Monday, December 14, 2009

My Christmas wish list - #5

As I discovered in her previous book, Ecoholic, Adria Vasil's sarcasm and humor go great with green living tips. Ecoholic is a Canadian green living bible so I can hardly wait to see what she has to say in her new book Ecoholic Home (just published in October) .

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Christmas wish list: #3 & #4

As you can tell from the heading, this is a 2 in 1 Christmas wish. Pictured here is one of my favourite nibbles at one of my favourite restaurants, Opera Bistro. I love this nibble because the crispy potatoes are so satisfyingly perfect with the homemade dip. And when the potato wedges are gone it's all I can do not to dip my fingers into the luscious mustard mayo.
What I also love about this appetizer is the cone-shaped serving basket that it arrives in. Made by NB artist Brent Rourke, it's exquisitly beautiful and a bit funky. I don't see these particular baskets on Brent's website but I know you can buy your own when you next dine at Opera Bistro.
P.S. This photo looks good enough to eat because I borrowed it off the Opera Bistro website.

Christmas wish list #2

A membership to your local museum or art gallery -- one of the best family outings there is. During our visit to the NB Museum last weekend my kids made these cute whale ornaments out of toilet paper rolls. We also watched an intriguing film about the Bay of Fundy and got to view the new exhibit, Portraits: New Brunswick Painters, 1970-2000. Seeing that I coveted a certain painting of cherry pie by artist Gerry Collins, my daughter (age 6) said she'd paint me one just like it. And she did!

Monday, December 7, 2009

A new kind of gift to give

If you do an online search on green gift giving you’ll find all kinds of unique and nifty items made of recycled products or organic materials. There’s a growing market for all gifts eco-friendly and more and more places to find them locally.

But I often think we should all challenge ourselves a bit more on the green front during the gift giving season. Buying stuff for gifts isn’t awful but there are more ways to give. Of course we all know this but when it comes down to the Holiday crunch it always seems easier to buy something rather than sit back (impossible during the rush) and give some thought to other gift options.

Before you next zip into Winners think about this: based on U.S. stats, the products we buy and the assorted packaging that comes along with them, account for 44% of our greenhouse gas emissions. I was stunned by this. Turning off the lights and driving less are important green living tips but curbing shopping habits is the mother of them all.

So how do you curb your habits during the biggest shopping season of the year? I found my inspiration at the office…

At work there are often online auctions to help raise money for worthwhile causes. They’re filled with corporate branded clothing, cell phones, gift certificates and such. Recently someone had the brilliant idea to ask employees to donate a personal skill or service to these auctions and the resulting variety has been a boon to the online auction hall. It also got me thinking about a whole new kind of gift to give at Christmas.

Here are a few examples:

  1. A friend with a sailboat put up for auction a two-hour evening sail, complete with wine and cheese.
  2. My husband is a terrific guitarist so offered two hours worth of guitar lessons.
  3. Are you computer savvy? A co-worker offered to be someone’s computer geek for a few hours. He can configure a home network, program a PVR, connect all the pieces of a home entertainment system and ensure your wireless modem is properly secured.
  4. Another coworker will do a personal coffee run every day for a week for the lucky bidder (and pay for the coffee too).
  5. I will soon be delivering one freshly baked loaf of bread a week for four weeks to one of my coworkers.

You can take the same approach with your Holiday gift giving.

  1. Are you someone who is hyper-organized? Offer to help someone set their kitchen cupboards or closets to rights and purge the clutter.
  2. Give a week’s worth of frozen homemade meals to friends who are often rushed at mealtime.
  3. Give tidy bundles of kindling to someone with a woodstove or insert.
  4. In a little book, write out the recipes for your best speedy weeknight meals and the kid’s favourite lunches.

The more you think about it the more ideas that come to mind. These are the sorts of gifts that area a joy to receive and especially pleasurable to give.

Friday, December 4, 2009

My Christmas wish list - #1

I love Olivier's Femme line of face cream and facial soap. Now I'm waiting for a pot of their body scrub. (After an in-store demo I was hooked.)
The oils are creamy not greasy so it's easy to use and leaves your skin feeling smooth and moisture drenched, not slippery.
Take a look at the ingredient list. All pure and natural: Olive oil, virgin coconut oil, sea salt, oat flakes, essential oils of neroli, of rosemary, of tea tree, of sage, sweet almond oil, essential oil of benzoin, tocopherol (vitamin E), essential oils of rosewood, of palmarosa, of carrot seed.
You can visit their shop in the Saint John City Market or shop on line:

Monday, November 30, 2009

Another mid-week meal for busy families

Quincy’s black bean quesadillas:

6-8 8” tortillas (soft)
½ buttercup squash (bake cut side down for 30 min or so at 400
2-4 cloves garlic
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 ½ cups cooked black beans
Handful of fresh spinach or swiss chard, chopped
Fresh cilantro (optional)
2 cups grated cheese

Bake squash and scrape out flesh.

Saute onion and garlic for 5 minutes. Add squash and sauté ‘til warm (another 5 minutes or so.) Season with sea salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

Spread ¼ cup of the squash mixture on half of the tortilla, top with a sprinkling of black beans, then a bit of cheese, then chard or spinach, finish with a bit more cheese and the cilantro if using. Fold the empty side over the layered side, press gently. Repeat with remaining tortillas.

To cook:
Either brown them in a fry pan (a few minutes each side until lightly browned) or cook them on the BBQ on low-to-medium heat (watch carefully).

Using a pizza wheel, cut each tortilla into thirds. Serve with all of your favourite Mexican sides (salsa, guacamole) and carrot-cabbage salad (recipe below).

Some tips:
Bake your squash ahead of time and freeze the flesh. Then all you need to do is thaw it before getting your fillings going.

Try replacing the squash with sweet potato (baked or boiled)

Try feta or mild chevre (soft goat’s cheese) instead of cheddar or mozzarella.

Soak and boil black beans from dried for more flavour and texture (I find the canned a little mushy). It's easy, just soak 1-2 cups of dried beans overnight in plenty of cold water. Drain, add fresh water to cover by a couple of inches. Bring to a boil and simmer 'til cooked to your liking (an hour or so). Freeze extras so you always have them on hand.

Carrot & cabbage slaw

2 cups grated carrots (use the bigger holes on your box grater)
2 cups grated red cabbage (I use a flat cheese slicer to make my cabbage thin and ribbony)
Toss this with basic dressing (see below).

1/3 cup olive oil
2T cider vinegar or white wine vinegar
11/2 T maple syrup
1/2 t salt
ground pepper

Before serving, squeeze half a lemon over the slaw and add the zest of one lemon. (Hint: zest before squeezing - it's much easier.)

Walnuts are yummy sprinkled over too.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cell phones and radiation -- things you should know!

We have all heard about cell phone safety when it comes to driving. But few people know there is a new body of research looking into a different kind of cell phone safety, namely the potential health effects of using cell phones. As it turns out cell phones emit radiation (I had no idea) and because many people have the devices stuck to their ears for hours on end some scientists are concerned that our bodies might be receiving more radiation than is safe or healthy.

There is much research yet to be done, but preliminary data from several reports points to increased occurrence of brain tumors and salivary gland tumors in people who have used cell phones for 10 years or longer. Other reports link behavioral problems in children to cell phone use.
If you have your doubts consider this: Last month Maine’s House and Senate voted to approve for consideration a bill that would require all cell phones and their packaging to carry a warning label, advising children and pregnant women to keep the device away from their heads and bodies.
The National Cancer Institute in the U.S. says that although studies have not shown any consistent link between cellular telephone use and cancer, scientists feel that additional research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn. (Did you catch the word “consistent”?)

So while scientists are researching away, many government agencies in Europe are busy making recommendations for children to avoid using cell phones and for everyone else go looking for devices with the lowest radiation output.

Until manufacturers are required to label the phone’s radiation output be thankful that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has measured the output for us. They tested over a thousand devices currently on the market (in the U.S.) and have ranked them by radiation. You can search for you phone, PDA or smart phone in their online database to see where it ranks. The database is also a helpful tool if you’re looking at getting a new phone. You can search the database at

EWG also developed some simple guidelines for how we can all be safer with our cell phones (from a radiation perspective). Download their guide to safe cell phone use at the web address above. In the meantime, here are some of the highpoints of EWG’s recommendations:

• Buy a low-radiation phone. Look up your phone, or search for a new phone, in their guide. (Check under your battery for the model number.)
• Use a headset or speaker. A headset emits much less radiation than your phone and using speaker phone mode keeps that radiation away from your head.
• Less radiation is emitted when your texting compared to talking, and texting keeps the radiation away from your head.
• Stay off the phone if you don’t have a strong signal. Your phone will emit even more radiation when it’s working hard to get the signal to the tower.
• Limit children’s phone use. Young children’s brains absorb twice the cell phone radiation as an adult’s.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A quick, healthy meal for busy families

It's easy to feed your family healthy delicious meals from scratch when you have a stack of great recipes that are quick and easy to prepare. If you want to try this one, be sure to put the brown rice on to cook before you start preparing the stew.

Chickpea stew with tomatoes
Serves 4-6

1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic
1 ½ t cumin seeds
1 T grated fresh ginger
3 tomatoes, chopped or a cup of tomato sauce (chunky)
1 t ground coriander
1 t ground cumin
1 t tumeric
1 t salt
Pinch of red pepper flakes
¼ t cardamom seeds, ground
3 cups cooked chick peas
1 cup water or broth
4 T chopped cilantro

Heat 2 T oil in a good sized pot or sauté pan. Add cumin seeds and sauté for a few seconds. Add onion, ginger and garlic. Saute until onion is soft. Add tomatoes and remaining ingredients (except cilantro) and cook until bubbling.

Serve over brown rice and sprinkle with cilantro.

Quick tip:
Try cooking your own chick peas from dried and you’ll never go back; the flavour and texture are addictive. I cook a big batch and freeze them so I always have them on hand instead of relying on canned.

Here’s how:
Soak 2 cups of dried chick peas overnight in lots of cold water. Drain in the morning, cover with more cold water, bring to a boil and simmer until cooked to your liking (you may have to add more water along the way). If your beans are fresh this should take no more than an hour.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Be careful with plastics

I have a love-hate relationship with plastic. It has simplified our lives in many ways but we’d all be better off with less of it in our lives. Avoiding plastics altogether is practically impossible (and may be not necessary) though there are some kinds of plastics that you really should get out of your life.

Plastics are graded by type using a number system established by the plastics industry. The numbers that you see inside the recycling triangle represent what poly-this-or-that the particular plastic is made of (ex. polyethylene, polyvinyl, polypropylene). These numbers make it easier for recycling facilities to sort them.

Plastics with the numbers one, two and five are the plastics that you can recycle in the blue bins. Pop bottles are made of number one plastic, a grade that is one of the easiest to recycle. Health Canada is taking a closer look at this grade though since it hit the market without a full safety assessment. Number two plastic is a little heavier (milk jugs). My go-to book “Ecoholic” rates it as “Not a bad plastic, compared to the others.” Likewise number five plastic isn’t considered too bad. You’ll find this number on yogurt containers.

There are two plastics that you want to rid your life of. One is PVC, or vinyl (graded as number three). It is toxic when manufactured, off-gasses throughout its life, and is everywhere, from vinyl shower curtains to some brands of plastic wrap and some children’s toys. If ever there was an evil plastic this is it. PVC products often have softeners added to make them more pliable or clingy. This kind of plastic has that distinctive “new toy” smell caused by phthalates, which are potential hormone disruptors and thought to be carcinogenic. PVC has also been found to increase breast cancer risk.

The other plastic to avoid (for food and drink) is number seven. This is the plastic that contains the chemical bisphenol A, the hormone disruptor that the federal government has banned from baby bottles. Unfortunately it is also in the plastic that lines most packaged food cans.

Since plastics aren’t stamped with safe use guidelines here are a few tips:
• When a plastic is labeled microwave safe it doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful to your health. It only means that it shouldn’t melt when heated. To be safe don’t heat food in plastic containers, no matter what number is stamped on it. Chemical leaching is intensified when the plastic is heated.
• Avoid plastic wrap if possible. If you just can’t give it up, at least don’t use it in the microwave. Instead, use a lid or failing that a dish towel.
• Any plastics that you use for food should have the numbers one, two or five on them (inside the recycling symbol). These are the food-safe numbers. Items marked with these numbers are also recyclable. Don’t put food or drink in any containers marked with the number seven.
• Rid your house of soft plastic bath toys and vinyl shower curtains.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Eco-friendly seafood choices

We’re a family that loves fish and seafood, which is great for a few reasons: It’s tasty, quick and easy to prepare and loaded with things that are good for you. But there are things about fish and seafood that aren’t so great.

There was a time when we’d by salmon fillets in 10 pound boxes we at so much of it. But that was a few years ago, before some worrisome information about salmon farming came to light. There have been many issues with fish farming, but the one that stuck with me is the fact that most farmed Atlantic salmon has up to seven times more PCB’s than wild Pacific salmon, due to contaminants in fishmeal they’re fed. (There are many studies that document this fact so don’t think that environmentalists are hanging onto one old study.) And one more thing, the pink flesh of farmed salmon is thanks to a dye in the fishmeal, since the flesh of farmed salmon is naturally grey.

There are many benefits to eating salmon, namely the abundance of omega 3 fatty acids in the flesh. But I don’t think that outweighs the risk of PCB consumption. Plus, there are other sources of omega 3s, like sustainably-fished Pacific salmon, flax seed and chia.

Unfortunately PCB’s aren’t the only worry with fish. Mercury is another and there are several species of fish that have especially high levels of the neurotoxin. Mercury is extremely harmful to pregnant women and children and even low levels of exposure can cause developmental problems.

Because of mercury contamination Health Canada recommends that pregnant women eat fresh tuna no more than once a month. Canned tuna, as long as its light tuna (skipjack is what you want) is okay to eat weekly. Stay away from white or albacore tuna - it has three times the mercury level of light tuna. There are similar mercury alerts for Atlantic halibut, swordfish, sea bass and several others.

Health issues aside there are the worries of destructive fishing methods, over fishing, pollution and habitat destruction that are depleting fish stocks at an alarming rate.

So how do you know what fish you should be choosing? Here are a few guidelines:
• Canned salmon is usually okay. More often than not it’s sockeye or pink from Alaska, which are among the better-managed fish stocks in the U.S. They are also low in contaminants.
• Fresh water farmed fish can be a great eco option, since it’s grown in contained ponds so is less environmentally destructive. Farmed rainbow trout is a good alternative to farmed salmon. Superstore is the only place I have been able to find fresh rainbow trout.
• Frozen Alaskan pollock and salmon are healthy and eco-friendly options too. Look for them in the frozen fish section of Sobeys and Superstore.
Don’t worry about committing all of this to memory. Instead print out one of these handy wallet guides to help you navigate the grocery store. and

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Finding a (truly) good cup of coffee

There are few consumables I enjoy as much as good coffee. Curled up in a cosy chair with a steaming cup of espresso is my favourite way to start the day. But don’t be lulled into thinking that coffee is as gentle on the environment as it is on me in the morning.

The environmental impact of coffee is huge and complicated. Coffee comes from far away places so in that respect it has a carbon footprint that’s larger than many things we consume. But there are other ways that coffee can have a negative impact on us, the environment and the distant lands where it’s grown.

Coffee is big business. Canadians consume more than 118 million kilograms of roasted beans each year. That’s about 4.37 kg per person (adults anyway), which is almost 10 pounds of beans a year. I actually consume more than that, so I want to make sure that every cup I drink is as green as possible.

It used to be that most coffee was grown under a canopy of trees using few pesticides and no synthetic fertilizers. Coffee was a crop that actually helped with habitat preservation for migratory birds and other wildlife. But to feed the world’s appetite for coffee many farmers have swapped their traditional farming practices for harsher, higher yield methods – like clear cutting for sun-grown coffee, heavy use of pesticides and a dependence on petroleum-based fertilizers. (This is the coffee you get when you buy the big brands at the grocery store or when you stop by a large chain coffee shop.) As you can imagine this coffee has taken a toll on the environment and on workers’ health. Not to mention the fact that workers often don’t get paid a living wage either.

Brewing coffee from pesticide-laden beans picked by near-slave labour isn’t the way I want to start my day. And you don’t have to either. There is a handful of local shops selling coffee that is good in every sense of the word.

• Just Us! is a brand of coffee carried at both Sobeys and Superstore. Their coffee is organic and fair trade as well, meaning that the coffee farmers get paid a fair wage for their beans. (Fair Trade certified grower cooperatives also encourage more sustainable farming practices, support community development projects and ban the use of the most toxic pesticides. So even if they’re not organic chances are they’re not as bad as regular grocery store coffee). Look for Just Us! in the natural food section.

• Red Whale sells fair trade and organic beans and brewed coffee.

• Java Moose has some organic blends and also buys many of their beans directly from growers, so while it isn’t fair trade certified the farmers do get a fair price for their beans because there is no middle man.

• Bikes and Beans has great coffee too, some of it organic, some fair trade and some farmer-direct.

• Starbucks sells fair trade coffee and occasionally has organic blends.

Whether you brew your own at home or stop by a coffee shop to grab your morning fix (or both), it can be easy to enjoy a greener coffee. Don’t forget to bring your own cup.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Cooking from scratch: 5 easy recipes for greening your diet

Roasted Tomato sauce

About one dozen tomatoes
2-3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 large onion, sliced
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs of fresh herbs (oregano, rosemary, thyme) or 1 t dried
Pinch of red pepper flakes
2 T oil
Sea salt and pepper

In a large baking dish or roasting pan (9x13 or larger) spread the sliced onion, garlic, bay leaf, pepper flakes and herbs.

Core the tomatoes, slice them in half and lay them cut-side down on top of the onion mixture.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with the olive oil

Bake at 375 for about 45 minutes.

Remove from the oven and when cool enough to touch remove the bay leaf and herb stems, and wiz in the food processor to desired consistency.

Tip: This freezes well. Make a bigger batch if you have a larger dish. Try adding 1/2 grated carrots under the tomatoes before you put them in the oven to roast, or 1/2 cup red lentils or tuck in chopped red pepper.

Thin crust pizza dough

1 t sugar
1 cup warm water
1 T yeast
¼ cup olive oil (or any type of oil)
About 2 ½ cups of whole white or multigrain flour
2 T fine cornmeal or coarse corn flour
1 t salt

In a small bowl dissolve sugar in water and sprinkle over yeast. Set aside for about 10 minutes until it starts to bubble.

In a large bowl combine 1 cup of the flour with cornmeal and salt.

Add the oil to the bubbling yeast mixture and pour over the flour. Mix well and begin adding the rest of the flour about ½ cup at a time until you have a nice doughy consistency. You might be left with ½ a cup or so of flour that you can’t stir in. Just sprinkle it on the counter and knead it into the bread.

Shape dough into a ball and place in a lightly greased bowl covered with a tea towel. Let rise until doubled, about 1 ½ hours. I put mine in the oven to rise (with the oven off).

To make the pizza:
Punch down the dough and divide in three equal parts. Roll each piece into a 12” – 14” circle, add your toppings and bake at 400 for about 15 minutes, depending on how crispy you like it.

You can freeze the dough after you punch it down and divide it.
Try adding a teaspoon of dried herbs to the flour before you mix the dough.


2-4 T butter
1 heaping teaspoon of Dijon mustard or dried mustard
2 T flour
2 cups milk
2 cups shredded cheese
Freshly ground pepper
½ pound macaroni noodles (or another shape)

Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour and continue to stir for a couple of minutes (‘til it starts to smell a little toasty). Stir in mustard. Using a whisk, add about ¼ cup of the milk, stirring well. Still using the whisk, add the rest of the milk. Keep stirring until it comes to a gentle boil and starts to thicken (about five minutes). Let it thicken a bit more and then stir in the cheese. Keep stirring until the cheese melts, then remove from heat and add a few grinds of pepper.

Toss with the cooked pasta.

Tip: Try using a couple of different types of cheese to vary the flavour. Add a little paprika and cooked cauliflower to make it heartier.

Bridget’s House dressing

2/3 cups of olive oil or grape seed oil
4 T vinegar (cider, sherry, white or red wine vinegar)
3 T honey or maple syrup
1 t sea salt
Freshly ground pepper.

I put everything into a mason jar, put the lid on and give it a good shake.

Tip: I usually make this with ½ walnut oil and ½ olive or grape seed oil.

Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies

1 ¾ cup whole grain flour
½ t baking soda
1 t cinnamon
½ t salt
2 cups old fashioned rolled oats
¼ cup flax meal (ground flax seeds)
¼ cup wheat germ (can substitute chia or bakers’ bran)
¾ cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 cup oil or melted butter
1 T honey
¼ cup milk
1 t vanilla
1/2-3/4 cup chocolate chips
½ cup pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds

Turn the oven to 350 and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl combine the dry ingredients (except chocolate and seeds)

In another bowl combine oil (or butter), honey, milk, vanilla. Beat in egg. Add to dry mixture. Combine well. Stir in chocolate and seeds.

Drop by generous tablespoonfuls onto prepared cookie sheet.

Bake 12-15 minutes.

Remove from oven and let set a bit before moving to cooling rack.

Tip: The dough can be frozen. Try switching it up with different types of nuts or seeds, raisins or other dried fruit.

Greening your diet for a healthy planet and family

In this season of abundance I have been giving a lot of thought to the idea of regional food independence. It’s the notion of supporting local farmers so they can make a reasonable living and supply us with high quality local food, a basic cycle that was hardly worth discussing a generation ago.

But you need to buy local food to make the cycle work. Judging from the burgeoning frozen food sections in our local grocery stores, the average family’s dependence on frozen and other packaged foods is leading us off the healthy green path in more ways than one: Processed food travels a great distance to reach us and includes lots of packaging waste; it tends to be loaded with chemical additives (flavour enhancers, preservatives, dyes) and includes unhealthy fats and too much sodium. It’s really no surprise that the old fashioned homemade diet is better for the earth and healthier for us too.

So how did we get in this sorry state? There are many reasons, but one of them is that a whole generation has lost the everyday know-how that enabled our grandmothers (and for us lucky ones, our mothers as well) to whip up dishes from scratch. It’s something we’ll need to relearn whole scale if we want the local food movement to grow and prosper, if we want our region to become less dependent on food that is trucked in from far away places, and if we want to be healthier overall.

It’s about learning to cook (as opposed to reheating) which is why I taught my children, age six and nine, to make homemade pizza dough. (I want them to be as confident proofing yeast and setting pizza dough to rise as they are pouring their own cereal.)

I know that people turn to packaged foods for speed and convenience too. But some of the most popular packaged foods are the easiest to make from scratch. (It would take me longer to walk to the salad dressing section of the grocery store than to mix up a batch of homemade dressing.) Here are my top five suggestions for greening your diet for a healthy planet and family:

1. Tomato sauce – Avoid jars and make your own with fresh or canned tomatoes. Make a big batch and freeze some for later.
2. Pizza dough – Replace frozen pizza with homemade dough or pita bread (topped with your homemade tomato sauce). Homemade dough freezes well too.
3. Salad dressing – Does your fridge house a crazy collection of bottled dressings? Make your own from oil, vinegar, maple syrup, salt and pepper. Use it for salads, or drizzle it on meat, fish or vegetables before grilling or baking.
4. Mac & cheese – It takes about 15 minutes to make a basic cheese sauce from scratch so you can bid goodbye to boxed Kraft Dinner and other packaged versions of the real thing.
5. Cookies – Baking cookies is quick, easy and fool-proof. That’s why they’re always the first thing that kids learn to bake. They’re also a satisfying snack that can be surprisingly nutritious…if you make your own.
Take a look through your fridge and freezer to see what other packaged foods you might like to replace with a homemade version.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Eating local -- all year long

September 4th was the Eat Atlantic Challenge, a day Atlantic Canadians were asked to eat only food grown or produced in Atlantic Canada. Those who took part know that this time of year, locally grown food is so abundant it’s a breeze to make a meal of food grown nearby. Given our climate though, eating a locavore’s diet (meaning local-only food) through the winter is a challenge for even the most committed. But savouring little bits of locally grown fare is doable year round. It’s the best way to “green” your diet, since local food has a small carbon footprint (as opposed to food trucked in from California or South America). Supporting local farmers also makes our region more independent.

I know the last thing you want to think about this month is what you’re going to eat in February but if you’re into eating local food you really do need to plan ahead and now is the time, since we’re in the thick of the fall harvest.

Here are some freezer staples that keep my family eating local food year-round:
In September I can’t get enough of field-ripened tomatoes. I roast them for tomato sauce for weeks on end and when I’m too tired to roast any more I simply bag the tomatoes whole and put them straight in the freezer. (Ideally you could skin the tomatoes first by cutting a small “x” on the bottom and plopping them into boiling water for 30 seconds. The skin can then be peeled off easily before the tomatoes go into the freezer.) I use the sauce for pasta, pizza and as a base for soups.

With a freezer full of tomato sauce we can last until April without buying tasteless tomatoes grown in faraway places. We mostly avoid tins of tomatoes and have no need to buy jars of sauce, which makes me happy for a few reasons. Although tins are recyclable, they are lined with a plastic coating that contains BPA, the hormone disruptor that is being removed from many water bottles; the sauce jars can’t be recycled locally; plus my freezer stash hasn’t been shipped in from Heaven knows where.

We buy a 50 pound bag of winter squash each September and spread it out on shelves in the basement. Throughout the fall I roast two at a time, scoop out the middle and freeze it for use in soups, stews & quesadilla fillings. My husband (strong and patient) peels and cubes several squash for roasting with other root vegetables.

We pick organic apples from a friend’s tree each October. My husband peels and bags as many as we can stuff in the freezer to use in tarts, fruit crisps and for fresh apple sauce all winter long. Ditto for local rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A healthy approach to laundry

I’m convinced that I do twice as many loads of laundry in summer as I do in winter. It’s not because I want to (although I do love my clothesline) it’s because there are more dirt, dribble, sweat & grass stains on our clothes than other times of the year. In our house there is little hope of wearing something more than once.

Staying on top of the dirty clothes pile takes effort, but it can also be quite harmful, for you and the environment.

Most mainstream laundry detergents are derived from petrochemicals that pollute our waterways and they’re not that great for people either. Detergents leave a chemical residue on your clothes and bedding, residue that you absorb through your skin. To make matters worse, most detergents and laundry aids are heavily scented with artificial fragrances that contain phthalates, which are potential hormone disruptors. They can cause headaches and aggravate allergies and asthma too. Phthalate residue is formulated to linger on your clean laundry (smell it and you’ll know for sure). So you absorb that residue as well. It’s just a little each time but week after week a little becomes a lot since these chemical residues build up over time.

Stain removers and bleaches are harsher than detergent so the above scenario gets compounded. Many contain neurotoxins and carcinogens. Fabric softeners are alarmingly toxic too. All of these substances account for the majority of household poisonings among children.

There are many ways to make your weekly (or daily) laundry chore more eco-friendly and a lot healthier for you and your family. Here are just a few:

Choose an eco-friendly laundry detergent. Down East, Nature Clean and Seventh Generation all make detergents that are unscented, effective and HE compatible.

Boost the cleaning power of these detergents with borax. It’s a naturally occurring mineral salt that works as a whitener, brightener, fabric softener and deodorizer. Look for it in the laundry aisle (Mule Team is the brand, with great retro packaging.) Add equal amounts of borax and laundry detergent to your wash water. It needs time to work its magic; let your laundry soak for 15 to 30 minutes before you start the wash cycle.

You could also use washing soda, in the same ratio. It needs to be dissolved in hot water first.

Take advantage of the sun - it's the world’s greatest bleach. Or chose oxygen bleach.

Consider non-toxic stain removal. Treating the stain quickly is the key to effective, non-toxic removal. Try soaking the item in a mixture of ¼ cup borax to 2 cups of water then launder as usual. Lemon juice and salt gets rid of rust stains (I’ve tried it). Sprinkle the stain with salt and squeeze lemon juice over it. Put it in the sun or let it sit overnight and then wash as usual. Hydrogen peroxide mixed with water gets rid of blood stains (I have tried that too).

Make your laundry life easier and don’t buy white clothes for your kids.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Safer polish for bright summer toes

I have been noticing my toes a lot lately. It’s hard not to since summer is really the season of toes. Mine stand out because they aren’t painted and it seems that summer toes without nail polish are a bit like a yard without flowers. As much as I’d love to have them painted bright pink, just knowing what nail polish can do to a body has kept me polish-free for several years now.

There are a couple of reasons why I stopped using nail polish. First, I can’t stand the smell of it (inhalation is one of the ways toxins enter out bodies). Even women who won’t go a day without polish can’t deny that the stuff smells toxic. As is often the case, something that smells toxic… is toxic, which brings me to the other reason why I stopped using polish: When you paint your nails a mixture of toluene, formaldehyde and a chemical plasticizer called dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is absorbed into your tissue. These chemicals have the worst profile in the beauty industry

• Toluene can cause headaches, eye & nose irritation, nervous system disorders, liver and kidney damage.
• Formaldehyde is known to cause cancer and reproductive problems.
• DBP is linked to reproductive damage. It is known to cause birth defects in animals and is banned in the European Union. Tests have found high levels of the substance in teenage girls, which researchers have attributed to nail polish.

It’s a wonder that the stuff is even legal!
While many brands are now formaldehyde and toluene-free, the chemicals used to replace these substances are hardly any better. Plus, regular polish still contains DBP.

A few years ago a friend put me onto the Canadian brand, Suncoat, They have formulated water-based polish that is free of the toxic chemicals I mentioned above and have also expanded their range of colours to now carry the shade of pink I love. So this week I had no qualms about caving into my six-year-old’s zillionth request for polish (and my own craving for pink toes).

Another problem with regular polish is that the chemicals used to remove it are as bad as the polish itself. Nail polish remover is a solvent, just like paint remover. Don’t let the packaging lull you into believing that it’s any different than the paint remover your dad stored in the basement when you were little.

Suncoat makes a natural, corn-based remover that works on its own products as well as regular nail polish. Or you can avoid remover altogether and do as Suncoat suggests (for their polish): soak your nails in hot water for a few minutes and gently scrape the polish off with your nails.

If you love to paint your nails do yourself a favour and give water-based polish a try.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Is sunscreen safe?

I would guess that few of us have used much sunscreen so far this summer. All of these rainy weekends are probably good for our skin. But when I do use sunscreen I constantly wonder about how safe it is. I know that ultimately it’s better to protect your skin from the harmful rays of the sun but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable slathering on creams containing known toxins that seep through my skin and into my body.

I’m feeling much better about sunscreens these days since I came across a new report that rates a lot of familiar brands. It was release in early July by Environmental Working Group (a non-profit environmental watchdog based in the US). The report identifies sunscreen brands that work the best (or at least live up to their SPF claims). But it also rates brands according to their toxicity, something that’s important to consider since we normally wear a lot of sunscreen during the summer months and put even more of it on our kids. As well the report provides some info on basic sun safety – which is always good to be reminded of.

According to Environmental Working Group 60% of brand-name sunscreens either don’t protect skin from sun damage or contain hazardous chemicals — or both. Here are a few guidelines to help you find sunscreen that is both safe and effective.

• If you’re shopping for sunscreen or want to check what you already have, take a look at the active ingredients list on the back of the bottle. It is usually quite short so easy to read. Avoid brands with Oxybenzone or benzophenone-3. These active ingredients are known to cause allergies and hormone problems.

• Avoid spray and powder sunscreens since inhaling sunscreens can pose extra risks.
• Buy fragrance-free brands. Chemicals used in fragrances have been linked to allergies & reproductive problems.
• Avoid sunscreen with added bug repellent since you can get too much of the pesticide in your body.
• Don’t use last year’s sunscreen. The active ingredients can lose their effectiveness over time.
• Buy brands that offer both UVA and UVB protection.

I went looking for what the report called the “Best easy-to-find brands” and found that they aren’t very easy to find after all. I searched Shoppers Drug Mart, Super Store pharmacy and the natural foods section and was only able to find two of the recommended brands: Neutrogena “Pure and Free” and Neutrogena “Sensitive Skin”. But in my search I found another excellent brand that wasn’t reviewed. Heiko, SPF 40. It’s fragrance free and the only active ingredient is zinc oxide. It’s pricey but I’m learning that good sunscreen never comes cheap.

Visit for more details, including a link to a database that lets you search different brands for a safety rating.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Safe & healthy grilling

As much as I love outdoor grilling in the summer I’m still not entirely comfortable around a gas barbeque. May be it’s the childhood memories of undercooked chicken legs served at neighbourhood barbeques. Or it could be the fact that, years ago, I got singed more than once igniting our grill with a match. But those worries pale in comparison to the discomfort I now feel after having done a little research into health issues concerning grilled food.

Before you get too worried there are many ways to grill safely. But let me first tell you what happens when you don’t.

Are you someone who likes to eat the crispy charred bits on your meat? Are you unfazed by grease flare ups that send flames above grill level? Here’s a reality check:

When fat drips onto the coals causing flare ups it forms a number of noxious chemicals (PAHs for short) that rise up in the smoke and cling to your food. The intense heat from the flame can cause other toxic chemicals form in the fatty juices that coat your food (called HCA’s). HCAs and PAHs are menu items that you want to avoid. They are known carcinogens and studies have linked them to an increased risk for colon, pancreatic and breast cancers. (Red meat isn’t the only food that this can happen to – any animal fat will do it, or fish.)

No need to avoid the BBQ. Follow these tips for healthy grilling:

- Simple marinades with citrus or olive oil can help to reduce the occurrence of these chemicals, and make your meal more flavourful in the process.
- Some herbs can reduce the formation of these chemicals. One study in particular credited rosemary with reducing the occurrence of HCAs.
- Have your spray bottle of water handy to douse any flames.
- Try cooking on indirect heat. My greatest grilling success yet was a half chicken cooked over indirect heat (only one burner on and your meat on the unlit side, with the lid closed.)
- Another way to grill indirectly is to cook your food on a grill pan or on a cedar plank.
- Don’t eat the charred bits on your meat, that’s the worst offender (contains the greatest amount of PAHs and HCAs).
- Trim visible fat off your meat before grilling. Better yet, choose lean cuts of meat.
- The longer you cook your meat the more toxic it can become. So choose small cuts of meat that cook quickly, or choose fish or seafood.
- Keep the bottom of your grill clean (to minimize smoking fat).
- Clean your grill racks well. Soak them overnight in hot water and baking soda. If you’re rushed for time, scrub them on the lawn with a paste made out baking soda and water. Then hose them down.

Smart grilling can keep you safely enjoying your summer favourites.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Backyard gardening - it's never too late to start

This spring we turned our front yard into a tomato garden. We had outgrown our backyard vegetable garden and since I have an obsession with tomatoes we decided that reducing the square footage of our lawn was hardly a sacrifice.

As it turns out people all over are getting back to vegetable gardening. It used to be that everyone had a “kitchen garden,” but sometime within the last generation the whole concept went to seed (so to speak) as most people got more dependent on easy access to fruits and vegetables in grocery stores.

Now all that is changing. Last year the number of American households that grew food gardens grew by 10% over the previous year and it’s expected to grow another 20% this year. Sales for seeds are on the rise too. Keep in mind that these projections for 2009 were made before Michelle Obama dug up the South Lawn of the White House to plant an herb and vegetable garden. She has helped to spawn a whole new generation of (well-dressed) gardeners.

I am not an accomplished vegetable gardener. Even so, my meager harvest makes me feel self-sufficient (with herbs and lettuce anyway) and provides me with a connection to the earth that I find very comforting and inspiring. I love that my children have planted our garden by my side and ask daily when they can pull the carrots. My daughter uses the word “harvest” when it’s time to cut salad greens and nibbles chives when she’s playing in the yard. My son finds the plump red radish heads poking out of the soil irresistible.

All of this backyard gardening is providing us with food that is better in many ways: it’s helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (food doesn’t have to be transported long distances), it’s chemical fee, and there is no packaging. Plus it’s reconnecting us with the true source of our food – which is the earth not the grocery store.

If you’d like to try your hand at vegetable gardening it’s not too late to plant your own, in the ground or in containers.

· If you want to sow your own seeds there are several vegetables with a relatively short time to harvest. Leaf lettuce and blends of different greens can take less than a month to go from seed to harvest. Swiss chard can take just a month to yield baby leaves and green beans can take less than two months to start producing.

· You can play catch up by buying mature tomato plants and other vegetable plants that are already growing well. Plant them in well prepared soil for and instant garden that takes less time to reach maturity.

· Plan for next year by getting an herb garden established this summer. Herbs like thyme, chives, sage, mint and oregano are perennial so you can plant them during the summer.

My son has just requested his own pot to grow his own sugar snap peas, which is in and of it’s self one of my greatest gardening successes yet.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Eco-friendly outdoor entertaining

This is the summer paradox that drives me batty: a group of friends is enjoying themselves at a backyard barbeque, making the most of a beautiful summer evening, marveling at how food tastes better outdoors, taking in the fresh smell of the summer air. At the end of the evening they roll up everything -- plates, cups, cutlery, half-eaten food, napkins – into the plastic tablecloth and dump it all in the garbage. (We’re all in love with nature during the summer, but sometimes forget to be considerate.)

If you can set one eco-objective for yourself this summer make it this: no disposable plastic or Styrofoam plates! I know there is the convenience factor but keep in mind that there are alternatives when you’re feeding large crowds or eating outside, so you don’t have to haul your china out onto the deck (unless you want to).

Instead choose reusable plates and cups. Tin or even plastic plates are durable and easy enough to clean. We received a picnic basket as a wedding gift that is just the thing for people who like to entertain outside. It’s filled with reusable plates, cups and cutlery.

The other option is paper plates. Just ensure they’re certified compostable. I was so relieved to come across the bio*life brand at Shoppers Drug Mart. They don’t come in Disney designs or flashy colours but they are certified compostable, can be recycled and are sturdy enough to last through the meal.

Here are a few more tips for eco-friendly outdoor entertaining and summer eating on the go:

Plastic cutlery can’t be recycled. (This is the first of many reasons why I dislike disposable cutlery). Instead choose sturdy reusable plastic cutlery or use your regular kitchen stuff.

Paper napkins can go in the compost. Better yet, use cloth napkins.

Stay away from disposable tablecloths. Many of the paper tablecloths are backed with plastic so can’t be composted. Other tablecloths are made of such thin plastic that it’s practically impossible to reuse them. Instead opt for a fabric tablecloth, a reusable outdoor tablecloth (or even an old bed sheet if you really need something to cover the picnic table).

Planning a road trip? Prepare a makeshift picnic basket with plates, cups, cutlery and containers. That way you can avoid the drive-thru and pick up lunch and snacks at the grocery store or markets. This will make it easier to avoid buying individually packaged food so you’ll have less packaging to toss in the garbage. It’s less expensive since you’re buying in larger sizes plus you can choose food that’s better for you.

Don’t let carefree entertaining in summer be an excuse for overloading the trash bin. Instead consider it an opportunity to be more earth-friendly. With luck you’ll teach your guests a thing or two.

This post previously appeared in KV Style (

Monday, June 8, 2009

Keeping your kitchen green and clean

I have been fixated with the cleanliness of our kitchen these days so I’ll pick up where I left off with my previous post and offer a few more tips on how to keep your kitchen green and clean.

I was noticing the other day how grungy our kitchen sink can get. And really, if the sink seems dirty the whole kitchen doesn’t feel much better, no matter how tidy the counters are. I came across a study showing that the kitchen sink can be home to more germs than a toilet. Yikes! I suppose that’s why people feel they need to turn to harsh chemicals in the kitchen.

When it comes to a healthy sink, germs aren’t the only thing to consider. The kind of cleaners you use for dishes and drains have a lot to do with the overall health of your kitchen, and your family.

As usual there are eco-friendly ways to keep your kitchen sparkling:

Clean your drain on a regular basis. But stay away from harsh drain cleaners, they’re highly corrosive so just plain dangerous to have in the house. They’re also destructive to our waterways.

Instead try this: pour ½ cup of baking soda down your drain. Chase it with a cup of white vinegar and let it bubble away for a few minutes. Chase this with a kettleful of boiling water.

When it comes to dishwashing liquids this is how I see it: since there are dish detergents readily available that safer for you and the environment when compared to the name brand detergents, why not choose them? Also, I don’t like the idea of sloshing petroleum-based suds (which is what name brands contain) on items that I use for food. My favourite eco brand is Down East, made in NS. It works well and you can buy it in four litre jugs to save on packaging and cut costs. Just check the natural foods section of the grocery store for it and other green brands.

Dish cloths are something else to consider. Since they can get grimy quickly just get in the habit of using a fresh, clean one each day. Hang the dirty cloths to dry before you wash them. Never use a sponge! Every study I found says they’re germ incubators (the “sink is dirtier than the toilet” study implicated sponges). Throwing them in the dishwasher doesn’t help since most dishwashers don’t get hot enough to kill dangerous bacteria. Instead bacteria get flung around on everything else in the dishwasher.

We have used cloths made from wood fibre that are great. They inhibit the growth of bacteria so don’t get smelly, just need a simple rinsing to clean and can be composted when they wear out.
Add these ideas to the vinegar-hydrogen peroxide spray system from my previous post and you’ll have all your kitchen cleaning needs covered with eco-friendly alternatives.

This post was previously published in KV Style (

Monday, May 25, 2009

Non-toxic kitchen disinfecting

A couple of months ago I was chatting with some other moms and somehow we got talking about green cleaning. They asked if it was possible to disinfect your kitchen – think chicken juice and blood from raw meat – using non-toxic cleaners.

Since we’re officially into the grilling season I think we can all use some eco-friendly tips for safely handling raw meat and fish. These tips will help you with general kitchen disinfecting and year-round food safety.

Sometimes I think that bottles of plain old white vinegar should sport brilliant red capes and a big “S” on the label because it really is a household and environmental superman. But little did I know that hydrogen peroxide is the real hero when it comes to obliterating bacteria. (Remember pouring it on cuts and watching it bubble away the germs?) When used together, vinegar and hydrogen peroxide are unstoppable (but utterly harmless to people and the environment).

Here’s why: when exposed to heat, light or organic material, hydrogen peroxide turns into pure water and oxygen. As it turns out, pure oxygen is toxic to microorganisms. I’m not into mini chemistry lessons but I want to make sure you believe me. In any case, when hydrogen peroxide teams up with vinegar it works ten times better.

What does all of this mean to you and your kitchen? It’s an easy, non-toxic way to deal with invisible bacteria that make thousands of people sick every year.

I have mentioned before that my favourite go-to book for cleaning is Organic Housekeeping buy Ellen Sandbeck. In it she recommends using vinegar and hydrogen peroxide in a “dual spray” system on food, utensils, countertops, cutting surfaces. You name it. Her system is so simple that you’ll be tossing (in a safe way of course) those harsh and toxic kitchen cleaners:

1. Buy two spray bottles, one dark or at least opaque.
2. Buy a big bottle of consumer strength hydrogen peroxide (3%), and a big bottle of distilled white vinegar.
3. Fill the dark spray bottle with hydrogen peroxide (it’s degraded by light).
4. Fill the other with vinegar.
5. Spray with abandon, (first with the vinegar, then the peroxide.)

You can even spray the food directly, which is quite handy for lettuce and other foods that won’t be cooked. But don’t spray marble or limestone countertops (it my damage them).

I keep my bottles filled and under the sink. I clean up in my usual way with hot soapy water but then I give everything a final spritz. For the first time ever I’m fearless around raw chicken.

This isn’t an excuse for carelessness in the kitchen though. Be sure to keep raw meat and fish well away from other food to reduce the chance of cross contamination. Clean quickly and thoroughly and put your dishcloth right in the wash.

This blog was previously published in KV Style (

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Aspire to a truly "green" lawn

I believe that people can get addicted to their lawns. Why else would anyone want to spray chemical concoctions in their yards during the only time of the year that we lounge about on our lawns?

Even walking past a yard posted with chemical spray warnings stresses me out. It’s as bad as secondhand smoke (and possibly worse).

There’s a good reason why the Canadian Cancer Society is a cheerleader for the ban on cosmetic pesticides. There are mountains of data implicating repeated exposure to pesticides in everything from brain and lung cancer, to kidney damage, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, reproductive disorders, and increased rates of childhood leukemia. Dozens of physician’s groups endorse bans, and two provinces have legislated bans. I’m still waiting for my provincial government to make a decision.

Even though my family and I have a relaxed approach to our lawn (that's an understatement), I can appreciate that many people love the look of a lawn that’s lush and green. If you fit into that category, don’t feel that your only option is chemical. You can create a lush beautiful lawn that’s fit for rolling on, using an all-natural regime.
1. Once a year top-dress your lawn with compost and over-seed with hardy grass varieties that thrive in our climate. I’m partial to clover (it’s soft underfoot).
2. Feed your lawn twice a year, and make sure you choose an all-natural fertilizer. There are so many to choose from that you don’t need to resort to petroleum-based chemicals. Read labels (good luck) or visit Halifax Seed for recommendations.
3. Let your lawn nourish itself by leaving grass clippings to compost.
4. To figure out what your lawn needs, have the soil analyzed (or do it yourself with a kit from Halifax Seed). Healthy soil should have a pH of 6 to 7. Adding the right nutrients to the soil will encourage micro-organisms to develop. They help to keep your lawn healthy and ward off pests. Chemical lawn treatments kill off these micro-organisms and leave your lawn more vulnerable.
5. Don’t mow too short. To help your lawn hold moisture be careful not to clip it below 2.5- 3 inches high. This is important to establishing and maintaining deep, healthy roots and will help your lawn squeeze out weeds.
6. During dry periods water your lawn deeply. Water long enough to fill a tuna can (about an inch of water). Water in the early morning or evening to limit evaporation.
7. If you have any bare spots top-dress and over-seed them so weeds don’t get there first.
8. If weeds really bother you dig some of them by hand (or pay the neighbours’ kids to do it for you).

Whether you’re obsessed with your grass or just hope for a half decent lawn each summer, keep in mind that your sanity isn’t the only health issue to consider when it comes to lawn care. Choosing chemical-free alternatives will keep us all a lot healthier.

This blog was previously published in KV Style (

Monday, May 11, 2009

Why bottled water isn't so great after all

At first glance bottled water seems like the ideal thing. What could be better than weaning more people off of pop and other unhealthy drinks? And getting us to drink more water is great for our health. Yes, but there is so much more to bottled water than meets the eye. When you consider that most of us have easy access to safe drinking water right out of our tap, the environmental toll of bottled water (which is huge) seems so pointless.

Consider this:

More than 40% of bottled water is just tap water anyway. (Coca-Cola’s Dasani brand comes out of taps in Calgary and Brampton.)

It takes about 250 ml of oil to produce one litre of bottled water. That includes the oil used to make the plastic bottle and gas to ship the filled bottle halfway across the country. When you factor in processing, it takes about three litres of water to make one litre of bottled water.

The explosion in popularity of bottled water has caused an explosion of sorts in the landfill. Less than 25% of water bottles end up being recycled. Millions and millions go in the trash.

Disposable plastic water bottles are not meant for multiple uses. They’re made with #1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is fine for a single use, but reuse can lead to bacterial growth and leaching of chemicals.

Have you noticed that water cooler bottles are made with #7 plastic? That’s the plastic that contains Bisphenol A, the hormone disruptor that has been banned from use in baby bottles.
And one more thing, for those of us who pay for municipal water, a litre of bottled water is about 3,000 times more expensive than a litre of tap water.

There are more than enough reasons to stop buying bottled water. So where do you begin?
Fill water bottles at home before you head out on a road trip or even if you’re just out and about for the afternoon. Make sure you have enough bottles for everyone in your family (and maybe a couple of extras).

Bring an empty bottle with you when you travel. Even when I travel for work I pack a water bottle that I fill from the bathroom tap in my hotel room. That way I’m not buying the expensive bottle of water in the room and can steer clear of plastic.

Buy a carbon filter for your kitchen tap if you don’t like the taste of your tap water. Or buy a filter jug to keep in your fridge.

At restaurants ask for tap water if they offer bottled water.

Convenience is a matter of perspective. In my opinion it’s easier and more eco-friendly and definitely cheaper to take full advantage of the safe drinking water from the kitchen tap.

This article was previously published in KV Style (

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Breaking the bag habit

Up until recently I thought that “compostable” and “biodegradable” meant pretty much the same thing and was delighted to see biodegradable bags popping up at various retailers. As it turns out these bags aren’t great after all. In fact they’re a full step backwards – a bit of a hoax courtesy of the bio-bag manufacturers. These biodegradable bags (marked Degradable, Biodegradable or Oxo-biodegradable) aren’t suitable for the blue bins or the compost bin.

They can’t go in the blue bins since they can cause items made from recycled plastic, like “wood” decking, to degrade. And they’re no better in the compost pile since all they do is break down into tiny bits of plastic. So it turns out the trash is the only place for them.

To minimize the confusion, biodegradable bags that you line your compost bin with must also be marked compostable.

Recycling is great but avoidance is better…
If you’re not in the habit of bringing your own bags to the grocery store, that’s the best place to start. It’s the simplest too. Just leave a pile of bags in your car and try to remember to bring them into the store with you.

If you’re already into the grocery store routine here are a few more ways to break the bag habit:
· When you buy something say no to a bag. Can the item fit in your purse or can you carry it home/to the car without a bag?

· If you have a few items and one is really big, ask the clerk to put the smaller items in a small bag and just carry the larger item.

· Better yet keep a bag in your purse (or coat pocket). My favourite birthday gift last year was an Envirosax reusable shopping bag ( It’s a sturdy polyester bag that folds up into nothing but fits just about anything. These bags are chic, cheery and surprisingly strong (they can carry up to 44 pounds of stuff). Plus they’re waterproof. Cost: $8.99.

· I discovered a local woman who makes a great variety of reusable bags, including produce bags (so you don’t have to use the plastic bags on a roll) and reusable snack bags. To find out more visit

Using plastic bags is a habit but so is not using plastic bags. To live a little greener it’s just a matter of swapping one habit for another.

A version of this article was previously published in KV Style (

Monday, April 27, 2009

How to “green” your dream renovation

Ads for home shows are all around, which gets me thinking about my imaginary kitchen renovation. My plans get greener by the day because every time I do a little research I come across new earth-friendly products.

So far my imaginary reno has a near zero carbon footprint – second-hand home decorating magazines from my mom is about it. In reality though, the environmental cost of many home renovations far exceeds the actual price tag.

This is how it adds up: There is the environmental impact of the manufacturing process for mainstream home renovation products. Once they’re in your home these products off-gas, sending nasty chemicals into your air. MDF and particleboard are big culprits as are paints and other sealants and finishes. As well, most of the practices for gathering raw materials – wood for cupboards, stone for countertops – are not sustainable. But with green options everywhere you can reduce the environmental impact of your renovation and create a healthier home.

Since renovations contribute to the landfill, divert your castoffs (sinks, cupboards, windows etc.) by donating them to the Habitat for Humanity Restore. Revenue from the store is used as a steady source of funding for the homes that Habitat for Humanity builds.

The EcoLogo certification program is your friend when it comes to choosing products required for your renovation. Products certified through this program are “environmentally preferable” to standard alternatives. Visit their website to search for paints, wallboard, kitchen and bathroom tiles and more.

If you’re selecting new appliances look for the Energy Star label. Appliances that earn this recognition are among the most efficient on the market.

For painting projects look for low-VOC or VOC-free paints, now widely available. Eco-House is a Fredericton company that manufactures natural paint and wood finishes.

Ask for wood products that are Forest Stewardship Council-certified. FSC wood products come from forests that are managed to strict ecological and social/economic standards. Both Ikea and Home Depot carry FSC wood products.

Ikea cabinetry is formaldehyde-free (unlike most of the options out there). Other eco-friendly cabinet options include strawboard, wheatboard (actually made from straw and wheat) and bamboo. Or choose reclaimed wood. Or paint your existing cabinets another colour and add some new hardware).

Some green choices for countertops include FSC butcher block, recycled glass and PaperStone (made from recycled paper and resins). Canadian quarried slate and granite are other options but keep in mind that heavy things that need to travel far have bigger carbon footprints.

For your floors consider reclaimed or FSC wood (with low-VOC finishes), cork (a renewable resource and by-product of the wine cork industry) and bamboo. Natural linoleum (the real stuff) is another green option. Look for Marmoleum so you can steer clear of anything vinyl.

I noticed that the The Home Depot flyer has an “Eco options” symbol by many of its home renovation products -- proof positive that it gets easier by the day to add “green” to your dream renovation.

This article was previously published in KV Style (

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Packing a greener lunch

When my son was in kindergarten he asked why we didn’t send packaged stuff in his lunch. He was intrigued by the novelty of other kid’s lunch items. And what child wouldn’t be? (That’s why food companies make those mini packages.) But the environmental impact of that extra packaging is anything but small, which is reason enough to consider ways to reduce the amount of garbage generated by your lunch.

Each year we come across new (but hardly revolutionary) ways to help make our children’s lunches easier on the environment. A few years ago we stopped buying individually packaged yogurt and instead serve up portions from our big tub. We replaced drink boxes with refillable bottles. When we started reading about chemicals leaching from plastics we bought the children stainless-steel water bottles. And this year we’re working on giving up plastic sandwich bags in favor of reusable containers and little fabric snack bags. (I say “we” but it’s really my husband, since he’s in charge of lunches in our house.)

Below is a list of ideas for packing eco-friendly lunches, for you and your children:

· Reduce (or eliminate) prepackaged foods. Pack in reusable containers your own cheese and crackers, yogurt, juice, water, fruit, vegetables.
· Pack stainless-steel spoons and forks. I dislike eating with plastic utensils so always assumed that my children would too. And plastic utensils can’t be recycled.
· Consider using stainless steel water bottles. They’re so easy to find now, are durable and easy to keep clean.
· Remember any plastics that you use should have the numbers 1, 2, 4 or 5 on them (inside the recycling symbol). These are the food-safe numbers. Items marked with these numbers are also recyclable. Don’t put food items in any containers marked with the number seven. That’s the plastic that contains Bisphenol A, the hormone disruptor that has been banned from use in baby bottles.
· Don’t heat food in plastic containers, no matter what number is stamped on it. Chemical leaching is intensified when the plastic is heated.
· If you do use plastic sandwich bags ask your child to bring them home. They can be rinsed and reused. As soon as they start to show wear they can be recycled with soft plastics. Or better yet, use plastic containers and fabric snack bags instead of plastic bags.
· Beam Reusable Bags, a local company, offers washable fabric snack bags that come in handy packs of six. They’re inexpensive ($7.50 for 6). Visit
· If your child’s school isn’t set up for composting make sure that compostables (banana peals, bread crusts) stay in the lunch bag to be composted at home. If you want to get composting going at your school The Fundy Solid Waste Commission has a terrific program specifically for schools. If you want to start composting at work they have a start-up program for businesses too.
Packing a greener lunch doesn’t have to be complicated. Making just a few changes will make your lunch a little healthier -- for you and for the planet.

This article was previously published in KV Style (

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Turn Earth Day into a week’s worth of earth-friendly activities

If you’re looking for a great excuse to do something special later this month, consider celebrating Earth Day. It lands on Wednesday, April 22. By celebrate I mean plan something to honour the day.

Last year at work we stretched Earth Day into a week’s worth of earth-friendly activities. It was a great reminder of the simple things you can do to reduce your everyday environmental impact, and having one task assigned for each day made it easy to remember. You can do the same at home.

Here are a few suggestions. You can pick one for each day, or try to do as many as you can in a week. With any luck you’ll keep the challenge going long past April.

· Pack a litter-less lunch that includes nothing that will end up in the trash. Avoid all packaged food and instead pack food in reusable containers or bags. So no mini yogurts and no juice boxes.

· Carpool, take the bus, walk to work or work from home – do whatever is possible to ensure you’re not driving alone to work.

· Plan a 100 mile meal (or as close to a 100 mile radius as possible). Use local food from your freezer, the grocery store or local market. Read packaging and labels to find root vegetables grown in the Maritimes to go alongside your main dish or cook a vegetarian meal. Local cheese and eggs are easy to find too.

· Wash your clothes in cold water and then hang them to dry.

· Turn off lights when you leave a room, and turn off the TV, radio and your computer (including at work).

· Try to go a day (or a week) without getting any bags from stores. Bring your own bags instead or don’t use a bag at all for purchases that are easy to carry.

· Don’t idle your car when you’re parked someplace, whether it’s waiting in your car to pick someone up or running to grab a coffee.

· Forgo a disposable cup when you get your daily coffee. Instead bring your own reusable mug.

· Can you go a day (or a week) without using plastic wrap in your kitchen? Cover bowls with plates or store things in reusable containers.

· At work, can you go a day (or longer) without printing anything?

· Take part in a school or community clean-up. Or plan a walk with your family and take a garbage bag to pick up any trash you final along your route.

The idea is to test-drive some basic eco-friendly behaviour and hopefully start down the path of developing some new habits. With luck you’ll see that it’s no great sacrifice to go without plastic wrap, and turning the dial to cold for a wash doesn’t require a leap of faith.

This article was previously published in KV Style (

Monday, March 30, 2009

It's easy to avoid non-stick cookware and bakeware

Healthy pots: cast iron, stainless steel, enameled cast iron, stainless-lined copper.
Long before I ever researched non-stick coatings they made me uncomfortable. It always seemed that no mater how careful you were, that smooth black surface always ended up scratched and you know that all those black bits got scraped right into you food.

The abbreviation for the non-stick coating chemical is PTFE, and it’s found in most non-stick coated cookware and bakeware. It is also found in fast food packaging and microwave popcorn bags. As it turns out eating the stuff isn’t the only worry. Inhaling the fumes it gives off when heated too high (680 degrees F) is toxic too. Whatever your exposure, once you ingest this chemical it’s with you for life and accumulates in your body over time. The chemical has been linked to thyroid damage and an independent panel advising the US Environmental Protection Agency calls it a “likely human carcinogen.”

For me it’s easy to avoid non-stick cookware. Good old cast iron hardly needs any oil to keep things from sticking and enameled cast iron is even better. Stainless steel-lined copper and regular stainless steel pans both work beautifully.

When it comes to baking though, you need to go on a determined search to find alternatives.

In my hunt for uncoated muffin tins I came across some brands made of aluminum. But that’s not a preferred option either. Food cooked in aluminum absorbs aluminum and while some intake of the element is considered safe, we all ingest aluminum in other ways. Adding to this with the use of aluminum cookware and bakeware might put you over the safe limit.

Fortunately there is no shortage of healthy alternatives for cooking and baking:

To limit the contact your food has with non-stick coatings and aluminum (including foil) line cookie sheets and baking pans with parchment paper. It reduces the need for greasing pans and keeps things from burning. Plus cookies and scones slide off easily and cakes lift out with little effort.

The Pampered Chef sells unbleached parchment paper which is more eco-friendly than the regular bleached variety you find in the grocery store.

Choose stoneware for your baking pans. The Pampered Chef offers cookie sheets, square and rectangular pans, pizza stones, bread pans, cake and pie pans, even muffin pans. Their products aren’t cheap but they do come with a three-year guarantee.

Candy-coloured silicon bakeware is considered a safe alternative. But I will add that there seems to be little independent research available and user comments on various websites talk a lot about a nasty plastic smell coming from the oven and funny tasting muffins and cakes. I had the same experience a few years ago and never used them again. Silicone itself is inert - it’s non-reactive, and withstands very high heat. All I can say is that it appears there could be quite a range of quality among brands.

Choose cast iron bakeware (you can tone your arms while you bake) or look for stainless steel baking pans. Both options can be found online. Using cast iron cookware and bakeware is especially healthy, since it provides a source of dietary iron.

And one more thing, swap out your non-stick pans with one of the alternatives listed above.

A version of this article was previously published in KV Style (

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How beautiful are beauty products?

Have you ever tried to read the ingredients list on the back of a jar of face cream or a bottle of shampoo? Even if I had a biochemistry degree I’m not sure I’d be able to decipher what ingredients are harmful and which are helpful.

If you had to narrow it down there are about 17 extremely toxic chemicals found in common personal care products. Of these a few are always on my radar: parabens, phthalates, sodium lauryl sulfate & propylene glycol. These and their jar mates are known to cause asthma, skin irritation, liver and kidney damage. They are known hormone disruptors, carcinogens and neurotoxins. They seep in through our skin and we inhale them (nail polish is at the top of every toxic cosmetic list I have ever seen).

I worry less about all of this since I stumbled upon a couple of great websites that help guide me to products that my family and I are comfortable using.

Guide to Less Toxic Products (, is run buy the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia. They offer a “Best” and “Good” rating system for a great variety of personal care products. They also explain what is so worrisome about the most dangerous chemicals commonly found in personal care products.

Skin Deep is a cosmetic safety database that is maintained by the Environmental Working Group out of the U.S. ( This database rates the toxicity of thousands of cosmetics using an easy-to-follow, colour-coded system: green, yellow and red. You can search on cosmetics you already have (to decide if you need to toss them) and use it to help decide what products fit within your comfort zone.

Fortunately more and more cosmetics companies are making their products (or at least some of their products) safer. Avalon Organics, Burt’s Bees and Kiss My Face are a few brands to look for in local stores. Superstore carries a selection of these in their natural food section and Healthy Start carries many of the same products.

Green Beaver is a line of healthy, Canadian-made personal care products. You can find these at The Feel Good Store on Germain Street.

If you’re looking for something higher end, New Brunswick-based Olivier in the City Market sells natural soaps, shampoos, face and body creams, scrubs and deodorant. Their products are made with pure, natural ingredients.

Arbonne is another high-end skincare line that uses natural ingredients and is committed to making their products as safe as possible. Tracey Bujold ( sells the products locally through in-home sales and they are also available at the new Salon Soleil.

Whether it’s toothpaste, shampoo, face cream or lipstick, making healthy choices for you and your family can be complicated. But it’s important. (Ignorance really isn’t bliss.) If you take a bit of time to read labels and tap into helpful resources you’ll feel better about everything that’s in your bathroom cupboard.

This article was previously published in KV Style (

Monday, January 26, 2009

Full-on household recycling...go for it!

Even if you’re not into resolutions, this time of year you can’t help but give some thought to the year ahead. For me the New Year is my cue to get organized and get rid of useless clutter. What we define as “useless clutter” is all a matter of perspective of course but we packrats are not immune to the need to get our homes – and by extension our lives - in order come January.

I suppose some people go looking for a life coach or a personal organizer, but a few Rubbermaid bins do the trick for me. That’s because tackling home recycling is a great way to get organized. And I mean recycling beyond wine and beer bottles and the newspaper. If you have that down pat then it’s time to move to full-on household recycling that includes rigid plastics, soft plastics and cans.

The only thing that requires any real effort is hauling your recyclables off to the blue bins. Thankfully there is a local service to look after that for you. For $15 a month you can have your sorted recyclables picked up curbside each week by a company called The Blue Run (, 657-BLUE).

With the biggest deterrent out of the way you can think of a system to keep the recyclables moving out of the kitchen, sorted, and stored in some organized fashion. We use plastic bins – two in the basement for paper and cardboard and two in the garage, one for containers that are redeemable and one for rigid plastic. We don’t have much in the way of cans so the few that come along get tossed in with the plastics. But if you have lots of cans then opt for an extra bin. The soft plastic, like bread bags, gets bagged and thrown on top. So that’s all it takes, four or five bins and a place to put them.

Here’s what can go in your bins:
Any rigid plastic with a recycling symbol on it (look for the numbers one through seven). That includes plastic milk jugs and mini yogurt containers. Be sure to rinse the containers and remove lids.

Soft plastic bags and wrappers, as long as they’re clean.

Clean paper and clean, unwaxed cardboard, including magazines, envelopes, toilet paper rolls and cereal boxes.

Tin cans, coat hangers, aluminium pie plates and clean tinfoil.

There is a complete list on the Fundy Region Solid Waste Commission website ( or you can call the hotline at 738-1212. Also on the website are some great ideas for home recycling setups.

If you’ve every wondered where to start when it comes to getting organized, trying your hand at whole-home recycling is a do-it-yourself sort of therapy that I’d recommend.

One more thing, don’t forget to compost your Christmas tree. If you live in Rothesay or Quispamsis, January 10th is the drop off deadline. For those of you in Hampton, have your tree to the curb by 7:00 a.m. on Monday, January 5. Contact the Fundy Solid Waste Commission for details.

This column also appeared in KV Style