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Eco-labels for loos: helping consumers to stop water – and their hard-earned cash – going down the toilet

October 30th, 2013

The European Commission is preparing to propose an eco-label for toilets and urinals, based on the amount of water that they use to flush. This will be a voluntary thing. It is not “regulating toilets”, as some claimed.

Predictably, any news story involving the juxtaposition of the EU and toilets was an opportunity for certain newspapers to trot out some puns. As ever, the Sun came up with some decent ones – “loo couldn’t make it up”, “bog standard” and more. The Express joined in with “loo rules are panned”. The Telegraph characteristically had a more sober piece talking about the “economical flushing of lavatories”.

No problem having a bit of fun with that – this story was always going to pull the media’s chain, flush out some eurosceptic rhetoric and so on ad infinitum.

But the serious accusation that this is somehow “flushing away taxpayers’ cash” on a trivial issue is out of order.

This is all about helping consumers –largely the same people as taxpayers – to stop flushing away the massive amounts of cash that are going down their toilets right now and have been for many years.

Not to mention saving huge amounts of water, a crucial and scarce resource – sometimes even in the UK, where as recently as last year there was a drought that led to compulsory water saving measures.

There is nothing “trivial” about 30% of total household water consumption in the UK. That is the proportion that flushing toilets accounts for. Much of this water use is unnecessary.

So an eco-label can help buyers choose loos that will save water and money.

Different labelling measures already exist for things like washing machines and dishwashers and it is perfectly logical to take steps to help people buy more efficient toilets.

In a single market where products are being sold across borders, this is best done at EU level.
Even just the direct and relatively short-term savings are potentially huge.

A study (full report here, zip file) overseen by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre estimates that even with only 10% market penetration for eco-label toilets, the cumulative savings for households alone across the EU would exceed £330 million (EUR 388.5 million). With 20% market penetration, that figure would roughly double. Pro-rata that would mean roughly £70 million in the UK, with at least as much again saved by non-household users.

As a comparison, the cost of the study which underpinned drawing up these measures was under £80 000.

Calculations of the potential direct and indirect savings over a longer period are by definition very rough. The speed and extent of take up of the eco-label by both manufacturers and consumers – and the knock-on effect of pressure on all manufacturers to reduce water consumption, as well as a whole series of other factors – are difficult to predict.

But overall potential savings from more efficient toilets and urinals EU wide, even using a very conservative 20% figure for the amount of water that could be saved, amount to more than 1.3 billion m³/year of water in domestic buildings – or 6,600 litres per average household – and 1.8 billion m³ in non-domestic buildings.

That total of 3.1 billion m³ would mean a value of around £ 10 billion/EUR 11.5 billion across the EU, assuming an average overall water price – including all sewage and standing charges and other fees – of EUR 3.7 per m³.

Even using a lower and very conservative £1.80/ m³ figure based on current UK household prices for metred water – including sewage charges but not including standing charges, etc – and assuming pro-rata savings in the UK, that would mean £276 million for UK households and over £300 billion for non-household use.

In fact, the potential for savings from more efficient flushing in the UK may be even greater, given the relatively high proportion of UK water use accounted for by flushing, though there are also other factors involved.

These figures for how much water and money could be saved by more efficient loos are very rough. But what is certain is that the amounts involved are huge.

The bottom line is that while a pun is (almost) always fun, cutting the amount of water used when toilets are flushed is a serious issue that fully merits the work being done on it at EU level.

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Please note that all statements in all entries were correct on the date of publication given. However, older archived posts are not systematically updated in the light of later developments, for example changes to EU law.

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