Monday, September 27, 2010

Invest In BIXI For a More Sustainable Urban Future

Maybe you're the person who lives outside of the city and likes to come by train to visit every other weekend, then needs a way to get around while here. Or maybe you're the person who doesn't want to invest in a new bike only to have it stolen. Or maybe you're the person heading out to attend an event with friends, but one of you doesn't have their own bike. Or maybe, like me, you'll happily settle for transit (complaining all the while) and walking but believe in making the city more sustainable by reducing vehicle traffic. All are great reasons to register with BIXI Toronto.

This public bike sharing system has already been successfully adopted in Montreal, London, Washington DC, Minneapolis, and Melbourne, and Toronto will follow suit if 1,000 people sign up for a 12-month membership by the end of November. For $95, you will be able to sign out a bike at one of 80 solar-powered docking stations positioned every 300 metres south of Bloor between Spadina and Jarvis, ride it to run an errand, cross town, or just look really cool, then drop it off at any station on the network and enjoy no additional fee as long as your trip took less than 30 minutes.

The bikes themselves are sturdy yet lightweight with aluminum frames, easily adjustable seats, a front rack, lights which are activated when the bike is in motion, and best of all, they're designed and built in Canada. The docking stations, as mentioned above, are powered by the sun, wireless, and require no digging to be installed! In fact, the systems are modular and designed to be so portable that it can take as few as 20 minutes for a team of two to set them up in a new location, which is especially useful for two-day festivals on weekends in areas otherwise unserviced by BIXI.

Once the network has been set up (again, provided a total of at least 1,000 memberships are sold in the next two months), riders can opt for 1-month or 12-month subscriptions purchased online, whereas occasional users can just step up to a docking station and buy a 24-hour pass and make as many 30-minute trips as they'd like over the course of the day. Longer trips cost extra but can be easily avoided by using the bikes only for one-way trips - you don't normally call a taxi to take you to the airport, wait there while you vacation in the south, then bring you home again two weeks later. Hence the name, bicycle + taxi = bixi. It sounds better in French!

Bike sharing systems are important. For everyone's sake, we need to reduce the number of vehicles in use, improve air quality, and allow everyone access to sustainable methods of transportation. BIXI not only brings us closer to these goals but also offers convenience and security. Imagine leaving your own bike at home (or not having to buy one in the first place) yet being able to ride whenever and wherever you need to without having to carry heavy locks, spend time and money on maintenance and accessories, worry about having your own bike stolen, or wonder if the subway will be too crowded to fit your bike when you bring it all the way from home.

The plan is to have 1,000 12-month memberships sold by the end of November (which hasn't happened yet) so that the system can be put into place about six months later, just in time for beautiful cycling weather. Subsequently, use of the program is expected to increase as the bikes and docking stations will be everywhere and pretty much advertise themselves. This will allow the network to be expanded and the number of bikes to increase. So even if you don't live in the proposed service area, invest in the system today to make use of it tomorrow. This is just like raising capital to start up a business, but without having to worry about whether it will take off: the statistics from Montreal prove just how successful the program can be!

  • in its first year (2009), 1.14 million BIXI trips were made, 10,775 riders purchased 1-yr subscriptions, and over 100,000 24-hour passes were used
  • 86% of 2009 subscribers intended to renew for 2010
  • 91% of Montrealers are aware of the BIXI program
  • the system expanded from 3,000 bikes at 300 stations when it launched in May 2009 to 5,000 bikes at 400 stations within six months!
  • there were 20,000 subscribers by May 2010, just one year after the program was started!

I hope you will give this some thought, talk about it with your family, friends, and colleagues, and of course, register by November 30th, 2010! (Don't worry, you will receive a full refund if the target isn't met.)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Evergreen Brick Works Grand Opening Weekend

This Sunday I'll be volunteering at Evergreen Brick Works (EBW) as part of their Grand Opening Celebration, and I'd like to invite you to come down and join the party. Evergreen has been around for about 20 years and strives to make cities more livable by creating green spaces for residents to better connect with nature. The Brick Works site is a community environmental centre transformed from the old Don Valley Brick Works that supplied the bricks that built Casa Loma and numerous Toronto homes. EBW is a place where the public can learn about living sustainably.

Grab your friends and see what it's all about! On Saturday you can enjoy the Farmer's Market, games, the Grand Opening Ceremony, and the Big Reveal (guided tours through the site). On Sunday the day kicks off with yoga and meditation, followed by a big musical and cultural festival, a community planting event, and a public art opening installed directly inside some of the old brick kilns! As a volunteer I got a sneak peak on Wednesday night and have been giddy ever since.

For more details, refer to the Grand Opening event page.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Car Free Day in Pictures

To start off the festivities, City Councillor Kyle Rae from Ward 27, Toronto Centre - Rosedale, gave a quick speech about the importance of a healthy environment and healthy residents. (Sorry for the blurry photo, my camera auto-focused on the audience member in the foreground who stepped in front of me just as I took the shot!)

The Sierra Club tent, staffed by Dan at the time I took this picture. The Sierra Club is a non-profit environmental agency working in conservation, policy analysis, community activism, and grassroots education about environmental issues. They organized the whole event! Specifically, Emma did the grunt work to make this day a success.

Giant Scrabble! Notice the environmental words: "green", "train" (as an alternate method of transportation), and "gear" (on a bicycle). Later someone spelled "oar" and claimed that canoeing would be one of the greenest ways to get around. Not very likely in the city, though...

Art Battle! Andres Correa (left) and Alex Jones (right) had 20 minutes to paint something inspired by Car Free Day. There was music playing in the background and lots of curious onlookers, not to mention Iron Chef-style announcements of how much time was remaining - no pressure! Check out Art Battle Toronto for details on this and other events.

The finished works were Correa's city street with lots of cyclists and Jones' super skinny speed bike. The audience voted for their favourite, and Correa took the glory. Sierra Club's own Christina won Correa's painting in the subsequent auction.

This is what southbound Queen's Park Crescent looks like when it's closed to traffic, or "opened to people", as someone aptly pointed out. I can't describe how great it was to hear no noise in the park itself, and leisurely stand in the street to take this picture. Lots of cyclists came just to be able to ride the loop for fun, right down the centre of the lanes.

The rain held off and the event was a success. A sunny day may have brought more people out, but the relatively small size of the crowd in attendance does not accurately portray the number of residents who may have chosen a more sustainable method of transportation to get to work or school today. Every year more and more people make the switch, and that makes me happy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Car Free Day Tomorrow!

For the first year ever, Car Free Day has moved from Yonge & Dundas Square to Queen's Park Crescent, which will be closed to vehicle traffic tomorrow, September 22nd, between 10 am and 2 pm from Wellesley north to Bloor. Instead of cars, you'll find street performers, activities, environmental NGO booths, yoga sessions, bike maintenance and repair workshops, food vendors, and a few eco-retail booths. The goal is to promote alternative transportation and reduction of everyday emissions in the GTA as part of what is actually an international, yearly event. This downtown location is partnered with U of T, which is holding its Environment Week festivities in the park on the same day.

What can you look forward to?

  • an art battle and charity auction
  • free yoga classes
  • giant board games in the park
  • mini golf, badminton, and other activities
  • cycling safety awareness, bike tune ups, and circuit training
  • dance classes, Really Really Free Market (trade used items for free), and food from local vendors

Hope to see you! I'll be organizing a game of Giant Scrabble.

Check out the Ontario chapter of the Sierra Club for more details.

Monday, September 20, 2010

In the News Today

[Every day I read news about the state of the environment and the things we humans do to help it or harm it. I'll try to share some of the stories with you on this blog.]

 Two Australian researchers (a psychologist and a climate scientist) have published a paper about why so many of us are unconvinced that climate change is happening. Apparently there are a lot of psychological traps we fall into when trying to understand what we're being told about climate change by the media, politicians, and each other. For example, do you know how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere? Does 0.0384% by volume, or 390 parts per million, mean anything to you? Sound kind of tiny? Well, if we took all of the CO2 and collapsed it into a single layer, it would be eight metres thick. All of a sudden it's not insignificant.

 Another way to help us understand climate change facts would be to learn about it in undergrad: the National Tertiary Education Union (an Australian union for workers in academia and related industries) is proposing that university students be required to become environmentally literate by taking courses on basic climate science and how their chosen field of study contributes to climate change. While the union can't directly affect university curricula, it can demand these changes be made as a condition of future labour contracts. Will Australia pave the way for us to adopt similar measures in North America?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Mystery of the Dirty Dishes, Chapter 3

Today I'm happy to report I've made some headway on the dishwasher mystery:

Sure, the cracks look terrible, but it's clean!
Compare this new result to my initial disaster (if you're unfamiliar with the mystery so far, check out Chapter 1 and Chapter 2):

Ew. Ew ew ew.
So here's what I did: I filled the main detergent cup with Cascade and the second one with Natureclean, then added white vinegar as a rinse aid. I'm still a little disappointed with the cutlery but am happy that my mug with tea stains has become a mug with mere memories of tea. Sure, it's not sparkling, but I have multiple fancy tea cups that I only ever wash by hand for discerning guests.

Coincidentally, the New York Times just ran an article about low-phosphate detergents. Not a particularly friendly one, either, singling out disgruntled whiners while conveniently ignoring everyone who has had great results with eco brands. Also, the author made statements about people choosing traditional products because of how unappealing it is to make personal sacrifices for the sake of the environment, rather than how switching to healthier options points to how much we've been sacrificing nature for so long.

Subsequently, people voiced there opinions. Lots of them did. And they were angry. Please read the article and the comments and perhaps leave a few comments of your own below this post.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Good News: the Ozone Layer Is Recovering!

The United Nations published a study that found that the ozone layer is no longer thinning! In fact, the Antarctic ozone hole is smaller than it was in 2008. Granted, so far there is no proof that the ozone layer is increasing in volume, and there are estimates that we will have to wait another few decades (possibly the rest of this century for the polar regions in particular) before it fully recovers, but after my last post I think we ought to focus on the good news. So I'll say it again: the ozone layer is healing!

Time for a quick science lesson (based on Environment Canada and what I remember from high school). The ozone layer protects us from the sun's UV rays. The sun helps to create and break down molecules of ozone at just the right rates such that in a healthy atmosphere, the amount of ozone (and therefore the density of the ozone layer) remains constant. All is well in the stratosphere.

Enter human technology, circa 1970. We used chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in everything from fridges and air conditioners (as a coolant) to spray cans (as a propellant) to degreasers (as a solvent) without realizing that CFCs are ozone-depleting substances. The ozone layer started thinning out about 30 years ago, and polar regions suffered the greatest (the current hole is above the Antarctic). With less ozone, more solar radiation makes it to the earth's surface, resulting in greater incidences of skin cancer and cataracts, and the widespread loss of plant life, which has a huge effect on agriculture.

Thankfully, scientists from around the world found a way to trust one another and signed the Montreal Protocol in 1987 which paved the way for CFCs to be phased out of production and use. Unfortunately, ozone-depleting substances take years to reach the stratosphere, and some do not break down for centuries; this explains the slow rate at which the ozone layer is projected to recover. But it will eventually happen!

You can read more about the United Nations study here. In the meantime, stay sun safe. You may think the threat is minimal now that fall is around the corner, but UV rays still reach us when it's cold out. Consider using a facial moisturizer that contains sunscreen, since your face is the only part of your body that remains exposed to the sun all year round. Also, UV-blocking sunglasses are important even in the middle of winter when the sun reflects off of snow. It's hard to think about that in mid-September, but it's coming!

One last thing: remember that if the global scientific community found a way to come together on this issue (though it took years), then we can be hopeful that future agreements will be signed to help fight other sources of pollution.

I'm posting another cute animal picture to keep you optimistic (and to lessen my guilty conscience about being so doom-and-gloom in my last post).

3-day old Nigerian Dwarf goat babies Courtesy of

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Watching the World Clock Makes Me Sad

Today I discovered Peter Russell's World Clock. If you watch it for about half an hour, you'll see the number of extinct species go up by one. I was too distracted by all of the other numbers (count-ups?) to notice this happening, however.

Folks, this is going to be a depressing post to read. I'll try to keep it short. Please enjoy this cute picture to bolster your spirits, then grab a box of tissues, and we'll hold each other as we examine this sadness together. Don't worry, I'll place another cute picture right at the end.

Bunny in a cup! Courtesy of

On the clock, the first statistic we face is the rapid growth of the population. Those numbers are going up so fast that if I count along with them out loud, I have to skip a few just to take a breath. It isn't pleasant, of course, to look at how often someone dies, but if you watch the "Death" counter you'll notice it's going quite a bit slower than the three other counters in that part of the clock. There are a lot of us on this little planet, and every day more of us are moving up in socio-economic status, leaving behind larger and larger footprints.

Next we're assaulted with that bleak statistic about species going extinct, as I mentioned above. One every half hour means 48 every day. Meanwhile, there are 1.5 billion cows on the planet (thankfully, there is no counter for bovine population growth on the clock). There's something wrong with this picture, right? Unsurprisingly, forests are being cut much faster than they're being replanted. Actually, reforestation is happening so slowly that it's even being outpaced by desertification. In other words, a double whammy of death. While clearcutting forests with modern machinery is pretty fast-paced work, desertification happens very slowly, doesn't make for good TV, and occurs in parts of the world the Western hemisphere prefers to ignore, so this doesn't make headlines too often.

Ah, the war budget, my favourite part of the clock! If only Peter Russell had also added a counter for how much money is being made from war, then we'd really be set. In less than one year, 850 billion dollars have been spent on the military, globally. Meanwhile, half of the world lives in poverty. What?!

Let's move on. I was prepared to feel sad, not angry.

Barrels of oil and tons of green house gases are being pumped and emitted, respectively, at approximately the same rate. I know it's not scientific of me to say this, but I can't help myself: "coincidence? I think not!" I know there are a lot of decimal points in the digital thermometer on the clock, but that's a good thing. Chances are you live close enough to sea level that a rate of climate change any faster than this would see you running for higher ground a lot sooner than you thought.

Some good news: bicycles are being made faster than cars (and computers). I'll be writing about the BIXI bike-sharing program in a future post, just you wait! The "Internet users" statistic is interesting because only recently has there been any media coverage about the amount of energy used to run a search, and these days it's so fashionable to look things up on the internet. I don't question the utility of finding an answer quickly, and I certainly wouldn't be able to update this blog with much frequency were it not for internet searches, but I wonder why we spend so much time on the internet doing brain-numbing things. What are celebrities wearing to TIFF screenings? I don't care!

For your sake and mine, I'm going to skip the abortions counter. I will also not delve deeply into the "Death Causes" column on the clock, because I promised a short post and have clearly already gone back on my word. Heart disease remains a bigger killer than cancer. Both are mostly preventable. Most of the deaths attributed to infectious disease are taking place in undeveloped nations - we can cure TB and leprosy, it's just not happening when there are no resources.

Okay, that's enough. I'm glad you stuck with me. As uncomfortable as it is to face the truth, we really have to at this point. Remember the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity? 18 years have gone by. Are we doing enough?

As promised, here is another cute picture to cheer us all up:

Piglet in pink rain boots! Courtesy of

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Mystery of the Dirty Dishes, Chapter 2

(To get caught up on the story, read Chapter 1 here).

Another load in the dishwasher, this time using tried-and-true Cascade, and... uh-oh...

Lacking a professional camera and photography skills, you probably can't see what's wrong with the green mug. It has this grey film all along the inside, corresponding to where the tea was when the mug was full. It actually looked dirtier coming out of the dishwasher than going in.

This mug had more obvious issues: not only is the inside clearly not white (again, a handwash may not necessarily remove the brown tinge, but a dishwasher ought to) but there are specs of... something? ... all along the rim. Caked on, I should point out. I attempted to scrape them away with my fingernails, to no avail. This is probably food residue from the plates and bowls that once again came out just fine. If only it was a bottom rack vs. top rack discrepancy, then at least I could conclusively determine the problem. Unfortunately other items in the top alongside the mugs (small plates, bowls) emerge clean and shiny, and while plates do well in the bottom, nearby spoons and knives suffer in the cutlery basket (at least, last time). Which reminds me to update you that the knives and mug I pictured in Chapter 1 were very easily cleaned in the sink once discovered to be dirty after their time in the dishwasher.

So I'm stumped. I was hoping that using a big-name commercial brand would help sort things out. Namely, if everything turned out perfectly, I could blame Natureclean and possibly try out some other green detergents until I found one tough enough to get the job done without having to sacrifice human and environmental health. Alternatively, if this most recent load came out with equally poor results, I would assume the machine itself is really ineffective. We already know it gets an F grade for energy use!

Sadly, the results are hard to analyze. Cascade "rinses away residue, leaves dishes sparkling", in theory, and sort of managed that with most of my dishes, but not with others. Compared to Natureclean, it did much better with cutlery but had a similarly disappointing outcome with mugs. It also made the whole apartment artificially smell like lemons and irritate my nose, like a mild version of wasabi-burn (not a comforting thought considering I was merely inhaling it, not ingesting it).

Being a total novice when it comes to dishwashers - we had one growing up but used it only when more than two guests came over for dinner and we used fancy dishes - I feel very underqualified to assess the situation. Is it normal for the occasional crumb of food not to rinse away but rather to end up on other dishes? To the extent that I can't flick away those little bits with my nails? Is it okay if my mugs are stained, when those stains come out easily with a quick hand wash later? From an environmental perspective, I don't want to resort to commercial gels or powders, but I also don't want to have to waste more energy and water than I already am by washing some items in the sink. I just don't know how to avoid it. Do I throw in the towel and ask the landlord to call in a technician to take a look? Do I need to start experimenting with rinse aid? Should I attempt washing the mugs in the bottom rack? So many questions!

Do you have any ideas or suggestions?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Eco-Friendly Golf Courses... Oxymoron?

Milly doesn't care about golf courses but is a model to us all for growing her own cat nip without the use of synthetic fertilizers or toxic pesticides.
I know I have the tendency to come down pretty harshly on green technology that allows people to feel good about their purchases while maintaining the same level of unnecessary consumption (see my early, pessimistic posts on recycling bottles of water and using biodegradable coffee cups). I also know that it can be hard for me to value tiny positive change because I automatically think about the bigger picture and the overwhelming amount of work yet to be done. I've been adopting a more optimistic attitude day by day, but this week I had to bang my head against the wall when I read someone's online statements about a golf course being sustainable because of the use of organic fertilizer on the grass. Actually, I kind of want to bang my head against the wall right now, just thinking about it...

A few members of the LinkedIn Green Group started discussing the concept of "organic golf courses" when someone posted an article about a course on Martha's Vineyard that stopped using pesticides in favour of non-toxic alternatives such as using beneficial bugs to eat the insects that feast on grass. With my new-found optimism about every green action making a difference, I applauded this initial effort... then pointed out that it's probably impossible to make the entire golf course sustainable. The truth hurts, I know. But so far so good, people were sharing educated opinions, there was some consensus on better vs. worse ways to promote healthier forms of pest and weed control, etc. Then, tragically, someone mentioned a company that has been supplying organic fertilizer to golf courses for a few years now, "so there are golf courses that are "green sustainable" already".

Please excuse me while I bang my head against the wall, again.

To be absolutely clear, I wholeheartedly support the use of fertilizer that is not hazardous to plants, animals, the soil, the water, the air, and us. I'm actually willing (just like Local Food Plus is) to accept the limited use of minimally harmful fertilizer if it's absolutely necessary to maintain the overall sustainability of an agricultural endeavour. However, to claim that a golf course is green because one single element has been switched from conventional to organic is at best, ignorant, and at worst, threatens to misinform a large audience. Granted, I'm hoping most Green Group members won't take that member's comment literally, and I'm betting neither will you. However, this is a great opportunity to explore some of the basic concerns I have with golf courses.

After switching to a healthier fertilizer option, the next problem to tackle is pest control. Both fertilizers and pesticides have the nasty habit of dirtying the soil and groundwater, and in turn, the plants we eat and the water we drink. Pesticides in particular have far-reaching side-effects due to their indiscriminate killing of most insects (both unwanted and beneficial ones) and their tendency to promote resistance in the ones that survive.

If the fertilizers and pesticides have been taken care of, what do we do about the massive amounts of water necessary to keep the grass green? This is tricky because golf courses cluster in areas that see lots of heat and sun and very little rain. Automatic sprinkler systems abound. One option is to choose hardier varieties of grass, the camels of the plant world, if you will. There's this stuff called Eco-Lawn that claims to be drought-resistant. Let's hope golf balls roll the same way on Fescues and Ryegrass as well as on standard turf!

Now that we've taken care of what lets the grass grow, let's move on to what cuts it down. Is there such thing as an industrial mower that runs on electricity instead of gas? Even if there were, the electricity would have to be bullfrogpowered to be sure the sustainability label can still be applied to this element of the golf course. Also, used engine oil must be properly disposed of. Maybe they can charge golf courses the same environmental fee they charge car owners for oil changes? Or they could use push mowers, or scythes.

See, this is getting out of hand. This is what happens when I start with one good idea and then think up all of the other problems that need solving. Add a dose of perfectionism, and you get one cynical environmentalist. I haven't even gotten started on the energy use of the golf course club house, the source of the ingredients in the kitchen, the nature of the synthetic materials that form the golf balls, or the likelihood that the owners would take a pay cut to implement green technology.

Here is what needs to be said: cutting down big patches of forests is bad. Cutting them down to grow food to sustain the population is acceptable. Cutting them down to build a golf course wastes energy and water, pollutes the soil, the water, and the air, and destroys the natural habitat of diverse lifeforms. At the risk of upsetting each golf-playing member of my immediate family, this game is yet another example of a human luxury that nature has to pay for. And, as part of nature, we suffer, too.

Can we agree to be more conscious in our recreational choices? As Mark Twain once said, "golf is a good walk spoiled". So next time you feel the urge to spend all day outside, spend it on a hiking path instead of a golf cart.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Mystery of the Dirty Dishes, Chapter 1

I pulled this mug out of the dishwasher this morning. Not exactly clean. Stains from tea are hard to get out by hand without a good abrasive pad, but they should be no trouble for a dishwasher. And check out these knives:
It may be hard to see because of the light reflecting off of the metal, but they look like they've been recently licked clean, and I'm betting at least one would test positive for Nutella. Strangely, the plates and bowls seemed fine - or maybe it's just harder to tell? And then there were a few spots on the inside of the door that looked like droplets of tea from when I placed the mugs in the top rack, which I could easily wipe clean with a moist cloth and very little pressure. Mysterious. Let me start at the beginning.

My partner and I moved to a new place a few weeks ago. Back when we were on the apartment hunt, one of the selling points for this place were the en-suite washer and dryer. No longer do I have to avoid the laundry room on Sundays and Mondays because it's at capacity! No longer do I have to live in fear of strangers touching my freshly cleaned clothes if I don't show up within two minutes after the end of the cycle! Now I can choose to always run the machines after 9 pm to save on electricity instead of planning my laundry chores around others! It's heaven, I tell you!

But I digress. The washer/dryer are lovely, and the dishwasher is just bonus. Generally speaking, I enjoy washing dishes by hand; there is something meditative about this simple act, and my hands enjoy being in warm water. Unfortunately, it's actually more energy- and water-efficient to run a dishwasher, especially if, like me, you have a tendency of doing a quick hand wash after each meal, i.e. do many small loads throughout the day, rather than loading up the dishwasher and running it only once full. BC Hydro presents some interesting tips to make either method more efficient.

Unfortunately, what with results like those depicted above, I'm being doubly inefficient by first using my landlord-purchased, standard-efficiency Maytag Performa (note how the name sneakily implies it performs well), then hand washing my still-dirty mugs and cutlery in the sink. Wait... did I say "standard-efficiency"? Let me be clear: are you familiar with the EnerGuide labels that point out on a sliding scale how much energy your appliances use? The Performa is less than 1 cm from the "uses most energy" side of the scale. That's right, it will use an estimated 685 kWh per year. The scale ends at 698 kWh. So let's just call it ultra-low-efficient.

Back to the story: the very first time I ran the dishwasher, I encountered similar results to today's. Being the good researcher that I am, I needed to replicate the findings as proof that this wasn't some fluke outcome. Sadly it keeps happening, now three times in a row, despite using the "temp boost" and "extended wash" options this most recent time. What's going on? My partner suggests the culprit is the dishwasher liquid:
Natureclean Automatic Dishwasher Gel, which looks like gooey apple cider, smells totally neutral, and promises to remove food stains "without those toxic chemical fumes wafting through your kitchen and nasty chemical residue left on your dishes". I bought it because it's biodegradable and free of phosphates (which pollute our lakes and rivers), phosphate replacements (which also pollute our lakes and rivers), chlorine, perfumes, and dyes (all of which pollute us, the people eating off those freshly cleaned plates). I also like Natureclean because they're Canadian, their bottles are made from post-consumer recycled plastic, they don't include animal byproducts in any of their products, and they don't use animal testing during product development. But what does that matter if their dishwasher gel doesn't work?

Time to geek out, research-style, and get to the bottom of the problem. My partner wants to run the next load with dishwasher liquid from a big name brand, I want to try a different non-toxic brand, and the internet wants me to mix my own! Stay tuned for the results...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

8 Ways to Cool Down Without the A/C

After a long weekend of mild days and chilly nights where I live, summer is attempting one more big show with a hot, sunny day followed by thunderstorms in the evening. This presents me with one last opportunity this season to share some energy-saving tips for days like these, lightly paraphrased from Yes! Magazine's Stan Cox from about a month ago (please refer to "Articles I Like" in the column to the right for the full article).
  • Air movement: don't underestimate the power that circulating air has on the temperature your body perceives. That same annoying wind chill factor during the colder months can be put to good use when you're trying to sleep. There were some nights this summer when the cooling breeze from the fan caused me to pull on the duvet in the middle of the night! So keep those windows open and stick fans in them.
  • Seek shelter in the basement: this one needs little explanation because I'm hoping you remember that science class mantra that hot air rises and cool air falls. Also, the ground conducts heat very slowly and stays cool even on the hottest days.
  • Turn into a lazy bum: if you're an avid runner, hit the pavement first thing in the morning or after the sun sets. Restrict physical work during the hottest parts of the day. Also, you're cheating yourself by working out in an air-conditioned gym as this makes you less heat-tolerant while exercising.
  • Power down appliances: unlike my partner, I don't bake bread on hot days. Avoid using the stove, oven, dishwasher, drier, etc. until late in the evening. This also helps to avoid brownouts and blackouts in urban areas by reducing demand on the electricity grid.
  • Water is your friend: not only because you should make sure to stay hydrated, but also because it helps to conduct the heat from your body to the air (which is why sweating, although seemingly unpleasant, actually cools you). Take a dip in a community pool or a very quick cold shower, or join the kids under a sprinkler!
  • Create shade with plants: sitting by a tree-lined patio is nice; cooling your whole house with big trees that block sunlight from hitting your windows and roof is nicer! Also consider building a trellis for your patio: my mom enjoys shade from grapevines that grow over her veranda in the summer.
  • Open your windows at night: homes tend to stay hot even after the sun has gone down. When the outside temperature starts dropping, let it in! Don't just open the windows, place inside-facing fans in them, too.
  • Take an evening stroll: after avoiding sweltering heat and humidity all day, reward yourself by spending time outside when it's nice. Considering fall is around the corner, get out there and soak up what you can before it's gone.
Remember, beating the heat is about keeping your body cool, not turning buildings into fridges!

Monday, September 6, 2010

What I've Been Up To, Part I

I've been too busy to take photos of what I've been up to, and that's too bad. I'll have to paint a picture for you using 1,000 words - or maybe fewer, since these days hardly anyone has an attention span that long anymore! Here is the first installment:

Community Environment Days

From my childhood I remember when my mom used to drive to the parking lot adjacent to our local public pool and drop off used batteries, paint cans, and fluorescent light bulbs. Naturally, this occurred on hazardous waste collection days - she wasn't just dumping the junk! While the concept has been around for some time, I was quite impressed with the City of Toronto's Community Environment Days, at which I had the privilege of volunteering a few weeks ago. Ironically, the parking lot area devoted to household waste drop-off was set up in such a way that you could drive along a U-shaped route, pausing at each station to hand over your items with the appropriate department. Why on earth was idling encouraged at an environmental event? I have no idea.

Besides the drive-through setup and resulting unnecessary vehicle emissions, I have to say everything else about the E-Day was satisfactory at worst and excellent at best. First along the route was the electronics station, where "anything with a cord except for air conditioners" was accepted. I saw TVs, computers, printers, telephones, cell phones, cameras, and stereos being dropped off, and their component parts will be reused if still functional or recycled if broken. As my role at the event was to direct residents based on what they had brought, I was standing next to the electronics station toward the start of the route at the two-stroke engine drop-off, which accepted gas or electric lawn mowers, trimmers, leaf blowers, and chainsaws in return for a gift certificate to Canadian Tire! Good deal, I tell you.

Next were Toronto Water and Live Green Toronto booths, where residents could purchase rain barrels, indoor water efficiency kits, backyard composters, green bins, and kitchen containers. The latter two could be taken home for free in exchange for damaged ones. Every resident was also invited to help themselves to a few shovelfuls of leaf compost and take a garden waste bag home for curbside pickup once filled. Other household items in good condition were also being accepted for reuse, and by that I mean things like clothing, eyeglasses, dishes, sports equipment, books, etc. Additionally, art supplies and dress-up clothes were collected for donation to local schools.

Last, but based on the line-up, definitely not least, was the hazardous waste station. I saw the "usuals", like my mom's old batteries, paint, and light bulbs, but was happily surprised that people also knew to bring propane tanks, mercury-containing thermometers, expired medication, cleaning supplies, and motor oil for safe disposal. I think the entire contents of my dad's old garage could have been dropped off at this station!

To sum up my feelings about the Community Environment Day, I'll say this: it offers the second-best solution to one-stop-shopping (besides not doing it in the first place). Everyone seemed so happy to be able to purge carloads of stuff from their homes, and to do so all in one place! Hardly anyone had to go home with items that were not accepted, and the staff on hand were able to direct residents as to where those things would be taken. This was a well-organized event at a location with ample space for all of the stations, cars, cyclists, pedestrians, and pets that showed up. Well done, City of Toronto.
  • Community Environment Days occur all over the place within the city (I believe there is one per ward). To find one in your area (there are two more this year, then the program will run again as of April 2011), check out the schedule
  • To read a full list of what is accepted at the E-Days, check out the details here.
Happy waste diversion!