What’s a Little Water Waste Between Friends

Dear Helena,
I love cooking dinner for my friends, normally pretty casual. Since I do the cooking, my roommate does the dishes—which is great. However, when she does them she leaves the water running the whole time. So the water will be running while she's gathering other plates, putting stuff away, chatting, cleaning the countertops … it's very excessive. A few years ago I probably would have just come out and said something like, "Save some water for the fish." But over the years I have learned this can cause tension or a fight and haven't found a more graceful way of bringing it up. Do you have a suggestion on how to delicately broach this topic? I don't want to discourage her from doing the dishes or cause disruption in our otherwise peaceful coexistence.
—Concerned Conservationist

Dear Concerned Conservationist,
You're right to be concerned. Letting the water run wastes two gallons a minute, says environmental journalist Jennifer Grayson. If you live in an area that suffers from a water shortage, this is particularly selfish.

But your roommate could be committing worse offenses. According to environmental lifestyle expert Danny Seo, the biggest green blunder in the kitchen is overzealous recycling. Random bits of nonrecyclable plastic, different colors of glass—even "a cardboard pizza box … with grease or dried-on cheese"—should all be thrown in the regular trash or compost, he says. "A contaminated recyclable put into the recycling waste stream can ruin an entire load of recyclables, so when in doubt, toss it out."

Of course, everyone has different priorities when it comes to being green. For instance, I have a friend who hoards those random bits of plastic and schleps them to a local hardware store that does recycle them. But she also drives her car everywhere. We all choose when to make an effort and when to indulge ourselves. But unlike taking an extra-long hot shower or buying winter strawberries jetted in from Mexico, letting the tap run isn't a luxury. So there's no reason your roommate would mind turning it off. She may, in fact, have no idea that it's bad to leave it on, especially if you are renters and your landlord pays your water bill.

Every time I answer a letter about a sticky situation in which the writer wants to correct another's behavior, at least one reader always writes a comment to the effect that: "This is your friend/spouse/family member, so why not just be honest?" Unfortunately, honesty can often give offense—as it has with your roommate in the past. You need to be diplomatic. Using we instead of you is a little trick that will make you sound less confrontational. And begin with a compliment: "Hey, thanks so much for cleaning that lasagne pan, you always do such a good job. We should probably turn the tap off so as not to waste water."

When you ask green experts about how to change people's behavior, they say, "Make it easy." For instance, Seo says, "If someone is obsessed with wrapping everything in plastic wrap, try to invest in reusable food storage bins that are made from glass so it looks good in the refrigerator and can be immediately popped into the microwave for reheating with ease and then placed in the dishwasher to be cleaned in the greenest way." Good advice. But in this case, you could hardly make it any easier. It's not like you're asking your roommate to do anything radical and labor-intensive, like washing the dishes in rainwater or flushing the toilet only "when necessary." What could be simpler than turning off the tap?

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