Six painless things you can do to reduce plastic waste

Arg – plastic: it’s the best material ever, for all the amazing uses it has.  And it’s the worst material ever, for it’s persistence in our environment.

Plastic never breaks down; it just breaks into tinier and tinier pieces, and much of it washes into our oceans – and now we’re seeing it show up in food chains.

As with most things environmental, prevention is better than cure – so here are six painless ways you can reduce plastic waste:

  • Give up plastic shopping bags and resolve to use only reusable bags or boxes
  • Skip straws, plastic plates, foam cups and other disposables
  • Avoid bottled water; use your own refillable water bottle (and start saving too!)
  • Choose products with the least plastic packaging when you shop
  • Recycle everything you can. Globally, only 18 cent of plastic is recycled; why not do your part to help improve that?
  • Don’t litter

Check out this National Geographic article for more about plastics.

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Make fuel efficiency a priority when you rent

Has this ever happened to you?  You show up at a car rental counter and learn that the model you booked isn’t available – so you’re offered a larger model instead.  They call it a ‘free upgrade’.

Alas, in the car rental business, such ‘free upgrades’ may mean bigger vehicles with more space, but they also mean worse fuel efficiency – and that’s an added cost to both the renter and our environment.

So the next time that happens, why not ask instead for a vehicle that’s more fuel-efficient instead of less – let’s call it an ‘eco-upgrade’?  (And if you happen to get an incredulous look, maybe it’s a great opportunity for a gentle educational moment on the importance of fuel efficiency in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.)

(True story: the above scenario happened on our family’s vacation last summer, and, after asking, we ended up with a Ford Fusion hybrid: luxurious, roomy and very fuel efficient!)

The downside of home delivered meal kits

Perhaps you’ve noticed a recent trend in food marketing: home-delivered meal kits.

The concept is simple: you go to a website, browse a menu, pick a gourmet meal for your family, order and voila: a box shows up at your door days later with all the ingredients you need to prepare that meal: the main course, veggies, sauces, spices and more.  All you need to do is open the box and follow the preparation instructions.  What could be simpler for today’s busy consumer?  No wonder home-delivered meal kits are now offered by dozens of companies via the internet.

But before you sign up, consider:

  • Meal kits come with a lot of packaging. They’re usually shipped in insulated boxes (which may not be recyclable), often with ice packs to keep things cold in transit.  Ingredients inside the box are usually further packaged as well.
  • Many meal kits originate quite far away, so they have a significant transportation footprint (including that delivery van to your door)
  • If a meal kit you choose is coming from afar, you can be pretty certain there’s nothing local inside it

So instead of succumbing to the allure (and expense!) of a meal-in-a-box, why not just shop your local farmers market, co-op or food store – for lightly-packaged local food with a small transportation footprint?

“Less”

If you’re like me, you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the distressing environmental news we’re hearing lately, from heatwaves to hurricanes to plastic in the oceans.  All symptoms of a planet straining under the burden of more and more humans consuming ever more resources of every kind, seemingly oblivious to physical limits and boundaries.  And through it all, we’re counselled to keep consuming, because it’s good for the economy.

So what to do?

One of the learnings from a leadership course I took years ago was this: true leadership means not being afraid to periodically challenge or question well-established processes, paradigms and beliefs.

So maybe it’s time to question an economy founded on ever more consumption, and reorient toward an economy founded on sustainability and happiness.

And maybe a first action step would be to simply try to consume less of everything – from gas to plastic to clothing to imported food.  For sure, the planet will benefit – but in all probability so will your wallet (and your mental health).

And two more things:

  • Read a great definition of minimalism here (and, interestingly, the long list of benefits doesn’t even include ‘saving the planet’!)
  • Check out Radical Simplicity and Your Money or Your Life, two great books about living happily on less

Consider buying carbon offsets

If you think being ‘carbon neutral’ means having to have an array of solar panels to run your home and charge your electric car, think again.  Carbon offsetting is a far simpler – and quicker – alternative.

Carbon offsetting involves compensating for the greenhouse gases you generate by voluntarily paying to reduce emissions elsewhere – for example, by helping fund the construction of renewable energy sources.  If you prevent the same amount of emissions elsewhere as you produce in your own life, you are technically ‘carbon neutral’ (because the planet only cares about total emissions, not where they come from).

For example, even though my own home draws electricity from the local power grid, I pay an additional small amount for every kilowatt-hour we consume, and that goes toward supplying more green energy into the grid.  So our home’s electricity is technically carbon neutral, even though we don’t have panels on the roof.  (My supplier is Bullfrog Power, a leading Canadian company – and it only took minutes to set up*.)

Sound complicated? It is, sort of – but this TVOntario article explains it well.

And – the principle of ‘buyer beware’ definitely applies to carbon offsets; there’s plenty of snake oil out there.  But this David Suzuki Foundation article offers great guidance on what to look for and what to avoid.

For the record: I do hope to eventually have my own solar panels.  But until that happens, a carbon offset is a pretty good alternative.

*I have no interests, financial or other, in the company.

Doing The Math: our global carbon budget

Have you heard of our ‘global carbon budget’?  It’s the maximum amount of oil, coal and natural gas humanity can still burn if we wish to limit global warming to two degrees C.

(Two degrees C is considered the maximum safe limit for global warming.  Our past consumption of fossil fuels has already warmed the planet about one degree C – and with all the recent worldwide heatwaves and wildfires, one could be forgiven for believing that even that’s already too much warming.)

Our global carbon budget declines a little every day for every tonne of coal, every litre of oil and every cubic metre of natural gas that we consume.

So how much can we still burn?  How long will that take, at today’s levels of consumption?  Or maybe we’ll deplete our fossil fuel reserves before that happens?

It all sounds complicated – but it’s made crystal clear in this powerful and concise video by Bill McKibben, author, academic and founder of 350.org.  It’s essential watching for anyone who wishes to understand one of the most daunting challenges we face in addressing climate change.  (I’ve started using the video in my presentations because it explains the issue far better than I can.)

If you don’t have time for the full six minutes, fast-forward to the 1:45 mark and start from there; you’ll still get the gist of the issue.  And once you do, why not share the video among your network?

Dry cleaning’s dirty little secret

Dry cleaning is widely accepted as being the best – or even only – way to clean our most delicate fabrics.  But it’s surprising what you find when you dig a little deeper.

Traditional dry cleaning isn’t really ‘dry’: dirt and stains are removed by a liquid solvent called perchloroethylene, or perc for short.  And perc has some unsavoury characteristics:

  • It’s very volatile (meaning it evaporates easily), and is listed as a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. According to the US EPA, it causes a myriad of health effects ranging from respiratory tract irritation to dizziness to cancer.  That’s a potential hazard for dry cleaning employees, but it also means that any residual perc in clothes you’ve had dry cleaned will come out in your airspace.
  • When spilled, even small amounts of perc can contaminate huge amounts of groundwater for a long time.

There are greener alternatives to perc, but they aren’t common practice yet: it’s estimated that over three quarters of dry cleaning is still done with perc.

So what to do?

  • When buying, look for clothes that don’t require dry cleaning (you’ll save on cleaning costs too)
  • When a garment label says ‘dry clean only’, do you really need to dry clean? This Chatelaine article sheds some light.
  • For clothes that absolutely must be dry cleaned, stretch the interval as long as you dare
  • Ask your dry cleaner what process they use, and inquire about greener alternatives like wet cleaning and liquid carbon dioxide cleaning; a nice overview of both processes here.

Amazing what a difference you can make with wise clothing choices – and avoiding conventional dry cleaning is one of them!

Today is Earth Overshoot Day 2018

Each year, our planet’s ecosystems produce and purify an abundance of resources: food, water, fibre, timber and more.  And each year, humanity consumes resources to sustain itself.

The good news: until 1970, the planet always produced more than we consumed each year.

The bad news: sometime around 1970, humanity’s ever-increasing appetite for resources exceeded the planet’s production capacity, so we started drawing down longstanding reserves like forests, fish stocks, topsoil and more.

Earth Overshoot Day is the day each year when we’ve consumed all that the planet will produce that year and we start dipping into those reserves.  For 2018, Earth Overshoot Day is today.  It’s the earliest ever.  Put another way, this year we will use the equivalent of 1.7 Earths – except we only have one.

So what to do?

  • Learn more about the causes of overshoot at the Global Footprint Network
  • Check out your Country Overshoot Day (IE the date on which Earth Overshoot Day would fall if all of humanity consumed like the people in your country)
  • Tune into a Livestream at overshootday.org at 1 PM Atlantic time/12 noon Eastern time today to learn how we can reverse our consumption trend and begin to move Overshoot Day later in the year
  • Examine your own lifestyle: calculate your own footprint at footprintcalculator.org (it’s quick and easy), and receive a list of specific ways you can reduce it
  • Share your commitment by pledging actions here (and perhaps the most important actions of all are lobbying political leaders at all levels and voting wisely)

With commitment and focus, surely we can move Earth Overshoot Day back into the future!

Are fabric softener dryer sheets a good idea?

True story from last week: after discovering a massive mouse nest in our car’s heating ductwork, our mechanic suggested we put a few fabric softener dryer sheets in the car to keep mice away in the future.  It made me wonder: if dryer sheets repel mice, is it wise for us to use them on the clothing?

Dryer sheets soften clothes, reduce static cling and make our clothes smell nice.  The heat of a dryer activates the chemicals on the sheet, which then coat your clothes through the tumbling action of the dryer.

However, a few things to think about:

  • What we feel as softness is simply the chemical coating of the dryer sheet rubbed onto our clothing during drying; it makes clothes feel slippery. Nice to touch, but that also means our skin is exposed to that same chemical (‘quats’) as we wear those soft clothes.
  • Most dryer sheets contain fragrances, a broad category of synthetic chemicals that may be proprietary and hence not necessarily further identified.
  • By design, chemicals in dryer sheets are activated by heat and become airborne – making them easy to smell, but also easy to inhale.
  • Chemicals in dryer sheets are known to cause skin irritation in some people, and to cause or trigger asthma attacks.

Liquid fabric softeners have less environmental impacts, but only marginally: they increase the flammability of certain fabrics, and end up in wastewater.

So what to do?

  • If you have one, use a clothesline instead of a dryer; you’ll get outdoor freshness without any cling, and you’ll save on your power bill
  • Don’t overdry your clothes; clothes only get static cling after they are totally dry, and a tiny bit of moisture prevents that
  • Add a quarter to half cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle of your washer as a natural softener (and no, your clothes won’t come out smelling like vinegar)
  • Try wool dryer balls: they separate clothes in your dryer, reducing drying time. You can buy them or make your own.  (But I’m reading mixed reviews on whether they reduce static cling as often claimed…)

As for me, I’m using the precautionary principle and siding with the mice: we don’t use fabric softener dryer sheets in our home.

Wash less, wash gently, wash cold

The maintenance (IE cleaning) of our clothing has some significant environmental impacts:

  • Soap, which has a manufacturing and wastewater footprint
  • Hot water, which makes up 20% of a typical home’s energy consumption (that’s all uses, not just clothes washing)
  • Drying: conventional clothes dryers use more power when running than anything else in a typical home – about 4000 watts, equivalent to over 400 standard LED light bulbs

Plus clothes wear out faster when washed more.  Plus there are impacts of microfibers shed by synthetic fabrics during washing; plus fabric softener impacts (to be the subject of Part Three); plus dry cleaning impacts (to be the subject of Part Four).

So how can we minimize the environmental impacts of cleaning our clothes?

  • Start by washing clothes less; dare to wear them more than once if they’re not noticeably dirty (or ‘fragrant’!)
  • Wash full rather than partial loads
  • Wash clothes in cold water using as short and gentle a cycle as possible (and this study suggests doing so can quadruple the life of clothes)
  • Use as little detergent as you can get by with; ‘overdosing’ is a common problem, abetted by those generous measuring cups typically supplied with laundry soap
  • Choose concentrated detergent over regular (lower packaging and transportation impacts); or switch to Dizolve strips, which have the absolute lowest packaging and transportation impacts of all; made in New Brunswick and available online!
  • Use a clothesline instead of a dryer (big energy savings)
  • If your washer isn’t a high-efficiency front-loading model, make sure your next one is!
  • Avoid fabric softener and dry cleaning (more to come on both)

Your wise clothes washing decisions can make for a cleaner environment!