How To Recycle Your Grey Water

leni nyssen and reed bed for grey water recycling

Leni Nyssen of Alchemy Farms with her simple reed bed filtering system.

Story and photos by Linda Moon

Setting up a basic system for recycling grey water is cheap, easy and worthwhile. Read about a garden in North Leura and learn from a permaculture designer how it can be done.

Key Points:

  • Save money and time watering, reduce water waste and hydrate your garden by reusing grey water.
  • A local permaculture designer explains how she created a simple setup.
  • Learn the local rules and regulations around using grey water.

“We want to grow a lot of food, and we have kids and do a lot of washing, so what better way to use that water than out to the garden.” Leni Nyssen of Alchemy Farms Permaculture Design is showing off her basic grey water filtering system: a simple version of a ‘reed bed system’ which actually looks easy to set up.

The permaculture consultant and educator’s backyard (in North Leura) is littered with sprawling veggie patches and kids’ toys, a rambling dog and chickens. The message: you don’t have to be wealthy, a plumber, living on acreage or even a homeowner to re-use your grey water.

What is grey water?

It’s the wastewater from our bathrooms and laundries. With relatively less chemicals, fats and biological matter than dark grey water (from the kitchen) or black water from toilets, it’s the recycling go-to of wastewater.

By re-using her washing machine water, Leni reckons her system waters most of the garden for her. The family’s washing machine uses an estimated 80 to 100 litres per load.

Leni’s reed bed system

From the washing machine hose, plastic piping dangles downstairs into an old bathtub at the side of the house. Gravity (Leni’s washing machine is on the second floor) propels the water forward.

The bath contains stones, gravel, sand, reeds and other water loving plants. Based on the concept of wetlands, these are partitioned into a series of sections, including a mini pond area, that slows the water flow, filtering and cleansing it. Having a smaller outlet than inlet, also helps stem the flow, Leni explains. The whole process takes about 20 minutes.

There’s no odour. “It’s only when there’s storage and bacteria starts to get active, that it starts to smell,” she explains.

The grey water is fed to the garden via outlet hosing attached to the bottom of the bath. As the garden slopes gently downhill, there’s no need for a pump. Too easy!

grey water swales

The grey water is fed into deep mulch-covered swales (trenches) in the food forest area to help grow fruit trees, vines and perennials.

Is grey water okay for the garden?

Leni, who studied permaculture design and education with Geoff Lawton and Rowe Morrow, views grey water recycling as another helpful method for improving soil moisture and the resilience of our gardens to dry conditions. She says, “the real focus in permaculture is slowing water and spreading it and soaking it into the landscape.”

“Living in such a fire-prone area, we need to focus on making sure the landscape is hydrated” – Leni Nyssen.

The main issue with grey water is sodium, which in turn affects soil pH. Grey water from the washing machine (laundry products tend to be high in sodium) usually makes soil more alkaline. Phosphates, oils and chemicals are other common problems in grey water.

For the laundry, Leni recommends soap nuts (which you can get from the Blue Mountains Food Co-op), or pure soap flakes. “That has the least impact when it goes out to the soil,” she says. “The main thing is it [grey water] should go to the root systems rather than leaves that you’re going to pick and eat.”

Leni Nyssen’s permaculture garden

Leni Nyssen’s permaculture garden gains the advantage of extra hydration from grey water over summer.

More options for using grey water

A reed bed bath system isn’t your only option.

  • Buckets: Catch water in the shower, bath or basin or the rinse cycle of the washing machine.
  • Water diversion devices: Inexpensive and can be installed by a plumber. Alternatively, use a grey water diversion hose attached to your washing machine. Bathroom or laundry water can be diverted into your land (such as trenches, swales and basins around trees) but should be cooled in a holding trench or other collection point first.
  • More expensive and complex domestic waste water treatment and storage systems with pumps, filters and more.        

Note: with any drip irrigation or ag-piping containing holes, filters are a must to avoid them getting clogged with lint, hair and other stuff.

grey water diverter

A grey water diverter for sale at a local hardware shop is an inexpensive option.  

Wise and safe grey water use

Also check out these tips from the experts:

  • Use the most eco-friendly, low-sodium, low-phosphate laundry and personal care products possible.
  • Don’t use water after dyeing your hair, cleaning the bath, basin and so on. Bleaches, drain cleaners, disinfectants, hair dyes, shampoos, toothpaste, mouthwash, perfumes and many other products contain chemicals and other ingredients harmful to soil health (and possibly to you too!).
  • Don’t use grey water on vegetables, herbs and root veg.
  • Don’t store untreated grey water for longer than 24 hours to prevent bacteria build-up.
  • Distribute grey water to the subsurface. Don’t let it pool on the surface: a recipe for bacterial or algal bloom.
  • Don’t use water from washing nappies.
  • Regularly monitor and maintain any reed beds for bacteria and algae.
  • Never use hot water directly on the garden. It will kill beneficial soil organisms.
  • Don’t let pets or wildlife drink grey water or let kids play in it.
  • Give your garden regular breaks from grey water.
  • Monitor soil health and pH. Regularly add organic matter to soil.
  • Avoid watering acid-loving plants, like berries, camellias and rhododendrons, with grey water.
  • Try “hydro zoning” your garden according to water needs. Position plants with similar water needs together. Direct grey water to the most thirsty.

Know the rules

You don’t need council approval to re-use grey water on your land, but you do have to abide by certain rules around its use. These include only using it to irrigate the sub-surface of your garden using pipes / hose 100mm below the ground and avoiding using it during rainy periods and if someone at home has a contagious disease. Purple hoses and fittings should ideally be used to identify grey water recycling.

For more rules and restrictions around local grey water use, check out the Blue Mountains City Council Waste Water Management / Grey water page.

Take Action:

  • Plan how you might recycle your grey water.
  • Know the local rules. Click here.
  • Watch the video (below) about Leni Nyssen’s reed bed system. Leni can offer guidance on how to create your own DIY system, as well as advice on how to live more sustainably and ecologically.

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Linda Moon

Linda Moon has lived in the upper Blue Mountains since childhood and is a freelance writer for Australian media. A qualified naturopath, permaculture designer, mother and former student of social work, her passion is building local community, gardening, mental, emotional, social, housing and environmental health – all of which are linked!

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