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!