June 11, 2013
Take an egg for a drive
Here’s a simple, zero cost way to improve your gas mileage by 10-20%: the next time you go for a drive, take an egg and tape it under the toe of your right foot. Then try to get where you’re going without breaking the egg. It’s a simple trick that will produce significant savings, guaranteed.
Here’s why. Much fuel is consumed when we speed up aggressively, and we waste our hard-won momentum when we jump on the brakes aggressively. It’s well documented that gentle starts and gentle stops can save the average driver 10-20%. That’s like driving over a month for free every year.
So strap on an egg. And if you happen not to have one with you the next time you get behind the wheel, good news: it works with imaginary eggs too!
May 28, 2013
Why it’s wise to avoid commercial air fresheners
Some smells are not very pleasant: trash bins, dirty laundry, washrooms, pets and even kitchen projects gone wrong. Air fresheners to the rescue, right?
Maybe not. Commercial air fresheners are big business, but they’re not an especially healthy choice.
- Most contain nasty chemicals like formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. (According to Health Canada, the biggest indoor sources of VOCs are paints, glues, cigarette smoke and air fresheners.)
- They must be airborne to work. In other words, they are designed to be inhaled.
- They don’t eliminate smells, they just mask them. Some actually use a nerve-numbing chemical that interferes with our sense of smell; others coat our nasal passages with an oily film. Yuck.
- They can trigger asthma attacks in some people. (There’s a reason for those workplace signs advocating going scent-free.)
The worst culprits are plug-in and aerosol fresheners.
So what to do?
- Opt for natural ventilation, especially in spring, summer and fall. It’s lilac season where I live, so it’s wonderful to let that great natural fragrance waft in!
- Use baking soda to absorb smells; if you’d like fragrance, add a few drops of essential oil (available in many stores). Coffee grounds work well too.
Read more about indoor air quality here, from the US Environmental Protection Agency.
May 14, 2013
Minimize waste and save on your grocery bill
Food is a very significant part of our carbon footprint:
- it takes energy to produce; that’s especially so for meat and other animal products
- it travels long distances to get to our plate
- we often end up wasting A LOT of what we buy at the grocery store (up to one quarter of all the produce we buy, by one estimate)
In a world where we lose so many people to hunger every day, it seems obscene to waste food – so why not use leftovers to make soup? Here’s a blog with loads of ideas for soups and other yummy dishes made from leftovers. And here’s a link to Simply in Season, a favourite cookbook of the chief cook in our household; it’s loaded with recipes for healthy living and a healthy planet. So is the More With Less Cookbook.
And – here’s a simple one-pager with suggestions on how to minimize food spoilage. Happy nibbling!
April 30, 2013
The special case of e-waste
Not long after the age of computers came the age of e-waste: unneeded, broken or obsolete electronics. It’s noxious stuff, typically containing toxic materials like lead, mercury, arsenic and chromium. And we generate an awful lot of it: as much as 50 million tonnes every year, according to the UN. (In particular, the global transition to flat-screen monitors and televisions has produced a big bump in the amount of e-waste generated.)
It’s very important to keep e-waste out of our landfills where it can cause long-term contamination of the surrounding environment – so here are some options:
- Reduce, by buying less stuff and by using electronics until they wear out instead of upgrading frequently.
- Reuse, by donating your electronics for refurbishment or salvaging of useful parts; in Canada, check out Computers for Schools
- Recycle all electronics, to keep their toxins out of the environment. Click here for programs in New Brunswick; here for programs elsewhere in Canada; and here for the US.
And – you can use Greenpeace’s annual Guide to Greener Electronics to help you choose greener electronics brands.
April 16, 2013
Save money by putting foam insulation over your hot water pipes
Often our hot water taps are a long way from our hot water tanks, so we need to run the water for a while until hot water arrives. But all that cold water ahead of the hot was once hot; it was left stranded in the pipe when the hot water tap was last turned off. Parked in uninsulated pipes, hot water becomes cold very quickly, representing a loss of energy and a waste of money. (Hot water heating represents about 20% of the average home’s energy bill.)
You can conserve energy and save money by installing foam pipe insulation over the pipes that carry hot water from your hot water tank to all the places it will be used. It’s very cheap – $1 or less a meter. And it’s very simple to install – here’s a 2 minute instructional video.
So – insulate those hot water pipes and save!
April 2, 2013
Just how much greenhouse gas does a litre of fuel generate?
We’re often told that our vehicles generate a lot of greenhouse gas emissions, but how are we to know just what that means?
Here’s a quick guideline: every litre of gasoline burned produces 2.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide. That equals about 100 kilograms for a 40 litre fillup (typical for a compact car).
There’s more. The above figure doesn’t include emissions from drilling, extracting, transporting and refining that fuel, and then trucking it to the service station where you buy it. Factor those in, and it’s more like 3 kilograms CO2/litre for gas. If you consume 40 litres per week, that equals over six tonnes of emissions per year. Many Canadians consume a lot more than 40 litres a week.
Every litre of diesel fuel burned produces 2.7 KG carbon dioxide; a similar 25% premium can be factored in for refining and other upstream emissions.
The bottom line: vehicle emissions ARE a huge part of our carbon footprint. Why not reduce yours by walking, biking, driving less, driving an efficient vehicle, carpooling and taking transit.
March 19, 2013
Call those toll free numbers
Recently, the packaging of my brand of oatmeal changed: it went from a soft plastic bag with a #4 recycling symbol to a bag made from a crinkly type of material labelled with the #7 recycling symbol. Alas, #7 plastics are a catch-all class of materials that don’t fit the other categories; they are for all practical purposes unsortable and unrecyclable. Trash, hidden behind a recycling symbol. (More on that here.)
Well, like most consumer products, my oatmeal bag had a toll-free consumer hotline – so I called it and to inquire why a company would change from recyclable to a non-recyclable packaging. The person on the other end promised to forward my concern to the engineering department.
Alas, my oatmeal still comes in a #7 bag. But if enough consumers called that toll-free line to question the packaging, I know the folks in the engineering department – and the boardroom – would take note.
Gandhi said, “We must be the change we seek in the world.” Here’s a simple way you can Be The Change: if you come across packaging that is labelled as a #7 plastic or that is an unrecyclable mix of materials (there’s plenty of it out there), why not call that toll-free number and make your concerns known? Enough calls = action and positive change!
March 5, 2013
Avoid exfoliating soaps with plastic beads
Imagine designing a product which, when used exactly as directed, releases tiny bits of plastic that can wind up in the ocean and persist for ages. Crazy, right?
Crazy, but true. For years, many exfoliating soaps have been laced with plastic microbeads. They’re an abrasive, to remove dead skin particles, but they end up going down the drain. If they make their way into marine environments (and that’s often what happens), they stay – for a long, long time. Microbeads from exfoliating soap are contributing to the millions of tonnes of plastics swirling about in the world’s oceans today. But they’re about the only plastic there by design. What were they – or we – thinking?
Unilever, the maker of brands like Dove, Vaseline and Pond’s, announced in January that it would be phasing out plastic microbeads – but only completely by 2015. My quick search found no similar commitment by Procter and Gamble, maker of brands like Noxzema and Olay. So what to do right now?
- Look at the ingredients of exfoliating soaps; avoid brands that contain polyethylene, polyacrylamide or “microbeads” or “microcrystals” of unspecified content; look for natural exfoliating ingredients like ground nuts, seeds, fruit, salt and even oatmeal and cornmeal
- Choose brands that appear on this list compiled by the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia
- Make your own; the same EHANS site has recipes
February 19, 2013
Safety is part of our culture; why not sustainability too?
This week’s Green Idea truly is an idea: what if sustainability were to become part of our culture at work, home and school, just as safety is now?
Consider: we emphasize safety in just about everything we do. Anti-slip warnings, fire drills, guardrails, de-icers, vehicle crash tests and much more. Our emphasis on safety keeps it top-of-mind.
But sustainability is at least as important. As the Lung Association slogan goes, “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”
So imagine the possibilities if we held sustainability to the same level of priority as we do safety, and it became everyone’s responsibility? “We should fix that dripping tap.” “Let’s put a zero-idling policy in place.” “A programmable thermostat would sure save energy and money.” “We should be recycling and composting.” “Let’s plan a lunch-and-learn to generate ideas.”
You get the idea: so much is possible, if only we make sustainability a part of our culture every day. So – let’s make it happen, in our workplaces, homes and schools!