Monday, December 20, 2010

What Making the TTC an Essential Service Really Means

Last Thursday, the new Toronto City Council voted on designating the TTC an essential service. Mayor Ford and 27 Councillors voted in favour of this proposal, and the item was officially adopted. While my first reaction was to rejoice at the prospect of never again having to suffer through another transit strike in the city, I eventually started wondering what the true implications of this decision are. I consulted the transit expert: Steve Munro, Toronto's independent transit researcher and activist. If you need to know something about the TTC, he's your source.

Unfortunately I have been plagued with a migraine for almost 24 hours now, so I'm finding it a bit difficult to summarize the main points of Steve's blog post, and even when I'm at my best I can't match his eloquence. I urge you to read his comments and think about how transit service - and therefore transit users - will suffer when higher wage settlements are granted to TTC workers when they no longer have the right to strike.

Steve's blog post can be found here.

Photo credit.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

In the News Today

Two water-related stories for you today:

Researchers have found that estrogen levels in drinking water can be traced back mainly to industrial agriculture rather than oral contraceptives. The pill has been blamed for the feminization of fish and other aquatic animals, suggesting human health may be affected in ways we don't yet know. What this study points out - and I can't believe I didn't realize this earlier - is that livestock produce 13 times more solid waste than humans and consume great amounts of synthetic hormones in factory farm operations, providing a source of estrogen far greater than what humans alone can contribute. Additionally, agricultural pesticide runoff can mimic estrogen! Thankfully, water treatment plants can remove most of it, but wild animals continue to drink from or swim in the water we have polluted for them.

Read the full article here.

Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail has written about abnormalities found on fish in rivers near the Alberta tar sands. I'm not surprised that these poor creatures have deformities, lesions, and tumours if that's the kind of habitat they live in, but it's a little shocking that the people in charge of monitoring this issue (the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program, RAMP) are led primarily by petroleum industry representatives. No wonder some scientists have criticized RAMP for being "secretive". In past annual reports, some species have been excluded from the statistics, and averages have been cited while the raw numbers remain private. You don't have to be a scientist to know that this type of monitoring is not credible.

Read the full article here.

Photo credits: oral contraceptive pills and tar sands.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Season's Greetings and Food (but No Gravy) to Mayor Ford

Want to light three candles with one flame? If you can make a donation to Food Forward by tomorrow (sorry for the short notice), a personalized greeting card will be delivered to Rob Ford in your honour, along with a selection of yummy local produce. Not only will you be sharing holiday cheer with Toronto's new mayor, this action also helps support Food Forward's work and advocates for the need to strengthen our local food system. You can also thank a Councillor for advancing the good food movement or encourage one to become more involved. Look up the one serving your ward on the City of Toronto's website.

Full details can be found here.

Photo credit.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Will You Eat Real On No Fast Food Day?

This Friday (December 17th) is No Fast Food Day, also known as Eat Real Day. I hope you will join me in eating healthy food, either prepared at home with ingredients from your local market or grocer, or while dining out at a neighbourhood restaurant. The goal that Food Forward had in mind when creating this day was to stimulate discussion around some of the problems with fast food: environmental destruction, social inequities, health problems, and factory farm conditions.

So take some time on Thursday to plan your day. I promise it's easier than you think: wake up early enough to eat breakfast at home instead of on the go to start the day off right; bring leftovers to work and skip the cafeteria at lunch; grab that afternoon tea/coffee and snack at a local, independent café that makes their baked goods in-house every morning (or better yet, replace the cookie with an apple); and invite your friends over for a home-cooked meal in the evening!

Sign up to count your participation here, and encourage your friends to participate in the challenge, too! Join the discussion by sharing your healthy food ideas and fast food issues by tweeting with the hashtag #eatreal, and sharing on Food Forward's Facebook event page.

Bon appetit!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Buy Nothing Christmas

If you're struggling to find the perfect gift for each person on your list this year, don't worry: it's not you. Maybe the problem is that most of the stuff you can find in the mall is useless, and you're not the kind of person who feels comfortable gifting unwanted things (that will no doubt be thrown out) and spending way too much money doing so. Well, you're not alone!

To help you out, please check out this list of alternatives to avoid purchasing junk for loved ones, brought to you by the nice folks at Buy Nothing Christmas. There you'll find some great ideas, including some of my personal favourites that I've used in recent years: baking a seasonal dessert and presenting it in a tin that previously held store-bought cookies; collecting quotations that remind you of someone and writing them into a blank notebook; and putting together a gift basket filled with edible items you know the recipient loves and will consume.

Happy gifting!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

No Impact Week

Tired of the same old, same old when making new year's resolutions? Disillusioned by previous attempts to adopt a new exercise routine, cut certain foods out of your diet, and stick to a monthly budget? I've got just the thing for you: No Impact Week.

You can think of No Impact Week as a seven-day cleanse... of carbon! That's right, this is a week for experimenting with greener lifestyle choices and challenging yourself to live without certain luxuries you probably take for granted but don't necessarily need. You'll get a chance to take a hard look at your carbon footprint and use those fine-tuned problem solving skills I know you have to reduce or eliminate some of its sources - especially the ones that eat away at your pocketbook without actually contributing to your quality of life!

Once you sign up, you will receive a how-to guide, a short survey about your current lifestyle, and daily challenges, ideas, and resources. There will be many opportunities to share your experiences over the course of the week with blogs, pictures, and discussion forums. Most importantly, you will be connected with other participants to share tips and support.

After the week is up, you'll get a chance to complete the lifestyle survey again and measure the change you've made, and if you're really keen, you can register to become a No Impact Ambassador in your community. Feel free to make a cape and send me pictures!

No Impact Week is the brainchild of Yes! Magazine and Colin Beavan, who lived as No Impact Man for one year in New York City. Watch the video to find out what he accomplished and to get an idea of what the week will be like for you:

The countdown is on... the week kicks off on January 2nd!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Terra Madre Day 2010

This Friday, December 10th, marks the second worldwide Terra Madre Day in support of local food networks. Events will be held around the globe to celebrate food diversity and the right to good, clean, and fair food for all.

Slow Food Toronto and The Stop Community Food Centre have joined forces to present Toronto's 2010 edition of Terra Madre Day festivities at the Artscape Wychwood Barns, where guests will have the chance to visit a wide variety of food stations, sampling local products and meeting the farmers, fishers, and cooks who produced, raised, grew, and prepared this healthy feast. Live music performances will provide a great atmosphere in which to consciously enjoy the food and connect with other supporters of the good food movement.

Tickets are $15, of which $5 will go towards Slow Food's Thousand Gardens in Africa Project, and children under 12 gain free entry.

For more details, a complete listing of food participants and performers, as well as volunteer opportunities, check out the event page.

Photo credit.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

One Small Step Forward for the Environment, One Giant Step Backward for Human Health

I was saddened to read last week that the state of California has decided to in favour of replacing one ozone-depleting pesticide (methyl bromide) with another (methyl iodide) on the basis that the latter is much less destructive to that invisible shield above us that keeps most UV radiation away from our delicate skin. This is an improvement, but only in terms of halting ozone depletion (which, thankfully, has been occurring to a very small degree). If you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, this is what you see: methyl iodide, commonly used to sterilize the soil ahead of planting on industrial strawberry farms, is so carcinogenic that it is used to induce cancer in lab testing.

Since this pesticide does not linger on the berries themselves, it poses no apparent threat to consumers, but what of the farm workers and those living in nearby communities? Are we pausing long enough to think about the people who grow our food and live close to farms? Are we stopping to examine the package of strawberries available in supermarkets in December to find out where they come from? Is it necessary for us to eat fresh fruit out of season in light of our proximity to locally-grown berries in the summer and the existence of freezers in almost every home? Most importantly, where is the social justice in letting others face such enormous health risks when we would never do the same, just to be able to access any food, no matter how exotic, at any time of year?

For more, read Tom Laskawy's and Tom Philpott's articles in Grist.

Photo credit.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Announcing the First Ever "Foodie Drinks"!

I'm pleased to pass on the word that this Wednesday, December 8th, Food Forward is inviting local foodies who want to make Toronto a better place to come to the downstairs room at The Blake House (449 Jarvis between Wellesley and Carlton) between 7 and 10 pm. The first ever Foodie Drinks event is the place to be if you want to network within this growing community, discuss local food politics, and generally have fun! Attendees will also be treated to a presentation on one food business and one local organization working to make a difference. The event is free, but you are encouraged to "buy a drink for Food Forward" if you can make a $10 donation to help support current and future projects.

If you can make it, please let Food Forward know on their event page.

See you there!

The power of networking.

[Photo credit]

Friday, December 3, 2010

Lock Your Bike and Look Cool Doing It

In keeping with the spirit of this blog, I always endeavour to promote environmentally friendly lifestyle choices that keep you in good health. That's why I'm a big fan of cycling and telling you about bike-related news that could convince you to ditch your four-wheeler for your two-wheeler. Remember the inflatable helmet I wrote about in October? If maintaining a perfectly styled head of hair while cycling isn't cool enough for you, check out this new bike lock:

I'm fairly certain the whole process takes longer than 16 seconds, but you have to admit, this is an appealing way to secure your bike. It's also a great conversation starter! But you can't buy it. That is, while searching the Conrad website, I discovered that the lock was created when one of the company's build teams was challenged to design the craziest lock they could come up within a span of two weeks. Now Conrad is asking its customers to see if they can pull off the same feat, with some help: the list of items actually used in construction and a "making of" video. So grab a German-speaking friend and check out the details here.

Thanks to Jonathan Hiskes with Grist for sharing this story.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Transit City Needs You!

Time for a multiple choice question! Are you...

A) interested in creating livable cities
B) worried about the greenhouse effect and global climate change
C) frustrated by traffic congestion
D) concerned about your health
E) all of the above?

If you answered E, or at least a few of the others, and if you live in or will be visiting Toronto on Saturday, then you should come out to help save Transit City! The Transit City plan calls for an extensive, electrically-powered light rail system through areas currently unserviced by rapid transit. New mayor Ford wants to put a halt to the work that is already being done on this project. Actually, his exact words to reporters after a meeting with the TTC were, "Transit City's over. The war on the car is over. All new subway expansion is going underground". In response, Spacing Toronto has organized the first in a series of canvassing events to organize supporters and educate the public on the issue, no doubt including how much of a waste would result from abandoning the work that has already been completed, how much money would be lost from what already went into said projects, and the cost of breaking contracts worth $1.3 billion that have been signed. This is no small issue.

Saturday's canvas will take place in the Yonge and Eglinton neighbourhood - that's Ward 16, represented by the new TTC Chair, Councillor Karen Stintz, who remained loyal to the Transit City plan throughout her campaign prior to the municipal election earlier this fall. So, if cutting rapid transit plans is unacceptable to you, check out Spacing Toronto for more details on how to get involved.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

From Waste Generation to Waste Reduction This Holiday Season

As promised, here are some tips for greening the holidays just a day shy of December - hope I'm not already too late to curb some bad habits! In the spirit of the 4Rs (that's the standard 3Rs, with Refuse added to the front as the best waste reduction / energy conservation method), I've provided four options for each topic.

  1. Create your own decorations - refuse to buy more each year. These days you can easily find DIY instructions with a quick internet search.
  2. As I mentioned in my post about the light exchange, be selective about how many seasonal lights you use - reduce. Cheerful holiday design doesn't have to involve large amounts of decorations.
  3. Focus on decorations that can be easily stored for many years to come - reuse.
  4. Popcorn and cranberry garlands belong in your green bin/compost, not the trash - recycle food waste back into the soil it came from.

  1. Buy local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients - refuse to contribute to our unjust food system.
  2. Turn down the thermostat just before guests arrive - reduce. It's amazing how warm a room gets when people get together in good spirits.
  3. Invest in cloth napkins - reuse. If you must use disposable ones, compost them.
  4. Feed those wine bottles to your blue bin - recycle.

Greeting Cards
  1. Send electronic greetings - refuse to waste paper. In this digital age, it is completely acceptable to choose e-cards over their paper counterparts.
  2. Send cards only to your closest family and friends - reduce. One year I received a card addressed to the previous tenants who moved out almost one and a half years earlier! If you never talk to 'em, don't send 'em a card.
  3. Cut off the image side of cards to make your own for next year, and use any blank sides as note paper - reuse.
  4. Don't trash cards and envelopes, they go in the blue bin - recycle.

(Not) Buying Gifts
  1. Make something - refuse to buy more stuff. A selection of holiday cookies (provided you're a half-decent baker) would be appreciated by pretty much anyone on your list.
  2. Pick gifts with less or no packaging - reduce. If you know someone is really passionate about a certain cause, make a charitable donation towards that cause in their name. Or why not give "two tickets to that thing you love", like the Old Spice man on a horse says?**
  3. One person's trash is another's treasure - reuse. Let's face the ugly truth: our planet is drowning in garbage, so there is no shame in regifting items you just don't want.
  4. Got a fancy tech gadget a few years ago that is now broken/obsolete? Dispose of it properly - recycle electronic waste according to your municipality's guidelines.

Wrapping Gifts
  1. Not all gifts need to be wrapped - refuse to waste gift wrap. Place small items inside of larger ones, or if you're gifting fabrics (tea towels, clothing), use those as wrapping for other gifts.
  2. Find creative alternatives to use less gift wrap - reduce. For example, large items or those too cumbersome to wrap look just fine with a bow on top instead of a mess of wrapping.
  3. Choose sturdier wrapping options - reuse. Years ago my mom invested in cloth gift wrap that she has been using within the family ever since. Gift bags are useful, too, but make sure to reuse the tissue paper as well!
  4. Your blue bin is happy to accept paper-based gift wrap and cardboard packaging - recycle.

At this time of year I urge you to remember what's important about the holidays: the people. No unnecessary packaging there. Unless you indulge in too many sweets...

**NB: While I love that commercial, I do not endorse Old Spice products because they are full of toxins and other harmful chemicals!

Photo credits: string of popcorn and cranberries - Gare and Kitty; greeting card - hartboy; gift bags - jmackinnell (all via flickr)

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Botox Apple: Coming Soon to a Store Near You

By now you, my dear readers, are quite familiar with my stance on genetic modification. I've written not once, but twice about Enviropig™, and I've introduce you to its cousin, AquAdvantage™ salmon, so let's keep the momentum going and spend some time pondering that most important of all questions: how do we keep sliced apples from browning?

Hopefully, like me, you're already groaning. I opened the link to the Associated Press article after reading someone's message on Twitter about news related to GMOs and apples. What I expected to read about was some researcher's quest to lower the number of pesticides necessary to yield a healthy apple crop - wait, I think that's an oxymoron ("pesticides" and "healthy" in the same sentence?). If not, it's a terrible pun. To my surprise, the drive behind introducing foreign genes into apples is, as I mentioned above, unrelated to solving the problem of apples' susceptibility to infestation. That's right, a Canadian biotechnology company hopes to gain USDA approval of genetically modified apples that won't brown when cut open. Benefits include making producers and distributors of ready-to-eat bagged apple snacks richer, making that Canadian biotechnology company richer, and... nothing else.

Drawbacks include:
  • cross-pollination of traditional apple trees with genetically modified ones
  • trashing entire orchards' worth of apple trees to start over with the GMO variety
  • human health and other environmental effects that we can't even predict and often don't research
  • if sales of apple snacks go up, a greater use of energy and water in processing the fruit, larger greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, and an increase in waste generation due to packaging, to name a few
  • no benefit to consumers, unless you believe the market actually wants botox apples and will therefore increase their daily intake of fruit
  • teaching the public, especially children, that white apples are natural and good for you - because it's not like there will be a big, bright label on the package that identifies the GMO contents

Can you think of any more? You guys are smart. I bet you can.

What researchers ought to be spending their time and money on is developing more efficient and more effective pest management strategies that don't require pesticides or other toxic chemicals. I've written about this issue before, but what I failed to draw your attention to was the fact that apples ranked fourth in the Environmental Working Group's list of "Dirty Dozen" produce, based on how many pesticides are typically involved in their cultivation. That's why this is so important, way more important than the colour of an apple's flesh once you slice into it.

Armed with this knowledge, and knowing we can't really influence the USDA, I suggest the following simple actions:
  • buy whole apples instead of processed, packaged slices - you'll be getting more bang for your buck because you can eat all the way through to the core (factory slices are tiny), and as a bonus, the experience of biting into a whole apple is more satisfying, and juice running down your chin will make you laugh
  • buy apples grown locally to support the farmers in your region
  • source an apple orchard that uses alternatives to pesticides to keep yourself healthy
  • if they don't know it, teach your family and friends that browning is natural and does not indicate that the apple has gone bad

Oh, and don't forget to read the article while crunching into that apple you're having a craving for!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pushing Forward with 100 Hands

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending a workshop on developing a career in the sustainable food movement. "Pushing Forward" was organized by Food Forward Advocacy Alliance, a food system advocacy group based out of Toronto working with the public, politicians, and those involved in the food sector to strengthen the city's food movement. The workshop doubled as a fundraiser, with proceeds supporting Food Forward's work and programming.

Eglinton Park Heritage Garden

The goal of the event was to provide interactive sessions for people interested in getting a meaningful job or starting a social enterprise in the food or environmental sector. The day was structured around a series of educational talks delivered by speakers whose enthusiasm for their work was infectious. The 50 workshop participants (that's where the 100 hands in my title came from) heard four great success stories:

Chris Wong, co-founder of Young Urban Farmers (helping residents grow their own food in the city) and its non-profit sibling CSA, told us about the importance of being passionate and having a can-do spirit when trying to make it as an entrepreneur. He pointed out that starting a business often brings about a fear of failure, but that this fear can be transformed into motivation because the worst case scenario is spending the rest of one's life regretting never having tried.

Anne Freeman, coordinator of the Dufferin Grove Farmers' Market and the Greenbelt Farmers' Market Network, explained the myriad of details involved in creating and operating farmers' markets and other small food business start-ups. In addition to passion and drive, she underscored the need for planning and cost analysis before venturing into business. Anne also provided great tips and directed us to useful resources, including the Toronto Food Strategy project / Food Connections and Toronto Public Health food handler training courses.

Melissa Shin, Managing Editor for Corporate Knights Magazine (a.k.a. the "magazine for clean capitalism", showcasing the leaders and losers of the corporate world with respect to their environmental and social impacts), spoke about facing adversity with passion and being gutsy enough to do what you love. She remarked that while we may not want corporations to run the world, they current do; so it's necessary to work with them to achieve our goals.

Nogah Kornberg, Executive Director of Young Social Entrepreneurs of Canada (a hub for connections, education, and support for young people in social enterprise), remarked that as a high school teacher, she has often been asked by students how to choose between pursuing a career that interests them vs. one that pays the bills. Outraged that youth are convinced these are mutually exclusive concepts, Nogah became a big proponent of social enterprise: working towards meeting social and economic goals simultaneously.

Riverdale Farm Farmers' Market

After these four informative talks, we moved on to the more interactive portion of the day. In order to take advantage of the great wealth of knowledge present in the room, Nogah invited five workshop participants to briefly outline their ideas for pushing the sustainable food movement forward. The rest of us created little groups around these "masterminds" and furthered their ideas through feedback, questions, and the raising of problems that needed solving. It was incredible how in ten short minutes, one person's vision was boosted by eight brains coming at the idea from a variety of perspectives. I sat with a driver for FoodShare's Good Food Box program who wants to distribute healthy snack packs to convenience stores in food deserts, and our group came up with lots of suggestions to improve the feasibility of his idea.

Finally, although I could not stay for the post-event social at a nearby pub (serving local beers, naturally), I had a chance to chat with Food Forward volunteer Michelle Gruda (whose blog you should read). We talked about how exciting it was to hear from people who have been able to pursue careers they love, but agreed that the missing piece is knowing how to turn an idea into a successful business. Between the two of us, we were easily able to identify areas that desperately need change and come up with half a dozen objectives, but how do these concepts become detailed proposals?

In the coming weeks and months I hope to devote more time and energy to answering this question, and with some luck I will find myself working on a project and keeping you up to speed on my progress through this blog!

Photo credit: Eglinton Park Heritage Garden - Toronto Community Garden Network ; Riverdale Farm Farmers' Market - The Friends of Riverdale Farm.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Update on Enviropig™

About a month ago, I told you about the genetically modified pig, misleadingly named Enviropig™, created at the University of Guelph and currently awaiting approval from Health Canada for human consumption. If you're unfamiliar with the story, read my post to get the facts and my opinion.

Sock Pig is certified GMO-free

The Globe and Mail finally caught wind of this story and wrote about it in a way that suggests, nay, implies the authors have no beef (pork?) with GMOs and neither should the readers. Focusing mainly on the potential for feeding our ever-increasing world population, we are told that "the market may soon need Enviropig™", ignoring the plethora of issues that plague our food system which must be addressed first before resorting to extreme measures such as genetic modification.

Something new I actually learned about through this article was the GM predecessor to Enviropig™: AquAdvantage™ salmon, owned by Massachusetts-based biotech firm AquaBounty but created by researchers at Memorial University in Newfoundland and pioneered on Prince Edward Island. The GM salmon offer a faster rate of growth over their non-GM counterparts, and a few months ago the FDA deemed them safe to eat, though they have not yet been fully approved for the US market.

GM salmon aren't immune to sea lice.

Once again, another opportunity is lost to educate readers on concerns with industrial aquaculture (especially the fact that faster-growing salmon won't solve any of the associated problems), and instead the authors distract us with the totally irrelevant issue of worrying that the Canadian origins of these GM animals may be forgotten when regulators in other countries approve of them first. I don't know about you, but I'd be happy to forget that my fellow Canadians are responsible for potential GM-related health and environmental effects in the long run.

To be honest, I'm glad the Enviropig™ issue is getting some media attention, I'm just disappointed with the Globe and Mail's coverage. Dissenting voices should get more than one paragraph at the end of a long article.

You can read the full story here.

Photo credit (sea lice on salmon): 7Barrym0re on Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Watch This and Feel Better!

In celebration of my 50th blog post, and because we could all use something to lift our spirits after last week's democratic disaster (you know, that thing about the Senate killing the climate bill?), watch this great spoof video narrated by Jeremy Irons about the life of the plastic bag:

Thanks to Jen from the Clean Bin Project blog for advertising it!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Senate Simultaneously Kills Climate Act and Breaks My Heart

A few years ago, Jack Layton introduced Bill C-311, otherwise known as the Climate Change Accountability Act: reducing national greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by the year 2050 and establishing plans to meet that target. After the country voted in a new government two years ago, the bill was re-introduced by the MP for Thunder Bay, debated and passed in the House of Commons, and sent to the Senate for the last stage in the process of becoming Canadian law. While emissions targets are great in theory but often disappointing in practice because the government is a perpetual climate change reduction under-achiever, passing this bill would have been a step in the right direction. At the very least, it would show the world that Canada is trying to be responsible and recognize its impact on global climate change.

Instead, the Senate took everyone by surprise and voted on Bill C-311 this week on a day when the Conservatives outnumbered their colleagues because 15 Liberals were not present. They didn't pause for debate, they just defeated the bill. That's right, people we did not elect killed policy that people we actually voted for agreed to, i.e., this was an undemocratic act. Apparently Prime Minister Harper agrees with the defeat of the bill (many believe he encouraged his Senator friends to make this happen) because it would be "irresponsible" to put people out of work. In other words, Harper doesn't want to upset his best friend, Big Industry. The irony of how irresponsible it is to kill a bill that could help keep us alive in the long term seems to be lost on him.

 The range of emotions I have felt since hearing this news has included anger, sadness, disgust, outrage, shock, and as I mentioned in the title, heartache. Worst of all, I feel ashamed to be Canadian if this is what the government can get away with.

For more details, please read this article from the Globe and Mail and this blog post from the David Suzuki Foundation.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Light Up the Neighbourhood with Free LEDs!

November is here, and that means Toronto Hydro and the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas are collaborating to bring you 22 events around town over the next few weeks where you can trade incandescent lights for LEDs! It's the yearly Festive Light Exchange, and it's coming to a neighbourhood near you.

The cat isn't part of the deal, unfortunately.

The math is really easy: bring two sets of old incandescent lights and you'll get one free string of LEDs! In other words, get rid of those shabby-looking, energy-guzzling lights with chipped paint and muted colours that leave you with broken glass every time one of the bulbs break. Instead, bring home a string of lights that use 90% less electricity, produce less heat (so you're not paying to melt snow on your trees, and you don't run the risk of fire indoors), and shine brighter than the traditional ones. Personally, I find some of the LED colours, especially that blueish white hue, to be much more festive than alternating reddish-orange and palm tree green.

But wait, it gets better: the average lifespan of LED lights is in the 20 to 30 year range, and they won't die on you prematurely due to breakage because there are no fragile filaments or glass bulbs. There are so many advantages to this technology that you can rest assured this is no passing fad!

Looking for an event close to home? Most take place outdoors on weekend afternoons in parks/parkettes and at community centres and schools. Click here for the full schedule.

Please keep in mind that while seasonal lights are pretty and LEDs are energy-efficient, conservation and moderation are still encouraged. Try placing lights only outdoors and using other types of decorations for your living room. Also, buy a timer and set your outdoor lights to automatically turn off at midnight. If you've lit up your front porch or back patio, make sure the standard lighting in those areas is turned off.

Please don't do this.

Happy lighting!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Go Green with the Grinch Video Contest

Feeling creative? Then grab your video camera, digital camera, or cell phone, make a 1-minute video about how to green the holiday season, and submit it into the Go Green with the Grinch Video Contest for a chance to win some great prizes!

I'm too much of a perfectionist and would end up missing the deadline while recording version after version of my own video, but if any of you participate in the contest I would be happy to vote for your submission!

Here's what you need to know:

The Basics: the contest runs from November 15th to December 13th, 2010. Your video must be a maximum of 60 seconds long and relate to the "Go Green with the Grinch" theme of making the holiday season more environmentally friendly. You can show one activity in great detail or try to cover as many greening tips as possible.

Eligibility: you must live in the GTA (incl. Toronto, Durham, York, Halton, and Peel regions) to be eligible to participate, and if you are under 18 years of age, an adult needs to submit your video on your behalf. Obviously, the content must be original, and you may not use clips from existing videos! Note that the submissions will be reviewed and approved by the contest organizers before being posted on the contest website.

Voting: tell all your friends about your video because the winners are decided by popular vote! Hopefully your friends are a bit obsessive and glued to their computers because voters are allowed to cast their virtual ballots as often as once an hour for the full four-week duration of the contest! Naturally, social networking media are quite useful for spreading the word about your 60-second masterpiece.

Prizes: first prize is a one-night stay at One King Hotel, second prize is a Batavas Old Dutch bike, and third prize is a Sony 3D/2D Blue Ray Player with an assortment of Blue Ray discs. Not bad at all! All winners, including five honourable mentions, will also receive two tickets to the "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" musical, as well as prize packs from Live Green Toronto and Toronto Hydro.

Winners will be notified via e-mail on December 14th and must complete a declaration form by December 17th in order to be declared a winner on December 20th.

For full contest rules, and to submit your video and vote, go to the contest website. There you will also find holiday greening tips, and in the coming week I will be posting some of own.

The contest is already on, so get to it!

Photo credits: 1940's video camera - turkeychik; string of popcorn and cranberries - Gare and Kitty; social networking cloud - davidking; grinch ornament - garlandcannon (all via flickr)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Put Food in the Budget Campaign

Let's make a quick switch from environmental to social justice today.

One of my favourite blogs, 52 Projects, recently educated me on the Put Food in the Budget provincial campaign, sponsored in part by one of my favourite local food organizations, The Stop Community Food Centre. The campaign demands that the Ontario Government immediately increase by $100 per month the social assistance received by adults in this province. Why? Because currently, the government believes $585/mth is enough. In a city like Toronto with expensive rent, I don't see how that's fair. The second campaign demand is about creating a fair and transparent way of setting social assistance rates so that people can meet their basic needs.

How can you get involved?

1. Complete the Do the Math Survey, which asks you to calculate the minimum that a single person needs to afford housing, food, and everything else.

2. Attend the Put Food in the Budget Rally tonight at Wychwood Barns.

3. Take part in a public act of solidarity with people on social assistance by accept the Do the Math Challenge, which asks you to rely on a diet that a person on social assistance might receive from a food bank from three days to a week. Elizabeth (from 52 Projects) is participating and has listed on her blog what a single person's food bank hamper typically consists of:

  • 2 boxes Kraft Dinner (or substitute extra rice if gluten-intolerant)
  • 3 juice boxes
  • 3 single-serving-size scoops dry rice
  • 2 small cans soup
  • box of dry cereal or 3 packages instant oatmeal
  • any 2 of: 175 g can of tuna, chicken, or turkey; small jar peanut butter; 3 eggs
  • 2 small cans of tinned vegetables; or 1 tin vegetables and 1 fruit
  • 1 potato
  • 1 onion
  • 1 can plain beans or chickpeas; or 1 can pork and beans
  • 3 granola bars or 3 fruit chews
  • 1 quart milk
  • 1 loaf bread (or substitute extra rice)

Would that fill you for three days? One week?

If you'd like to find out how Elizabeth is doing, check out her blog and follow Put Food in the Budget on Twitter. In fact, she just tweeted about starting off the day with instant oatmeal and instant coffee on Day 1 of the challenge.

Images from Put Food in the Budget

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Call for Submissions: How to Reduce Traffic Congestion?

I've been publishing posts on this blog for a few months and am grateful that I have a loyal, if somewhat small, group of followers out there. Keeping a fairly consistent writing pace is rewarding, and I'm always excited to reply to some of your comments, but what I feel is missing is a greater degree of interaction. Granted, I'm usually the first to say that online communication is a poor substitute for a real conversation, let alone a live debate. However, today I am willing to experiment with the series of tubes we like to call the internet. After all, if I have become capable of embracing the chaos that is Twitter, why not attempt to moderate a discussion via the comment section of my own blog? Easy as pie.

Here's the question: how do we reduce traffic congestion?

Hwy 401 traffic on the Saturday of a long weekend (photo credit: Bicycle Bob - Flickr)

This assumes, of course, that clogged roads are something we would like to eliminate. From wasting time to causing road rage to sickening us by polluting the air we breathe, it is an unwanted yet complacently accepted symptom of large urban areas. For the sake of this discussion, we must take for granted that everyone wants away with traffic jams. And, if you're like me, you also hope to get rid of slower-than-normal speeds on highways due to a high volume of vehicles outside of rush hour, on weekends. (This past Saturday, I found myself carpooling en route to a small town about two hours from where I live, and was appalled but not shocked at how many others were doing the same. Next time I will take the train.)

Instead of entertaining the fantasy of completely overhauling our North American public transit systems so they closely resemble those in places like Copenhagen, Munich, and Tokyo, let's focus on less resource-intensive and therefore more realistic strategies. Here are a few to start you off:

1. Implementing Toll Roads. The initial setup brings some costs, but these are offset by toll revenues before too long, and only those who drive are "penalized". Check out the current debate on this very issue between the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario and a car-lover.

2. Eliminating Subsidies to Oil Companies. Here's a thought: instead of giving billions of dollars to fossil fuel producing corporations via tax breaks, spend the money on the fantasy transit systems I mentioned above and watch as drivers find more affordable methods of transportation! For a summary of the Climate Action Network report on this controversy, go here.

3. Bringing back Chevrons. Remember the white blazes on the 401 near Whitby? They were meant to remind drivers to keep a safe distance from each other. I believe they are equally useful, at least in theory, to move traffic along more smoothly during times of congestion. At least one of my friends agrees that educating the public about the futility and inefficiency of staying close behind the car ahead (causing stop-and-go movement) is part of the solution.

There you have it: only three ideas, but still they indicate how wide the range of possibilities may be. Please share your thoughts on these, feel free to add other suggestions, and comment on what others are saying. To keep track of the discussion, subscribe to receive updates on new messages via e-mail with the link at the bottom of the comments section.

And... go!

The Story of Electronics

It's finally up! Annie Leonard's Story of Electronics video has been posted to her website. Watch it, tell others about it, leave comments at the bottom of this post, then watch it again!

Also check out here other videos if you haven't already:

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Winterize Your Home

The Merriam-Webster dictionary claims that the word "winterize" (verb: to make ready for winter or winter use and especially resistant or proof against winter weather) was first used in 1934. I bet it was a Canadian who said it! Today's winter temperatures may not be as low or last as long as they once did (thanks to our good friend, climate change), but since it's now consistently at or below zero overnight where I live, I've started thinking about about how best to keep my home warm without breaking the bank or the planet.

Snow in Montreal last December. It's coming back!
Luckily, you don't have to make any big purchases or embark on complicated renovation adventures to enjoy big energy savings this year. Unless you're just itching to do so, in which case I'd ask you to please contact me and I'll happily do the research to support your project! For the rest of us, consider these tips:

Turn your thermostat down! This is really simple and very effective, even if you're not willing to make a big change. To make things even easier, invest in a programmable thermostat and punch in the warmest temperature for your mornings, evenings, and weekends, program slightly cooler air for the hours you spend under a warm duvet, and save the uncomfortably cool setting for longer stays away from home.

Bulk up on insulation! As you probably remember from science class, hot air rises, so the first place you need to pad with the pink stuff (does it come in other colours these days?) is your attic. Other insulation-deprived areas are unfinished basement walls and crawlspaces.

Give your furnace some TLC! The filters on your furnace should be cleaned every few months to ensure optimal efficiency, and eventually they need to be replaced, too. If you want to go all out, call in an expert and have your furnace professionally serviced.

Share your blankets! Air ducts like to be cozy, too, so make sure all of the ones carrying hot air are insulated in areas where they pass through spaces you keep unheated in your home. You can do the same to your hot water heater. Don't forget the teddy bear and bedtime story...

Learn how to use a caulking gun! Sorry, I'm running out of fun titles. Applying weather-stripping or caulking to windows and doorways is another really inexpensive yet highly effective method of keeping cold air out of your home. Even if three out of the four sides of a window are well-sealed, you could be losing a lot of heat to the fourth.

Knit a snake! I'm not sure what these are supposed to be called, door runners maybe? Draft stoppers? Even without crafty skills you can avoid drafts under doorways with a towel, or, in a pinch, a couple of sweaters! There are also many sewing/knitting/crocheting guides online, if you're so inclined.

Dress your windows! In the world of shutters and drapes, there are more and less insulating ones. Look for blinds that trap air and curtains made of heavy fabrics. Remember to close all window coverings once it's dark out.

Wear an ugly sweater! You're at home, who's going to see you? Put on an extra layer of clothing rather than turning on an electric space heater. Heat yourself, not the room! Warm blankets and throws are not only cozy on the couch, they add style - not that you, the energy-saving superhero, need any.

Let it snow! This isn't a tip, and snow can lose its romanticism after the holidays are over, but why not keep your fingers crossed for a sustained cover of snow on your roof? Take advantage of Mother Nature's environmentally-friendly, local, sustainable, organic insulation.


Compiled from tips on the Live Green Toronto and Toronto Hydro websites, as well as a few of my own brain cells. You may also want to check out this interactive guide from CBC.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Nagoya Biodiversity Meeting a Success

After two weeks of negotiations, the delegates at the UN conference on biological diversity agreed on targets for slowing species extinction and ecosystem destruction, although methods to enforce these laws and ensuring funding for poor nations are still in question.

Meanwhile, the representatives signed off on a landmark agreement known as the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits (ABS). As one journalist put it, "under the new protocol, 193 parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity will be legally obliged to follow rules designed to prevent biopiracy and provide benefits, including financial ones, to other parties when their genetic resources are accessed." In other words, when knowledge of the healing properties of certain plants would end up in the hands of pharmaceutical companies, it used to be the case that these corporations would turn the plant extracts into medicine, enjoy large profits, and share nothing with the people who initially provided the access to the plants. Often, it is developing countries and aboriginal peoples who lose out in this equation. The new protocol outlines a system for sharing the profits and benefits more equitably.

Hopefully during the next meeting in 2012, more ambitious biodiversity protection targets can be set, and we can convince the United States to participate in (rather than just observe) the proceedings.

More details can be found here and here.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

In the News Today

copyright Marlith (2008)
 The Heart and Stroke Foundation wants to help fight the obesity epidemic and has put together an expert panel that recommends some pretty new (and controversial) strategies: they want the government to tax soft drinks, subsidize lower-income families to buy more fruit and veggies, and finance an increase in the growth of fresh produce. I agree that we need to put an end to cheap junk "food" - it does, after all, cost less than real food if you do a calorie by calorie comparison. Also, the soft drink tax revenue can help offset the health care costs associated with a poor diet. Meanwhile, the head of the soft drinks industry association feels unfairly targeted, claiming these products "fulfil a function". Sure they do: they contribute to the obesity epidemic. Read the full article here.

copyright Martin Addison (2006)
If avoiding junk food isn't enough to keep you healthy, try cycling - but make sure you wear a helmet. Over in Sweden, some designers have come up with a method of protecting your head while showing off your luscious locks with what is essentially a helmet version of an airbag. You wear a stylish collar around your neck, and when the sensors detect the kind of movement that would imply your cranium is about to collide with the pavement (going over the handlebars, being impacted by a moving vehicle, etc.), the airbag deploys before any damage is done. Will this new technology encourage people who don't like helmets to give cycling a second chance? I'm not convinced, in part because I generally dislike complex solutions to easy problems, but also because in urban areas, there are many other impediments to adopting the bicycle as a primary mode of transportation. Read the full article here, and make sure to watch the crash-test video.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Everything Is Going to Be Okay!

On the first day after Rob Ford won the Toronto mayoral election, I spent the day in bed, curled up in the foetus position rocking back and forth, hoping this was just a nightmare I would wake up from. The next day - today - I awoke with a more hopeful outlook. After all, the greatest acts of heroism arise from the biggest challenges. And this is a big challenge. One that will no doubt inspire many of us to take action and fight for the progressive development this city and its residents deserve over the next four years and beyond.

I may have lost some of you. Toronto is not the centre of the universe, after all, and many municipal elections were held on Monday. So, a brief primer on Rob Ford if you've never heard of him before: you can think of him as Canada's Sarah Palin, only way more controversial, and interested in replacing light rail with subways, streetcars with buses, bikes with cars, and city councillors with... nobody... all the while claiming to respect taxpayers. Because apparently that's all we are. People who give him money to play with.

Toronto City Hall copyright Benson Kua (2008)

Back to being optimistic! Part of the reason I am feeling much more hopeful today is because the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) has gotten the ball rolling by pointing out that a majority of the elected city councillors got A grades on their environmental report cards and are committed to key environmental priority actions. So until Mr. Ford gets around to kicking those councillors off the island (though city hall resembles more of a futuristic building from Star Trek than an island), they will oppose his radical plans.

But wait, there's more! I'm not usually one to endorse letter writing, but it's such a simple action that anyone can take that there is no reason not to give it a shot: TEA wants us to send a strong message to the new council that we expect the new councillors to make the environment a priority over the next four years, and they've set up a form on their website that will make the process really easy. Simply choose the ward you live in, then electronically send their version of the letter, or write your own. TEA will deliver all letters in person before the first council meeting in December. How simple is that? (If you don't live here, please consider forwarding the link to this post to anyone you know who resides in this city. Thanks!)

Meanwhile, I will do my best to share with you other options for creating a healthier city and keep you updated on any major decisions the new council makes that affect the environment.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hallowe'en: Orange, Black, and... Green?

With only eight days to go until one of my favourite events of the year, I'm going to squeak this post in before it's too late. Hallowe'en is so much fun that it's easy to ignore how much waste it creates, from candy wrappers to decorations to costumes. Here are some tips I've come up with that will help you green this otherwise strictly orange and black festival.


Dog/cow, copyright istolethetv (2008)

The easiest way to wear an environmentally-friendly costume is to come up with the idea well in advance of October 31st, gather the items you need from the stuff in your home, and create the outfit yourself! This requires some planning but guarantees compliments if you pull it off well. For any materials you lack, browse your local thrift stores and garage sales to reuse what others no longer need. Kids can pass on their costumes to younger siblings, and throwing a costume trading party earlier in the fall is a good idea, too. Don't forget to donate your outfit to a charitable organization if you don't expect it will be worn again.


These days, it's pretty easy to find locally and sustainably grown pumpkins. After carving them, roast the seeds for a yummy snack! Once you no longer need their spooky faces (which you've been lighting with cleaner-burning, longer-lasting soy candles instead of paraffin/petroleum ones), make pies and cookies, and compost the scraps. As for the inedible type of decorations, as with costumes you can put your arts and crafts skills to good use and create your own from the items in your home. Not that creative? Consider renting decorations from a party supply store, or if you must buy, choose durable products that will last many years. Last but not least, if you hang up festive porch lights, choose LED over incandescent bulbs.


Pictured above is a great example of an earth- and health-conscious Hallowe'en treat: dried fruit in a recyclable container. I've also heard that apple sauce makes a great candy alternative, and those little plastic cups they come in are great for crafts. Generally speaking, look out for local, sustainable treats, although to be completely honest, I have no idea how sustainable or unsustainable chocolate bars are - just that they're pretty terrible for you. Try to choose products with as little packaging as possible, however keep in mind that food wrapped up in such a way that it may have been tampered with will be tossed out. Looking for something completely different? Give trick-or-treaters usable items, like pumpkin-shaped erasers! And remember to send the kids out with sturdy, reusable shopping bags or pillowcases, or those plastic jack-o-lanterns.

Have a happy, safe, and eco-friendly Hallowe'en!

Friday, October 22, 2010

The TTC: if you think the service is poor now, wait until it becomes privatized!

The citizens of Toronto will be electing a new mayor and dozens of city councillors on Monday, October 25th. It remains to be seen how many people will actually cast their ballot, considering many don't like the top three candidates, and recent polls show that up to 1/5th of residents are still undecided with only four days to go before the elections. I can't say I'm going to be happy with either of two front-runners as my new mayor, and I'm only half-kidding when I say I'll leave town if one in particular is voted in.

The purpose of this post is not to discuss the candidates' platforms, but rather to share with you what I have learned about a very central issue this year: public transit - public or private? Currently, more than 12,000 Torontonians have become members of the Public Transit Coalition, believing that the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) must remain publicly owned and operated, with government oversight and accountability being critical to its success. They also feel that funding must come from all levels of government, and that the Transit City plan needs to go forward.

The TTC subway: imperfect but functional.

To educate Torontonians on the dangers of the privatization of transit systems, the Public Transit Coalition has created a TV ad and online video that show what went wrong in other large cities when that scenario played itself out. There are four issues:

  1. Privatization does not necessarily save government money: transit systems are always subsidized by the government, even those controlled by private corporations. In fact, nearby York Region's system is private and required five times as many tax dollars per ride compared to the public TTC last year. The situation is even worse in Melbourne, with only two thirds as many riders as in Toronto but four times the cost to the public. To top it off, private corporations always pay higher interest rates than governments on loans for transit construction.
  2. Privatization does not cause fares to drop: this has never happened and the opposite is often true, like in York Region, where despite such a great degree of subsidization the fares are actually higher than in Toronto. Another great example of how big of a myth this is comes from toll Highway 407, which cost 200% more to traverse four years after it was sold by the government than when it was still public. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation can't even put a stop to the fee increases, which should come as no surprise since they no longer own the road.
  3. Privatization does not result in an overall improvement in service: with profit as their bottom line, private corporations tend to cut those services which are least profitable. In the case of transit, that means late night buses and routes to areas outside of the city core. Due to Toronto's relatively large number of suburban neighbourhoods, transit service cuts could be particularly harsh. I was stunned to learn that most bus riders in Melbourne essentially have 8 pm curfews on weeknights and can't go out at all on Sundays, when there is no service.
  4. Privatization does not promote public accountability: although the government does not lose all authority over services once they are sold to private corporations, its ability to control the quality of the services diminishes. What's worse, even everyday people like you and I lose power: no matter who we vote for, private owners don't have to debate subsidies, fare prices, or profit margins in front of the officials we elect. Keep in mind that their main job is to line the pockets of their shareholders, not satisfy the service needs of the public.

    Toronto's iconic red streetcars. Copyright wyliepoon (2009)

    For more information about the campaign to keep the TTC public, check out the keepttcpublic website. To see the environmental report cards on the mayoral and council candidates, visit the Toronto Environmental Alliance site.

    A billboard promoting the TTC's Transit City plan.

    Wednesday, October 20, 2010

    Enviropig™ ... More Than Just a Cute Pig.

    Cuter than Spiderpig, but scarier: wait till you hear about what they are and why they exist.

    Courtesy of The Simpsons™
    Researchers at the University of Guelph have created a genetically modified pig that excretes less phosphorous and, thanks to Environment Canada, have been allowed to reproduce and export it since February of this year. Now it's up to Health Canada to approve Enviropig™ for human consumption in this country - a scary thought.

    Why is phosphorous bad?

    Actually, phosphorous isn't bad. In fact, the phosphorous cycle is critical to plant growth and therefore, our survival. The problem is that excess phosphorous contaminates water: rivers and lakes with high phosphorous levels become overgrown with algae while other plants die off with too little sunlight and fish choke on too little oxygen. And if that weren't enough, it's also really unhealthy for animals (that includes us!) to drink.

    How is all of this excess phosphorous ending up in the waterways?

    This is a direct consequence of industrial hog production, otherwise known as the factory farming of pigs. It's exactly what the name implies: a big factory containing a large number of pigs, and often nothing else on the farm. Now, Mother Nature, left to her own devices, is one clever lady: she created pigs that excrete phosphorous so that their manure can be broken down by bacteria to release phosphorous back into the soil for plants to consume for growth. The cycle is complete. (By the way, if you're wondering why I'm not citing any sources, it's because I'm the source. Yesterday I wrote the first midterm for a course on sustainable development I'm taking this fall, so I've got cred!)

    Enter human greed: the desire to make more money by cramming way too many pigs in way too small a space with way too little soil and plants in the surrounding area (not that there isn't land surrounding the farm, just that there couldn't possibly be enough of it compared to the size of the factory). Take Mother Nature's cycle, but add too much phosphorous, using the equation "too many pigs = too much manure = too much phosphorous", and what do you get? Factory farm run-off of pollutants into waterways.

    Enviropig™ solves the problem of too much phosphorous - isn't that good enough?

    No! I don't want the story of genetic modification to turn into the story of cigarettes, where we find out it's horribly bad decades after it's introduced to the market. How can we even determine the long-term health effects of GMOs when the companies who create GM seeds prohibit independent research on them? In other words, the reports we hear about are the ones funded by Big Agri-Business, and any proof that GMOs are harmful never sees the light of day. I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but shouldn't we be "better safe than sorry" when it comes to our health?

    What if genetic modification were absolutely safe?

    Enviropig™ would still be wrong, simply because factory farming is wrong, and the associated problems can be solved in much easier and cheaper ways!

    • raise fewer pigs in one place, or raise fewer pigs, period: we produce much more than we consume (yet hunger remains a big issue across the country) so could easily tolerate smaller livestock operations while simultaneously supporting family farms rather than their corporate counterparts
    • feed pigs what they were meant to eat: a little bit of everything rather than a small variety of grains (typically corn and soybeans), which they can't fully digest and directly causes excess phosphorous in their manure
    • spread the manure over much larger areas on the surrounding farmland (which is often used to grow the grain fed to pigs), rather than storing it in pits; this also reduces the amount of synthetic fertilizer used on crops, further reducing the likelihood of pollution run-off into waterways

    When I claim these methods would cost less than raising
    Enviropig™, I'm including potential fees charged per pig, which is what Big Agri-Business does with its GM seed, the instability of foreign markets which have previously closed due to swine flu (most of the pork Canada produces leaves the country, by the way, in a desperate attempt to keep the industry afloat), and the big unknown - whether those markets are even interested in Enviropig™ at all.

    For more information, check out the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

    If, like me, you're feeling a little powerless about all of this (after all, when has writing to the Minister of Health ever influenced legislation?) and want to take proactive steps, I encourage you to talk to your butcher, ask where your meat comes from, and refuse it if it comes from a factory farm. Vote with your wallet!