Thursday, April 28, 2011

If they're called cat "trees", why are so few of them green?

I've used this blog to endorse lots of things over the past ten months, but I typically only point my thumb in a generally upwards direction when it comes to (1) engaging in behaviours that lower your ecological footprint, (2) attending events that support environmental programs, (3) fighting for policy change at various levels of government, and (4) sharing tips about sustainable living. Today, I'm breaking the rules and advertising eco-friendly cat furniture.

Cat heaven: upcycling a shoebox into a cat bed.

This post was a spur-of-the-moment thing, so instead of images of products that I don't have time to ask permission to use, you get to look at my gorgeous cats. Milly is a six-year-old calico, and Donut is a four year-old tortoiseshell. My partner and I adopted them three years ago from a foster home where they were growing up together, waiting for awesome parents like us to take them home! :)

Donut and Milly may not be human, but they're as close as I'll ever get to having kids, so believe me when I tell you that I often put their needs before my own. It should come as no surprise then that I'm happy to drop lots of money (relatively speaking) on a less wasteful, less toxic cat tree, even if it means I won't be able to buy much needed furniture for myself in the near future. But where are these elusive eco-friendly products? A quick online search yields links to websites that make me feel like I've gotten lost in a warehouse, featuring a few green items scattered here and there among the traditional options that are made of unsustainably harvested wood, covered in toxic carpeting and glues, likely to be tossed long before they're worn out, and just plain ugly.

Enter moderncat, a blog "for cat owners with a modern style" with lots of content in their green design category. That's how I found out about DKcat: design-conscious handcrafted pet accessories made by Danielle Kilmer Warren in the San Francisco Bay Area. Danielle has a background in interior design and sustainability, so she tends to use materials that are natural and durable. Check out this 26" tower with two perches and a scratching post; it's made with formaldehyde-free bamboo, reclaimed wood, and replaceable recycled carpet tiles. All of Danielle's products can be requested in different colours and sizes.

Donut sprawled on the footstool... I mean cat bed.

Then I read about Mountain Cat Trees: unique, handcrafted cat perches and scratching posts made with real trees with the bark removed. What a unique and brilliant idea, to make cat trees out of real trees! Massachusetts-based Rebecca Mountain began crafting her first cat trees nearly a decade ago when she realized that the traditional carpeted ones only encouraged her cats to scratch every other carpeted item in her home - so true! Take a look at this 58" three-level tower with scratching post; it looks so much sturdier and more durable than anything I've seen in a big-box pet store.

Next I discovered purr post. This Portland (Oregon) company designs elegant cat furniture that builds sustainability into every detail: from renewable materials like wool and bamboo to 100% post-consumer recycled paperboard to food-grade adhesives that emit zero VOCs and are LEED certified! They offer a 24" post with a wool-covered base and perch that would not look out of place as a bedside table! Bonus: a portion of every sale goes to supporting local and national animal shelters and rescue groups, and you get a sample of organic catnip with your new cat furniture!

Last but certainly not least, I came across another Portland designer: Square Cat Habitat's line of products keep the environment in mind while incorporating modern decor trends. FSC-certified bamboo and 100% post-industrial recycled fibreboard, along with removable/replaceable inserts, help to reduce the ecological footprint of these items. The 3' Acacia tree features two branches and a treetop (almost more napping options than a cat needs, really), but my favourite product is the Buddha wall perch: the perfect place to escape from the world and into the land of dreaming about birds and mice!

Milly looking very photogenic on the balcony at our old place.

Now the hard part: making a decision. Each of these companies offers unique and beautiful cat furniture. Do I support Danielle and her awesome one-woman business? Or should I buy from the company that is closest to me geographically to cut down my shipping-related footprint? Choosing between the two Portland businesses is no easier: one covers its perches with wool (instead of counting sheep when I can't sleep, I picture my cats lounging on the woolly backs of sheep) and the other uses removable/replaceable inserts that speak to the waste reductionist in me.

Help me out: which product would you buy?

Tuesday, April 26, 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 flame retardants.

Flame retardants are safe in the short-term, preventing clothing and furniture from catching fire, and unsafe in the long-term, causing lots of devastating health effects. I should pause right here to explain something. You may have noticed that I haven't been keeping up with posting the Tuesday Toxin Talk very regularly, and the reason is simple: this stuff is really depressing! But it's more important to share information about nasty chemicals like flame retardants than it is to keep you blissfully ignorant of the toxins around you, so here we go.

Out of around 175 different flame retardant chemicals, the ones containing bromine - brominated flame retardants, or BFRs - are the most common and controversial. It has already been decades since the first warnings began to emerge that BFRs are linked to terrible health effects, and meanwhile these chemicals have been silently contaminating everything such that they can now be found in significant quantities around the world.

Why? Because one of the most common flame retardants is PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ether), which is classified as a persistent organic pollutant. PBDEs are stable and don't break down very quickly. They are stored in fatty tissues for long periods of time so that when bigger predators eat smaller prey (that in turn eat plants), the former accumulate all of the PBDEs that were ingested along the food chain. We humans, as the world's alpha predators, walk around with the highest concentrations, and therefore do the most damage to our own offspring: pregnant moms pass PBDEs on through their placenta, and nursing moms store the chemical in the fat of their breast milk.

What makes PBDEs so bad is their uncanny resemblance to PCBs: they mimic hormones to mess up really crucial brain and body functions, resulting in a shortened duration of lactation in mothers, poor brain development of cognitive-motor skills, intellectual impairment in children, and an increased risk of cancer. These and other health effects make PBDEs and PCBs so similar that some scientists are referring to PBDEs as "the new PCBs".

On second thought, that might not be so bad, considering how quickly we responded to the scientific proof that PCBs are so horribly bad for us by banning them! But here's where these two chemicals differ: the global bromine industry has created something like an OPEC for BFRs. You can imagine that a group whose purpose is to lobby for the interests of this industry while controlling over 80% of the global production of BFRs is doing everything in its power to stall progress on getting bans in place.

I wish I could end this post by warning you to check the labels of your clothes, carpets, upholstery, and electronics (such as your computer, kitchen appliances, and TV, to name a few) and make conscious decisions with your next purchases. But it's not that easy, because there's no way to tell whether a given item was treated with flame retardants short of scanning it with an expensive instrument that you probably can't get your hands on anyway. Our only recourse is to wait for those bans to take effect.


As I have done previously after sharing particularly hopelessness-inducing news, please feel better after viewing this picture of a very cute puppy:

Photo credits: chemical structure of PBDE; biomagnification; puppy.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday Feel Good News

Happy Earth Day! Not only that, it's Friday, which means it's time to set aside the doom-and-gloom stories for a moment and focus on some good news!


The People's Food Policy for Canada was launched on Monday!

The People's Food Policy Project (PFPP) is a pan-Canadian network of citizens and organizations that has created Canada's first food sovereignty policy. Created thirty years ago, the PFPP's roots can be traced back to a group of activists touring the country to meet with farmers, academics, stay-at-home moms, the poor, and many others, holding hearings in 75 communities to explore how food systems affected ordinary Canadians.

Fuelled by a desire to place decision-making power about food systems in the hands of the people (which is what food sovereignty is all about), the PFPP is finally ready to propose ways to reclaim and rebuild our food system. If you're unfamiliar with the issues around our current system and the ideals to strive for in a better system, read the PFPP's rationale for a good primer!

So what does the Policy say? These are some key elements:
  • Food should be eaten as close as possible to where it is produced; this can be accomplished by establishing purchasing policies for institutions and large food retailers, by starting CSAs, by creating more farmers' markets, etc.
  • Food providers need to be supported in shifting to ecological production, i.e. organic agriculture, community-managed fisheries, indigenous food systems, etc.
  • Poverty must be eliminated and prevented with the help of federal programs that have measurable targets and timelines so that all Canadians can afford healthy food.
  • All children should have access to nutritious food: a nationally-funded Children and Food strategy should be created to introduce school meal programs, school gardens, and food literacy programs nationwide.
  • The public, and in particular the most marginalized communities, must be actively involved in discussions around the food system.

I strongly encourage you to sign the pledge to show your support of a fair, healthy, and ecological food system. You may also be interested in signing up for the PFPP mailing list. Don't forget that food has become an election issue - for the first time in history, all five federal parties have included food in their platforms! Now is the time to ask your candidates hard-hitting food questions.

Naturally, taking back control over the food system also means growing your own food. What are your green thumbed plans for this year?

Photo credits: carrots; tomatoes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Trees Across Toronto 2011

I feel a little silly advertising an event I can't even attend, but I participated in Trees Across Toronto in 2009 and 2010 and loved it, so I'm really excited to encourage you to head out and plant a tree!

As part of its Climate Change, Clean Air, and Sustainable Energy Action Plan, the City of Toronto is in the process of doubling its tree canopy from 17% to 34%. One of the ways this is being accomplished is through the Trees Across Toronto planting event that takes place every year on the last Saturday in April. Thousands of volunteers show up at a variety of parks to plant tens of thousands of trees. Since the beginning of the program, over 400,000 native trees and shrubs have been planted!

So, why is this important?
  • One mature tree can produce about two thirds of the oxygen that a typical person consumes in one year.
  • Trees provide habitat, food, and shelter for birds, insects, and other wildlife, and they help prevent soil erosion.
  • An acre of trees sequesters about two and a half tons of carbon every year. You won't find cheaper storage space anywhere else in the city!
  • Extensive tree cover helps to mitigate the heat island effect that causes cities to be five to nine degrees (C) warmer than the surrounding areas.
  • Trees are pretty! Living in the city, surrounded by asphalt, steel, glass, and other harsh features of the urban landscape, it can be quite relaxing to spend time among trees. Plus they provide protection from the sun's UV rays.

If you'd like to get involved, here's what you need to know:

Date: Saturday, April 30th, 2011

Time: 10:00 am until all of the trees have been planted!

Location: Milliken Park, Colonel Sam Smith Park, and McCowan District Park.

Good to know: Snacks, drinks, and a BBQ lunch await you on site!

Have you ever planted a tree? Are there other benefits related to trees that I missed in my list?

[If you don't live in Toronto and there are tree planting events happening in your neighbourhood, please share the info in the comments below.]

Photo credit.

Monday, April 18, 2011

My New Second Home

I work in the coolest office building at the coolest site ever. EVER.

This is the directory in the Centre for Green Cities at Evergreen Brick Works. Note all the environmental NGOs! I'm on Level 4... can you guess who I work for?

The Centre for Green Cities is a LEED Platinum building and heritage site rolled into one - with a green roof no less. It's such a cool place that I even took a picture of a toilet. It's not just any toilet: pull up for number one, push down for number two, and it's low-flow either way! Other building features include high-efficiency insulation, harvesting of waste heat, solar panels, recycled/salvaged building materials, and many more.

This may be old hat to many of you, but sinks with motion sensors are still awesome in my books. I used to work at a hospital and washed my hands up to twice an hour but couldn't turn the tap off while lathering because that would defeat the purpose of using soap in the first place. Problem solved at the Centre for Green Cities. Also, note the Dyson hand dryer! It works in 12 seconds, but I routinely use it for only five seconds because my hands are so close to dry by then that I can let them air dry on my walk back to my desk with no fear of contamination - because there is no door to open on the way out of the washroom, just a zig zag! *Happy sigh*

The shared kitchen features a cupboard full of plates, bowls, glasses, and mugs, as well as the usual cutlery in a drawer below it, two countertop compost bins, non-toxic dish detergent, and a high efficiency dishwasher. The best part? People seem to actually take turns unloading the dishwasher, and rarely does anything pile up in the sink. Shared responsibility is a beautiful thing.

Yup, that's a Prius and a Mini Cooper at the AutoShare spaces in the parking lot.

Unfortunately there were no electric vehicles being charged when I was out snapping pictures last week, but I've seen them before! They exist! They're cool! They're at my building!!

Okay, some history about the site: for 150 years, bricks were manufactured here that built some of Toronto's landmark buildings. About 30 years ago, the factory shut its doors for good, and the clay quarry was largely filled in with earth from downtown excavations for the construction of office towers. The land now belongs to the City of Toronto and is being preserved for its historical and geological significance. Evergreen, a charitable organization with the mandate of making cities more livable, has taken out a long lease of the site and spent the last ten years building around the remains of the original structures to create an environmental community centre that features a farmers' market, garden centre, year-round workshops and seminars, school and camp programming for children, and frequent naturalization projects.

Situated in the ravines of the lower Don River watershed, it's a stunningly beautiful place. Interestingly, it's also located on a flood plain, so there's actually a flood hotline to call in the morning when overnight rains are heavy, especially at this time of year when the ground hasn't thawed enough to absorb lots of surface water. In this picture you can see leftover bricks from the factory placed in ditches to help move excess water. The mounds of soil will eventually be planted with native grasses that will help keep the dirt in place. Oh, and the graffiti isn't going to be removed because it's part of Toronto's cultural heritage. Neat!

The largest map of Toronto in the world with metal pipes depicting the various river watersheds. This is going to be a living wall in the summer, as the pipes will bring rainwater down through the structure, and a pump will ensure continuous flow!

This is one of 15 cisterns placed around the site that collect rainwater for use in the gardens and washrooms. The water is also used to help cool the roof above my head!

This is the pond in what remains of the quarry. I can get to this spot in less than five minutes after leaving my desk. What a treasure.

So, do you know who I work for? I'll give you some clues that will lead you to the answer with some online searching:
  • I'm an intern.
  • My position exists thanks to the Sustainability Network and may not last terribly long.
  • I'm helping to make my ENGO's outreach more inclusive of diverse communities.
The first person to get it right (excluding those who already knew the answer before reading this post) will win a guest blog post written by me! Assuming you think favourably of my writing and have a blog! We can always work something else out.

Friday, April 15, 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!


The students in a Grade 3 class in a school in Thornhill, Ontario, are learning skills they will make use of for the rest of their lives - and I'm not talking about reading and writing!

It turns out these kids are learning about healthy eating, and they really know their stuff: they can read ingredient lists and decode nutrition labels on packaging, they are skeptical of suspicious nutrition claims and foods full of artificial colours and flavours, and they know to avoid products with sugar listed as one of the first few ingredients. The children are even savvy about marketing ploys such as printing puzzles on the back of cereal boxes to distract from the poor nutritional value of what's in the package!

This new knowledge has been translated into healthier options at snack time every morning. The kids are eating fruits and veggies - and not complaining about it! All of this came about when their teacher decided to go beyond the Grade 3 curriculum (studying Canada's Food Guide) and get her class to look at food labels. She found that the eight-year-olds got hooked and eagerly asked to learn more, curious to find out just how many unpronounceable ingredients they were putting into their bodies!

What I find particularly heartening about this story is that the kids aren't developing OCD about food because their teacher is reminding them about balance: things that we (adults) would call comfort foods are okay as a special treat once in a while when nutritious meals are the norm on a day-to-day basis. After all, this isn't about punishing bad choices, it's about encouraging healthy ones and feeling good about them. Isn't it great that young children can learn such an important lesson that applies to so many things in life?

Does anyone else have good environmental/health news to share?

Photo credit.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

GM Cows Make "Human" Milk

First pigs, then chicken, now: dairy cows. It seems no animals are safe from genetic modification these days. Say hello to GM cattle that produce "human" milk - milk with the same properties as human breast milk - in an attempt to make cows' milk more nutritious.

When parents turn to formula to feed their babies, many worry that this substitute isn't as healthy as the real thing. This is the motivation behind research at the China Agricultural University (funded by a biotechnology corporation) which aims to create cows' milk that contains some of the proteins found in human breast milk, proteins that help boost babies' immune systems and reduces their risk of infections. The scientists have even figured out how to boost the milk fat content by 20% and tinker with the levels of milk solids, such that this new milk is close in composition to human milk.

Hm, that sounds good. Until you realize that China's rules on GM technology aren't exactly strict. Even if you don't believe there are health risks associated with frankenfoods, you would still want them to be rigorously tested, right? Or, imagine this GM milk doesn't meet Canadian or American standards... how would you feel about it being consumed by millions in China and other countries with weaker regulations? I'm not sure this is a clear-cut issue.

Let's consider the cows, too. I'm a little shocked to hear that during two experiments, only 26 of 42 newborn GM calves survived their first few months, with the rest perishing to gastrointestinal disease. I can't be the only person to feel that it's unfair for baby cows to have to suffer and die so that human babies experience fewer infections. I'd feel differently if this new technology was meant to save lives on a large scale in a population where many babies' lives are at risk. But something tells me that's not the target demographic.

Well, those are my thoughts. Your turn: is this a good idea or a bad idea? Would you feed GM dairy milk to your baby?

Photo credit.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Green Living Show 2011

Back for another year and better than ever, the Green Living Show is coming to Toronto this weekend!

A living wall growing at the show.

Come to learn about easy and workable solutions to make your lifestyle more sustainable. Exhibitor booths fall into broad categories like Home & Garden, Energy & Green Building, Health & Wellness, Transportation, Environmental NGO, Recreation, and Green Business, plus there will be demonstrations, speakers and forums on the main stage, and activities spread over all three days of the event. Highlights include an Eco Youth Day Forum, the Green Toronto Awards, an Eco Fashion Show, and the Green Living Health Forum. There will also be an EcoKids Zone with crafts and games, Farm Fresh Fare (a selection of gourmet meals prepared with local, seasonal ingredients), and new for this year, the Good Eats Market! I'll be volunteering with Local Food Plus (LFP) to bring a farmers' market right to the heart of the show floor. It will feature growers and producers that are certified local and sustainable by LFP.

Another Green Living Show perk!

Last year, I had a great time at the Green Living Show. I discovered the Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival, learned more about Bullfrog Power and AutoShare, signed my Buy to Vote pledge with LFP, sampled great food, and bought chemical-free personal care and home cleaning products. The best part? Gaining free admission by bringing in electronic waste for recycling! Here are the details:

Date: Friday, April 15th, to Sunday, April 17th

Time: 10 am to 9 pm on Friday and Saturday, and 10 am to 6 pm on Sunday

Location: Direct Energy Centre

Admission: $12, or free when you bring electronic waste for recycling.

I hope to see you there!

Photo credits: living wall; tasting sign.

Friday, April 8, 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!


In Macedonia, a country in which over 35,000 hectares of forests are estimated to have burned in 2006 and 2007 due to wildfires that were brought about by extremely high summer temperatures, the public has rallied around a major tree-planting initiative.

Perhaps "rallied" is too weak a word: in three short years, approximately 3 million trees have been planted on over 8,500 hectares, helping to support the ecosystem as it begins the slow process of recovery. This initiative was launched by Macedonian opera singer and UNESCO Artist for Peace Boris Trajanov and involves not only members of the public, but also the government, local authorities, non-governmental organizations, and businesses.

Having contributed to tree-planting activities with Trees Across Toronto in the past, I can attest to the fact that this is a powerful activity. While it may not promote large-scale environmental behaviour change in most participants, it is nevertheless a relatively simple action that clearly demonstrates the impact that a small activity can have when many people engage in it.

Does anyone else have good news to share?

Photo credit.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

WTF (Wannabe Toxic Free) Film Series

Just in time for tonight's screening, I'm happy to announce that the Women's Healthy Environments Network is honouring Cancer Prevention Month by hosting a film series that aims to raise awareness and promote discussion.

Tuesday, April 5th
Toxic Trespass - a film on children's health and the environment. This documentary visits several Canadian toxic hotspots, investigating the links between environmental pollution and human health. The film screening will be followed by a discussion. To learn more about Toxic Trespass, click here.

Tuesday, April 12th
Exposure: Environmental Links to Breast Cancer - This award-winning documentary is a fascinating and informative film about breast cancer that will raise your awareness around the little understood, long-term connections between environment, health, and disease prevention. Click here to learn more about this film.

Tuesday, April 26th
My Toxic Baby - This is an eye-opening, intimate, and wryly funny documentary about the reality of modern parenting, and why it’s not so easy going green given heightened awareness of the health risks posed by the chemicals used in everyday projects. To learn more about My Toxic Baby, click here.

Friday, April 29th
Living Downstream - This film is based on the acclaimed book by ecologist and cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D. This poetic film follows Sandra during one pivotal year as she travels across North America, working to break the silence about cancer and its environmental links. After a routine cancer screening, Sandra receives some worrying results and is thrust into a period of medical uncertainty. Thus, we begin two journeys with Sandra: her private struggles with cancer and her public quest to bring attention to the urgent human rights issue of cancer prevention. Click here to learn more about this film.

All screenings will take place between 7:00 and 9:00 pm at the Centre for Social Innovation (4th floor at 215 Spadina Ave). Admission is pay-what-you-can, and the directors and/or producers will be present for discussion following each film presentation. Check out the WHEN website for more details.

Photo credit.

Friday, April 1, 2011

It May Be April Fool's Day, But This Is No Joke

The Government of Ontario seems a little too happy about helping to bankrupt the City of Toronto. Yesterday Premier Dalton McGuinty announced that Queen's Park will fund an underground light rapid transit (LRT) line along Eglinton Avenue between Jane Street in the west and Kennedy Station in the east, which will cost $8.2 billion and take ten years to complete.

Meanwhile, the City will pay to extend the relatively new Sheppard Subway line west to Downsview Station and east to Scarborough Town Centre. This project will cost half as much as the Eglinton line, but nevertheless it's money that Toronto just doesn't have. There has been talk of receiving money from a federal program for Public-Private Partnerships, but it won't be enough. Toronto is the teenager asking for a $1,000 snowboard with only $200 in the bank, begging Ottawa (the parent) to foot the rest of the bill.

Don't get me wrong, I believe the federal government should help! Toronto fuels a huge chunk of Canada's economy. But former Mayor Miller's original Transit City plan would have cost much less and served many more people in neighbourhoods that currently have very poor transit options.

Mayor Ford's subway-or-bust approach serves no one: not tax payers (did I mention the $49 million in penalties the City will have to pay for breaking the original Transit City contracts?), not those commuting along Finch West, not those who need an inexpensive and convenient way to access the airport, and not those who study or work at U of T's Scarborough campus.

Please read Steve Munro's comments on this epic fail. Here is an excerpt that sums up how I feel:

"It's hard to get excited about $12 billion going to two very overpriced projects. For years, "transit" in Toronto hasn't been about providing service, it has been about stimulating the construction industry and generating profits for property developers. These are laudable goals, but they must be balanced against the basic need citizens have to get around the whole city."

You tell me: am I being too harsh in my criticism? Or do I have a right to demand that this public service do a better job of serving the people, considering we're paying for it?