Choose compostable litter – and then compost it!

One of the biggest environmental impacts of our feline friends is ‘the back-end business’ – specifically, the litter box.

Most conventional cat litters are made of clay.  Their environmental footprint is bigger than you might think:

  • Clay is a non-renewable resource.  It’s typically strip-mined in much the same way as coal, so it leaves similar permanent scars upon the land.
  • Clay is heavy, so clay-based litters have a significant transportation footprint by the time they’ve arrived at your local store.
  • Clay-based litters can’t be composted, so they end up in the trash.  Because of their weight, they need special packaging or extra plastic bags.
  • They again have a significant transportation footprint en route to the landfill, where they take up precious space.

So what to do?  Here are two simple steps.

First, choose a biodegradable or compostable litter.  You can use something as simple as sawdust (the norm before clay came along), or buy products made from materials such as old newspapers, corncobs, barley hulls or nut shells.  Or you can use wood pellets (yes, the pellet stove fuel) for an inexpensive, often local, solution.  For the truly hardcore, here are instructions on how to make your own litter from newspaper.

Second, keep that litter and waste out of the trash:

  • Use it as tree, shrub or flower bed mulch
  • If you have curbside compost collection, call to verify that your litter and waste are acceptable, and dispose of them that way
  • Compost it yourself – but keep it separate from your regular compost, let it age a bit longer and use that compost for non-food crops because pet waste may contain parasites and other pests.  Some good guidance here.
  • If you can’t compost it yourself, reach out to a local gardening organization.  Most plant lovers won’t pass up the chance for some good organic material!

Choosing compostable litter and then composting it: two big steps for today’s modern, eco-friendly cat (owner)!

AHA: Anger, Hope, Action

October 6, 2020

It’s okay to be angry – but it’s even better to take action

If you’re like me, coming to grips with climate change is an emotional kaleidoscope. 

It’s hard not to feel anger if you understand the causes and consequences of climate change, and follow the news.  It’s hard not to get angry at how unnecessary it all is; if only we used that big brain we as a species were gifted with!!

At the same time, it’s hard not to feel hope at the tremendous progress being made every day toward solutions – like the ones in the news stories below.

But it’s not enough to stop at anger and hope – because anger on its own is unhelpful, and hope without action doesn’t get us any closer to the solutions we need. 

So if you’re angry and hopeful as I am, please also take that next critical step – ACTION – in whatever large or small way you can:

  • Tell your political leaders at all levels that you support (and demand) strong climate change action (and don’t be shy, because the folks who lobby for the fossil fuel industry sure aren’t).  You can find your MP’s full contact information here.
  • Use your Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social networking sites to build climate change awareness and share solutions
  • Join organizations like 350.org, Avaaz.org, Leadnow.ca or WeDontHaveTime.org.  Dismissed by some as feel-good “slacktivism”, on-line activism is still far better than doing nothing.  To participate in more direct action, consider joining organizations such as the Conservation Council of NB, the Sierra Club of Canada or Greenpeace
  • Do whatever you can to lower your own impact on the planet: drive and fly less; eat more plant-based foods; generate less trash; conserve water; make your home more energy efficient.  Every little action counts!

Remember – AHA! (anger-hope-action!) is much better than just AH.

 (Spoiler alert: coming soon, details of the exciting new solar project that has transformed our home.  Stay tuned!)

Don’t litter, or better still, don’t use in the first place

I experienced a real eye-opener Saturday: I did a beach cleanup as my 2020 Terry Fox ‘Run’

The Terry Fox Run is normally a 10 KM run/walk/bike community event – something not possible during COVID.  So for 2020 participants were encouraged to do something on their own – and I decided instead of running solo I’d do a long-overdue cleanup of a beach my family had come across earlier in the summer.

What I found starkly demonstrates our ocean pollution problem.  The top items:

  • Over 400 plastic beverage containers, mostly water bottles
  • Over 1000 pieces of Styrofoam, ranging from fingernail- to surfboard-sized
  • About 75 KG nylon rope

All are awful, because they persist for a long, long time; and because they fragment into tiny pieces that eventually make their way into marine food chains (and us).

So what to do?

  • Don’t litter, ever, not even once.  Duh.  (It’s good to remember that much of the plastic in our oceans arrived there by wind, or started out in a ditch, then washed into a river.)
  • Steadfastly recycle everything that can be recycled.  Not ideal, for sure, but better than landfilling.
  • Even better: reduce your use of single-use plastics (and this opinion piece should fuel your motivation).  In particular, resolve to not buy bottled water, ever.  Instead, use a refillable bottle and enjoy better tasting, better quality local tap water.
  • Become an advocate: explain to your friends why it’s not cool to litter, and support bans on single-use plastic at the municipal, provincial and national levels.
  • Take a bag along the next time you visit a beach, because every piece of plastic kept out of our oceans makes a difference.

As my Mom told me years ago, maybe you can’t change the whole world, but you can change your little corner of it.  Keeping plastic out of our oceans is a great way to do that!

 

Good looks, bad impacts

September 8, 2020

Minimize the environmental impact of your wardrobe

A few generations ago, what people wore was determined by practical considerations like warmth and durability.  Most clothes were made of natural fibres like wool, linen and cotton.

But we’ve come a long way, baby: clothing today is more about constantly moving targets like status, self-expression and eye-appeal.  Things seem designed to be thrown away after just a few wearings.  Polyester, a type of plastic, is now the world’s leading textile.

Such ‘fast fashion’ comes with enormous consequences: chemical waste; polluted water; mountains of trash; microplastics in our oceans; exploited workers and much more.  (Read a quick and astounding overview here.)

So what can you do to make your wardrobe more sustainable?  Here are six tips:

  • Resolve to stop buying new for a year – or if that seems too long, start with a month.  Used clothing stores and websites are popping up everywhere, with offerings to suit every taste.
  • Choose ethical brands and sustainable textiles; consult app Good on You for brand ratings.
  • Aim to get at least 30 wears out of every garment you own.
  • Organize your wardrobe so you can see everything you already have and easily find what you’re looking for.
  • Swap and share clothes with similar sized friends.
  • Unsubscribe from all shopping emails, and purge your social media feeds of ‘influencers’ who try to seduce you into buying stuff you (and the planet) don’t need.

You can read 14 more tips here.  Do good as you look good!

Smooth and steady wins the race

If you drive, I’m guessing what happened to me earlier this week on a city street has happened to you.

A vehicle sped past me.  Not far ahead was a traffic light, and it was red.  The vehicle stopped.  Seconds later, I pulled up right behind it.

So that driver didn’t gain any time by passing me, but he sure did burn more fuel.  Aggressive starts and stops are one of the greatest causes of poor fuel economy (not to mention worn-out brakes).  Natural Resources Canada estimates that fuel-efficient driving techniques can improve a driver’s fuel economy by as much as 25%!  That’s like driving three months a year for free – what’s not to like?

But I’m guessing that wasn’t what that driver was thinking when he sped by me.  He wasn’t in the moment; his mind was probably elsewhere.  If that’s how he always drives, he’s missing out on one of the very easiest ways we can save money and reduce emissions.

So here’s my challenge to all drivers: strive to be in the moment (or ‘situationally aware’) when you drive.  Accelerate gently; maintain a steady speed; anticipate traffic; avoid high speeds; and coast to decelerate.  You’ll be amazed at how much you can save.

Drive in the Moment

The environmental impact of the internet

The internet is a vital part of our world – connecting us, entertaining us and offering a world of information at our fingertips.  I can’t imagine how we’d manage COVID-19 without it.

But this graphic caught my eye when I was reading a report on energy trends recently:

Data Centres

Technical jargon aside, the orange bars make the key message unmistakably clear: data traffic on the internet is exploding, and so is the demand for enormous energy-hungry data centres loaded with banks of computers operating continuously. (Not sure who or what represents data or relies on data centers?  Think YouTube, Spotify or anything that streams.  Think Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  Think e-mail {alas, including this one}, Google searches and anything in ‘the cloud’.)

Data centres run on electricity, and even though companies like Microsoft, Google and Apple have made commendable progress, most data centre electricity comes from fossil fuels.  It’s estimated that the internet, our gadgets and the systems supporting them account for nearly four per cent of global emissions – about twice what Canada generates.

So what to do?  Once again, much of the answer revolves around that first of the three Rs: REDUCE.  Here are a few tips:

  • Try to send fewer emails; it’s estimated that if everyone in the UK sent one fewer ‘thank you’ email, it could save the equivalent of taking over 3,000 cars off the road
  • Keep your emails as short as possible, with fewer attachments.
  • Resist the urge to hit ‘reply to all’ unless it’s really necessary
  • Unsubscribe from emails you don’t read (but not this one please!!)
  • Make Ecosia (one tree planted for every 45 searches) your default search engine
  • Keep your computers, displays, phones and other devices longer to reduce the impacts of manufacturing them
  • Try to stream as little as possible (it’s a challenge, I know, but the inescapable reality is that streaming, especially video, is pretty energy intensive)
  • Avoid Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies (it’s complicated, but they’re very energy intensive)

Want to drill a little deeper into this issue?  More info here.

Happy – sustainable – internetting!

Just don’t idle your engine, ever.

On the ‘tree of solutions’ to climate change, there is low-hanging fruit (solutions that are easy to implement) and high-hanging fruit (solutions that are more challenging to implement).  In the long run, we’ll have to pick every fruit on the tree of solutions if we plan to reign in climate change, but it makes sense to start with the easy, low-hanging stuff.

Surely there can be no simpler way to reduce emissions than this one straightforward guideline: Don’t idle your engine. Ever.

It may sound like a small thing, but it adds up: Natural Resources Canada estimates that if all drivers idled just three minutes less per day, we would save over $630 million/year, and prevent 1.4 million tonnes of emissions.

“But it’s 2020; surely everyone knows this by now?!”

(*Extended buzzer sound.*)  Drive throughs.  Picking up or dropping off people (including kids at school or other activities).  Pausing to talk to people.  On jobsites.  While running errands.  While texting, reading email or taking a phone call.  Or the most egregious of all, idling with the windows up and the AC on – catch the irony?

My inner voice has come to call it ‘the idling disease’, because it seems pretty pervasive, even in this era of climate change awareness.

So please help cure ‘the idling disease’ by following (and sharing) this one simple guideline: Don’t idle your engine. Ever.

Idle Free

(Looking for more information, or resources to help spread the word or launch a workplace campaign?  Check out NRCan’s Idle-Free Zone; there are even printable graphics and an idling quiz.)

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.