Econundrum: 5 Handi-Wipes or Hot Shower?

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 5:50 AM EST

This question comes by way of Mother Jones board member Jon Pageler, who's currently helping with the relief effort in Haiti, where water is in short supply. But I've heard of folks taking waterless showers in non-emergency situations, too. Last year, for example, People reported that that Brad Pitt sometimes cleans up with baby wipes. Granted, Pitt does it to save time between scene changes on the set. But considering that showers comprise 17 percent of indoor residential water use in the US, could bathing with wipes be better for the planet, too?

Probably not, says Jonathan Kaledin, a water conservation expert at the Nature Conservancy. "You have to consider all the water it takes to make the handi-wipes," says Kaledin. "The wipes, the chemicals—it all adds up." The Water Footprint Network, a water conservation nonprofit based in the Netherlands, estimates that growing the wood to make a single sheet of paper requires 2.6 gallons of water. That's already 13.2 gallons for 5 sheets of paper—and that's just the wood. By the time you figure in the water costs associated with the manufacture of the paper, producing the solution the wipes are soaked in, and packaging and shipping the wipes, you're looking at significantly more water (and energy, for that matter) than a five-minute shower, which, if you're using a low-flow showerhead, requires only about 10 gallons of water.

Under extenuating circumstances—disasters that jeopardize water supply, or even regional droughts—wipes might still be a better choice, says Kaledin. But as a general rule, a short shower is a better bet than wipes. Especially if you bathe efficiently: Keep the heat down to save energy. Turn the water off while you soap up. And if you haven't already installed a low-flow shower head, do it now—it'll save as much as 15 gallons of water per shower, not to mention moola on your water bill.

Shopping tip: Showerheads bearing the EPA's WaterSense label are about 20 percent more efficient than their conventional counterparts.