Strange but true: Items hold gallons of hidden water


Q: How much "hidden water" is there in a hamburger, a cup of coffee, a piece of chocolate?

A: That's the water used to produce consumer items not typically thought of as containing water, says Stephen Emmott in "Ten Billion." Take a hamburger, for example. By the time the cow is fed and processed as meat, it takes almost 800 gallons of water to produce that one burger. With roughly 21 billion burgers eaten each year in the U.S., that's 16 trillion gallons of water!

Other heavy "hidden water" items include coffee, chocolate, cotton and the many products with semiconductor chips. For a cup of coffee, 26 gallons of water are used, even before any water has actually been added. Worldwide, two and a quarter billion cups of coffee are consumed every year. Also, it takes about 7,000 gallons of water to produce one kilogram of chocolate, or roughly 304 gallons of water per Hershey bar.

"This should surely be something to think about while you're curled up on the sofa eating one in your cotton pajamas," adds Emmott. The pajamas require 2,300 gallons of water to produce.

And irony of ironies, something like four liters of water are needed to produce a one-liter plastic bottle for water. In 2011, Americans averaged about 222 bottles of water per capita, or approximately 70 billion bottles total. Finally, it takes about 19 gallons of water to produce one of the "chips" that typically powers a car, GPS, laptop, phone, iPad, TV, microwave, camera -- with probably about three billion such chips produced in 2012. That's at least 57 billion gallons of water just on semiconductor chips! In short, Emmott concludes, "We're consuming water, like food, at a rate that is completely unsustainable."

Q: In a contest over who has the bigger vocabulary, who might give your 3 year old a doggone surprisingly strong challenge?

A: The family pooch, naturally, though it would have to be patiently taught. The border collie Rico of a few years ago was famous for having a vocabulary of a couple hundred words, able to pick out a book or ball when directed to do so even weeks after learning the word, says David G. Myers in "Exploring Psychology: Ninth Edition." If asked to fetch a toy with a name he had never heard, he could also pick out the new toy from a group of familiar ones.

Now, based on new research, another border collie named Chaser has set an animal record by learning 1,022 object names.

"Like a 3-year-old child, she can also categorize them by function and shape and can correctly ‘fetch a ball' or ‘fetch a doll.'" So, move over, kid, Chaser's coming.

Q: The famous mathematician Paul Erdos once quipped, "I am a machine for converting coffee into mathematical theorems." What could the rest of us lay coffee-drinkers say about the drink?

A:Start with coffee being mentioned in travelers' reports from Turkey and Arabia beginning around 1600, but not until 1652 did establishments begin serving it as their principal business, says Neil A. Downie in "The Ultimate Book of Saturday Science."

Today of course, coffee is big business, with probably half of the Western World being counted as coffee drinkers, spending roughly $160 a year per capita on three cups a day. "With a half billion or so of us, I reckon that makes the business worth $80 billion or so," adds Downie. Naturally, machines for preparing coffee, from percolators to filters, from vending machines to espresso machines, are big business as well.

But there's always "Cowboy Coffee" (instant), where all that needs to be done is add freshly boiled water to ground coffee in a mug or cup and stir to mix. "It's that simple. No apparatus is required other than a cup and spoon. Even a cowboy could find room in his saddlebags for that much equipment."

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