Staying mentally strong through a crisis  

A year after COVID-19 arrived in Canada, perhaps one of the less-talked-about consequences has been its toll on our mental health.  So much of what we took for granted as ‘normal’ was cast aside almost overnight: daily routines, family relationships, social connections, economic foundations and more.  The pandemic has been an unprecedented test of our strength, resilience and ability to carry on.

For anyone who cares about our natural world, the current state of our environment can be similarly stressful.  The daily avalanche of negative news – whether about heat waves, droughts, floods, hurricanes, disappearing biodiversity or something else – is enough to gnaw away at even the most optimistic disposition.

If you’re feeling stressed by COVID, climate change or both, here are a few strategies to help you not just cope, but prevail:

  • Take heart, and see hope.  In the case of COVID, a vaccine is on the horizon.  If we follow rules and good practices, we can minimize our chances of becoming infected and contribute to the larger battle of ending this crisis.  In the case of climate change, we’re seeing mind-boggling progress in renewable energy and electric vehicles, and the political winds have changed with the election of a new US administration.
  • Take care of yourself, both physically and spiritually.  Exercise, go outside, talk to friends, maintain a healthy work-life balance, connect with like-minded people, take up yoga or meditation and laugh as much as you can.
  • Look deep within, and see and believe that you are stronger than you know.  WE are stronger than we know, something we should never underestimate.
  • Since most of us are too busy most of the time, see any unexpected downtime due to COVID as a gift, a time to refocus your life priorities.  Honestly, what really matters?  Then resolve to make some changes to better align your beliefs and your lifestyle.  If you care about our environment, use this time to learn about how to live more sustainably or save energy or grow a garden or eat better or…
  • Finally, set a few doable goals and take some action, because even the smallest action is better than words or worry, and can give a feeling of accomplishment, progress and confidence to go further.  Remember, people like you and me are still the world’s biggest hope for solving climate change.  The David Suzuki Foundation offers a great list of ten ways, small and large, you can help.

For further reading: a column I wrote on the subject a few years back, and eight tips for overcoming eco-anxiety. So please stay safe, and stay strong!

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, so they generate a lot of waste.  They’re usually shipped in insulated boxes (which may not be recyclable), often with ice packs to keep things cold in transit.  (True, you can reuse ice packs, but how many of them do you really need in your freezer?)  Ingredients inside the box are usually further packaged as well.
  • Many meal kits originate quite far away, so they have a significant transportation footprint (a big part of it being that delivery van that drops it off at your door)
  • If a meal kit you choose is coming from afar, you can be pretty certain there’s nothing local inside it, so there’s no benefit to your local economy
  • Meal kits aren’t cheap.  Do the math, and you’ll likely find you can get the very same ingredients locally for a fraction of the cost

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?  Even better: in season, subscribe to a weekly box from a local farmer or community supported agriculture group!

Footnote: until a vaccine brings pandemic relief, people feeling vulnerable due to age, health or other circumstance warrant an exemption.  Let’s hope we can all get back to our usual shopping and eating routines soon!)

Set sustainability goals for 2021

Thanks to COVID-19, most of us can’t wait to say goodbye to 2020.  But as the end of one sobering crisis seems within our reach, symptoms of the next are rumbling ever louder.  Christmas and Boxing Days were the warmest ever here in New Brunswick, with 21 weather stations setting new record high temperatures.

New Year’s is typically a day for setting fresh goals and resolutions; paraphrasing Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”  So why not set some sustainability goals for yourself and your family for 2021?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • To put out no more than ___ bags of trash a month (year?)
  • To go meat-free at least once every _____
  • To get a home energy audit done, and implement at least ___ of its energy-saving recommendations by the end of 2021
  • To carpool or take public transit at least ___ times a month
  • To stop using drive-throughs (and you’ll be amazed at how much money you’ll save by making that daily coffee at home)
  • To get into the habit of gentle stops and starts when you drive (and you’ll be amazed at how much fuel you’ll save)
  • To be driving an electric vehicle (or at the very least a hybrid) by ___

These are just a start, but they touch upon the areas where most of us have our largest impact on the environment: waste, diet, home energy consumption and transportation.  For good measure, here are two more suggestions:

  • To call or write your elected leaders to demand meaningful action on climate change at least ___ times this year
  • To subscribe to TED’s Countdown, an inspiring global initiative dedicated to solving our climate crisis and creating a better future for all

Final thought: goalsetting really works.  I’ve always been terrible at it, but two years ago, for the first time ever, I set and shared a couple of audacious goals for our family: that we’d generate no more than 10 bags of trash per year, and that we’d be carbon neutral for our electricity and transportation by 2022.  I had no idea at the time whether we’d be able to do it.  But amazing things can happen when you commit to something.  We hit our 10-bag target in 2019, and will again this year.  And just this fall we installed a solar array that powers our home and charges our car – something that seemed almost impossible just two years ago. 

So – as you welcome 2021, why not have a quick scrum with others in your household, and together commit to some solid sustainability goals?  (And if you need help, don’t hesitate to hit reply and ask away!)

Happy New Year 2021!

Cozy, warm and eco-friendly

December 14, 2020

Consider heating with wood 

The picture below shows a cozy way to stay warm over the holidays.  It also shows one of the biggest ways we’ve been able to lower our family’s carbon footprint.

Heating represents about 60 per cent of a home’s energy consumption, and the sources of energy we typically use – oil, natural gas or electricity (in most places) – result in greenhouse gas emissions. 

Wood stoves, on the other hand, can be much better for the environment.  First, they use a form of renewable energy, trees.  Second, they are carbon-neutral because the emissions they generate are reabsorbed from the air by the new trees replacing the ones being burned.  A third advantage: paper products that are not recyclable, such as tissues, napkins, wax paper or grease-stained pizza boxes and fast food packaging, can be used as fire starting materials, thus reducing what goes out in the trash.

But for wood heat to truly be better for the environment, three conditions must be met.  They’ll also help you stay on good terms with your nearby neighbours:

  • The stove should be EPA-rated, a certification which assures maximum efficiency and minimum particulate matter (IE smoke). 
  • The wood should be completely dry, seasoned for at least a year; longer if possible.
  • The fire should be well managed for maximum efficiency and minimum smoke.  That means using enough paper and kindling to get it started, letting it build to full intensity quickly, and only reducing the air flow once the wood has reached the glowing charcoal stage.

For the truly hardcore: commit to using only dying trees, fallen trees or trees that need to be removed anyway for other reasons.

Want to learn more? This great guide has everything you need to know about heating with wood. Happy holidays!  Hope you have a chance to spend some time near a cozy – and planet-friendly – wood stove in the coming weeks!

Solar panels 101

December 1, 2020

Hello, energy independence (well, nearly)! 

I remember hearing a caller to a radio show four years ago casually mentioning they had a solar system that powered their home and charged their electric vehicle.  Totally cool, I thought – but it seemed so far off and impossible.

Fast forward to today, and I’m SO excited to share that our new 16-panel solar array went live this week.  It generates power for our home and electric car, and has a battery pack that provides emergency backup power too (so no generator or gas to worry about, ever).

Here are some basics:

  • Size: our installer looked at our power bills from the past few years, and sized our system accordingly.  If all goes as planned, it should provide 80-90% of our needs on an annual basis
  • Components: a basic system just requires panels, a rack and an inverter.  Because we wanted emergency backup, our system also includes a charge controller and battery pack, plus we had to upgrade to a ‘hybrid’ inverter that can handle the different voltages of grid and battery power. 
  • Grid-tied or off-grid: we opted to stay connected to our local power grid because the wire’s already running into our home, and the batteries required for going totally off grid are big and still a bit pricey (but they’re getting cheaper fast).
  • Placement: because our home is poorly oriented to the sun and our roof is too flat, our array is what’s called a ‘ground mount’.  That gave us the freedom to install it in the sunniest corner of our lot, facing perfectly south and angled to catch the least snow and the most sun.
  • Warranty: our panels are warranted for 25 years; other components are warranted for 10 years
  • Payback: solar systems pay for themselves in about 12 years; ours will take a bit longer because of the added cost of the battery backup option.  Some consider that a long payback; to me, it compares very favourably to the (non)payback of a monthly power bill for infinity.

Questions?  Interested in learning more?  Just hit reply and let me know; I’m planning another Green Ideas on solar panels for January.  The big takeaway: something that seemed so unattainable just four years ago is suddenly reality.  I guess that proves that energy near-independence is within anyone’s reach – and that’s truly exciting!

Broaching the issue of disposable feminine hygiene products 

I’ve long wondered about how to raise awareness of a subject I’m not qualified to talk about.  But I recently met someone who is – and thankfully she accepted my invitation to write this first-ever Green Ideas guest post.

*   *   *

I’m Avery, a young mom and entrepreneur.  When my daughter Lily was born, I found myself wondering what I could do to ensure she and her generation would have a green, healthy planet.  I found my answer in a subject rarely talked about: feminine hygiene products.

The average women will use 11,000 disposable tampons and pads over her lifetime. In North America alone, that’s 20 billion products discarded into landfills every year.

So I decided to come up with a design for some menstrual pads for myself – and, to my surprise, it’s turned into a home-based business.  My Lily Pads have an incredibly absorbent core called “Zorb”, a thin fabric with compressed fibers that can hold ten times its weight in liquid. A water-resistant backer gives peace of mind against leaks.

They’re washable, just like regular laundry.  My minky pads are stain resistant (maybe that’s why they’re our best sellers); and my bamboo or cotton pads can be cleaned by pre-rinsing and using a natural stain remover bar or peroxide before washing.

Another benefit of Lily Pads: they can offer relief for women who have allergies or sensitivities to disposable pads.

Reusable Lily Pads – comfortable, absorbent and sensitive skin friendly – are helping me make a difference for my Lily.  So maybe reusable pads can be a next step for you on your eco journey too.

*   *   *

Thanks, Avery, for the difference you’re making – for more than just Lily!

PS No endorsement intended, except that it’s nice to recognize people doing a good thing.

PS2 Coming soon, that promised feature on our new solar panels.

Become a sustainability leader at work with WWF’s Living Planet at Work

To solve climate change, we need all hands on deck: individuals, governments, business, industry – and workplaces too.

If you’d like to be a sparkplug in making your workplace more sustainable, here’s a great, FREE resource: WWF’s Living Planet at Work platform.  It provides all the ideas and tools you need to lead sustainability initiatives in your workplace: from reducing waste, to lowering your office’s carbon footprint, to creating a sustainable purchasing policy, to engaging your colleagues.  (And remember – schools are workplaces too!)  Most of us want to do the right thing, but we often get hung up in wondering where to start; Living Planet at Work makes it easy. 

Need some inspiration? Check out the Featured Stories section, profiling people just like you who stepped up, took action and made a difference – including the 2019 Living Planet at Work Award Winners.

So – if you’d like to make a difference at work, check out WWF’s Living Planet at Work!

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!