Friday, December 28, 2012

Green resolutions - 7 tips for a more eco-friendly life


January first is an easy day to start anew. There’s something about rolling into a new year that inspires us to do something to improve ourselves.

But what it we all viewed January first as an opportunity to make our world a better place?


Making a few eco-friendly changes to the way we live is one way to improve the world with the added benefit of improving our lives since the health of the planet and our personal health are so undeniably intertwined. Something as simple as buying better quality food, or eating a little less meat, can have positive repercussions that extend way beyond your waistline.

As with any new resolution or habit, starting with bite-sized changes and adding to them bit by bit is a good way to build positive momentum. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Buy local for a green Christmas


Last month this Holiday pledge started circulating online. 

Even if we all kept the pledge just 10% of the time it would make a huge difference in our communities. Buying local keeps four-times more of our shopping dollars in our communities, compared to shopping at chain stores. And according to data from the city of Vancouver, local businesses support local events, charities and sports teams 250% more than big corporations.  

Sunday, December 16, 2012

How to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMO's)

How do you tell if your food has been genetically modified? Would you want to know? Should you care?

Since there are no labeling laws in Canada that require a producer to state whether or not food ingredients are genetically modified, we’re on our own to figure out whether or not there are GMOs in our food. 

GMOs are “genetically modified organisms,” plants or animals with DNA that has been fiddled with too (theoretically) make it better in different ways. Genes from different species are spliced to create combinations that could never occur in nature or through traditional cross breeding.  

My gut tells me that GMO’s are not a good thing for us or the planet.  But it wasn’t until I dug into the issue that I really understood the significance of GMOs being let loose in our food system. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Should you upgrade your appliances? An energy metre can help you decide

For years now I have wondered if it’s time to update our appliances. They were in the house when we bought it ten years ago and work well, but after reading about efficiency gains in many appliances over the years, I was curious about whether or not it would be worth our while (and our carbon footprint) to buy new.

The energy savings stats sounded good but there was always the nagging question: is it really more eco-friendly to toss our current fridge, stove and chest freezer and replace them with new, when they’re working perfectly well?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Make your home more energy efficient & stay warm this winter

Visit Efficiency NB for tips on ways to keep your home cozy and save money, including rebate programs.
Every fall when the temperature dips and the house starts to feel a little chilly we start to think about new ways to keep our house cozy. We don’t want to spend more than necessary to stay warm, and we don’t want to waste energy. Heating can account for up to 60% of your home energy bill and most of a home’s carbon footprint so our goal is to search out the most efficient tools and tweaks for the winter months. 

This year’s wish list – a wall mounted air-to-air heat pump for the bedroom area of our home, the chilliest part of our house.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Why bottled water is bad

Carbonate your own tap water and
say good bye to bottled water, forever.

The other day in Costco I saw a couple pushing a cart that was filled to the brim with cases of bottled water. My first thought was “What a pain” to have to deal with all of that lugging. Then I thought “Why would you buy a pile of bottled water when you can drink the water out of your tap?” Then I thought, “May be they’re on a well and having water issues”.

There are loads of reasons why someone would choose to buy bottled water. There are many more reasons why tap water is a better choice.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Food waste - how not to throw money in the garbage



Storing food in clear containers helps you keep track of leftovers in your fridge 
I have an obsession with leftovers. I hate to see good food go to waste so over the years have honed my skill at using them up in all sorts of creative ways. That’s why a recent article about food waste caught my eye.  Titled “Don’t toss your cookies”, the article suggests that food waste is one of the greatest challenges facing our food system today; more worrisome than spiralling food costs and extreme weather.
Why? It’s estimated that 40% of all food goes uneaten.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Greener cleaning - safe and effective household cleaners

I have never been a clean freak and although we have a clean-enough house you won’t find any of the typical household cleaners under our sinks or in our broom closet. Typical household cleaners make me uncomfortable, and I fear them more than I fear household germs.

Most cleaners on the market (including many that are marketed as “green”) are quite toxic. Deep down I think that we all know this but people tend to trust their favourite brands and depend on them to keep their house feeling sparkling clean.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Making back-to-school eco-friendly


Whether or not you have kids heading back to school in September there is a good chance you’re stocking up on school or home office supplies now that it’s the end of the summer.

I used to love new school supplies and looked forward to opening new scribblers and buying fun pens, pencils and erasers. My kids are the same. But before we go out and buy new things we take inventory of what’s left over from last year. There are always duotangs, scribblers and binders that didn’t get used and our cupboard is full of perfectly good pens and pencils. By the time we check off what we already have at home we have usually made a good dent in assembling our kids’ supplies for the new school year.
(Rewind to June, a lot of very re-usable stuff often gets tossed at the end of the school year. I know it’s a bit of a pain to sort through stuffed knapsacks on the last day of school, but if you do a basic sort then, it isn’t as daunting to organize the reusable items come August. )
Reusing some of last year’s school supplies means that we can usually get our kids set for the new school year a little faster, and a lot more cheaply, than if we had to tackle the entire list from new. Plus, our kids still get to enjoy some brand new supplies and the excitement that comes with choosing them.
Another thing we have learned is that when it comes to knap sacs, you get what you pay for. We have gone through very inexpensive knap sacs in less than a year but have managed to hang onto knapsacks from L.L. Bean and Mountain Equipment Co-op for a few years now. If you find a durable brand it’s worth investing a bit.
When buying new items, there are ways to make back-to-school shopping a little more eco-friendly:
Look for pencils made from recycled newspaper rather than wood and pens made from recycled plastic (or refillable).
Look for PVC-free binders. (You’ll recognize PVC by its shower-curtain smell.) PVC off-gasses for ages and that unpleasant smell is toxic. Look for binders made from reinforced cardboard or kraft paper, or PVC-free polypropylene.
Crayola products get a good eco rating. They’re non-toxic, made in North America and the Crayola Company has been lauded for its use of solar and wind power at its production facilities.
Beware of Dollar Store crayons, markers and paints. Made off-shore, there are concerns with chemicals used to make these products, especially the chemicals used to formulate the colours.
Avoid any products that glow in the dark. The Toy Industry Association warns that the chemicals used to make things glow are known to be toxic.
Look for paper products made from post-consumer recycled content. From computer paper to loose leaf and scribblers, it’s getting easier to find materials with this kind of recycled symbol.  Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) paper products are your next best choice.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Choosing sustainable seafood, these helpful tools make it easier

Use this helpful guide to find healthy seafood

We eat a lot of seafood in our house and let me tell you, it isn’t easy being green. Finding sustainable seafood is my greatest eco food challenge, week after week.

Thankfully there are some helpful pocket guides and apps available that provide direction on the best fish and seafood to buy. Seachoice.org created a great tool for choosing ocean-friendly seafood that categorizes fish choices by colour (green, yellow, red) making it easy to identify seafood that is best to eat, and that which is fished or farmed in environmentally damaging ways. It also lists the fish that you should be wary of due to concerns about mercury or other contaminants.  Seafood Watch offers a similar guide. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Marinated tomatoes - more reasons to buy local

Locally grown produce tastes better. Just ask a tomato...

This is a great time of year to get out of the grocery stores and into local markets. We’re well into the growing season now so there is a delicious variety and abundance of fresh local produce.

Just last weekend I came home from the Kingston Market with carrots, zucchini, garlic scapes, beets, beet greens, Swiss chard,cauliflower, strawberries and sugar snap peas. But I could also have bought broccoli, kale, numerous other greens, turnip, string beans, potatoes and fresh herbs. This weekend there will be tomatoes. There is fresh bread to be had,eggs, free range chicken, pork and beef, honey and jams.

And so it goes, week after week through our growing season. The better part of a grocery order, all grown or produced nearby.

You don`t have to go to the Kingston Peninsula to enjoy the local abundance. Local markets -- The Saint John City Market, Country Harvest, Cochran`s, Kredels and others -- buy directly from farmers this time of year. Thanks to these markets, supporting local farmers and growers is easy and convenient.

If you need more reasons to search out local produce, consider this: Locally grown food tastes better and is more nutritious than the grocery store variety because it`s picked ripe and gets to you within a couple of days. It isn`t gassed to ripen, fumigated to kill foreign pests, or coated with petroleum-based waxes to keep it from going bad. It’s fresh in the most delicious sense of the word.

Back to the taste, if you're not convinced that produce grown nearby tastes better than imported compare for yourself. Taste locally grown carrots and beans alongside those from the grocery store or Costco. Or better yet, compare a local, field-ripened tomato to a grocery store variety.

Our growing season is so short we should all enjoy these local flavours while we can. Here is my favourite way to eat local tomatoes:

Marinated tomatoes

6 medium tomatoes
2 Tbsp fresh herbs (oregano, basil, thyme)

Marinade:

  • 2 tsp spice mix (see recipe below)
  • 1 tsp molasses
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup cider vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • Salt & pepper
  •  

Spice mix

  • 2 ½ tsp paprika
  • ½ tsp smoked paprika
  • ¼ – ½ tsp dried chipotle pepper or cayenne
  • 1 tsp dried thyme

Slice the tomatoes and lay them in a dish that’s deep enough to accommodate the marinade without it dribbling over the sides.
Pour over the marinade and let the flavours blend for a couple of hours.
Sprinkle with herbs before serving.
If you’d like to make this a bit more substantial nestle some slabs of feta in among the tomatoes. Or you can serve grilled feta on the side.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Avoiding pesticides and maintaining your sanity in the produce section of the grocery store

The dirty dozen and clean fifteen help you reduce your exposure to pesticides on produce.

When you’re in the produce section at the grocery store do you look at the organic-labeled fruit and vegetables and wonder if you should be buying it? Here is a bit of information that will help you decide.
Environmental Working Group, a research organization based in the U.S. has released its annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides, a list of produce ranked according to the amount of pesticide residue they contain by the time they reach your table. The guide is a helpful way to limit your pesticide exposure and manage your grocery budget while still eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
The Guide is comprised of two lists, the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15. The Dirty Dozen are the 12 fruits and vegetables that have tested the highest for pesticide residue. To rank produce EWG takes into account how the food is usually prepared, ex. bananas are peeled and apples are washed but not peeled. Produce on this list is what you want to buy organic if possible, or you can limit your consumption.
The corresponding Clean 15 are the fruits and vegetables that have low or no pesticide residue so you don’t have to stress about finding it organically grown, and you don’t have to spend extra grocery dollars on the organic version. Since organic produce is more expensive it’s good to know when you should fork out the extra money.
Topping the Dirty Dozen list again this year are apples, followed by celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, nectarines (imported), grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries (domestic) and potatoes. EWG has also given green beans, kale and collards an honorable mention of sorts because of a specific insecticide that commonly contaminates these green veggies. It’s a known neurotoxin so is of special concern.
But the good news is that the Clean 15 includes a great variety of choices: onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocado, cabbage, sweet peas, asparagus, mangos, eggplant, kiwi, cantaloupe (domestic), sweet potatoes, grapefruit, watermelon and mushrooms.
A few highlights from this year’s report: at least one pesticide was found on 68 percent of the samples analyzed. 98 percent of the apple samples tested positive for pesticides and 96 percent of celery samples tested positive for pesticides, followed by potatoes at 91 percent.  As a category, grapes have more types of pesticides than any other produce (64 different types!|)
No single sample from the Clean Fifteen had more than 5 types of pesticides detected (this is a good thing) and more than 90 percent of cabbage, asparagus, sweet peas, eggplant and sweet potato samples had no more than one pesticide detected. (No samples of sweet corn and onions had more than one pesticide.)
The idea of ingesting chemicals when you`re just trying to have a healthy diet can be stressful. Just keep in mind that eating conventionally grown produce is still healthier than avoiding it for fear of pesticides and loading up on the Clean Fifteen give you the best of both worlds. Vist www.ewg.org/foodnews for the full report.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Eco-friendly lawn care

If hand-powered tools are too much for you to manage, cordless, Energy Star-certified tools are the next best thing.

Early in the season we’re always gung-ho with the loppers and garden shears. We have been happy to trim shrubs, clip tall weeds beside our stream and cut the high grass growing along the edge of the deck, all by hand using nothing but the most basic tools and elbow grease.
But after years of by-hand gardening in a fairly large yard using shears that never held an edge, left shrubs a little shaggy looking and made my wrists ache, we decided enough is enough and invested in a weed whacker and hedge trimmer.
Elbow grease is of course the greenest route to lawn care, but if it’s too daunting or too much work and you want powered yard tools, the next best choice is cordless instead of gas powered. We switched to a cordless lawn mower three summers ago and have been very pleased with our choice. There is a great variety of cordless tools available, with good battery life, easy recharging and no extension cord to haul around.
Cordless tools are 90% less polluting that the standard two-stroke engine and at least 20% more efficient than a four-stroke engine.  (If you mix oil and gas together to run your lawn mower, it’s a two-stroke engine. If your oil and gas is separate, it’s a four-stroke.)
If you need more convincing to move away from gas-powered lawn care tools (including mowers) consider this: according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a new gas powered mower pollutes as much in an hour of mowing as 8 new cars driving on the highway for an hour (two-stroke engine). And there are ground level emissions that you’re inhaling as you mow or trim. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one gas mower spews 120 lbs. of CO2 and other pollutants into the air every year. There is no data for other gas-powered lawn care tools. With smaller engines the emissions are lower but add up over the growing season nonetheless.
Another reason to switch from gas-powered: the EPA also estimates that over 17 million gallons of fuel (mostly gasoline) is spilled each year while refueling lawn equipment. These spills work their way into groundwater and also emit volatile organic compounds that are harmful if inhaled.
An often overlooked perk of cordless lawn care equipment is the peace and quiet of yard work. While battery operated equipment isn’t quite early-morning quiet, it is quieter than your regular gas-powered equipment.
If you’re looking for cordless equipment choose Energy Star certified models. To receive the certification, lawn mowers, string trimmers, shears, and other cordless yard care tools must use at least 35% less energy than non-certified models, a requirement set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Our mower is Earthwise brand from Kent and our new trimmers are Ryobi from Home Depot (an Eco Option). Canadian Tire carries a selection of tools as does Home Hardware so you won’t have to go out of your way to make an eco-friendly choice. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Safe & effective sunscreen


I bet there were a lot of sunburns as a result of our beautiful Victoria Day weekend. Sometimes it takes a few sunny days to get back into the habit of wearing sunscreen and safely enjoying summer-like weather.  We had to dig around for last summer’s sunscreen leftovers and rummage in the basement for sun hats. In the end we had what we needed to safely enjoy the sunny weekend but this week we were back to square one researching sunscreen for this summer.
Fortunately Environmental Working Group (EWG) has just released its latest sunscreen report, making it easy to search out the safest and most effective sunscreens available this year.  
But before you run to the drugstore (or download EWG’s sunscreen app) remember there’s more to sun safety than just wearing sunscreen. The first line of defense is to cover up with wide-brimmed hats and light coloured clothing. Finding shade and staying out of the noontime sun are important too but easier said than done on sunny weekends during our too-short summers.
Sunscreen should be your last line of defense for a couple of reasons. First, it appears that there is no consensus on whether or not sunscreen actually reduces incidences of melanoma, and many sunscreens are much less effective than they claim. That’s no reason to stop using it though, just a reminder that you need to do your research before stocking up for the summer.
Based on its research EWG found that a lot of sunscreens on the shelf exaggerate claims of UV protection and many are unstable, breaking down in sunlight.
As well, there is no evidence that sunscreens with SPF ratings higher than 50 are any more effective but they do carry a higher concentration of chemicals that soak into your skin. The US FDA is considering prohibiting the sale of these products because those who use them tend to stay in the sun longer. They may not burn but their skin is damaged in other ways.
Some sunscreen ingredients react to the sun’s rays, making them more toxic. Retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, can actually promote the development of tumours.  
Based on EWG’s research, mineral-based sunscreens offer the safest and best protection. They are stable in sunlight and don’t penetrate the skin. If you can’t find mineral-based sunscreen or prefer a formula that’s easier to apply EWG recommends choosing sunscreens with avobenzone (3 percent for the best UVA protection) and without the hormone disrupter oxybenzone. Confusing but just remember “oxy” is bad.  
A few more tips:
Avoid spray on or powder sunscreens since they coat your lungs and your skin, and don’t buy sunscreen with added insect repellant. This year we’ll be buying Green Beaver mineral-based sunscreen and Coppertone Kids Pure and Simple (if I can find it). Coppertone Sensitive Skin sunscreens get a good rating as well, but the other Coppertone products don’t.

View the full report at www.ewg.org.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Are e-readers eco-friendly?

I got an e-reader for Christmas a couple of years ago and I love it.  It doesn’t replace the feel of a great book, but for everyday reads that you don’t care to keep on your shelf I think they’re the ideal solution. Or at least I thought they were a great, green innovation. It turns out though that they’re not as green as they seem.

If you’re only comparing an e-book to a printed book the e-book comes out on top, environmentally speaking. But to do a true comparison you need to factor in the e-reader too. And by e-reader that can mean a Kindle, Kobo, iPad or tablet.

I found a very thorough analysis comparing e-books and printed books written by Nick Moran, an editor with the literature review site The Millions. After reading it I came to the conclusion that the eco-footprint of an e-reader has as much to do with its owner as it does the device itself. Here’s why…

The carbon footprint of a book includes production of the paper, printing, and shipping to stores. For an e-book you need to include the energy consumed while you read the book, but you also need to consider all that goes into creating the e-reader required to read the e-book in the first place. When all of this is factored in, the average carbon footprint of an e-book is 200 to 250 times that of a printed book.

The ratio gets even worse when there are multiple e-readers in a household, upwards of 650 times worse when compared to the carbon footprint on a home library where you can have more than one family member reading the same copy of a book.

If you hang onto your e-reader for five years or longer it all evens out. But the problem is people tend to upgrade devices every two years.

So in the end, the answer is really that an e-reader can be very eco-friendly. It’s all in how you use it. Do you plan to keep it for a good long time? Do you plan to give it away to someone who will continue to use it if you’re dying to upgrade, or will it get stuffed in a drawer? Are you a voracious reader? If you read a tonne of books (way above the average 6.5 books a year) then the equation is different for you anyway. Do you share an e-reader in your house? Have you switched any subscriptions (magazines, newspapers) to electronic versions? How you answer these questions will determine if your e-reader is a better environmental choice.

If you’re a reader, by far the greenest route is your public library. Remember to check there first for the next book you’d like to read. You can also borrow e-books from the public library.

Share your books among family and friends, borrow books when possible and be sure to cart any unloved books off to one of the local second hand book stores for someone else to enjoy.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Green grilling: how to be safe and eco-friendly around the barbeque

Marinating your meat and adding herbs & spices are two of the simple ways your can make grilling safer.
My dad enjoyed his role as king of the barbeque. Not that he had any choice. No one else in the family was prepared to go near the gas grill since he always had some part of it jury rigged. In those days I thought that grilling was dangerous because of dad’s booby traps but come to find out there are things more worrisome than flames shooting out of the wrong places.  

It is now well understood that carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) form when meat is cooked at high temperatures and research has connected these compounds with higher rates of colorectal, stomach, lung, pancreatic, breast, and prostate cancers. It isn’t just the charred, crispy bits that are unhealthy. These chemicals form in the fatty juices all over the meat. Hamburgers appear to be the worst. 

As well, the fatty smoke from flare ups coats your meat with another family of carcinogens called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).  

Even though this is more than a bit alarming, there is no reason to give up on grilling. Knowing what you can do to limit the formation of these compounds will make your grilling safer. 

Research has shown that certain herbs and spices can reduce HCAs. In particular, rosemary, tumeric and ginger scored the highest in their ability to somehow inhibit the formation of these compounds. (A 2009 report in the Journal of Food Science found that rosemary extract reduced HCAs by 60 to nearly 80 percent.) 

Marinating your meat can reduce the amount of HCAs that form by as much as 99 per cent according to The American Institute for Cancer Research. Adding rosemary, ginger root or tumeric to the marinade is even better. Basting your meat with barbecue sauce helps too. 

Don’t char your meat, and don’t eat the charred bits, no matter how tempting. 

Cook your meat or fish on foil, on a soaked cedar plank or on indirect heat wrapped in parchment paper. 

Pre-cook your meat so it doesn’t have to spend as long over a flame. Or choose small cuts of meat that cook quickly. 

Cook over indirect heat. (One of my all-time favourite recipes is for chicken cooked on indirect heat. It takes a while but is moist and delicious.) 

Trim visible fat off your meat to avoid flare ups (choosing leaner cuts of meat will help) and keep a spray bottle of water handy to douse any unwanted flames.  

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 of baking soda and water. Then hose them down. 

Keep the bottom of your grill clean too (to minimize smoking fat). 

If you like to grill with charcoal choose natural charcoal or wood briquettes. Conventional charcoal is made with coal dust, sodium nitrate, sawdust or petroleum products. And the easy-light stuff is treated with lighter fluid. You don’t want those toxic bi-products coating your food. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Green living guides - a crash course in healthy living


This guide to safer cosmetics is one of the handy tools available to help us buy less toxic food and products.
I spend a lot of time doing green living research. I follow blogs and environmental leaders, I subscribe to healthy living newsletters and eco twitter feeds. You could say I’m up to my eyeballs in all things green.

But I still get to the grocery store and draw half a blank in the produce section, trying to remember what fruits and vegetables are on what list: the dirty dozen or the clean 15. In the personal care section I find ingredient labels confusing, mixing up the siloxanes with the glycinates (who wouldn’t?) Cleaning products are no easier, especially with all of those deceptive (unregulated) labels.
So even when you’re fairly informed, it’s tough to make the right choices. I end up with grocery store paralysis and come home empty handed or buy the wrong thing and have to return it. No wonder I’m so content using vinegar and baking soda for cleaning. The labels are easy to decipher. 
Making safe and healthy choices is hard work, but it’s getting easier thanks to a spate of printable wallet guides and mobile apps that decode labels and provide at-a-glance lists of do’s and don’ts. All the basics at your fingertips.

Here are some of my favourites:
The dirty dozen/clean15 wallet guide and mobile app. Developed by Environmental Working Group, these lists include the produce with the highest pesticide residue (that you should buy organic) and produce with the lowest (it’s okay to buy conventionally grown.) The guide keeps me sane in the produce section and helps me manage my grocery budget.

The dirty dozen of cosmetics, the David Suzuki Foundation’s shopper’s guide to personal care products. This is a great help, especially when I’m choosing products touted as “natural”, which can often be loaded with toxins along with the plant-based good stuff.  Environmental Defense has a similar guide.
The Shopper’s Guideto Cleaners is a new guide from the David Suzuki Foundation. It lists some of the most toxic (and surprisingly common) ingredients in household cleaners, and provides tips like choose fragrance-free and avoid cleaners that don’t list ingredients on the package.
Seafood Watch is a guide to choosing ocean-friendly seafood. It categorizes fish choices so you can avoid (or limit) consuming those that are fished or farmed in environmentally damaging ways. It also lists the fish that you should be wary of due to concerns about mercury or other contaminants.  Seachoice offers a similar guide.

Reading these guides is like a crash course in healthy living. It might be stressful at first (you’ll see there’s a lot to avoid) but keeping these guides handy while you shop will make it easier to make healthy choices. And there is a better chance you won’t be duped by false claims and misleading labels.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Take up a new habit that's good for you and the planet.

Earth Day is coming up on April 22, the annual celebration of all that’s great about the earth and our chance to do something better for the environment. Earth Day is a great concept, but it’s only one day. If you really want to make a difference in your life and the life of the planet, consider it a time to jumpstart a pledge to live better, for more than a day. 

I say “live better” because the state of the environment and our personal health and wellbeing are so intertwined. When I asked my nine-year old daughter Amelia what Earth Day meant to her she said, among other things, that you should drive less so you don’t pollute. And that driving less is better for you too because you get more exercise. She gets the earth health-personal health connection.
Dwelling on that connection is a catalyst for change because even people who don’t give much thought to environmental issues usually care about their health and the health of their family. 
Whatever inspires you to live better is a good thing.
But where to start? The Earth Day Canada team suggests you take your pick among four basic categories: Eat, Drink, Care, Move.
Eat: Eat more plant-based meals. Eating too much meat isn’t good for us or the planet, for many reasons. Factory farms, the source of most meat, pollute a lot. Cramped quarters in factory farms means diseases are rampant so live stock is fed a steady diet of antibiotics, contributing to drug resistance in people too. (50% of antibiotics used in Canada are fed to livestock.) And the mass production of meat today accounts for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. If Americans ate just 10% less meat there would be enough grain left over to feed 60 million people.
Drink: Drink tap water instead of bottled. Most bottled water is simply tap water anyway and it takes a surprising three litres of water to make one litre of bottled water. What’s more, there is a water footprint behind everything we consume. A bottle of beer requires 76 litres of water to make, a glass of wine 113 litres, a cup of coffee 136 litres. So consume less and don’t waste.
Care: Phase out (or throw out) your personal care products that are loaded with toxins. The cosmetics industry isn’t required to prove an ingredient is safe before it’s used in a consumer product. So unless your products state that they’re free of parabens, pthlates, and at least 10 other known toxins, I would toss them and switch to safer products. Check my blog for more information.
Move: Get more active. Canadians are driving more each year, increasing our per capita greenhouse gas emissions. Park the car more, car pool, take public transportation, ride your bike and walk.
Developing new or better habits can be a challenge so start with something easy, or choose something that’s especially important to you, so you’ll stick with it. Then choose your next challenge…

Monday, March 26, 2012

The environmental cost of fast fashion

The Wizard of Felt up-cycles woolen sweaters into shrugs, re-sweaters, scarves, skirts, throws and more.
Do you need a thneed?
In his book The Lorax Dr. Seuss may have been the first to write about the social cost of what’s known as “fast fashion”, clothing that is produced quickly, cheaply and consumed like fast food by shoppers keen to wear the latest styles, who then toss them aside when the next trend comes along. Cheap, stylish clothes are great for consumers but not so great for the environment or for the people stuck in the factories producing them.

According to a study out of Cambridge University (UK), consumers bought one third more clothes in 2006 compared to 2002. And the rate of clothing consumption continues to rise as companies perfect their supply chain management, getting more clothes from design to stores faster than ever before, and more cheaply. As a result, even though we’re buying more overall, we’re spending a lot less of our disposable income on clothing and therein lies the problem -- shoppers can’t resist a good deal.
This is how our “good deal” stacks up: Mass produced clothing comes from sweatshop-like factories with questionable employee practices and a lack of environmental oversight. It’s then shipped halfway across the world, bought, worn for a bit and often tossed.
According to the U.K.-based Ethical Fashion Forum, consumers in Britain send more than 60 pounds of clothing and textiles to the landfill each year. What happened to mending clothes to extend their life and donating used clothes to charity?
In her book “To Die For. Is fashion wearing out the world?” author Lucy Siegle asks the same question and chronicles how we moved from buying a few pieces of high quality clothing each season to practically swapping out entire wardrobes from year to year.  Seigle investigated the ethical and human rights issues associated with off-shore clothing factories, and draws attention to the environmental impact of creating textiles. (Among the stats: about twenty-five percent of all pesticides used globally are used to grow conventional cotton, and it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce enough cotton fabric to make a t-shirt.)
It might be easy to blame the major corporations for creating fast fashion and the disposable culture of value-end clothing, but consumers are just as culpable since we’re doing the buying.
The power to change it all rests in our wallets.  If you like clothes but want to lessen the environmental and ethical impact of your fashion habit visit: www.slowfashioned.org and take the pledge to practice conscious consumption. Here’s their guideline for change:
Learn more about where your clothing comes from.
Buy quality rather than quantity.
Support handmade, local, sustainable or second-hand clothing.
Take good care of your clothing so it lasts longer.
And when clothing is no longer used, donate it to charity. The Canadian Diabetes Association operates the Clothesline, a service where they pick up used clothing and housewares. You can also drop it off at Value Village. Romero House and The Salvation Army also accept used clothing donations.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Greening your life one step at a time



The Seventh Generation blog has a great approach to helping consumers live greener, healthier lives. In a recent blog post they have categorized green living tips by effort required, making it easy for people to pace themselves if they're feeling overwhelmed. "Light Green" initiatives are the easiest, a good place to start. The tips progress to "Medium Green" then along to "Dark Green" for the most involved or impactful.

While what initiative goes with what shade of green is debatable, recognizing that not all green living efforts are created equal and that we should all set the dark green list as our ultimate goal make this approach practical and useful.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Plastic and food - safe handling tips

There are many alternatives to plastic food storage containers.
The other day I went through the cupboards and got rid of almost every plastic food storage container we owned. Even though we’ve been transitioning to glass over the past couple of years somehow we kept accumulating plastic containers. And we were using them because they were there. I finally got fed up and tossed them in the recycling bag after reading another article about what plastic is doing to the environment and our health.

The article that sent me over the edge was from the 5 Gyres Institute, an organization that studies plastic pollution in the oceans. According to the Institute, discarded plastics that make their way into the oceans have been accumulating in “islands” of plastic that are hundreds of miles across. They’re like floating landfills. Aside from the obvious danger they pose to aquatic life, the Institute reminds us that plastics aren’t great for us either and contain all sorts of chemicals, some which are known human toxins and hundreds that haven’t been tested yet.
200 billion pounds of plastics are produced each year and according to Green Peace estimates, 10 per cent of it makes its way into the oceans. Only about 5% of plastics produced are recycled and about 50% ends up in landfills.
Ridding your life of plastic is a tall order. A lot of food is packaged in plastic, people still cart their groceries from the store in plastic, kid’s toys are made of plastic, household products are packaged in plastic. The stuff is everywhere. But even if you can’t banish it entirely you can reduce the amount of plastic in your life, and learn to use plastic safely.
Avoid soft vinyl products (like shower curtains and inflatable toys). They contain phthalates, a chemical softener that has been linked to lower brain function in children, among other things.
Only plastics labeled one, two and five (inside the recycling symbol) are considered food safe. Food should not be stored in unlabeled plastic containers or those stamped with the number seven (#7 plastic contains bisphenol A, a known hormone disruptor.) Not that the food-safe plastics are entirely off the hook. You still need to use them safely.
Never heat food in a plastic container or put warm or hot food in plastic. Heat intensifies the leaching of chemicals into food. By the way, “microwave safe” is an unregulated term and only implies that the plastic shouldn’t melt in the microwave. It doesn’t mean that the chemicals used to make the plastic won’t leach into your food when heated. Ditto for plastic wrap, and look for brands that are PVC-free, or avoid plastic wrap altogether.
Never put plastic in the dishwasher since heat causes the plastic to break down.
Most canned food tins are lined with number seven plastic so try to reduce the amount of canned food you eat.
And finally, swap your plastic electric kettle for a stainless steel kettle and enjoy a worry-free cup of tea.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Is radon an issue in your home?

A home radon test kit can easily be tucked out of the way.
I have been hearing about radon for years but never gave it much thought in relation to my own home. In Maine, where my brother runs a home inspection company, it’s a standard part of many home inspections, and making necessary repairs to lower radon levels can be a requirement of sale. 

Because it didn’t come up with our home inspections I assumed that radon wasn’t a worry in New Brunswick or at least not in our part of the province. But then a flyer appeared in the local newspaper, a one-page info sheet about radon that was distributed by the NB Lung Association. According to the Association, New Brunswick has some of the highest radon levels in the country and close to one in five NB homes has radon levels higher that what Health Canada considers safe.  

The NB Lung Association is in the midst of a public education campaign because radon is considered the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers (and the second leading cause of lung cancer overall). An odorless, radioactive gas formed naturally in the ground and emitted from some rock and soil, radon can build up in enclosed spaces (like homes) and long-term exposure to radon increases the risk of lung cancer to one in twenty. Among smokers, the risk increases to one in three.  

With stats like that it’s important to know if radon is an issue in your home. 

You can pick up a radon test kit at the hardware store or order one through the NB Lung Association ($35 and they mail it to your home). If you’re buying a kit at the hardware store NB Lung Association stresses that you need to buy a long-term kit (3-month test) saying that they’re more accurate. To order yours call 1-800-565-LUNG or email info@nb.lung.ca. 

Our home test kit arrived a couple of weeks ago. I was expecting a soup can-sized kit but it’s less than half the size of a hockey puck. You place it in lowest level of your house that you use regularly (where you spend four hours a day or more, but not in a kitchen) and at least a couple of feet off the floor. We don’t spend time in our basement so I put our kit in the living room, on the back of the sideboard where it won`t be disturbed. At the end of three months we’ll mail it off to a lab in Massachusetts and within two weeks will receive the results.    

The Canadian guideline for radon is 200 becquerels per cubic meter. But even low levels of radon can be harmful so it’s important to fix the source of the leaks even if your test detects a lower reading.  

Radon can seep into your home through windows, cracks in basement floors, sump pumps, unfinished floors and spaces around pipes. Radon leaks are usually very fixable. There are contractors experienced with radon mitigation who can find the source of any leaks and make the necessary repairs.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tips to keep your indoor air healthy

Indoor air quality can be 2-5 times more polluted than outdoor air.
This time of year, indoor air pollution is likely the last thing on your mind (and may be it never crosses your mind). We have learned to be concerned about outdoor air quality without realising that it has an indoor counterpart. Since we spend about 90% of our time indoors, we’d do well to learn a bit more about it, especially during winter. With the windows shut tight and the furnace roaring, there is a greater chance that indoor air pollution can become an issue.

The air quality in your home can be two to five times worse than it is outdoors thanks to the many sources of indoor air pollution. And it isn’t just your furnace or woodstove that you need to worry about. Lack of effective ventilation, household cleaning products and personal care products, new furniture and carpets, all contribute to unhealthy conditions in your home that can cause headaches, nausea, allergies and breathing issues.
To keep your home`s air as healthy as possible, deal with the biggest sources of pollution first: carbon monoxide, cigarette smoke and radon. Ensure your furnace, wood stove and other combustion units in the home are well maintained and cleaned at least once a year. Dirty chimneys, leaky woodstoves and poorly vented gas stoves can release carbon monoxide and other chemical into your home.
Radon, a radioactive gas emitted from some rock and soil, is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. Contact the New Brunswick Lung Association to purchase a radon test kit so you`ll know if radon is an issue in your home.
Dealing with any humidity issues is another important way to keep your indoor air clean. Mould releases biological contaminants that you don’t want to deal with so ensure that your home is well ventilated (especially the bathrooms and kitchen stove) and that moisture leaks are repaired.
Products in your home that list “fragrance” as an ingredient pollute the air. That includes cleaning products, especially laundry products and room fresheners. These heavily scented products are loaded with phalates, known hormone disruptors that can cause significant health issues. The same goes for scented personal care products and artificially scented candles. Always choose unscented household and personal care products, or those scented with essential oils.
New furniture and carpets, dry-cleaned clothing, paints and varnishes all off-gas chemicals, so it’s important that you do all you can to minimize off-gassing in your home. Hang dry cleaning on the line when you first get it home, leave new furniture in the garage until the “new” smell fades. Often new kitchen cupboards and particleboard furniture off-gas formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) so look for manufacturers that use formaldehyde-free adhesives. Always choose zero VOC or low VOC paints (available in many brands).
Dust and vacuum frequently. Also, air purifiers can, ironically, be a source of indoor pollution so do your research if you`re thinking of getting one.
It`s not all bad though, house plants can do their part to keep your indoor air clean.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Personal care products -- be careful out there

 
Personal care products are loaded with chemicals that are known toxins. I know it sounds crazy, especially when you consider that many of the most commonly used chemicals in these products are known carcinogens and hormone disruptors. If you'd rather not be part of some company's science experiement take a look through Environmental Defense pocket guide. It targets these "Toxic 10" ingredients that we need to avoid:

BHA/BHT, coal tar-derived colors, dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde-releasing agents, fragrance, parabens, petrolatum, siloxanes, sodium laureth sulfate and the closely related chemical sodium lauryl sulfate, and triclosan.

Another helpful source for information, including an extensive database that lets you test the safety of your current products, is Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database.
Get used to reading the fine print on products (even those touted as natural) and get to know safe alternatives, like Canada's own Green Beaver.

Beauty departments are dangerous places...be careful out there.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Ways to go green and save money

Much about going green can save you money.
January is the month of resolutions and also the time that Christmas credit card bills start coming due. A time of optimism and belt tightening.

Not everyone makes New Year’s resolutions but early in each new year most people do think about ways to improve their lives. Consider it a bonus then when making a change for the better can help your pocketbook as well.
Case in point: resolving to be more eco-friendly. Although it sometimes gets a bad rap for being expensive, much about going green can actually save you money.
Last year the World Watch Institute came up with a list of 10 ways to go green and save green, ideas for saving money while making eco-friendly lifestyle changes. Here are a few from the World Watch list, and a few of my additions.
1.      Think before you buy. Do you really need it? Will you use it? Can you borrow or rent it instead of buy it? (A Patagonia ad last fall featured one of its jackets with the headline "Don't Buy This Jacket" and asked customers not to buy what they don’t need and to think twice before buying anything.)
2.      Eating less meat is one of the best things that you can do for the environment. Going meatless, even one day a week is (environmentally speaking) like taking your car off the road for a few months. Buy better quality, locally-raised meat and eat less of it. On average we eat twice the protein that we actually need and skimp on vegetables.  Try for a meatless meal at least once a week. You and the environment will be healthier for it. The bonus: plant-based protein (like beans and lentils) is cheap. 
3.      Buy in bulk when it makes sense for your family.  Bulk means less packaging and lower per unit cost.
4.      Use natural cleaners like baking soda and vinegar instead of buying conventional cleaning supplies. Natural products are cheap, and easy on the environment.
5.      Reduce your energy consumption. Turn your thermostat down a degree or two, switch to compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) as your old incandescent bulbs burn out, unplug appliances when they’re not in use to avoid power sipping. Wash clothes in cold water and use a drying rack or clothesline when possible instead of the dryer.
6.      If you pay for water use, taking steps to use less can save you money too. Take shorter showers, use a low-flow showerhead (saves on energy use), use a dishwasher instead of the sink washing and only run the dishwasher when it’s full. If you are sink washing, only fill the sink half way. Install a faucet aerator on each faucet.
7.      Avoid bottled water and other packaged drinks and drink more tap water. Buy a good quality travel mug or stainless steel water bottle so you can bring your water with you.
Resolutions or not, making a few eco-friendly lifestyle tweaks can be a simple way to leave money in your pocket.