Jugs, cartons or bags?

January 25, 2022

What’s the most eco-friendly way to buy milk?   

Two quick realities to start: first, packaging makes up an enormous part of our trash these days; and second, the only truly fair way to compare different packaging options is to do a full life-cycle assessment of each: measuring every environmental impact from manufacture to disposal.

Milk, a staple of most households, can be purchased in jugs, cartons or bags.  But which is the most eco-friendly?

  • Jugs are made of #2 plastic or HDPE, which is recyclable and is accepted in most recycling programs.  However, what they are recycled into is another matter: they’re not turned into milk jugs, as food containers are usually required to be made of new plastic.
  • Cartons are made of paper sandwiched between thin layers of plastic, with a plastic screw cap.  They too can be recycled, but the efficiency of the process is somewhat diminished by the effort required to separate those components. 
  • Bags are made of #4 plastic or LDPE, the same plastic as most grocery bags (the stretchy ones, not the crinkly ones).  They’re one of the few plastics that are perfectly recyclable – but only if they are squeaky clean, not mixed with other types of plastic and accepted in your local program.

So which is best?  Here’s an example of an easy-to-follow but really thorough life-cycle assessment.  Its conclusion: plastic bags are best by far – even if they are not recycled and end up in a landfill.  Next are cartons, and last are jugs.

A clear choice – but as the article’s author points out, bagged milk is sold only in four litre increments.  In smaller households, that could result in unconsumed or spoiled milk, which would nullify any environmental benefits.

So the next time you shop, why not choose the type of packaging that meets your needs with the least environmental impact? 

More feminine leadership needed

There’s a common thread that runs through audience comments I receive after I speak: the most touching and sincere are almost always from women and girls.

My social media accounts tell a similar tale: the most caring climate change insights often come from women, and the most passionate climate activists are typically girls. 

This month marks personal two milestones.  First, it’s the month I’m finally getting to reading All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, an anthology of writings by 60 women and girls around the world.  In just the first few pages it’s already reaffirming my own observations: that traits we most associate with the feminine – love, kindness, collaboration, sharing, nurturing, empathy and more – are precisely what we need more of to get us through our climate crisis and into a world of sustainable prosperity; and some of the greatest accomplishments to date have been made thanks to the leadership of women.

(And don’t believe science isn’t a feminine trait: the foreword of All We Can Save reminds of the recent revelation that the first person to discover the greenhouse effect was in fact a woman, Eunice Newton Foote.)

The second milestone? This is the month my dear Mom – who years ago told me, “Maybe you can’t change the whole world, but you can change your little corner of it” – celebrates her 97th birthday.  I credit her feminine influence and example for inspiring me to the work I do today.

The action, attitudes and determination we need to solve our biggest problems seem to come as second nature to women and girls.  So the next time a female voice speaks on climate, please pause and listen.  You may hear just what we need for meaningful progress.

A final note: none of this means there’s no place for men in solving our climate crisis.  It just means that we of the masculine gender may need to work a bit at setting aside our intuitive traits like ego, competition and control, in favour of the softer skills that will help us navigate climate change successfully, together.

Doing the things that will make the biggest difference

Phew – it seems 2021 was the year climate change impacts – particularly heat, wildfires and floods – got close and personal for many of us.  Couple that with a pandemic that’s showing us it’s not done yet, and it all makes for some sombre reflection.

But take heart: whether climate or COVID, the best antidote to discouragement is to take action – any action.  With COVID, it’s pretty straightforward: get vaccinated; do your best to follow the rules of hygiene, distancing and gathering; and do it all with as much love and kindness as you can muster. For climate, it’s actually pretty straightforward too, because the sources of our emissions are well known.  Here’s a graphic reminder:

If you were trying to cut costs at home, you probably wouldn’t focus on small things like stamps, pens or paper; you’d probably look to groceries, utilities and other big-cost items, where larger savings could be found.  The same thinking applies to emission reduction: the biggest reductions will be found in the biggest slices of the above chart.

So if you’d like to make a serious dent in your emissions, here are some resolutions to consider for 2022:

  1. Resolve to drive less.  In fact, become obsessed about it, because it’s the biggest single thing most of us can do to reduce emissions.  Instead, work from home when possible; walk, bike or take public transit; or carpool (respecting COVID rules) with a colleague or neighbour.  When driving is unavoidable, make it part of your personal culture to stack as many things into one trip as possible, to never idle or use a drive-through, and to drive with a gentle foot.  Two great spin-off benefits: you’ll save money on fuel; and using less fuel will simultaneously reduce emissions from the two largest slices of the above pie chart.
  2. If 2022 is your year for a new vehicle, resolve to make it electric.  Aside from the fact that you’re going to LOVE the ride and you can get at least $5000 off anywhere in Canada, you’ll also improve your fuel efficiency to the equivalent of about two litres/100 KM, which is 1/6 to 1/8 the fuel consumption of a typical pickup truck (and no that’s not a typo: you’ll go 6-8 times as far as a typical pickup truck on the same fuel energy).  More good news: EV prices are decreasing and selection is increasing; a complete list here.
  3. Resolve to use less electricity in your home.  Simplest: just turn things off or turn things (like thermostats) down. Next simplest: seal drafts quickly and cheaply with weatherstripping; take shorter and/or fewer showers; use a clothesline instead of a dryer. Harder but with huge potential dividends: get an energy audit done, and then follow the recommendations; most provinces have programs to help – NB’s is here.
  4. Resolve to become politically active by letting your elected representatives at all levels know you think urgent climate action is important.  You can get out there and bang a pot if you like – or you can simply make a call or send an email.  The main thing is to do something, because government actions and policies are what will impact the emissions that are beyond the influence of individuals.

Thanks for being a Green Ideas subscriber, and Happy, Sustainable 2022.  (And please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions about any of these resolutions, or if you’d like to share some of your own!)

Take a deep breath and…

Have you ever felt a little ripped off after Christmas is past?  Perhaps you were so busy preparing that you missed the joy of anticipation; you were so busy during Christmas that couldn’t savour the special moments; and just when you had a bit of time to relax, everyone had gone home and it was January.  Quite a paradox for what’s supposed to be the biggest holiday of the year.

But here’s some good news: the antidote to the mental stress many experience this time of year is also really good for the planet: a Christmas centered around love, joy and simplicity also means less unwanted stuff, less trash and fewer emissions (not to mention fewer bills). So why not use this time of year to reflect on what’s really important in our lives, and let a joyful Christmas just unfold accordingly?  Here’s a blog posting, “Time to pause, ponder what we truly value,” that may help set the stage, part of a larger National Catholic Reporter Simple Advent series (and don’t worry, it’s not preachy). 

Happy, peaceful, tranquil, safe, low-impact Christmas!

Toward a crap-free Christmas

November 30, 2021

The Christmas Sustainability Pyramid

‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year’.  But it’s also become the biggest consumerism feeding frenzy of the year, with an enormous impact on the planet.  Modern Christmas seems characterized by cheap goods manufactured unsustainably far away; they arrive with a huge shipping and delivery carbon footprint; they generate a lot of packaging trash; and they often have an uncomfortably short life that ends in a landfill.  Couple all of that with the fact that much of what we buy is neither needed nor wanted, and one can’t help but think: there’s got to be a better way.

Fortunately, there is – but instead of me lecturing, why don’t I just refer you to the graphic below?  I like it because:

  • It packs a lot of good advice into a small package (my faves: experiences, not things; and make something you KNOW someone will love)

It’s nicely organized in the form of a hierarchy, starting with the very best practices at the bottom, and then working up from there.  (Notice that names like Costco and Walmart do not appear.)

Christmas should never be Grinch-like; in these times in particular, we could all use a good celebration.  So let’s do just that, only not at the expense of the planet that sustains us.

Thanks to subscriber Don Ross for sharing this graphic from www.asustainablelife.co.uk.

“Where does that stuff go?”

It must have been a powerful lesson, because it’s still with me nearly five decades after I first learned it – as a kid watching Sesame Street!

One of the Muppet characters had dirt on their hands and wanted to get rid of it.  “Just wash your hands,” the other Muppets suggested.  The first Muppet did, and the dirt was believed to be gone – until one of the other Muppets shrieked, “But the dirt is now on the SOAP!”  A discussion followed, and it was decided that the soap should be wiped with a cloth.  “But the dirt is now on the CLOTH!”  And so it went: the dirt didn’t go away, it just went elsewhere.

That message stuck with me because, in a world of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, the reality is that few things truly go away; most just go elsewhere.  The trash we put out at the curb.  The pollutants that come out of tailpipes or smokestacks.  The deodorants we apply to our skins.

Or this: perhaps you’ve seen recent TV ads where a cheerful young lady advises that you can keep your clothes smelling as fresh as washday for as long as 12 weeks if you simply dump a handful of scent booster beads into your washer.  So where do those beads go?  Well, there are only two ways out of a washer: with the drain water or with the washed clothes.  No problem if those beads were made of organic ingredients that biodegrade naturally and quickly – but when they include chemicals with names like 2-Hexene, 6,6-Dimethoxy-2,5,5-Trimethyl, I suppose we might be wise to wonder: “Where does that stuff go?”  The same could be asked about chemical air fresheners designed to be inhaled.

So what to do?  Why not try to keep the question, “Where does this stuff go?” top-of-mind when evaluating the products that come into our lives and the waste that we generate.  And if the answer makes you uneasy, why not strive to make a difference by changing your purchasing habits? Because in our precious, fragile, finite world, few things truly go away; most just go elsewhere.

Better options for fall leaves

In NB where I live, most leaves have fallen and people are well into their fall routines of raking, bagging and placing at the curb. 

But maybe there’s a better way.  Consider:

  • Leaves are actually a pretty integral part of our natural environment, cycling nutrients from one plant to another, and creating food and habitat for many other life forms
  • Bagging takes time and effort, pulling you away from other things you’d probably rather be doing
  • There’s a considerable carbon footprint to disposing of leaves: notably the paper bags (and presumably the drive to go pick them up), and especially the energy used to haul them away.  

It’s ironic that leaves, which are actually captured carbon, would have such a carbon footprint for their collection and disposal.  It’s even more ironic that we cut down trees to manufacture those leaf bags.

So what can you do?

  • Very best: this is one of those very rare instances where doing nothing is probably the very best option: leave leaves where they are, to rot and recycle naturally.  Of course, that’s not feasible for many of us so…
  • Next best: rake your leaves under hedges, into perennial flower beds, into veggie gardens or into nearby woods, so they can decompose and recycle their nutrients there.
  • Next best: create a compost heap.  Leaves and lawn clippings are a dream team for creating ‘rocket fuel’ for next year’s garden.  More on composting here.
  • Next best: if you don’t have a good spot for leaves to decompose or compost, find a neighbour who does and would like to have your leaves.  Bonus: try to avoid using bags altogether, or using and reusing just a few.
  • Next best: use your mower (preferably electric or battery powered) to shred those leaves into mulch that stays on your lawn.  It’ll help improve moisture retention and reduce the need for fertilizer.
  • Worst: please avoid using leaf blowers; try a broom instead.  If you absolutely have to use a leaf blower, please make sure it’s electric or battery powered.
  • Very worst: please don’t bag leaves up as garbage; if buried into landfills, they’ll gradually decompose into methane, which is a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Find more ideas and information here and here, and happy non-raking!

Thanks to subscriber Don Ross for inspiring this Green Idea.

The Honourable Harvest

October 19, 2021

Beautiful guidelines for sustainable living

Have you ever heard of the Honourable Harvest?  I first learned of it Thanksgiving weekend – appropriate timing, given that it’s a value system that combines gratitude, humility and sustainability.

The Honourable Harvest is a set of food harvesting principles rooted in indigenous traditions of reverence for ancestors, concern for descendants (the next seven generations as a minimum) and respect for the fellow life forms that nourish and sustain us.  It’s largely oral and somewhat fluid, but its key principles include:

  • Never take the first. Never take the last.
  • Take only what you need. Leave some for others (including non-humans). Never waste what you have taken.
  • Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
  • Give thanks for what you have been given.
  • Use it respectfully. Share.
  • Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
  • Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.

More perspective and a few more principles can be read here; or you can watch this three-and-a-half minute video. Climate change and other ecological challenges suggest that we humans need to awaken to a new relationship with the world around us.  Implementing the principles of the Honourable Harvest – not just at Thanksgiving, but all year long – would be a great beginning.

When world leaders and climate scientists gather to plan our journey to net-zero emissions

There’s a major conference happening in Glasgow, Scotland October 31 to November 12.  Its name – ‘COP 26’ – may sound bland, but it’s an event of historical significance.

‘COP’ is the United Nations’ annual conference that brings together leaders, officials and climate scientists from around the world to examine the latest climate science and negotiate global emission reduction agreements. ‘26’ means this is the 26th such conference.  Remember the Kyoto Accord?  It arose from COP 3 in 1997.  The Paris Accord arose from COP 21 in 2015.

Why is COP 26 historical?  Recent science and this year’s crazy weather – from droughts to wildfires to floods – suggest that the timeline for preventing climate change from spinning out of control permanently is now very short, thanks to longstanding denial and inaction.  In aviation terms, we’re running out of runway:

  • A 2018 report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded global emissions need to drop by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 – just nine years from now – if global warming is to be limited to 1.5 degrees C
  • The 2015 Paris Accord was a major breakthrough, but:
    • Commitments made by countries fall well short of attaining that 1.5 degree C target
    • Many countries are having challenges meeting even those commitments

So the goals of COP 26 are pretty straightforward: get nations around the world to raise their ambition and set new, more aggressive emission reduction targets that are in line with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C, and then develop realistic plans for achieving those targets.  Straightforward, but not simple: international negotiations are incredibly complicated and challenging.

So what can you do?  If ever there was a time to awaken your inner activist and find your voice, it’s now:

  • Reach out to your elected leaders at all levels by mail, phone, email or petition to tell them you support aggressive action.  Contact information for federal leaders can be found here. It’s the nature of politicians to only act when they sense they have the support of their constituents, so they need to hear from us, in numbers and volume.  A simple online petition is here, with wording you can borrow for your own letter to a leader.
  • Send a letter to the editor of your local newspaper or online media to share your concerns and help nudge climate change further into the mainstream of our thinking; a helpful template can be found here
  • Demonstrate that you’re ready to do your part by thinking of ways you can lower your personal carbon footprint, and then taking action.  A zillion tips (from a familiar source) here.

So let’s do what we can to make COP 26 a historical success.  Future generations are counting on it.

Update on our solar array’s performance

Regular subscribers will remember that we had a solar array installed at our home last December.  (If that’s news to you, read more about the planning and installation here, and about how net metering works here.)

So how is it working out?  In short, pretty good:

  • Over the past seven months, the array has produced about 80 per cent of the power we’ve used in our home and to charge our electric vehicle
  • The best months for solar production were March, June and August; August was the first month the array actually generated more power than we used, with the surplus being sent into the grid as a credit we can use later.
  • The biggest single power load in our household is charging our electric vehicle – but that’s a tradeoff we don’t mind as we no longer need to buy gas.

Below is a chart most New Brunswickers would recognize: it’s the graphic that appears on our power bills each month – and this shows what’s happened to our consumption since the array came on line last December.

Solar power makes sense on so many levels: emission reduction, energy self-sufficiency, local jobs, fewer local dollars sent away to import fossil fuels, payback and more.  So why not make it part of your long-term plan to decarbonize your lifestyle?

Note: be sure to consult a qualified solar installer before you start; and remember that solar rebates are available in many jurisdictions. Here’s an excellent resource to learn more about solar potential in NB and across Canada.