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Patagonia Employees’ My Footprint Series: Learning by Osmosis

Patagonia  /  August 21, 2009  /  4 Min Read  /  Our Footprint

Series intro: The “My Footprint” series shares the stories of Patagonia friends and employees who have been inspired by The Footprint Chronicles, and whose inspiring lives help fuel the vision of what we can do as a company.

Their stories are offered here, glimpses of individual footprints spotted along the path toward positive change. We invite you to enjoy these personal accounts, and share your own in the Comments section included with these posts.

My wife and I turned a blind eye for a long time to the rainbows swirling in our coffee mugs as we sipped in the morning light. They looked kinda cool, but we knew their cause was probably not. We could see a film on top of the water that reminded me of the gutter puddles my sister and I used to stomp in when it rained where we grew up in Los Angeles. The water also had a slightly funky taste and silky texture, regardless of whether it ran through a Britta filter.

For a couple years we shrugged it off, telling ourselves it was probably from the hard water in the area. Articles in the local Ventura County Star suggested the area’s water quality was okay, despite an occasional “musty or earthy taste and smell” from the seasonal migration of algae in the reservoir. I surely appreciate the rhythms of nature, and even a bit of earth and must in my cuisine, but it was more difficult to brush aside our doubts about the pipes in the early 20th century house we were renting, complete with built-in ironing board and dumbwaiter in the kitchen, and our kind-but-parsimonious landlord.

It was a plus sign on a pregnancy test that finally pushed my wife into action. And one day she came home with the perfect solution – renting a reverse osmosis (RO) system. It would only cost 28 dollars a month and renting would cost less than buying one and changing filters ourselves overtime and a man would come to our house and install it and, and, and….that was how we ended up with a new RO system.

The first glass tasted so good going down. And there were the environmental benefits of not using (okay, not seeing) those carbon Britta filters that get trashed. Plus there was no plastic pitcher! The water went straight from faucet to cup, just like it had for millennia (at least). So we never looked back, knowing that not only were we getting good tasting water, but saving the planet.

As much as I’d like to say this was the end of the story, one day at work, I noticed my colleague filling up with an RO system our work recently installed. I smiled, winked and nudged, convinced that he knew what I knew – we could rest self righteously knowing we were both doing our share, cup by cup, to save the planet. Instead of picking up my cue, he said, “Do you know how much water these waste?” I think my breath may have stopped: He was calling into question the holy grail of water.

“What do you mean?”

“Yeah, for every liter of water produced, four liters are supposedly wasted.”

“That can’t be right. The water goes in, the water comes out. How’s it wasted?”

“I’m not sure, but check it out.”

And like that he was gone, leaving me all alone with my guilt and uncertainty. I went onto the computer, sure he was wrong, but there it was, glaring at me like a blinking red traffic light – seemingly millions of posts lambasting the “RO scam.” Consumers complained about skyrocketing water bills after installation, activists grumbled about aggravating existing problems in the arid West, and landlords complained about the selfishness of those who didn’t have to pay for their water. There were other rants about the scam of purified water in general, and how drinking too much water can cause hyponatremia anyway.

I panicked, knowing I would never convince my wife, now in the throes of morning sickness and drinking more water than ever. I looked for an alternative. Sure enough, there it was – the “zero waste RO system.” Ha! Why was I even worried? After briefly savoring the sweet taste of vindication, I paused, remembering what happened before – I would not get hurt again.

A few reluctant keystrokes later and a call to the company that made the zero waste system for Costco and I found out that there would be no technological fix to my problem – they were not compatible with houses that had tankless (and energy efficient, I might add) water heaters, like ours. The water normally wasted in a regular RO system gets sent into the water tank to be reused in a zero waste system. Discouraged, I put my search on hold.

A few days later, I bumped into the same colleague near the same water cooler, and told him about my dilemma. He offered consolation, telling me that not only does he drive miles to fill up plastic bottles of water at his local dispensary, but that the water was probably purified by RO as well.

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