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.