Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy Birthday, Earth!

It's been a year of ups and downs, with some bad environmental policy decisions but also some green good news stories. When my birthday comes up, I think about what I've accomplished over the past year, and I start planning how to reach my next goals. Well, it's not my birthday, but in many ways, New Year's is like the planet's birthday. Instead of dwelling on the good things that didn't happen and the bad things that did, at the end of December I put my mental energy towards a hopeful and optimistic attitude for our collective future. I'm not expecting that 2012 will provide solutions to all of our environmental problems, but I'm sure we can make some great things happen. So happy New Year, dear readers, and Happy Birthday, Earth!

Photo of earth used under Creative Commons from blueforce4116 (flickr).

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

It's All About the Little Things

During the holiday season, which for me is stressful more often than not, I find it useful to change my perspective and look at the big picture. Most years, this means reminding myself that no matter how much my family members irritate me (after too much time spent in close quarters), I still love them, and even though I have to travel pretty far to be with them, I'm still glad to be in good company over the holidays. This year however, I switched my mindset in a new way: I muted the voice inside my head that rants and raves about the poor decisions made by the government (you know, the usual, policies that will cause harm to human and environmental health). What did I pay attention to instead? The little things!

Over the past week I experienced small moments of delight whenever I noticed a simple action taken by my family members to reduce their environmental footprint and protect their health. Take for instance my mom, who saves water every time she takes a shower. As you can see in the photo above, she keeps large juice bottles in the bathroom so that she can fill them with the cold water that runs out of the tap before the hot water makes its way from the heater in the basement to the shower on the second floor. Later, she uses the juice bottles to fill a watering can which she uses on her indoor plants. Brilliant!

There were little things of a green nature in my brother and sister-in-law's home, too, like organic milk. Keeping pesticide-laden feed, copious amounts of antibiotics, and unnecessary synthetic growth hormones away from dairy farms means healthier cows, healthier humans, fewer superbugs, and a safer environment. My brother also attached his indoor Christmas lights to a timer so that they wouldn't run all night, and my sister-in-law told me the car sits unused for one or two weeks at a time. In the kitchen I found dish soap containing only natural fragrances and no phthalates. The list goes on!

I received some great eco-friendly gifts, too, like a bottle opener made from post-consumer materials that is completely recyclable, an energy-efficient electric blanket that will let me turn my thermostat even lower than I already do overnight, and a teflon-free rice cooker made of stainless steel in a double-boiler configuration. At a time of year marked by unnecessary consumption, excessive gift-wrapping, food waste, and high carbon emissions from extensive travelling, it was an absolute pleasure to delight in these lovely things.

What green actions does your family engage in? What green products did you receive as gifts?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Wishing You a Bright Solstice

I've always laughed at the term "ChristmaHanukKwanDiwalStice", not only because it sounds absurd, but because its speakers are attempting to be as politically correct / sensitive / inclusive as they can, which is actually a little alienating. The very fact that there are a dozen versions of this mishmash word draws attention to confusion around which holidays to include. Which belief systems are respected? Which ones are overlooked?

The spirit of the season.

Growing up, my family celebrated Christmas, but it never held any religious significance to me. As an adult, I still travel during the holidays, drawn home by the allure of traditions that matter: baking cookies (swearing when the sugar cookie dough dries out and cracks), decorating the tree (the smell of fir triggers some serious nostalgia), enjoying an afternoon coffee with a shot of Baileys (definitely did not do this as a kid), getting dressed up on the 24th and staying in pyjamas all day on the 25th (extra points for not taking a shower), and doing very little besides working on jigsaw puzzles, watching movies, and reading (while snacking on the above-mentioned cookies).

Sure, many of you might be able to relate to some of these traditions, but if you don't celebrate Christmas, we probably have less in common. If there is no holiday for you at this time of year, our day-to-day lives might look nothing alike. Nevertheless, I'd like to suggest we all have something to be grateful for, no matter our race, ethnicity, beliefs, or culture. Okay, so maybe you have to live at a fairly high latitude in the northern hemisphere to relate, but that's most of my readers! I'm referring, of course, to the winter solstice, which occurred right around the time this post was published.

The northern hemisphere's shortest day in 2007.

On December 22nd, 2011, at 5:30 am UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) / 12:30 am EDT, for just a split second, the sun was as far from the north pole as it can possibly get over the course of the year, giving us the longest night of 2011 and kicking off the winter. Why does this matter? Why am I writing about this on my blog? Because every so often, it's important for me to stop and take note of what the planet is doing, especially if I consider myself an environmentalist. Beneath my feet, the planet is spinning on its own axis, hurtling through space around the sun, and tilting back and forth over the course of that yearly trip - no matter many paper cups I avoid using by drinking from a travel mug!

Forget the holidays. Forget the associated stress. Remember the planet. This extraordinary planet located just close enough to and far away from the sun to support life, to support us. If it didn't spin, tilt, and orbit the sun the way it does, we wouldn't be here. So let's celebrate the days getting longer, the light coming back. It's been really depressing having to get up in the dark and coming home in time to turn the lights on as early as 4:30 pm, or 4:00 pm on a rainy day. Even though the winter is just starting and the coldest days are ahead of us, we're moving towards long, bright days, and we're getting closer to the spring and the incredible amount and variety of life it gives us here in the north. The winter solstice is one of earth's ultimate holidays, and as a lover of this crazy planet, I can't help but love this time of year.

Wishing you a bright solstice!

Photo of crowded mall used under Creative Commons from The Hamster Factor (flickr).
Animated GIF of the winter solstice used under Creative Commons from Jecowa (Wikipedia).
Photo of moonlit night sky used under Creative Commons from Attila Botz (flickr).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Tuesday Toxin Talk

I'm currently reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, by Rick Smith (Executive Director of Environmental Defence) and Bruce Lourie (President of the Ivey Foundation). The book examines the toxins that leach out of commonplace items in our homes and workplaces and wind up in our bodies. Smith and Lourie experiment on themselves, purposely exposing themselves to everyday products over a four-day period, and use the results to raise awareness about the dangers that surround us. I'd like to use this space every few Tuesdays to share some of this vital information with you. For more in-depth coverage, please buy the book!


Let's talk about bisphenol A.

By now, I suspect all of you have at least heard of bisphenol A, or BPA, and most of you are aware of its toxic legacy. Since 70% of BPA is produced for use in hard, clear plastics, it comes as no surprise that we can find it in everything: medical supplies, water cooler jugs, CDs and DVDs, eyeglass lenses, laptop and smartphone screens, drinking glasses, hockey helmet visors, water bottles, vehicle headlights, kitchen appliances and utensils, baby bottles and water bottles, and scariest of all, the interior lining of tin cans that contaminates the food we eat.

Scientific testing has linked BPA with breast cancer, prostate cancer, learning disabilities, type-2 diabetes, and infertility. But did you know that scientists discovered its hormone-disrupting properties way back in the 1930s, i.e. 80 years ago? I'm not surprised that they initially believed the BPA would remain locked into the plastic or leach out only very slowly. However, it's shocking that they didn't continually test this theory and confirm that in fact, BPA is toxic even at very low levels. There is practically no safe level of exposure.

In 2008, Canada banned the import, sale, and advertising of baby bottles containing BPA. Two years later, BPA was placed on the Canadian Toxic Substances List, making Canada first in the world to declare the chemical as toxic. This is a great start, but we're not safe just yet. Rick Smith, who wrote the chapter on BPA, suggests the following:

  • When puzzling over the small recycling numbers on the bottom of plastic containers, remember this mantra: 4, 5, 1, and 2; all the rest are bad for you.

  • Find alternative uses for plastic baby bottles and replace them with glass ones.

  • Eat fresh or frozen food or food stored in glass bottles instead of canned foods, especially for food high in acidity like tomatoes.

  • Avoid putting plastic containers in the microwave, and if using cling wrap, keep it out of direct contact with the food.

  • Use cloth or canvas bags instead of plastic bags for shopping.

Please share any other tips for avoiding BPA in the comments section below! This post marks the end of the Tuesday Toxin Talk series on my blog, as I have written about all seven of the nasty chemicals covered in Slow Death by Rubber Duck. I hope these posts have been as useful to you as they were to me while researching and writing them. Some days I wish I didn't know how dangerous everyday objects are, but mostly I'm glad to be aware of the threats and ways to avoid them.

Image of chemical structure of bisphenol A sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of BPA-free water bottles used under Creative Commons from ZRecs (flickr).

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Feel Good News

It's Friday, and in my books, that means it's time to feel good. Let's set aside the doom-and-gloom stories for a moment and focus on some good news!


If today's FFGN news doesn't make you smile, I don't know what will.

In a small town in Ohio, a young entrepreneur has been making money the old-fashioned way. The really, really old, old-fashioned way: he used sheep to keep his clients' lawns short. That's right, this summer he rented out two Jacob sheep (a heritage breed, I'll have you know) for $1 per sheep per day to eat up the grass and weeds, and miraculously the ovines didn't touch the flowers or other decorative plants! It may have taken them up to a few days to finish their grazing, but in the mean time the homeowners kicked back and relaxed, and pollution-emitting gas mowers did no harm.

Eddie Miller, founder (and shepherd) of Heritage Lawn Mowing, is only 23 years old. He turned to entrepreneurship when no job opportunities presented themselves after he graduated from university last year. Though he had to supplement his income by working on a local farm, he was happy to accept barter payments for the lawn mowing and kept his prices low, driven by a desire to make the service accessible to all. Mostly, he seemed to like the rewarding work and rural way of life, though he does have dreams of scaling up his business in future years to take on bigger projects, with the long-term goal of running an organic farm company.

I, for one, am equally impressed and amused by this venture and hope to see some sheep mowers in my neck of the woods some time soon. To read more on this story and find out about other non-traditional agricultural start-ups, check out this article.

Photo of Jacob sheep used under Creative Commons from Lynn Gardner (flickr).

Monday, December 12, 2011

Excuse Me While I Bang My Head Against the Wall



On days like today, I'm not even sure if "WTF!?" truly captures my reaction to the news. I need a new expression to reflect my complex emotional state after hearing that Canada has officially pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol. NDP Environment critic Megan Leslie put it best when she said, "it's like we're the kid who's failing the class, so we have to drop it before that happens", which as we know from our school days makes everything better.

I don't actually want to rant about this, since I don't want to make myself more miserable than I already am, so instead I'd like to draw your attention to the problem of air pollution in Beijing. Why? Because it gives us present-day proof of how screwed we are if we don't do something about the state of the environment. Last week, the smog in China's capital city was so bad that highways were closed and flights were cancelled because visibility was limited to a few hundred metres. The U.S. Embassy's smog index actually exceeded its upper limit. What's worse than a "hazardous" reading? Critical? Life-threatening? Deadly?

It saddens me that so many people have gotten caught up in debating the merits of measuring one particle vs. another (the Americans like the PM 2.5 standard, the Chinese like PM 10), not because it doesn't matter (it does), but because it detracts from the real problem: the air in northeastern China is a chronic and very dangerous issue. It's possible that breathing in that bad air will reduce life expectancy by five years. What are we going to do about it?

We can start by thinking about the main contributors to air pollution in the Beijing area: vehicles, coal-fired power plants, and industry. While China is on the other side of the planet, I actually feel quite capable of helping to bring about change in these areas by remembering the link between my actions and their consequences:

  • cars: I admit to owning one. However, it's very fuel-efficient, and I only drive it once or twice a week. If I had to give it up, I'd probably adjust pretty quickly, never look back, and roll around in all the money I'd be saving. The best part? I would be an excellent role model, showing how great my quality of life can be without having to own a car.

  • coal: I am a huge supporter of clean and renewable energy and its ability to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, thereby mitigating climate change. The more we invest in mixing alternatives into the conventional electricity grid, the sooner we'll develop more efficient green power generation technologies, which will hopefully lead to the whole world turning to renewables.

  • stuff: I avoid buying useless crap, especially useless crap made in China. As for those items that are practical and necessary, I try to find the ones that are made domestically, and made without plastic (since so much of it comes from China). Our consumer culture is partially responsible for the dirty clouds billowing out of Chinese factories, and I want no part of it.

My lifestyle impacts my home and work; my city, region, province, and country; and in many ways, the whole planet. The Conservative government believes it is justified in shirking responsibility; I could not disagree more and refuse to allow this country's rapidly declining international reputation to smear my own.

Photo of F grade used under Creative Commons from amboo who? (flickr).
Photo of Beijing traffic used under Creative Commons from poeloq (flickr).

Friday, December 9, 2011

5 Ways to Green Your Holiday Food Bank Donations

At this time of year, many people spend a lot of time running around crowded malls in search of gifts for family, friends, colleagues, teachers, neighbours, even mere acquaintances. Little thought is given to the spirit of the holidays and the value of spending more quality time with loved ones. Thankfully, some of us are able to stop for long enough to consider the less fortunate, for whom the daily struggle of putting food on the table far outweighs the desire for accumulating "stuff".

If one of your goals for this month is to make a donation to a local food bank, I'd like to offer the following tips that will ensure your generous contribution will not only feed the hungry, but also leave the smallest footprint on the planet.

  1. Apply the same good food rules you use for your household grocery shopping to the items intended for the donation bin. In other words, choose cans of tuna labelled as line-caught albacore or skipjack, and look for non-perishable items containing locally grown ingredients processed in your area.

  2. Select whole foods rather than overly processed junk food to avoid scary chemical-based additives and preservatives that do as much damage to the environment as they do to human health. Don't forget that the longer the ingredient list, the more energy likely went into the making of the product!

  3. If you can afford to, choose organic food. It's a shame that healthier options cost more in our current food system, but remember that you're voting with your dollars every time you buy better products, whether they are destined for your own dinner table or someone else's.

  4. Try to find cans labelled as BPA-free. It's a tragedy that those who rely on food banks end up ingesting far more bisphenol A than the average person, simply because their veggies and seafood so frequently come in cans, and most cans are lined with BPA. But we can help make a difference!

  5. Avoid plastic and waste: opt for food packaged in cardboard boxes and glass jars (check if your local food bank will accept glass) and select bulk items rather than individual servings, such as oatmeal, juice, and canned fruit. And don't forget to use your reusable grocery bags to transport the food.

For ideas on which items are needed most, please consult the Stop Community Food Centre's website, and consider asking your local food bank about their donation guidelines. May the holidays be happy, healthy, and dignified for all.

Photo of food donation bins used under Creative Commons from photologue_np (flickr).

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Party Time

As some of you know, I volunteer. A lot. For many non-profit organizations. And one government: the City of Toronto, as a Live Green Toronto Volunteer. What do we do? Spread knowledge about environmental issues and promote the widespread use of Live Green programs to take positive steps towards a cleaner, healthier future for all residents. Every few weeks, volunteers attend two-hour training sessions where we learn about climate change, energy and water efficiency, waste reductions strategies, transportation issues, local food, parks and forestry plans, and a wide range of Live Green environmental initiatives that help Torontonians green their lives. In 2011 alone, hundreds of us contributed over 4,000 hours at outreach events all across the city, including the Live Green Toronto Festival and Community Environment Days that I have previously blogged about.

Since joining the program in 2009, I have made friends, networked, gained experience that helped land me my first paying job in the environmental sector, learned about really important environmental topics, and met and engaged hundreds of my neighbours at community events. The Toronto Environment Office, which manages the Live Green Toronto Volunteers program, throws us an appreciation party every December to show thanks for the hours we've put in over the year, and it's always a joy to have be treated to a nice dinner at the third floor ballroom in historic St. Lawrence Hall (click here for a much better photo of the ballroom's elegance).

This year was extra special because after putting in over 40 hours of outreach and attending over 20 hours of training (closer to 60 and 40 in my case), I have officially graduated from the program and took part in the ceremony at the party tonight. Above is a group shot of nearly 20 of us who reached this milestone in 2011. While I will continue to volunteer at events and learn more about the environmental issues affecting residents in this big city, I feel very proud of my accomplishments thus far and am so delighted to have my hard work recognized at this fun event. Best of all, the gifts included not only a beautifully designed certificate, but also a Live Green Toronto messenger bag made of recycled plastic bottles. The bag contained a graduation pin made of natural materials as well as a set of bamboo cutlery for eating on-the-go! What thoughtful, useful, practical gifts!

I only wish programs like this existed in every city. It's win-win-win, with municipal staff supported by volunteers, volunteers gaining valuable knowledge and experience, and the public learning many ways to green their lives. I'm so proud to be a part of it!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Inspiring Change

I'm delighted to announce that my fellow blogger Lynn Fang over at Upcycled Love, crusader for social change, has just published an e-book!

Lynn, a strong supporter of environmental and social justice, loves to write about how we can change the world by making changes in our own lives. She discusses organic food and farming, DIY projects, conscious living, and other topics that help us value time, experiences, health, and happiness, rather than money, stuff, convenience, and productivity. In her never-ending search for creative ways to bring about change, Lynn asked her blogging friends for stories about successfully influencing others to adopt more sustainable lifestyle habits. By bringing together these stories into a collection of positive, empowering, hopeful anecdotes, Lynn has painted a picture of what works and what doesn't when trying to inspire others, and, overwhelmingly, it seems the best method is to act as a role model, to live life as sustainably and fully as possible, and to show that there is an alternative to the rat race that we're told to believe is the only way to live life. I was honoured to be able to contribute to Lynn's work, and I hope you will feel enlightened when reading this uplifting collection of stories. To download a free copy of the e-book, please click here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New, Green Product vs. Used, Traditional Product? You Decide.

I'm stumped, and I need your opinion. "You" being the loyal followers of my blog!

Thankfully, this isn't a picture of my phone, but some days I feel it might as well be. For the past two and a half years, I've been using a cell phone that features a large touch screen, like the one depicted here. Before I adopted the phone, it belonged to my father, who has the tendency to pass down electronics to me when he's ready for the next model. Did he realize he was doing something environmentally friendly when he gave me his old laptop in 2003, his digital camera in 2005, his handheld video camera in 2007, and his cell phone in 2009? Probably not, though I'm always grateful for the gifts. Either way, I'm glad my footprint is small when I don't have to buy new electronics.

To get back to why I feel like my phone reminds me of the one in the picture, you need to know that the touch screen on my phone is showing signs of its age. Crazy, I didn't realize two-and-a-half was so old! The phone has lost its (warning: pun!) touch when I try to send a text message. The keyboard appears on the screen, I begin typing, and some of the letters don't show up, or one letter is mistaken for the one next to it on the keyboard. This, despite the fact that my fingers have not significantly increased in size over the past few years. Once I realized that the space bar fails to insert a space one out of every three times I touch it, I knew for sure that I was nearing the point where I would have to retire my little radiation-emitting friend.

But what do I replace it with? Unlike tablet PCs, e-readers, and Apple products - which I haven't been tempted to buy -  I can't function very effectively without a cell phone (if you had to take public transit in Toronto as often as I do, you'd understand how vital it is for me to be able to update friends about how late my arrival will be). I know how to safely dispose of the old phone, I just don't know which of the following two options to go for:

A. The new, green cell phone
  • greener materials: some use plant-based plastics, others are free of flame retardants and PVC, and many newer models contain a great number of recyclable parts than before

  • reduced energy use: power-saving mode and solar panels to help with recharging, and one model even has an alarm that notifies you when the battery has fully charged, so that you can unplug it right away and avoid drawing phantom power

  • eco-friendly companies: green production practices, take-back recycling programs, and supply chains free of unfair labour or minerals tainted by conflict

B. The used, traditional cell phone
  • no new materials: avoiding the production and processing of toxic products for use in circuit boards, screens, batteries, and casings (and the packaging that new phones are sold in)

  • reduced manufacturing- and transportation-related energy use: all of the power that went into producing the phone and moving the raw materials and parts around the globe is spread out over two users and a longer lifespan

  • lower demand for new phones: if I don't buy a new phone, I'm not contributing to the never-ending demand for new products, the kind of demand that prompts companies to make more and more each year

Those are some good arguments for both sides! There are counter-arguments, too. For example, new cell phone models are not nearly green enough to be considered eco-friendly, not unless the manufacturers avoid heavy metals and petroleum-based compounds altogether. On the flip side, giving a used phone a second home doesn't do anything to encourage cell phone companies to keep developing and improving on their green models.

Your turn: what would you do in my place? What is the biggest factor for you? Does my decision even carry consequences when in China and India, over 1 billion phones are in use?

Photo of broken cell phone used under Creative Commons from Ninja M. (flickr)
Photo of rotary phone used under Creative Commons from Stephen Mitchell (Fotopedia).

Monday, November 28, 2011

I'd rather think about chocolate.

Today Mayor Ford revealed the draft of the 2012 City of Toronto budget that will go to City Council for a vote on January 19th. If you've been following my blog even on an infrequent basis, you'll know that I'm not a fan of the mayor's attitude, values, and decisions, so it comes as no surprise that I'm unhappy about what he said today. Want a taste? How about a ten-cent fare hike on the TTC, in addition to the service cuts I just told you about on Friday? Or reductions to Toronto Public Library hours and acquisitions? Or the closing of three homeless shelters over the next two years? Or cutting 138 arts programs and projects? Or the elimination of WheelTrans service to dialysis patients? Sigh. Then there's the rumour that Canada is going to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol and is already trying to convince other countries to do so, too. In other words, I'm experiencing mood swings, only instead of a happy-sad dichotomy, I'm going back and forth between anger and shame. So... instead of thinking about all of this, I want to think about chocolate!

Chocosol makes artisanal chocolate in Toronto. The cacao beans are grown on small, organic farms in Mexico, using a direct and fair trade system, and the chocolate is handmade and delivered by bicycle around the city. I've promised many of my fellow bloggers that I'd do a full piece on Chocosol, but seeing as I haven't gotten around to it, and Slow Food Toronto just did, it's probably best if I just re-post the article here! FYI, my favourite Chocosol chocolate bar flavour is Five Chili Bullet. One square is a dessert unto itself!

Slow Food Spotlight: Chocosol

"Chocolate is a vehicle for my expression, my voice, my hopes, my love of people, community and health", says Michael Sacco, founder of the Chocosol Learning Community and Social Enterprise. Visionary, inventor, actionist and steward of indigenous knowledge - he is truly inspirational.

In 2003, Michael founded Chocosol with a group of innovative and dynamic individuals in Toronto and Mexico. The trans-local relationship between the growers in Mexico and artisanal chocolate makers here in Toronto is a shining example of true horizontal trade. The resulting chocolate is an expression of beauty - food for the body, mind and soil. As a community, Chocosol believes that sustainable foods should be fun to make, pleasurable, and an outlet for creativity.

Sacco learned to make chocolate in a small village near Oaxaca, Mexico. Working alongside indigenous farmers and artisanal chocolate makers, he learned ancient, time-honoured traditions. The dark, exotic cacao bean was an integral part of ancient Oaxacan culture - the tradition continues today. This knowledge he now stewards and passes on to others, "People ask me if I'm a chocolatier - I'm not creating chocolate, I'm stewarding that knowledge, regenerating that knowledge. Because it was here long before me and it will be here long after me."

As a born actionist, he believes that ordinary people can do the extraordinary - the point is to just start doing it. The goal being "to really work with civil societies, communities and lead by example. Always bringing the means and the ends together, the living, the researching, the working, and take the busyness out of life. Find a way to make living and learning a more holistic expression of the art of living and dying with dignity".

Mentored by his "Mexican family", Michael was inspired to create Chocosol. The chocolate created from the cacao bean is a symbol embodying his philosophy about life - the belief in dignified work for all. In his words, "Dignity is the ability to say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no, as well as have a vehicle for your creativity."

There are at least twenty varieties of the cacao bean, each with a distinct flavour. The varieties can be tasted and classified - much like wine. As a chocolate sommelier, Michael understands the complexities of the cacao bean and the type of chocolate food to create from each variety. The nuances of the bean are influenced by many factors including the variety, soil, climate and fermentation techniques.

Chocosol creates "eating and drinking chocolate" - not dessert. The cacao bean is abundantly nutritious, high in protein and one of the richest sources of antioxidants of any known food. The five flavours of chocolate bars available are: Sinfully Raw Vanilla, Hemp Gold, Darkness, Coconut and Five Chili Bullet. Each flavour is uniquely delicious for its carefully chosen cacao variety and additional ingredients, including organic amaranth, vanilla, hemp, coconut, chile and agave nectar. My personal favourite is the Five Chili Bullet bar - as it is introduced to the palate it begins with a rich, dark, woodsy cacao flavour, followed by a burst of spicy peppery fire, which quickly and surprisingly diminishes to finish with a subtle sweetness.

Integral to the taste and nutrition of the chocolate are the traditional methods used in its creation. Beginning in Mexico, the cacao beans are grown organically on small two- to three-hectare plots. Once harvested, the cacao gets broken, fermented for 7 to 8 days, washed, sun-dried, and stored in a series of community depots. From there, Michael works directly with the growers, ensuring a fair price, then ships to Toronto with a minimal carbon footprint.

The Cacao Loft, Chocosol's Toronto kitchen, is filled with the sights, sounds and aromas of artisanal chocolate making. Upon entering The Cacao Loft, I immediately felt a strong sense of community, conviviality and hospitality. This was particularly demonstrated by a young chocolista, Ilyan, who showed me through the kitchen, discussing the chocolate-making process, and giving me samples of his latest creations. Ilyan then set up several beautiful cacao and chocolate "sets" so I could photograph the essence of this beautiful food.

Unlike, European-style chocolate making, Chocosol does not roast the cacao beans at high temperatures, which eliminates many of the nutrients. Instead, the cacao is solar roasted and ground using a stone grinder. The slow, traditional process heats the beans only enough to activate the oils - 85% of the chocolate is considered raw food. After becoming tired of hand grinding, Michael invented a bicycle grinder, which is now used for demonstrations and for pre-processing ingredients such as vanilla. "We make chocolate that is good for the mind, body and soil - retaining the power of the cacao as food".

Chocosol is committed to being as environmentally friendly as possible. The use of energy is minimized through solar and pedal power as well as the use of a 220 current. Much of the work is done manually and by a using pedal-powered grinder - invented by Michael. The Cacao Loft now has a green roof, providing fresh ingredients for the kitchen and significantly reducing energy costs. Over 70% of the material in the kitchen was upcycled - found items restored to give them new life. A new 3500-square-foot facility is currently in the works, which will be state-of-the-art in terms of energy efficiency.

Chocosol has expanded its offerings to include coffee and tortillas - my favourite Saturday morning breakfast at the Brick Works Farmers Market. The fair trade coffee is imported by Chocosol, then roasted by the Classic Roasting Company in Concord. The roasting takes place in an all-stainless steel plant that recycles the heat from its roasters to increase energy efficiency - maximizing flavour through a low-emission process.

Michael's work continues through The Fresh Tortilla Project where he embraces the idea of global food produced locally. Corn tortillas are made using locally grown heirloom corn and traditional methods handed down through indigenous people in Mexico. The corn takes two days to prepare - one day to boil and a second day to grind using a stone grinder. The tortillas are then prepared fresh at farmers markets.

At Trent University, where Michael is a PhD candidate in Indigenous Studies, he is heading up The Milpa Project. The goal of the project is to demonstrate how small plots of land (milpa) can produce sustainable agriculture. Traditionally Milpa plots grow corn, squash and beans - at Trent that will be expanded to include a broader polyculture. The project provides a model for sustainable agriculture that can be readily duplicated.

Chocosol chocolate, coffee and tortillas are available at the Cacao Loft, located at 6 St. Joseph St. - bring your own container and receive 10% more chocolate for the same price. The same applies when purchasing at any of the following farmer's markets: Apple Tree, Brick Works, Sorauren, Dufferin Grove, Riverdale and Wychwood Barns. Several shops and cafes also carry the chocolate, visit for more information.

As a role model for all of us, Michael embodies true actionism while maintaining a strong sense of fun. My favourite quote from our conversation, "the greatest need now is to reconnect to the soil and food is a beautiful bridge. It gets you right into the soil".

Interview and article written by Lea Phillips, copywriter and communications specialist - passionate about local, sustainable, delicious food!

© 2011 Slow Food Toronto

Friday, November 25, 2011

This Is Not Okay

You know that feeling when you're in a public place and a young child is being an absolute nuisance? And your first impulse is to get upset at the child? Then you realize that the child is only partially to blame for its behaviour, and your frustration is best directed at the child's parents? Strange analogy, yes, but pretty accurate in this case: I'm angry with the TTC, but really, I'm mad at Toronto's Mayor, Rob Ford (the analogy fails because between Ford and the TTC, it's Ford who's the child).

So what did he do this time, he who is at war with everything but the car (after proclaiming that the war on cars is over)? As part of his misguided attempt to stop the gravy train at City Hall, he has asked the Toronto Transit Commission to cut their spending by 10%. This, when ridership is at an all-time high, overcrowding is standard on many routes, and more and more disgruntled drivers seek an alternative to their usual nightmare commute - the average is 80 minutes, longer than New York, Montreal, Berlin, L.A., and London. Shameful.

Back in September, the TTC came up with a solution that would help it meet its new budget: altering load standards. In other words, switch from more vehicles with fewer passengers to fewer vehicles with more passengers, which allows the TTC to avoid cutting out entire routes to save money. What it also provides is longer wait times and, tragically, more overcrowding. For those of us living in Toronto and using transit on a regular basis, it's hard to image how more people could be crammed onto buses and streetcars. Maybe TTC staff will stand on the loading platforms and push us in like they do in the Tokyo subway system?

When a document was leaked yesterday showing the planned service changes, my heart sank. There will be cuts to 56 bus routes and six streetcar lines as of January 8th. Several high traffic routes are affected, and while it may seem that lengthening the wait times along those routes by just one minute is no big deal, I challenge you to get on a bus or streetcar that is running a minute later than normal during the morning rush in this City.

All three bus routes and the streetcar line near my home will suffer. And while it's true that I'm upset with the TTC for further ruining their service rather than increasing our fares (though those are much too high for what we get - still, I'd rather pay more than face this), my anger is actually directed at Mayor Ford. It's not okay to impose budget cuts on a poorly-functioning transit system in a city as big as Toronto. Transit is not gravy. Gravy is the luxury leaf collection program in Ford's home neighbourhood of Etobicoke, which costs $500,000 per year and is, unsurprisingly, not on the chopping block, not even up for consideration. I'm so angry.

Photo of Fordzilla eating a streetcar used under Creative Commons from malstad (flickr).
Photo of crowded TTC streetcar used under Creative Commons from Tina Li (flickr).

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How Not to Make Friends

It seems the folks at General Motors believe they can look good by putting others down. In a WTF?!-worthy move, the car company published this ad in college newspapers across the U.S.:

"Reality sucks... luckily the GM College Discount Doesn't"? WTF?! I have never seen anyone laugh at the sight of a cyclist - not even the ones wearing neon spandex. Spend even half an hour during the morning commute on a Toronto street and you'll see drivers glancing wistfully at the cyclists speeding past them while they sit, idling, in bumper-to-bumper traffic. When I take public transit these days, I feel jealous of those who can bundle up and ride in the cold - and get to their destinations much more quickly than me.

GM, of course, had to pull the ad after receiving many complaints from the public. The reality that sucks isn't that cyclists are made fun of, it's that car companies think they can increase their sales with a low blow to a portion of the population that is smart, in good shape, and unstressed by their commute. Cyclists are well off, too, having saved money while drivers bought cars and insurance, saved some more money while drivers filled up on gas, and saved even more money while drivers maintained, repaired, and eventually replaced their vehicles. It's a no-brainer, folks. Ah, but perhaps the folks at GM have no brains? :)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Feel Good News

It's Friday, and in my books, that means it's time to feel good. Let's set aside the doom-and-gloom stories for a moment and focus on some good news!


Today's FFGN is less about news and more about feeling good. Check out this cute Star Wars-themed parody of the war between conventional and organic food:

It's so cheesy but so funny at the same time! The facts about unsustainable practices in modern industrial farming must get out to more people; why not speak in a language that a huge chunk of the population understands? Obi-Wan Cannoli is right when he says that people don't even want to know where their food comes from, they just want low prices. Who knows, maybe someday it will be possible for a potato "father" to have a cucumber "son" thanks to genetic engineering.

I hope you enjoyed the video, and have a great weekend!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fighting Food Deserts in Toronto

Remember when I posted the video about Fresh Moves, the fresh food market inside of a bus that makes stops within the food deserts in Chicago? (In case you missed it, click here.) Well, it turns out that the Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC) wants to apply the same kind of solution to the problem of food deserts right here in Toronto, and I can't wait to see how well it turns out!

There are, sadly, many food deserts in Toronto. Parts of Scarborough, North Etobicoke, and North York contain neighbourhoods where people have to travel farther than 1.5 km to reach a supermarket. Unfortunately, these are low-income areas where residents don't typically own cars, can't afford to take a taxi, and have a difficult time accessing public transit (fewer routes, less frequent schedules). That's a little backwards, no? To make sure residents still have access to fresh produce, some folks have gotten into the habit of illegally selling fruits and veggies from vehicles, right on the street, in what looks like a quick and dirty drug deal. The goods are legal and healthy; the method of selling them isn't.

The alternative is clear: have the City run a mobile produce program that stays within the boundaries of the law. The TFPC wants to pilot this type of project in 2012, with the possibility of allowing entrepreneurs to make the deliveries - much like how a food truck program is launched by a municipal government, then run by a collection of street food vendors. One major difference between Chicago's Fresh Moves project and what we're likely to see here next year is the location of the mobile produce stands: they won't be on the street for safety reasons; the risk of vendors and consumers being struck by other vehicles is just too great. Clearly, there are many issues that must be considered, but I have a lot of faith in the Council and its ability to come up with workable solutions to the food security issues in this city. Stay tuned for the launch!

To read Sarah's Elton's article covering this story, including a brief history of the TFPC, click here.

Image of empty grocery cart used under Creative Commons from IndyDina with Mr. Wonderful (flickr).

Friday, November 11, 2011

Guest Post: Edit My Closet

If you're a regular visitor to my blog, you know that I like to figure out the motivation behind people's green actions - or lack thereof - in an attempt to find more effective ways to encourage the public to make the world a better place. It will come as no surprise, then, that I was intrigued by Edit My Closet, a service that helps clients de-clutter their homes by identifying the barriers that stand in the way and reinforcing a simpler, greener attitude about consumption. I asked founders Beth and Cheryl to tell us more in this guest post.


Beth and Cheryl, the founders of Edit My Closet, have been providing their customers with emotional support while physically assisting in de-cluttering, organizing, and removing no longer needed/wanted items, for over five years. Their background in Social Work enables them to read body language, validate experiences, and be conscious of the emotional charge associated with de-cluttering. Beth and Cheryl both live in Toronto and have sparkling closets.

Dollar stores, leisure time, "I deserve it" upgrades, larger living space, disposable incomes, "just in case" mentality (holding on to things, physically or otherwise, out of fear one will never have access to them again), and shopping as a form of self-medication have all played an integral role in producing the cultural epidemic known as clutter.

Clutter is defined as "a confused or disordered state or collection". It's not difficult to be confused or disordered when we have an abundance of meaningless, useless objects surrounding us. This state can easily lead to feelings of being overwhelmed and out of control. This is why the process of de-cluttering (carving out time to consciously go through your stuff and discard items that are no longer useful) is considered therapeutic.

The process of letting things go and saying goodbye can be a difficult and emotionally charged experience. Our consumption and "holding-on" patterns are brought into awareness as we move through this process. The typical result, however, is one of liberation and clarity, especially when the process is executed in an environmentally conscious and sustainable way.

We provide our customers with five steps to make the de-cluttering process easier:
  1. Identify a cluttered space that requires organization. Easy!

  2. Establish expectations. Is there a specific vision for the space, i.e. easier access to items hanging in a closet, or wanting a drawer to close? Be clear around the intentions; writing them down helps significantly.

  3. Compartmentalize and assess! Empty all of the items from the space and sort them into smaller, categorized piles. For example, when organizing an office you may have a stationery pile, an electronics pile, a decorative pile, etc.

  4. Create 3 separate piles labelled Toss, Maybe, and Keep. Baskets or bins can be used in lieu of piles.
    • Go through each item piece by piece and ask: Is this essential? What’s its purpose? Has it been used in the past six months? Could someone else benefit from the item? Taking pictures of items that evoke sentimentality is a great way to "hold on" without compromising storage space.
    • Look at the empty space and think back to your vision. Are you missing anything? Would additional storage solutions help? Are there things in the “Keep” pile that actually belong in another room or area? If yes, where?
    • Further compartmentalize items in the "Toss" pile to Recycle, Donate, Return, and Give-Away piles. Take the time to donate items to shelters, libraries, and second hand stores that rely heavily on donations to serve the community effectively. Donate/recycle as quickly as possible to avoid rooting through the bags and reclaiming items.

  5. Clean the area before putting the items back. De-cluttering is the perfect time to pull out the vacuum and make use of all of your favourite natural cleaning products. Miss Charlotte over at Les Bonnes Idees provides a recipe to make your own! Click here to view it.

We'd like to leave you with one last tip: de-cluttering is most often performed in the spring, as it is widely associated (for good reason) with new beginnings. However, we encourage you to try de-cluttering one space per month. Tackling areas in small steps like this is less overwhelming than a big once a year job and will certainly have a big impact over time. Good luck!

For more information about Edit My Closet, please check out our website or contact us at info(at)

Photo of cluttered room used under Creative Commons from Christopher Gollmar (flickr).
No clutter logo used under Creative Commons from Sean MacEntee (flickr).
Photo of homemade natural cleaning products used under Creative Commons from Mrs. Green (flickr).

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Story of Broke

Annie Leonard returns with Season 2 of The Story of Stuff! Watch her new movie, The Story of Broke: Why There's Still Plenty of Money to Build a Better Future, to bust the myth that the United States is broke. Annie talks about corporate tax loopholes, enormous tax breaks for the richest 1%, and military spending, and then she breaks down the different types of subsidies that the government hands out to big businesses - all of which give the impression that the country is too broke to build a healthy, green economy. My hope is that this information helps us realize that we can't keep electing the wrong people, people who will only continue this disastrous trend that offers such a bleak future for the generations to come. Please share this video with your friends and family!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Feel Good News

It's Friday, and in my books, that means it's time to feel good. Let's set aside the doom-and-gloom stories for a moment and focus on some good news!


A few weeks ago I finally got to check out the new food court at Toronto's Eaton Centre mall. The name, Urban Eatery, is a little cheesy, but I guess the idea is to encourage mallgoers to think of a hip, modern foodie destination - rather than the greasy, littered, last-resort dining option usually associated with the term "mall food court". And modern it was, with the layout and decor envisioned by Canadian designers as part of a $120 million revitalization of the basement level's north end. The glass, stainless steel, marble, and wood impressed me, as did the variety of seating options that are much easier on the eye than the uniform beige chairs and tables typically seen in food courts. I was also appreciative of the array of vendors: alongside a small number of fast food joints were take-out versions of some of Toronto's better restaurants featuring much healthier menus than I was expecting. But what actually made me smile was this:

Real cutlery! There are, in fact, over 100,000 pieces of reusable tableware in circulation at Urban Eatery, and somewhere on the order of 20,000 drinking glasses, too. As you can tell from the photo, plastic cutlery is available, but instead of automatically being handed your meal in a polystyrene foam container with single-use forks and spoons, you get to inform your server that you will be staying in to eat... and out come the real dishes! I'm not happy that the plates and bowls are made of sturdy plastic, but at least they're reusable.

This is what one of five collection stations looks like. Urban Eatery staff take the trays and separate food waste and dishes, bringing the reusable tableware to what I've been told is a giant, but energy-efficient, dishwasher hidden away in some back room somewhere. With 24 restaurants in the food court, I was surprised to see the stacks of clean dishes never run low, but then again, I also didn't see any of the staff slacking off. They just kept coming out with freshly washed plates, cups, and cutlery, and the whole system seemed to be running smoothly.

Three cheers for smart design: this is one of two hand-washing stations located right in the food court itself, i.e., not tucked away in a washroom. The soap dispenser, faucet, and paper towel dispenser are all motion-activated, which reduces waste and helps prevent the spread of germs. In fact, having a hand-washing station at all helps stop bacteria from getting around; I can imagine there are people who feel they're too busy to stop and walk all the way over to a washroom to wash their hands after eating. Those lazy fools have no excuse now!

That's right, help us preserve our environment. Looking around, I noticed only very few instances of trays being abandoned on tables. Whether that's due to efficient staff walking around to tidy up or due to a sense of shared responsibility, I do not know. What I can say with some certainty is that when a space is clean, tidy, and easy on the eyes, the people using the space are more likely to keep it in that condition. I hope this model is replicated all across the country!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Tuna: Big Fish, Big Problem

It's Hallowe'en tonight, so I thought it appropriate to tell you a horror story of sorts. For many years, I've been unhappy about how much damage is being done by the fishing industry; this is an often overlooked topic because when we think of food production we think of farms first. The problems with fishing bother me so much that I wrote about them within a few days of starting this blog! A few months ago I also explored the issue of mercury contamination in big fish. Needless to say, these days I'm quite picky when it comes to my consumption of fish and seafood, and I'm always on the lookout for more information and news. So today I give you four sad truths about the canned tuna industry (originally published by Grist) in hopes that we will all make smarter choices on our next trip to the supermarket.

1. Fish Aggregating Devices

These contraptions are appropriately named because they manage to attract a lot of fish to one area, making their capture almost insultingly easy. It turns out that fish aggregating devices, or FADs, are almost like ecosystem creators: a fishing vessel will drop a big floating object onto the surface of the ocean, leave it behind with a radio beacon for later retrieval, and soon enough small plants root themselves onto the object, which attract small fish seeking a hiding place, which attract larger fish seeking a food source. Tuna in particular love to hang around beneath this floating world of activity. And so it comes to pass that fishing vessels net entire schools of skipjack tuna... but the FAD also gives them sharks, dolphins, other fish, and juvenile yellowfin and bigeye tuna. In other words, two types of tuna that are already disappearing at an alarming rate now face an even greater challenge because we're killing their young before they've had a chance to breed. Just so that we can spend no more than a couple of bucks on a can of skipjack tuna. What a teensy price to help bring animals closer to extinction!

2. Longlines

What matters about longlines aren't that the lines sometimes stretch as far as a few miles between buoys, but rather that the leads dangling from the main line have baited hooks attached at the end. As with FADs, longlines catch more than they should. Instead of reeling in only albacore tuna, the typical variety found in cans marked "white tuna", fishing vessels will find a bycatch of turtles, albatross, sharks, and numerous sea birds attracted to the shiny metal of the hooks and the food dangling from them. Shockingly, the non-targeted animals killed by longlines account for about 30% of the catch! I can't think of any other industry in which such a large margin for error is tolerated. And it's not just error, it's unnecessary death. I guess the albacore fishing industry makes so much money that it just doesn't matter.

3. The Wild West on the High Seas

Every island nation in the Pacific is entitled to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the sea, in which limits are set on how much fish may be caught. In order to manage tuna stocks sustainably, countries must be able to impose and enforce strict quotas, otherwise all ocean wildlife will be fished until there is nothing left. What is a greedy company to do to make more money? Set sail for the high seas pockets outside of the the 200-mile boundaries of neighbouring island states' EEZs. These pockets are unregulated and unpatrolled, allowing fishing vessels to net as many fish as they'd like without having to stay within a maximum limit and without having to pay any fees to the nearby countries. The companies multiply their profit margin, the fish stocks get decimated, the Pacific nations are stuck with less healthy and robust tuna stocks that they must manage with less money. The fishing companies win, and everybody else loses.

4. Social Injustice

To add insult to injury, the Pacific island states that can't afford to defend their waters fall victim to bullies: large, wealthy nations like Taiwan, Spain, and the United States in conjunction with tuna corporations that lack an ethical code. Their fishing vessels literally take what isn't theirs inside of these nations' EEZs with no regard whatsoever for the desperate need of islanders to make a living off of tuna, as it is their only resource. In response to this bullying, some of the Pacific island states have decided to join forces to better defend themselves and maintain their tuna stocks. This new collaborative is called the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), and it involves Micronesia, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu. 25-30% of global tuna stocks are managed within the EEZs of these eight states, so there is a lot to lose if the Nauru Agreement isn't better supported by fishing companies.

What Can You Do?
  • If you're looking for light tuna, make sure it's labelled as pole-and-line or FAD-free skipjack.
  • If white tuna is on your grocery list, what you'll want is the pole-and-line albacore variety.
  • Support companies that make it a point to avoid fishing in the high seas pockets.
  • Buy only from companies that publicly support the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA).

Image of yellowfin tuna used under Creative Commons from Roro Fernandez (flickr).
Image of albatross used under Creative Commons from marj k (flickr).
Image of fishing vessel/coast guard used under Creative Commons from Coast Guard News (flickr).
Image of pirate flag used under Creative Commons from Chris Evans (drumminhands/flickr).

Friday, October 28, 2011

In the News Today

Hold on to your hats, folks, I've got a great WTF!? post for you today. This week Coca-Cola announced a redesign of their cans to advertise their newest environmental campaign: $2 million will be donated to a project that seeks to protect polar bear habitat in arctic regions. So it comes as no surprise that the new cans will feature the iconic bear on a white background:

It saddens me that Coca-Cola has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund on this project; poor WWF must be pretty cash-strapped to choose to team up with a soft drink company for money. But that's not what's shocking about this story. Rather, it's the motivation behind the campaign, and how incongruous it is with Coke's modus operandi. Let me explain.

The polar bear is the focus of this project in part because the animal has been featured in Coke ads since 1922 and also because its population has been declining due primarily to warming arctic waters, i.e. climate change. Briefly, rising temperatures in the north cause sea ice to melt earlier in the summer. Without this ice, polar bears have a really hard time hunting seals, and they end up on dry land with less food and not enough fat to see them through the season. Many lose even more energy just trying to make it to the coast, now that there are greater distances to swim between ice floes. Tragically, pregnant female bears can't always build effective dens in thawing permafrost. There are many more threats to polar bears' survival that are related to climate change, and you can read about them here.

Red areas show the projected loss of optimal polar bear habitat over the next 40 years.

I have no issue at all with the efforts being made to protect these majestic bears. My beef is with Coca-Cola. How can they expect us to see this as anything besides greenwashing? They want to save the bears that are harmed by climate change... while contributing to climate change by making soft drinks... WTF!? I may not be a climate scientist, but if the company is responsible for over 1.6 billion servings of its various beverages every day, then I'm willing to bet that the carbon footprint of this worldwide production is not exactly negligible.

The syrup/concentrate alone accounts for much of this, since Coke is made with high fructose corn syrup. HFCS is really complicated to produce, starting with the monoculture farming of a variety of corn that is rich in starch and utterly devoid of nutrients. Vast amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (which, in and of themselves, require plenty of energy to produce) are applied to the corn, which must subsequently be milled into corn starch, processed into corn syrup, mixed with enzymes, purified, enriched, and evaporated to yield HFCS. Imagine just how much energy is required to make this happen... and how many greenhouse gases are emitted by the coal-fired power plants that feed the processing plants! All in the name of profit...

There are other issues related to the production of soft drinks, not the least of which is the depletion of groundwater in the areas surrounding Coca-Cola's bottling plants, notably in India. I don't need to tell you that messing with the water cycle has a serious impact on global climate. Another big factor is packaging: the production of single-use plastic bottles and aluminum cans only adds to the already enormous carbon footprint associated with making Coke. I don't need to go on. It's clear that making this beverage is as bad for the planet as consuming it is hazardous for human health. Spending $2 million on protecting polar bear habitat just doesn't make up for the damage that has already been done. Where is the accountability?

Photo of new Coca Cola can used under Creative Commons from José Roitberg (flickr).
Image of changes in polar bear habitat sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Image of Coca Cola's impact in India sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Tuesday Toxin Talk

I'm currently reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, by Rick Smith (Executive Director of Environmental Defence) and Bruce Lourie (President of the Ivey Foundation). The book examines the toxins that leach out of commonplace items in our homes and workplaces and wind up in our bodies. Smith and Lourie experiment on themselves, purposely exposing themselves to everyday products over a four-day period, and use the results to raise awareness about the dangers that surround us. I'd like to use this space every few Tuesdays to share some of this vital information with you. For more in-depth coverage, please buy the book!


Let's talk about pesticides.

I might as well begin with a fact: every year in the US, lawns are sprayed with 90 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides. I don't need to tell you that this is a serious problem - and that's before I reveal the kinds of health problems associated with 2,4-D, the most widely used herbicide in the world. 2,4-D is a "weed and feed" product, which does exactly that: it simultaneously fertilizes lawns while controlling the weeds that try to take hold there. 2,4 dichlorophenoxyacetic acid is a synthetic chemical "hormone herbicide", meaning it messes with plants' hormone systems in order to kill them by causing them first to grow uncontrollably, then suddenly die. This unique strategy is not the only attractive feature of 2,4-D: the herbicide also selectively targets weeds like dandelions without harming grass. No wonder it is considered to be the perfect remedy for unwanted plants not only on residential lawns but also in fields of corn, grains, and rice, all of which are in the grass family.

So, what makes 2,4-D such a bad product? Consider these short-term effects of exposure:
  • nausea
  • headaches
  • vomiting
  • eye irritation
  • difficulty breathing
  • lack of coordination
Would you want to experience any of that just because you happened to walk past a lawn while 2,4-D was being sprayed? Much more harrowing are the long-term consequences of getting this stuff in your system:
  • non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (a blood cancer)
  • neurological impairment
  • asthma
  • immune system suppression
  • reproductive problems
  • miscarriage
  • birth defects

The good news is that the City of Toronto banned the cosmetic use of pesticides way back in 2004, which means eight summers have already gone by during which, presumably, only very little 2,4-D has come anywhere near me and those I hold dear in this city. Hundreds of other municipalities in Canada have passed similar bylaws, and to date there are province-wide bans (some looser, some stricter) in Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI, as well as restrictions on the use of "weed and feed" products specifically in Alberta. The province of British Columbia is working on a ban, too.

There are, of course, still many areas in which there are no regulations on the use of pesticides. But I am hopeful because concerned members of those communities can and will organize movements to achieve this goal - that's exactly how the first municipal bylaw banning pesticides was passed in Canada! There are a growing number of us who care, who are worried, who want the government to take action to protect us. After all, this is a no-brainer of an issue. Weed-free lawns are not only unnecessary, they're making us sick!

Image of chemical structure of 2, 4-D sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of grass lawn used under Creative Commons from AdamKR (flickr).
Photo of pesticide sign used under Creative Commons from Michelle Tribe (Greencolander/flickr).

Friday, October 21, 2011

Does Recycling Deserve Applause?

You tell me. Watch this video and let's talk about it.

I absolutely loved this video when I first saw it (thanks to Laura from The Mindful Merchant for posting it back in March). While I'd hate to be in the spotlight like that and would probably freak out a little receiving a standing ovation in such a public area, it is nevertheless awesome that the folks who make the Testé sur des humains TV show came up with this flash mob idea. Briefly, the show features staged situations (with show hosts and guests as actors) that are meant to elicit a reaction from the public to test out whether everyday people are willing to step outside of their comfort zone. In essence, the show explores the human condition, and it's definitely a thought-provoking version of reality TV.

So, does recycling deserve applause? Did the woman in the video feel motivated to keep up the good work in her personal life, perhaps to take on a more challenging green lifestyle change? It's hard to say. I'm not sure exactly what matters here: recycling, or understanding that we share the responsibility for keeping public spaces clean? Maybe some of the people who came before the woman are avid recyclers but feel no need to tidy up after someone else. I'm sure at least one of those people believes it's the cleaning staff's duty, so why bother? From a scientific perspective, there are too many variables that can't be accounted for, making it difficult to pinpoint why one woman did what tens or dare I say hundreds of others did not do. However, I'd like to believe that if green behaviour was more appreciated in the same way that acts by good Samaritans are praised, we'd live in a cleaner world.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Some People Don't Give a Flick

A few years ago, I joined the Green Team at work. We met as a group only bi-monthly, but as individuals, we acted as full-time eco ambassadors in our departments, encouraging and promoting environmentally friendly behaviour and communicating new green initiatives being implemented company-wide. It was a fun and rewarding volunteer role that added some excitement to my job.

I remember feeling pretty inspired when we were given a set of bright, colourful stickers meant to be placed beneath or beside light switches to remind everyone not to leave the lights on in empty rooms. My pet peeves: the private bathrooms (one door, one toilet, one sink, and no shared space - therefore, no need to leave the light on for anyone else) and the mail room / photocopy room. These are rooms that everyone uses multiple times a day but never for longer than a few minutes, with long periods of time passing between uses.

Within a few months of placing the stickers and consistently turning the lights off, people started getting the picture and flicking the light switch back into the off position when they left the rooms. Success! But it's not the stickers alone that did the trick, because at my current workplace, similar reminders have been placed beneath the light switches in the lunch room / photocopy room, and nobody seems to pay attention. Granted, I've only just begun to set the example, and I shouldn't expect anyone to catch on without direct intervention. But it's hard to engage others in conversation around this issue when I overhear people saying things like, "what's going on in here with all the lights off, are we trying to conserve or something?", as though only an energy shortage should encourage us to turn lights off in rooms that aren't in use. Sigh.

The kicker is that unlike the mail room at my old workplace, the lunch room at my current job has three sets of south-facing windows, but nobody bothers to open the curtains in the morning because flicking a switch takes less effort. It's infuriating, because with the curtains pulled back, there is plenty of light! Now, you're probably wondering why I'm making a big fuss over a small issue like this, especially when I'm usually disillusioned when people make small changes that won't amount to much anyway. Well, in this case I'm worried because I'm theorizing a worst-case scenario: not caring to conserve electricity by turning off lights probably goes hand-in-hand with cranking the heat at home over the winter, using a car to get around on a daily basis, and lots of other wasteful behaviours that contribute to the mess we're in. After all, if you can't be bothered to engage in the simple act of turning off the lights, there's no way you have any interest in making changes that demand greater commitment and effort!

So the question is, is it even worth trying to encourage change in people who seem resistant to it?

Photo of light switch used under Creative Commons from Mike (anotherpioneer/flickr).
Photo of window used under Creative Commons from Simon Tong.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Constructive Criticism

Two weeks ago I told you about the 12th annual Planet in Focus environmental film festival taking place this week in Toronto. On Wednesday I had the honour of chaperoning Chris Paine, Director of Revenge of the Electric Car, at the Opening Night Gala (to make sure he knew where and when to meet with interviewers, walk the green carpet, and watch the Canadian premiere of his film). Since then I've also lent a hand to Industry Series programming and taken in my share of screenings. What I truly love about helping at the festival is meeting other volunteers, especially those who open my eyes to issues that I hadn't previously considered.

Which brings me to Roberto: he's a student from Chile currently on exchange taking courses in Ryerson's Film Studies program. He and his friend are trying to put together an environmental film festival of their own back home, which is no small feat for two kids in their early 20s. What I wasn't expecting to hear from him is that in addition to featuring films that cover green topics, he hopes to make the festival itself as eco-friendly as possible - and not just greenwash it.

Don't get me wrong, Planet in Focus is getting some things right. VIP Directors, including Mr. Paine and his two guests, were brought to the festival from the airport by green taxi (in other words, in a hybrid Prius). Also, anyone attending the Opening Night Gala and coming on two wheels was treated to a complimentary bike valet. And the two venues at which the screenings are being held are walking distance apart. But sometimes it's the little things that betray either a lack of planning or a disinterest in going the extra mile.

Take the Green Networking Lounge, for example. This event reminds me of speed-dating, where filmmakers get fifteen minutes to chat one-on-one with funders, commissioning editors, and other film and television executives. The festival provided coffee, water, and an assortment of muffins for this event. What was missing? Unlike last year, there were no real plates, real mugs, or real cutlery (instead: countless paper cups, napkins, and stir-sticks). The only concern seemed to be to avoid handing out plastic water bottles. Not that I disagree with that guideline, but it's only a starting point. This is an environmental film festival, after all.

Roberto, bless his young and ambitious heart, wants to see if it's possible to screen films at his festival using stationary bike power. Perhaps we don't need to go quite so far. I'm being a little nit-picky about the finer details and ought to point out that Planet in Focus bought carbon and green energy offsets, which is actually a pretty big deal. And the foodie in me was really happy to see organic milk in glass bottles alongside the coffee! To be completely honest, what motivated this post was the difficulty I'm experiencing in reconciling the fact that in order to bring awareness to the public of issues afflicting the world, film crews have to fly around the globe a few times and then take even more plane trips to tour with their documentaries, and then we sit and watch these films under less than ideal circumstances. I guess for now I have to suck it up and hope that spreading the word about the kinds of issues covered this week is more important than the carbon footprint of filmmaking - and the greenness of the festival itself.

Photo of box office used under Creative Commons from Rae Allen (flickr).
Photo of live music powered by bike used under Creative Commons from Earthnwork (flickr).