Consider buying carbon offsets

If you think being ‘carbon neutral’ means having to have an array of solar panels to run your home and charge your electric car, think again.  Carbon offsetting is a far simpler – and quicker – alternative.

Carbon offsetting involves compensating for the greenhouse gases you generate by voluntarily paying to reduce emissions elsewhere – for example, by helping fund the construction of renewable energy sources.  If you prevent the same amount of emissions elsewhere as you produce in your own life, you are technically ‘carbon neutral’ (because the planet only cares about total emissions, not where they come from).

For example, even though my own home draws electricity from the local power grid, I pay an additional small amount for every kilowatt-hour we consume, and that goes toward supplying more green energy into the grid.  So our home’s electricity is technically carbon neutral, even though we don’t have panels on the roof.  (My supplier is Bullfrog Power, a leading Canadian company – and it only took minutes to set up*.)

Sound complicated? It is, sort of – but this TVOntario article explains it well.

And – the principle of ‘buyer beware’ definitely applies to carbon offsets; there’s plenty of snake oil out there.  But this David Suzuki Foundation article offers great guidance on what to look for and what to avoid.

For the record: I do hope to eventually have my own solar panels.  But until that happens, a carbon offset is a pretty good alternative.

*I have no interests, financial or other, in the company.

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Doing The Math: our global carbon budget

Have you heard of our ‘global carbon budget’?  It’s the maximum amount of oil, coal and natural gas humanity can still burn if we wish to limit global warming to two degrees C.

(Two degrees C is considered the maximum safe limit for global warming.  Our past consumption of fossil fuels has already warmed the planet about one degree C – and with all the recent worldwide heatwaves and wildfires, one could be forgiven for believing that even that’s already too much warming.)

Our global carbon budget declines a little every day for every tonne of coal, every litre of oil and every cubic metre of natural gas that we consume.

So how much can we still burn?  How long will that take, at today’s levels of consumption?  Or maybe we’ll deplete our fossil fuel reserves before that happens?

It all sounds complicated – but it’s made crystal clear in this powerful and concise video by Bill McKibben, author, academic and founder of 350.org.  It’s essential watching for anyone who wishes to understand one of the most daunting challenges we face in addressing climate change.  (I’ve started using the video in my presentations because it explains the issue far better than I can.)

If you don’t have time for the full six minutes, fast-forward to the 1:45 mark and start from there; you’ll still get the gist of the issue.  And once you do, why not share the video among your network?

Dry cleaning’s dirty little secret

Dry cleaning is widely accepted as being the best – or even only – way to clean our most delicate fabrics.  But it’s surprising what you find when you dig a little deeper.

Traditional dry cleaning isn’t really ‘dry’: dirt and stains are removed by a liquid solvent called perchloroethylene, or perc for short.  And perc has some unsavoury characteristics:

  • It’s very volatile (meaning it evaporates easily), and is listed as a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. According to the US EPA, it causes a myriad of health effects ranging from respiratory tract irritation to dizziness to cancer.  That’s a potential hazard for dry cleaning employees, but it also means that any residual perc in clothes you’ve had dry cleaned will come out in your airspace.
  • When spilled, even small amounts of perc can contaminate huge amounts of groundwater for a long time.

There are greener alternatives to perc, but they aren’t common practice yet: it’s estimated that over three quarters of dry cleaning is still done with perc.

So what to do?

  • When buying, look for clothes that don’t require dry cleaning (you’ll save on cleaning costs too)
  • When a garment label says ‘dry clean only’, do you really need to dry clean? This Chatelaine article sheds some light.
  • For clothes that absolutely must be dry cleaned, stretch the interval as long as you dare
  • Ask your dry cleaner what process they use, and inquire about greener alternatives like wet cleaning and liquid carbon dioxide cleaning; a nice overview of both processes here.

Amazing what a difference you can make with wise clothing choices – and avoiding conventional dry cleaning is one of them!

Today is Earth Overshoot Day 2018

Each year, our planet’s ecosystems produce and purify an abundance of resources: food, water, fibre, timber and more.  And each year, humanity consumes resources to sustain itself.

The good news: until 1970, the planet always produced more than we consumed each year.

The bad news: sometime around 1970, humanity’s ever-increasing appetite for resources exceeded the planet’s production capacity, so we started drawing down longstanding reserves like forests, fish stocks, topsoil and more.

Earth Overshoot Day is the day each year when we’ve consumed all that the planet will produce that year and we start dipping into those reserves.  For 2018, Earth Overshoot Day is today.  It’s the earliest ever.  Put another way, this year we will use the equivalent of 1.7 Earths – except we only have one.

So what to do?

  • Learn more about the causes of overshoot at the Global Footprint Network
  • Check out your Country Overshoot Day (IE the date on which Earth Overshoot Day would fall if all of humanity consumed like the people in your country)
  • Tune into a Livestream at overshootday.org at 1 PM Atlantic time/12 noon Eastern time today to learn how we can reverse our consumption trend and begin to move Overshoot Day later in the year
  • Examine your own lifestyle: calculate your own footprint at footprintcalculator.org (it’s quick and easy), and receive a list of specific ways you can reduce it
  • Share your commitment by pledging actions here (and perhaps the most important actions of all are lobbying political leaders at all levels and voting wisely)

With commitment and focus, surely we can move Earth Overshoot Day back into the future!

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!