Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Paper Plate Conundrum

It's been all over the local news this week that the town of Cambria -- a seaside village nestled next to one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world -- is going to run out of water sometime next month. Their well water has dropped to historically low levels during our drought, and they are getting down to the dregs of their little aquifer as we speak.

About two hours east of Cambria, in the Sierra Foothills, the town of Porterville is also at least partly dry.  Approximately 20 percent of the households in the town of 55,000 now lacks running water, due to declining water levels underground and, again, dry wells.

So far here at the homestead, we are OK on water, our taps still flow and we're still able to irrigate our crops and water our livestock.  But the neighbors across the street have had their well run dry, and are having to truck water in. How much longer can our good fortune last?  I don't know.

 But I've started to wonder if we should, like our Cambrian neighbors to the west of us, begin to take more drastic measures to cut down on water usage.

You see, since this water crisis, everyone in Cambria has switched to using paper plates and plastic utensils for dining.  But eating off paper plates is an environmental conundrum. On the one hand, there is no question that by the Cambria locals doing this in their homes, they are saving a precious local resource, which is water.  On the other hand, it takes energy (including water, but not local water) to manufacture anything like a paper plate, it takes gasoline and oil to ship a package of paper plates to the store, and it takes even more gasoline and oil to have the trash man come and pick up all those paper plates every Wednesday, once they're used and discarded, and ship it all to the dump.  Plus of course, it will take several years to break down in a landfill.

I used to hate paper plates and what they represented, until a last summer, when we were forced to use them for a couple of months whilst remodeling our kitchen. We broke them out once we had no running water in the kitchen and used them instead of regular dishes when we dined in.  

I hated it and felt very guilty, but when the electricity bill came in, I was shocked. It turned out we used a lot less electricity when we did not run our dishwasher, and used less propane when we were not using as much hot water to wash dishes in. Which meant conservation, but at the cost described above. We saved gasoline, oil and other western resources in using less electricity, but, then again, more of those same resources from probably other regions by using paper plates.

I think as climate change progresses, you are going to see similar conundrums, where people have to choose between what works locally for them and what we've traditionally seen as conservation strategies. Paper plates are probably the bane of the tree-saving crowd, but the messiah of the water-saving crowd. Growing local food to eat is great until local water becomes scarce, and then buying produce from the market actually saves your own water for other lifesaving purposes, like drinking.  

It's a very sad tale of hard choices, and if this drought persists here in the west and climate change alters living habits elsewhere, there may be a lot more of them to come.


  1. That is downright scary. I never imagined people would have to live without running water. I can't imagine having to take such drastic measures. I agree with you. Environmentalism cannot mean the same thing in every neighborhood. It must be customized and prioritized depending on that area's needs. I'm not keen on paper plates either. But if it came to deciding between washing my hands after preparing a chicken, or washing a plate--I would switch to paper in a flash. What a sad state of affairs. I so hope you all get a wet winter.

    1. Thanks. I think everyone in the state is praying for that right now. I sure hope we do, too.