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!

Buy less, buy better, keep longer

According to a recent article in the Economist, global clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, and we now keep clothing half as long as we did 15 years ago.  That double whammy may be great for the fashion industry, but it’s pretty bad for the planet: on average, the making of one kilogram of fabric generates 23 KG of greenhouse gas emissions. Plus there are other environmental impacts of clothing, such as pesticides used in cotton production and polyester microfibers that end up in our oceans.

So what to do?  Whenever possible:

  • Strive to get by with as small a wardrobe as you can (besides, too many clothes often lead to too much clutter)
  • Choose durable, high-quality clothing over short-lived fast-fashion, and pledge to keep your clothing longer
  • Choose products made of organic cotton, linen or hemp over synthetic materials like polyester and nylon
  • Inquire about brand sustainability when you shop; here’s a list of 35 brands trying to be more sustainable
  • Buy second hand clothing instead of new (you’ll save a bundle too)
  • Give clothing away for reuse or recycling when you’re done with it; many charities have easy to find collection bins

Your wise clothing decisions can make for a cleaner environment!

Salad from your lawn

June 5, 2018

Try these edible ‘weeds’, for taste and nutrition

It’s been many years since I took weed science at agricultural college but I can still recall the simple definition of a weed: a weed is simply an unwanted plant.

But ironically, some of the plants we call weeds are actually quite edible and nutritious.  Here are four:

  • Dandelion: perhaps the most cursed of lawn weeds, it’s actually edible from root to flower. High in vitamins, iron, potassium and zinc.
  • Chickweed: a major pest in my garden, but its succulent leaves taste like spinach. It’s high in beta carotene, calcium and magnesium.
  • Lamb’s quarter: an easy addition to any salad; seeds are edible too if you’re patient enough to pick them
  • Pigweed: same uses as lamb’s quarter

So – instead of fighting weeds in your lawn and yard, why not get the ultimate revenge and just eat them?  Visit here and here for more suggestions of edible weeds, plus photos.

Note: not everything out there is edible, so please be sure-sure of a plant’s identity before you eat it!

Avoid using glitter

A couple of years ago, we hosted a murder mystery party at our home.  One of our friends’ character was pretty flambuoyant, so she showed up with plenty of glitter – and we’re still finding it years later, in furniture, clothing, cracks in the hardwood floor and just about everywhere else.  Which probably means it is in that person’s home too, plus their car, plus sprinkled along everywhere they walked.

It’s annoying, but that’s the least of it.  Most of today’s glitter is made of mylar, a type of plastic, and it’s cut into tiny pieces.  That means that, once dispersed, it’s really hard to clean up.  And, through wind and rain action, much of it eventually ends up in the ocean, where it persists in the environment for a really long time or gets eaten by fish and other marine life.

So what to do?

  1. Make a personal choice to just avoid glitter, because prevention is always easier than cure (as the glitter in our home proves)
  2. Invite organizations you’re associated with, in particular schools and daycares, to go glitter free, as this chain of UK preschools has done
  3. If you absolutely can’t live without the stuff, seek out non-plastic biodegradable glitter

It’s a simple way you can help reduce the impacts of plastics in our environment!

Two great reasons to not burn anything this spring

Spring, the season of rebirth, is finally here!  For many people, springtime yard cleanup involves the burning of grass, brush and other organic debris.  But here are two big reasons why that’s not a great idea:

  1. Burning any organic material generates carbon dioxide (CO2), the same greenhouse gas produced when oil, coal and natural gas are burned. CO2 is what’s causing global warming, so when we burn grass, brush or other debris, we’re just adding to the problem.  (For more, here’s a quick primer on the carbon cycle.)
  2. Burning produces soot (or black carbon), and scientists are discovering that soot from fires and smokestacks all over the world is travelling long distances and settling onto global ice sheets, making them darker so they absorb more sunlight rather than reflect it. That is making them melt, which is making sea levels rise.  (Here’s more on how that works.)

ice sheets

So what to do?

  • Best: Just choose not to burn grass (besides, thatch and stubble add nutrition back to your lawn as they rot)
  • Best: Instead of burning brush and branches, cut or break them up into smaller pieces and compost them with grass clippings in one neat heap; or, if you have a treed area, leave them to rot naturally on the ‘forest floor’ beneath the trees (same nutrient give-back as above)
  • Good: If you really need to get rid of organic yard waste, ensure it’s collected for composting, or give it to a neighbour who composts.

(And here’s a handy one-page myth buster about grass burning.)

Happy spring!

Single-serving coffee pods are not very neat for our environment

I grew up hearing the word ‘keurig’, because it’s a Dutch word – it means ‘neat’.  So it’s a bit ironic that that same word has become associated with single-serving coffee pods (or K-cups), one of the most waste-generating inventions of our times.

The problem is not the coffee, it’s what’s left over: those used pods.  Strictly speaking, they’re recyclable – but there’s a huge catch.  You’ve got to separate the foil from the plastic cup, dump the coffee grounds into your compost bin and then rinse the cup clean before placing it in your recycling bin.  Placing dirty pods into your recycling bins will contaminate everything else, potentially making it all unrecyclable too.

Dissembling, cleaning and recycling pods is just too much hassle for most of us – so they end up in the trash.  Enough were sold in 2014 to circle the globe a dozen times, if placed end to end.  In fact, they create so much trash that the inventor now wishes he hadn’t invented them!

What to do?  If you’re hardcore, you now know: separate, wash, compost and recycle.  But the very best solution is to forego single serving pods altogether, and opt for coffee the way you enjoyed it before pods came along.  Now that would be truly keurig!

The scourge of plastic microfibers

Polyester, nylon and other synthetic fabrics have become mainstays of our wardrobes (including mine – I’m wearing a fleece as I write this).

But every time you wash clothing made from those materials, microscopic bits of fibre break off.  Thousands of these microfibers break off of a fleece like mine every single wash.  They’re too small to be captured by municipal waste treatment systems, so they end up in waterways and eventually oceans.  (Learn more from this recent story from CBC’s The Current.)

So what to do?  Here are 15 ways to help stop microfiber pollution:

  1. Wash synthetic clothing less often
  2. Use a colder wash setting
  3. Use liquid soap instead of powder
  4. Watch the Story of Stuff’s microfiber movie
  5. Most importantly: where possible, buy clothes made of natural fibres like cotton, linen and wool

And read the other 10 tips here.

The paradox of pickups

March 27, 2018

Obstacles on the road to more efficient transportation

Confession time: the abundance of pickup trucks on our highways is one of my bigger frustrations as an environmental advocate.  Let’s see if I can explain why in five quick points:

  1. Virtually all world leaders and climate scientists accept that the ‘safe upper limit’ for climate change is 2⁰C (and we’ve already warmed about half that)
  2. If we want to stay under that 2⁰C limit, scientists calculate that we can emit no more than about 500 billion tonnes of carbon – our global ‘carbon budget’. Sounds like a lot, but…
  3. At today’s global emission levels, we will use up that entire ‘carbon budget’ in just 15 years – IE before today’s newborns will complete high school*
  4. About a quarter of Canada’s emissions come from transportation, and they’ve been rising steadily since 1990, in large part due to trucks and SUVs
  5. In decarbonizing our world, simply choosing more efficient transportation is the ultimate ‘low hanging fruit’ – yet trucks and SUVs still dominate the vehicle ads I see, the roads I travel and the dealer lots I pass


So what to do?

  • If you’re in the market for a vehicle, try to resist pickup truck marketing pitches and choose the most efficient vehicle that meets your everyday needs. (Besides, if the dealer is offering $10,000 in discounts and freebies, imagine what the price of the truck must be!)
  • If you drive a pickup, strive to drive it as little as possible and replace it with something more efficient as soon as you can.
  • No matter what you drive, you can save significantly on fuel by being easy on the gas and easy on the brake; some good tips from Natural Resources Canada here.

(PS: I’d give an exemption to working trucks – unfortunately, I don’t see many of them out there…)

*Here’s a four-minute video explaining our carbon budget with crystal clarity.

Transitioning, gently, away from meat

A few summers ago, my son took part in a wonderful enrichment and entrepreneurship program for high school students called SHAD.  Together with a team of colleagues, he had to develop a project around the theme of food security: how can we feed seven billion people in an increasingly resource constrained world?

His team’s idea?  ‘Grub Tub’, a system for farming insect larva for animal or human consumption.

‘Grub Tub’ didn’t win the class competition, but I’m thinking they were onto something.  Humans, and North Americans in particular, consume a lot of meat, and, alas, that comes with a big carbon footprint.  With growing awareness of that footprint comes growing interest in alternatives.  Here are two I’ve discovered recently:

  • The humble pea is getting much attention and investment as a highly nutritious plant-based food ingredient. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 170 new food products containing pea protein were launched in 2015 alone!  Among the investors: movie director James Cameron.
  • Loblaws, Canada’s largest grocer, has started selling President’s Choice cricket powder as an alternative protein ingredient. Eating insects is definitely a paradigm shift for most of us (remember this classic scene from The Lion King?), but insects are an eco-friendly source of protein and are being eaten by more and more people around the world – so why not here too?

As the issue of global food security looms larger, maybe we’d all do well to re-evaluate our meat consumption.  Maybe the above two options can be viable alternatives.  And maybe it’s time for my son and his team to bring back their ‘Grub Tub’ idea!