Friday, September 30, 2011

Planet in Focus 2011

October is when the sun rises later and sets earlier... the air has that shiver-inducing chill in the morning... the leaves explode with colour... and the Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival returns! Get ready for another five days of screening the best new documentaries and videos about the state of our natural world.

For the 12th year of PiF, the spotlight is on landscapes. The selection of films will look at how rising sea levels, slash-and-burn agriculture, post-industrialization, the globalized food trade, desertification, glacial recession, and the generation of coal and nuclear energy are transforming global land and seascapes. In total, 100 Canadian and international films will be shown, and audience members will have a chance to interact with many of the producers and directors during post-screening Q&A sessions.

But the festival isn't just about watching movies! The Industry Series includes two days' worth of panel discussions and workshops, where professional filmmakers will discuss film production, distribution, and development funding within the environmental film industry. PiF also strives to raise awareness among children and youth with weekday morning and afternoon programming full of educational and informative films designed for elementary and secondary students. Not only that, but the Green Sprouts! Youth Filmmakers' Showcase will feature films made by youth, for youth, including those made during PiF's own Youth Camera Action! video production camp.

When I volunteered at the festival last year, I had a great time. Although I shed some tears (some of the films are very moving), I also learned a lot. That's why I'm returning for another year to help make the week a success and bring the green message to a wider audience. PiF is on from Wednesday, October 12th, to Sunday, October 16th. Check out the full schedule here, and buy your festival pass today, before the presale ends!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other

What's better: thin plastic shopping bags or reusable sturdy plastic bags? Uhh... neither?

A little part of me dies on the inside every time I see someone at the grocery store not only ask for plastic shopping bags, but also ask to have the bags doubled up because the contents are so heavy. I can't really blame them: the plastic seems to get thinner and thinner every year, but a sack of potatoes still weighs as much as it ever did! The question is, why do some people refuse to get with the program and use those sturdy plastic reusable shopping bags?

There are, sadly, many impediments. For one, reusable bags don't fit into briefcases and purses - forget spontaneous visits to the grocery store on the way home from work, except to amass more thin plastic bags. Those who drive don't fare any better, with reusable bags often forgotten in the backseat or trunk. I've also heard that some people like thin plastic bags because they can use them to line their household garbage bins, thereby avoiding the purchase of brand new bags for that singular purpose. And at least here in Toronto, traditional shopping bags are recyclable with our blue bin program, provided you use one bag to hold all of the others so they don't get lost in the shuffle - literally.

I can think of a few other, less common reasons for disliking reusable sturdy plastic bags, such as the fact that they are made in China. We ship our plastic items around the world to be recycled into reusable bags, then ship the final product around the world again to sell them here at home. Wow. That's one helluva carbon footprint. True, one container ship can hold millions of bags, so each individual bag doesn't carry much of the blame, but we still believe it's important to use CFL bulbs despite their minimal impact when examined individually!

And then there's, for me, the kicker: reusable sturdy plastic bags pile up just like everything else. Ironically, because it seems so wrong to throw them away, I hoard the little buggers and stash them like I'm secretly ashamed of them. The same fate awaits not only reusable grocery store bags, but also the ones that you can get at the book shop, clothing boutique, and shoe store. These days, I don't leave home without one of these purse-friendly reusable bags, so I have a clear conscience, but of course the old bags from years ago are still sitting, barely used, in my closet. Occasionally, new ones are added to the collection when friends bring food and drink with them when visiting me and refuse to take the empty bags back home with them upon leaving. And so the plastic accumulates in one form or another, even in an eco-friendly household, and in trying to generate less waste, the Western world still manages to create waste.

How many reusable sturdy plastic bags are collecting dust in your home, despite your best intentions?

Photo of plastic bag recycling station used under Creative Commons from Sam Felder (flickr).
Photo of plastic bag caught in tree used under Creative Commons from zen Sutherland (flickr).

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Come Hike with Me

To make sure I relax away from the computer, I don't usually post on weekends. However, today I went on a lovely day hike, which despite the physical strain is one of the most relaxing activities I enjoy engaging in! Now that bug season is over, the leaves are starting to turn, and the temperature is at that optimal level (not too hot in open fields, not too chilly in shaded forests), I long to go hiking pretty much every day. This time I chose a 4.5 km loop hike in the Hockley Valley Nature Reserve. The scenic views, fresh forest air, and random encounters with cows on adjacent properties (see below) made me very happy, and I was really glad to reconnect with nature and feel grateful for the protected wild areas we still have. If only we could conserve more of it. Enjoy the photos!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Inside the Beehive: Exploring an Urban Beekeeping Project (Part 1)

Looking out over the courtyard within Trinity College (one of the colleges on the St. George campus of the University of Toronto) at 8:45 am this morning, it was hard for me to remember that this is actually a busy site. With most students either already in class or sleeping in, the area was deserted - it's the bees who are doing all of the work! I met up with three members of "UofT B.E.E.S." (Beekeeping Educational Enthusiast Society) to visit the hives perched atop the College roof. We checked up on the healthy bee colony that has been living on campus since this spring; this year's bees replaced the ones that, sadly, succumbed to the cold of this past winter after calling Trinity their home since May 2010. Coming up in late October, I hope to help winterize the rooftop apiary and give the bees a better chance at surviving the cold months ahead. Meanwhile, here are some of the photos I snapped this morning:

I'm sorry that most of these images were taken at weird angles with my own shadow in the frame - with so many bees buzzing around me, I wasn't keen on standing in their flight path just to get the perfect shot. I've never been stung and hope to keep it that way!

To learn more about UofT B.E.E.S., check out their FB page. To learn about other projects of the Dig In! Campus Agriculture Network, visit their website.

Monday, September 19, 2011

One Small Step for Mayor Ford, One Giant Step Backwards for the TTC.

When I created the WTF!? category for my posts, I didn't imagine ever having to use it more than once or twice a month. I guess it's a sign that we live in an increasingly crazy world that I'm now using it twice in four days.

In a move that benefits no one and screws us all over, the Toronto Transit Commission decided last Friday to reduce its 2012 budget by 10% - doing exactly as Mayor Ford commanded requested in order to help lower the City's deficit. Where are the savings going to come from? Why, regressive measures, of course! Service will be cut back, employees will be sent home, and fares will go up. In other words, more commuters will turn away from the TTC and hop into cars, further clogging the roadways in and around town. Yay!

I'm not sure how this is even possible, considering that overcrowding on TTC vehicles is already a huge problem, but apparently 50 routes will see reductions in frequency during the morning and afternoon rush. I guess cutbacks on 60 off-peak routes don't seem so bad in comparison? But that's absurd, because any further decline in service is outrageous, no matter the time of day. Just last week I was on a streetcar that refused to pick up any more passengers because it was full... at 2:00 in the afternoon. WTF!?

In terms of cutting staff, the picture turns from bleak into cruel: today, 251 non-unionized employees will be laid off. In other words, for hundreds or thousands of TTC staff, this weekend was one of stress, uncertainty, and anxiety, wondering if they'd be the ones to find out today that they are no longer needed. And it's not like those who still have a job to come to tomorrow will feel relief: in total, 1,000 jobs will eventually be cut. I can't even begin to imagine what it must feel like to worry every day that you might be let go, let alone not know when it could happen.

Transit users can take small comfort in the fact that fares won't go up until the new year, and when they do, the increase will only amount to ten cents per ride - that's much less than the 25-cent hike we experienced in January 2010. Except... we're going to be paying more for less. Something about this math doesn't add up. And it's not just the math, it's the reality that everybody loses. In fact, I anticipate that stress levels will go up astronomically. Think about it: TTC users will loathe the longer wait times and more crowded vehicles, drivers and cyclists will hate how many more cars will be on the road, and those of us lucky enough to be able to walk to work? We'll arrive at the office in time to greet our irate colleagues ranting about how bad their commute was. Oh joy.

Since there is no silver lining to this bad news, I will say this: Thomas Fuller wrote that abused patience turns to fury, and it is fury that we need to motivate us to stand up against this injustice. So go ahead, be impatient, get angry, organize, and then take action!

Photo of TTC logo used under Creative Commons from Neal Jennings (Sweet One/flickr).
Photo of Dundas West station used under Creative Commons from Andrew Goloida (theapoc/flickr).
Photo of Bloor/Yonge station used under Creative Commons from Jamaalism (flickr).

Friday, September 16, 2011

In the News Today

You may want to sit down for this one, because this story is clearly of the WTF!? variety (thanks again to Amy of Eco-Steps for suggesting I create a category for ridiculous news like this).

AlterNet is reporting that Del Monte, the people that bring tropical fruit in fresh and canned versions to Canada and the US, has sued the FDA for daring to recall their cantaloupes this past March when it seemed that the melons were contaminated with salmonella. Apparently the fruit corporation thinks this is an open-and-shut case because there is no hard evidence, despite the fact that the epidemiological investigation yielded some pretty clear results:

"Twelve of sixteen ill people reported eating cantaloupe in the week before illness. Eleven of these twelve ill people ate cantaloupes purchased at eight different locations of a national warehouse club. Information gathered with patient permission from membership card records helped determine that ill persons purchased cantaloupes sourced from a single farm. Product traceback information indicated these cantaloupes were harvested from single farm in Guatemala", says the CDC.

The likely reason that subsequent tests performed on cantaloupe samples from that farm came out negative for salmonella is that none of the original melons could be found. In the time it took for people to become sick, for someone to realize these 20 cases of illness were related, and for the probable source of the outbreak to be traced back to Del Monte... well, the cantaloupes were gone. They matured, were harvested, and were shipped up here. A month had passed, after all. Lacking confirmatory evidence from test results proves nothing, especially when the tests are performed too late. The same would happen if two friends were to get food poisoning from the same restaurant one night and only tell each other that they had both gotten sick one or two days later, once they had recovered; at that point, the original contaminated food in the restaurant would be gone, and tests would come back negative. Does that change the fact that the restaurant is clearly the source of the illness? No!

Am I the only person who thinks this lawsuit is ridiculous? A horrendous waste of time and money? An insult to public health agencies whose job it is to protect us from harm, not fight private corporations in court? WTF!?

Photos of cantaloupes used under Creative Commons from Kabsik Park (Royalty-free image collection/flickr) and mary (marymactavish/flickr).

Tuesday, September 13, 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 triclosan.

You may know it by its more popular name, Microban, the antibacterial product that almost always uses triclosan as an active ingredient. Are you ready for one helluva list of products that any one of you could easily find on store shelves in a version that contains triclosan? Okay, here goes: chopsticks, steering wheels, garden hoses, hot tubs, pillows, slippers, hand soap, toothpaste, underwear, towels, mattresses, sponges, shower curtains, phones, flooring, cutting boards, fabric, children's toys, cosmetics, deodorants, and countertops. To name a few.

In this germophobic day and age, it seems that we're all to happy to turn a blind eye to the frightening truth: when antimicrobials are (mis)used on such a wide scale, the ever-increasing number of bacteria that mutate to resist our drugs cause serious problems for the medical world in treating infectious diseases. To be fair, the rise of superbugs has much more to do with the overuse of antibiotics in animals (thanks, CAFOs) and humans (thanks, MDs), but that hardly lets triclosan-happy manufacturers off the hook. Consider the fact that numerous studies show many antibacterial household products to be no more effective at killing germs than regular soap. In other words, at the low concentrations found in such products, triclosan delivers a one-two punch of causing harm while not doing its job of protecting us from bacteria. I'm a little underwhelmed. You?

Except, instead of being disappointed, we should be angry. Triclosan is, as the title of this post suggests, a toxin. In animal studies, it has been linked to endocrine and thyroid disruption (fun stuff like androgenic effects in fish), and as with other nasty chemicals, it is being found in all the wrong places at increasing levels. Triclosan is present not only in our fatty tissues but also in umbilical cord blood and women's breast milk. And since we carry so much of it, we expel a lot of it, too, and it's running down streams all across the country. The really scary statistic is the huge jump in the concentration of triclosan in Rick Smith's urine after exposing himself to antibacterial toothpaste, facial cleanser, hand soap, shaving gel, deodorant, shower soap, and dish detergent for two days: 2.47 ng/mL turned into 7,180 ng/mL. That's almost 3000 times higher!

So what are we to do if we want to avoid triclosan but stay healthy? I recommend the following steps:

  • wash your hands
  • Wash Your Hands
  • wash your hands properly (for a great visual guide, check this out)
  • unless you've just washed your hands, don't touch your face, as germs love to enter your system through your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • drink lots of fluids to continuously flush bacteria out of your system (for bonus points, please use a low-flow toilet and observe the "if it's yellow, let it mellow" rule)
  • eat a nutritious diet that keeps your body healthy, and therefore, your immune system strong
  • be happy, because stress makes you susceptible to illness :)

Do you have other tips for staying healthy without resorting to antimicrobials?

Image of chemical structure of triclosan sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Image of angry cartoon bug used under Creative Commons from  Ben Piddington (beneneuman/flickr).

Friday, September 9, 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 I have a fun and happy video for you. See what residents in post-Katrina New Orleans are growing! The soundtrack features a brass band that one of the urban farmers plays in - you may want to turn down the volume, it's a little loud at the beginning when the trumpeter starts up!

The Perennial Plate Episode 57: Lord, Lord, Lord from Daniel Klein on Vimeo.

I just love some of the great truths about gardening that come through loud and clear with this video: spending time in a garden makes you happier and healthier; it's something you can do without needing to first acquire a highly specialized set of skills or a large sum of money; and the self-sufficiency that arises out of growing your own food is good not only for the wallet but also for the feeling of accomplishment.

Just imagine if all 66,000 vacant lots in New Orleans were turned into productive gardens!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

When environmentalism meets slow living... and they don't get along...

I am a letter-writer, hear me roar! Or hear the scrape of my fountain pen against paper, as it were...

This week I received a letter in the mail, one I had written and sent to Australia and which was subsequently returned to me because the recipient had moved and informed me of her new address only after the mail was already on its way to the other side of the world. And so a few pieces of paper and an envelope found themselves travelling 16,000 km (10,000 miles) only to be labelled with a "return to sender" scribble and sent back that same distance to my door. Let me tell you, a lot of guilt was delivered by mail that day!

Except... I'm not so sure. On the one hand, paper stationery kills trees, ink is made of petroleum and other toxic chemicals, and planes emit a great deal of emissions. On the other hand, even if I could stop using paper altogether for the rest of my life, forests would still die at the hands of big corporations and their printers' endless appetite for reams of paper, not to mention the pulp and lumber industries. Even if I gave up ball-point and fountain pens, every last drop of petroleum will eventually be extracted for fuel and military uses. And let's face it, there won't be fewer planes in the skies just because I stop mailing letters. The sad truth is that even if every last proud letter-writer like me gave up their hobby, not much would change on the global scale.

Unfortunately such rationalization doesn't make the guilt disappear. I still hold sustainability ideals close to my heart and feel the need to do as much as I can, within reason, to lessen my carbon footprint. The strange thing is that my desire to live simply and slowly occasionally gets in the way of my environmental goals, like in this case. Usually my attempts at taking breaks from the fast pace of life - cooking seasonal meals with locally grown ingredients at home, unplugging from the internet over the weekend, getting up early to walk all the way to work, etc. - conveniently satisfy my urge to live green. Writing letters, it seems, helps with the former and impedes the latter. Sitting down with a cup of tea in my left hand and a fountain pen in my right hand to share my recent life experiences with a far-away friend is a lovely experience, and not something easily accomplished using an electronic, environmentally friendly method. And so I sacrifice the planet ever so slightly for the sake of my well-being, which I hope is the right trade-off.

What do you do that lets you live slowly but isn't as green as you'd like?

Photo of fountain pen used under Creative Commons from Adrian Clark (a.drian/flickr).
Photo of air mail stickers used under Creative Commons from Katey Nicosia (flickr).

Friday, September 2, 2011

Wedding Weekend Getaway

Ordinarily I wouldn't bother announcing that I'll be out of town for three days, but I'm very happy to tell you that I'll be attending my brother's wedding this weekend! My plan is to stay blissfully unaware of what's going on in the world and focus solely on the bride and groom and their happiness. That means no guilt about flying to my destination, no hesitation before eating non-local food, and no issue with having bought a new dress and new shoes to wear. I'm turning off the environmentalism for a few days! See you next week.

♥ Sabrina & Eric ♥