowspiracy that’s now on worldwide release on Netflix (stating the obvious, but that’s a link behind a paywall).

Photo: Cover materials for the Cowspiracy documentary. Source:
Photo: Cover materials for the Cowspiracy documentary. Source:

I’ve been interested in ‘virtual water’ or the water footprint embedded in the goods and services we consume based on how much water they consume to be produced wherever they have originated from in the world. I’ve previously co-written ‘virtual water’ materials on sustainability for engineers courses at the University of Manchester. I’ve also heard Stockholm Water Prize winner Prof. Tony Allan give a guest lecture here on his virtual water concept. I recall he said then that people giving up or eating less red meat was one of the most powerful ways to reduce our water footprints; the water footprint of rearing cows for beef products is simply that high.

Cowspiracy is not a perfect documentary or a fully satisfying watch. It has a bit of a ‘straw man’ opening and set-up for the film, with the idea that NGOs working on global sustainability issues conspire deliberately not to tackle the water and carbon footprints of animal agriculture, and instead target less controversial, more incremental transitions in say, personal water use patterns, personal waste recycling, personal transportation. Those who do tackle animal agriculture end up sued, ostracised and/or dead, Cowspiracy would have you believe. This seems a little hard to swallow but by the end of the film I did find myself quite won over and it is definitely worth a watch. Even if the NGOs in the film are not deliberately avoiding animal agriculture issues, their strategies towards it do appear to be suspect and I think there’s every reason for a prominent, global NGO to tackle these issues head on, and take a more radical ‘transition’ stance.

There’s a resource website to accompany the film and even if you don’t have the time or access to watch the documentary, it’s worth a peek. The 2009 Worldwatch Livestock and Climate Change report cited in the film is interesting – and claims that ‘livestock and their byproducts account for … 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions‘. Beyond that source the Cowspiracy infographic is a revealing summary of the film’s main points:

Photo: Cowspiracy inforgraphic. Source:
Photo: Time to go vegan! The Cowspiracy documentary resource website infographic. Source:

In a nutshell Cowspiracy claims that eating less or no meat locally would have a dramatic effect on currently unsustainable water and carbon footprints globally if enough people chose to do so. It seems like a fair point to me.

Overall the more material like this comes to my attention, the more I think a career in alternative agriculture might be a better use of my time than some of the things I currently do! (I also heard about the very low water use and flexible growing geometry characteristics of aeroponics for the first time recently due to some student work I was assessing; that sounds very promising.) Just as with our advocacy here for more radical innovation inside the water sector itself, more radical technology transitions that actively involve all of us outside of it too need a more prominent place, to lead us to a better world for both now and the future.

Duncan Thomas


  1. Cowspiracy is excellent. But not all livestock farming need be this way; when practiced extensively as a part of rotational systems it enables soil microbiology to sequestrate atmospheric CO2 into soil carbon or humus, with profound benefits for flood control and aquifer recharge.

    UK exemplar, 20 min film :
    Australian carbon farming, 46 mins :

    Cotswold soil erosion rates with conventional farming :

    … both UK agriculture and water industry is un-regulated in the public or water resources interest in respect of this …

    Wider context of regulatory failures of water industry :

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