Top tips for limiting how much trash your household produces – and an inspiring example

In January, I shared that one of my 2020 sustainability goals was that our family would produce 10 or fewer bags of trash this year.  We did it last year, so why not try it again (and maybe even improve)?

Halfway through, I’m pleasantly surprised to share that, even though COVID has meant a fuller household than anticipated, we’re actually on track: we’re working on bag number five.

So what’s the trick?  Here are seven keys to our success so far:

  1. Choosing less packaging: limiting trash is top-of-mind when we shop, so we actively choose products with little to no packaging, and actively avoid heavily packaged products. It’s meant the odd sacrifice, but we’re okay with that; our purchase decisions are one of the best ways we can influence the market.  (Some people think the three Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – should be preceded by a fourth, most important one: Refuse.)
  2. No single-use plastic bags, ever: it’s meant a few walks back to the car, but we’re now comfortably in the habit of using alternatives that include reusable produce bags or collapsible boxes (no endorsement intended).
  3. No disposable coffee cups, ever: that means I skip that coffee if I’ve forgotten my mug. The upside: I now remember my mug.
  4. No disposable cutlery: alas, still working on this one as I sometimes still forget my spork (no endorsement intended).
  5. Composting: organics make up a big part of household waste, so diverting them to a compost heap greatly reduces trash. A bonus: you end up with fertilizer for next year’s garden. Another bonus: your remaining trash is less smelly and less attractive to pests.  (Unsure about composting?  Here’s a simple guide.)
  6. Recycling rigorously: our recycling systems are far from ideal (carbon footprint of collection; mixed materials; offshore ‘processing’), but recycling is still better than trashing.
  7. Carrying plastic containers in the trunk of our car so we can avoid using Styrofoam for leftovers when eating out

So – nothing earth-shattering; it’s more been a matter of habit than anything else.

Refuse

So why not set a trash reduction goal for your family?  Start modestly, and then ramp it up as waste reduction becomes habit.  And please hit reply to share how you’re doing!

If you need heavy inspiration, consider Heidi Bischof, who has slashed her family’s annual trash to 1.5 KG; or watch Lauren Singer’s TED Talk on living a zero waste life (the amount of trash that she has produced over the past three years can fit inside a 16 oz. mason jar).

Canada, COVID and a historic opportunity

I don’t aspire to win a lottery, because I think I’ve already won the most important lottery of all: I was born in Canada, this beautiful land of unmatched abundance and prosperity.  I’m grateful for that every day, and especially every July 1.

But abundance can lead to extravagance.  Unfortunately, Canadians are among the world’s highest consumers of resources, and we sure waste a lot.  It’s estimated that if everyone lived like us, we’d need four planets.

We can change this, of course, and make Canada a global leader in sustainability – but it will require education, desire, commitment and focus.

Ironically, the COVID 19 crisis may help, in two ways.

First, it is demonstrating that, when necessary, governments, businesses and individuals can move very quickly to deal with an imminent threat.  Changes we might have previously thought were impossible have suddenly happened in mere weeks.

Second, it has presented us with a historic opportunity.  Governments around the world are preparing to spend trillions of dollars to rekindle their economies.  The International Energy Agency calls it a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity to turn away from fossil fuels, invest in clean energy and create millions of new jobs.  A recent Corporate Knights column suggests a made-in-Canada Green Recovery could produce 6.7 million job-years, reduce our emissions by a third and save Canadians $39 billion a year in energy costs by 2030.  What’s not to love about that?

So maybe our leaders need a little poke from us: using COVID recovery investments to build a sustainable economy centred around clean energy is solving two crises at once.  Why not reach out to your Member of Parliament?  You can find their contact information here.  Even if you’ve never done it before, get in touch – because politicians respond to constituent concerns.  (The same goes for provincial and municipal politicians.)

Canada Day

Happy Canada Day!  Let’s pause, celebrate and be thankful.  Then, let’s resolve to get active and make a clean, sustainable, prosperous future a reality!

Make your yard an oasis for pollinators

The first tomatoes in my garden are already a couple of centimeters in diameter.  That’s thanks partially to an early start but mostly to the work of anonymous, diligent pollinators – mostly bees – just doing their miraculous work.  They enjoy the pollen, I get tomatoes.

According to the UN, three out of four crops across the globe producing fruit or seeds for human consumption depend, at least in part, on pollinators.  They soldier on quietly, seven days a week, content with nothing more than a steady stream of flowers to pollinate.

For all the good they do for us, I suppose the least we can do is help them out a bit too.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • If you have a flower garden, choose plants pollinators love (for example, calendula, bee balm, echinacea, liatris (blazing star), snapdragons, sunflowers and sedum)
  • If possible, choose a mix of plants that flower early, mid and late season, to give your pollinators a steady supply of food
  • Allergies notwithstanding, don’t forget about the value to pollinators of plants we commonly call weeds, like dandelions, sweet clover and goldenrod, and leave them to flower if possible.
  • Challenge the conventional notion of a manicured lawn. Not only do they consume precious water, fertilizer, fuel and time, but lawns are food deserts for bees and other pollinators.  Swear off pesticides, and consider setting aside a portion of your property as an unmown, flowering meadow.

Bees

Now’s a great time of year to relax in your outdoor space.  The buzz of bees is a pretty sweet sound, so help make it happen!  More info here.

Plastics are no laughing matter, but…

In this era of short attention spans, comics and graphic novels can be great ways to convey more serious messages – like about our global plastic addiction and its consequences.

So why not take three minutes to read this comic strip which lays bare some great truths about plastic – including some uncomfortable realities.

(Insert Jeopardy jingle here…)

Back?  Great – hopefully you caught these key takeaways:

  • Only a tiny portion of all plastic produced is actually recycled; most ends up in landfills or the environment
  • Plastic persists in the environment for a long, long time
  • Even recycling is not ideal: some types of plastic can be processed efficiently, but many other types end up in faraway countries where what happens is questionable. And then there is the carbon footprint of collecting and transporting…
  • Our appetite for plastic continues to grow: half of all plastic ever produced was made in the last 13 years.

True, plastic is a tremendously versatile material – but this is a recipe for disaster.

So what to do?  It comes down to basics:

  • Recycle everything possible, as a last resort
  • Reuse everything possible, as a second last resort
  • But first and foremost, RETHINK, REDUCE and REFUSE plastic at every opportunity (and yes, that’s way beyond shopping bags).

Because…

Plastic

Emissions are down – how can we keep them down?

According to a new study published yesterday, daily global greenhouse gas emissions were 17% lower last month than April 2019 because of the pandemic.  From an environmental perspective, that’s great news.  But it has come at great economic and human cost, and most of us can’t wait for things to get back to ‘normal’.  Already, China’s emissions have bounced back up to nearly where they were pre-COVID.

At the same time, if we wish to limit global warming to 1.5°C, scientists tell us we need to reduce global emissions about 5% each year between now and 2030.

The key message here: if we just go back to our old ‘normal’, our emissions will simply rebound; we’ll be a year closer to 2030, but no closer to (and perhaps even further from) our 2030 emissions reduction target.

On the other hand, maybe this pandemic is an opportunity for us to challenge some of our long-held beliefs, and define a bold, new normal.  Some questions to consider might be:

  • Through all of this, what have we discovered we really need, and what have we discovered we really don’t need?
  • What are the good changes this pandemic has brought to our lives (IE no commuting, more cooking, renewing old friendships, going for more walks, more downtime, more family time, more reading, etc.)? How could we make those changes permanent?  What would we be willing to compromise if necessary to keep them?
  • Many places are experiencing bluer skies and cleaner waters than they’ve had in years. What are those things worth to us?  How badly do we want to keep them?
  • Are we working to live or living to work? Does the economy work for us, or do we work for the economy?
  • What’s more important, planetary health, human health or economic growth? (New Zealand’s leaders have made a bold and surprising choice.)  Can we reconcile all three?
  • Do we need to rethink the notion of ‘cheap’ as the main factor guiding many of our decisions? What are the implications for local employment? Or food security?  Or the environment?

Bizarre as it may seem, this ‘pandemic pause’ is a historic opportunity for us to do a global rethink, and chart a bold new direction.  The trillions of dollars governments worldwide are investing to kickstart their economies could be just what we need to leapfrog to a clean, prosperous, sustainable future.  Numerous organizations and groups – such as Corporate Knights, the Institute for Research on Public Policy, the Canada Green Building Council, Clean Energy Canada, Efficiency Canada and an interesting new independent non-partisan Task Force on a Resilient Recovery – recognize the opportunity, and are advocating for a ‘green recovery’, to enable us to fix two crises at once.

New Normal

It’s all possible – but it will require rethinking and then letting go of some of our long-held beliefs.  The good news is… most of us have a bit more time on our hands to think!

A home garden is great for your health, your wallet, your mind, your soul, and your planet!

Empty grocery store shelves during this COVID-19 crisis would seem to suggest that our food supply chain may be a bit less robust than we thought.  (If empty shelves are an indicator, it would appear most of us are more concerned about what comes out the bottom of our alimentary canals than what goes in the top.  But I digress.)

So why not grow some food of your own?  The advantages of a home garden include:

  • Freshness: it’s hard to beat the taste of something that’s gone from plant to plate in under an hour
  • Healthy: as producer of your own food, you can be certain of its safety; most home garden pests can be controlled by hand rather than with pesticides
  • Healthy, again: gardening is great exercise; it gets you bending, stretching and feeling energized
  • Good for your wallet: I’m constantly amazed at how much food our little garden yields each year; we bought virtually no veggies all last summer, and still haven’t worked through last year’s carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, beans (frozen and dried), tomatoes or squash!
  • Good for your mind: whether flowers or veggies, gardening is a great way to take a break from the overstimulation of work, news or social media
  • Good for your soul: nurturing a living organism from seed (or seedling) all the way to maturity helps one appreciate the miracles and glories of our natural world, believe in the possibilities of a bountiful future and get a taste of the contentment that comes with self-sufficiency
  • Good for the planet: the production, storage and transportation of our food make up a significant portion of our personal carbon footprint; but the carbon footprint of a home garden is virtually zero
  • Good for the kids: home gardens can be a great learning experience for kids, who often spend too much time in front of screens and know dangerously little about where their food comes from. (Possible spillover benefits to parents newly working from home too.)
  • A better use for land: lawns may be green, but they’re not very eco-friendly when you consider the water, fertilizer, pesticide, lawn mower fuel and lawn owner time they consume. They’re also biodiversity deserts.  Gardens, on the other hand, pay huge dividends in produce, and can help beneficial insects like bees.
  • Food security: there’s something extremely satisfying about being able to rely, at least in part, on food you’ve produced with your own hands. Perhaps it’s serendipity that this meme appeared in my social media feed today!

garden

So if you’ve never gardened before, why not make this your year to start?  Or if you’re already a gardener, why not make this your biggest garden year ever?  The internet is loaded with good advice, and, alas – you’ve probably got lots of time on your hands…

PS You’re probably not quite ready to go as far as Rob Greenfield – but his story sure is inspiring!  

The most important selfies ever

Earth Rise, The Blue Marble and the Pale Blue Dot might be the three most important ‘selfies’ of all time.  Here are their stories.

On December 24, 1968, Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders happened to glance out the window of his spacecraft just in time to see Earth silently appearing over the distant moon horizon (an event beautifully recreated with actual audio in this NASA video).  He and his crewmates scrambled to capture the moment.  Their image, Earth Rise, was seen by millions, and almost overnight generated an outpouring of awe for our planet and concern for its care.  The first Earth Day was held 16 months later.

“After all the training and studying we’d done as pilots and engineers to get to the moon safely and get back… what we really discovered was the planet Earth.” – Bill Anders, Apollo 8 Astronaut

On December 7, 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts heading for the moon looked back for a moment and captured the Blue Marble:  Earth, with its full face illuminated so that Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Antarctica and even a tropical cyclone are recognizable.  Nearly fifty years later, its luminescent beauty still stirs emotions of our planet’s beauty, frailty and isolation.

“People often say, “I want to go to heaven when I die”. In reality, if you think about it, you go to heaven when you’re born.” – Captain James Lovell, Apollo 8 & 13 Astronaut

The Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched by NASA in 1977.  By 1990, it was six billion kilometres from Earth – well past Pluto.  Astrophysicist Carl Sagan suggested scientists guiding the mission turn the spacecraft’s cameras 180 degrees and take a photograph looking back.  They did, and the picture beamed home to us February 14, 1990 showed Planet Earth as a tiny speck suspended in a sunbeam against a backdrop of empty nothingness.  Like no image before or since, the Pale Blue Dot underscored just how tiny our home planet – the only place in the universe where we know for certain life exists – really is.  “That’s here.  That’s home.  That’s us,” begins Carl Sagan in this powerful three and a half minute video about the image.

“Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” – Carl Sagan

Earth

On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, let’s enjoy these images, the three most important ‘selfies’ of all time.  Then let’s ponder all the things we can do, during the current COVID crisis and more importantly after, to preserve and protect our only home.

(And if you’d like newer Earth selfies to inspire you: NASA’s DSCOVR satellite beams home new Blue Marble-like images nearly every day; and here’s a live feed from the cameras of the International Space Station.)

Make this time at home time well spent

If there’s a silver lining to this dark COVID-19 cloud, perhaps it’s this: most of us (except for all those heroes working in essential services) find ourselves suddenly with much more time on our hands.  In a bizarre sort of way, it’s an unexpected blessing.

Alas, even if temporarily eclipsed by a fast-moving health crisis, climate change – that other, larger, slow-moving emergency – has not gone away (as news stories below confirm).  So maybe the time provided by the present crisis is a perfect opportunity for us to learn more about what we can do to stem that other – to learn more about our personal carbon footprint and what we can do to shrink it.

And for that I know of no better resource than the Global Footprint Network – a beautifully simple website where you can take a five-minute quiz and instantly receive a report that:

  • shows how big your personal carbon footprint is; and
  • suggests lifestyle changes that will make the biggest reduction in that carbon footprint

Spoiler alert: you may be a bit shocked by your initial results; I know I was when I first took the quiz a decade ago and learned that if everyone on the planet lived like me, we’d need four planets – FOUR!!  But the information in my report has helped me to since cut that in half (yes, the journey continues) – and it can do the same for you.

Footprint

So – if you’re finding yourself with some unexpected free time, why not make this your personal goal: to learn more about your personal carbon footprint; and then plan what steps you can take to lower it permanently once this current crisis is over?  (And I’d welcome hearing how it’s going.)

(Prefer reading over quizzing?  This New York Times article hits all the high points.)

Reflections on change

March 27, 2020

Emergencies and new thinking

Several years ago, I heard a radio program that examined the concept of an emergency.  I still remember its key messages: first, in an emergency, rules, reality and priorities change instantly and, second, if warranted by the situation, an incredible amount of resources can be reallocated to solve a problem.  (Here’s a column I wrote on the subject.)

And here we are, in a global emergency that most of us would have thought implausible mere weeks ago.  Overnight, our realities and priorities have changed, and we’re seeing how quickly resources can be reallocated.

In the short term, it’s scary – and I hope you’re doing well: following best practices for prevention and not forgetting about self-care and care for others too.  Hopefully drastic measures and public co-operation will blunt the spread of COVID-19.

But it’s also bringing out our best: who’d have thought that a distillery would pivot to making hand sanitizer; or that a hockey equipment manufacturer would start making visors for frontline healthcare workers; or that 700 students and retired health professionals would respond overnight to an appeal for backup help.  Amazing, inspiring, reassuring.

And in the longer term, by demonstrating just how much is possible when we work together and focus on a common goal, hopefully this crisis will have changed our thinking and provided a model we can use to tackle our climate crisis.  We’re already seeing the emergence of bold ideas like economic stimulus packages designed around sustainability, and a basic income guarantee that would alleviate some of our biggest fears about the economic consequences of major upheavals like COVID-19 and climate change.

Einstein

Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  So maybe this is the perfect time to reflect on what’s important, and change our way of thinking.

Stay strong, stay safe, and please do your part to stop COVID-19.

Could buying less stuff make you happier?

It’s well documented that spending on basic necessities and creature comforts gives us lots of fulfillment per dollar spent.

But after that, the amount of fulfillment we get per dollar spent starts to level off.  In fact, there’s actually a point where our fulfillment peaks – and spending beyond that point clutters our lives and actually makes us less happy.

What’s that fulfillment peak called?  ‘Enough’.

Enough

Most subscribers to this newsletter are, like me, blessed to be living in a land of plenty – and are probably, like me, beyond ‘enough’ when it comes to stuff.  Consumerism may be good for our economy, but it contributes to resource depletion, climate change and other environmental challenges.  Equally concerning, consumerism leads us to worship stuff, and even measure our self-worth by how much stuff we have.  The cost has been an erosion of our spirituality, our relationships and our sense of community.

So the next time you’re tempted to buy stuff, why not pause and consider: do I really need this?  Will it really improve my life, or just complicate and clutter it?  What’s the environmental impact of this stuff?  Hopefully your answers to those questions will lead you to a richer, happier, more fulfilling and more sustainable future.  You’ll find some nice guidance here.