Bottled water? Just say no.

Oops… during a presentation to a high school audience last week, I let it slip that one of my greatest environmental frustrations is bottled water.

Why bottled water?  Because:

  • Most bottled water is not natural spring water, but merely filtered tap water.
  • Most bottled water is not local; it’s trucked long distances and has a huge transportation footprint.
  • The Maritimes have plenty of clean, clear water; surely it’s the last thing we should be sending our money out-of-province for!
  • Most empty water bottles are not recycled; instead, they end up in landfills, roadsides or waterways. A recent study warned that the world’s oceans may contain more plastic than fish by 2050.  Yuck!
  • The water bottles that are recycled don’t come back as bottles; they’re ‘downcycled’ into products like carpet, which eventually end up in a landfill anyway.

You can make a difference, with one simple choice: seek out a tap or fountain, and, whenever possible, just say no to bottled water. On the tree of environmental solutions, it’s hard to find lower hanging fruit.

The unsavory side of polyester

Polyester, once the object of fashion ridicule, is probably the most common synthetic material in clothing today.  It’s strong, wrinkle resistant and moisture resistant.

But polyester is a type of plastic, and in recent years a very significant problem has come to light: it sheds tiny fibres, especially during washing.  These microfibers are often too small to be filtered out by sewage treatment plants and thus end up in our waterways and oceans.  A 2016 study estimated that synthetic fleece jackets released 1.7 grams of microfibers every wash.  And now they’re showing up in fish and seafood too.  (Watch The Story of Microfibers here.)

What to do?

  • Where possible, avoid polyester and choose clothing made of natural fibers like cotton or wool
  • If it has to be polyester, choose high quality as it sheds less
  • Wash polyester clothing as little as possible and on as gentle a wash cycle as possible
  • If you’re up for it, contact manufacturers to express your concern and ask them to research and develop better products. Polyester shedding is a global issue, and all textile manufacturers will need to be part of the solution.

Our waterways and oceans are worth it.

Why not use alternatives to glow sticks?

In recent decades, glow sticks have become popular, especially at parties, dances, concerts – and Halloween, of course! It’s no wonder: they’re simple sources of short-term light, available in a range of fun colors.

But the post-glow reality is that they’re really not very eco-friendly:

  • They’re not recyclable: besides the color-producing chemicals, glow sticks contain chemicals to keep the plastic flexible, and those same chemicals make the plastic unsuitable for recycling.
  • We use an awful lot of them: 100 million a year, according to one website on the subject
  • Some end up in the ocean: where they may be eaten by marine life or float for a long, long time.

What to do?

  • Reduce, the first R: strive to go without when possible
  • Use alternatives: for safety, consider reflective strips; for visibility, use an LED flashlight or headlamp. (For bonus points: power them with rechargeable batteries!)

Have fun and be safe for Halloween or your next social event – but strive to do it without glow sticks!

Buy your milk in bags

Milk is a staple of virtually every household, but what type of milk packaging is the most eco-friendly? All three types of milk packaging – jugs, cartons and bags – are recyclable. But unfortunately not all are accepted by all recycling programs.

As well, recycling isn’t a perfect solution: collecting and transporting recyclables costs time, money and fuel – especially when the end destination of those recyclables is half a world away.  Where I live, jugs and cartons are recycled, but in China.  Yep – sorted, baled, stuffed into a container and shipped thousands of kilometres.

So what’s a consumer’s greenest option for milk packaging?

  1. Check with your local solid waste authority to see what’s accepted for recycling, and then choose accordingly. In spite of its shortcomings, recycling is still better than trashing.
  2. Choose the biggest size available; one big jug or carton uses less material than two or more small ones.
  3. If all three types of packaging are recycled where you live, choose plastic bags:
  • they are lighter (less material and less weight to transport)
  • both the outer and inner bags are the same soft plastic as grocery bags so they can be mixed in with them (but inner bags must be well rinsed of residual milk)
  • they may be recycled locally (as they are here in NB) as opposed to being shipped to China; and
  • soft plastics (#4 LDPE) are one of those rare materials that can be perfectly recycled: that is, reprocessed back into the very same types of products over and over again.

…and save in the process!

If you’re a meticulous recycler, most of what ends up in your trash probably falls into one category: packaging. Chip bags, candy wrappers, the bags inside cereal boxes, oatmeal packages and more: not recyclable.

One way to avoid some of that packaging is to buy bulk, either at a bulk food store or in the bulk section of your regular supermarket. True, not all products are available in bulk, but many are. And, true, you’ll need some sort of packaging, but usually that’s a soft plastic bag: a material that is perfectly recyclable (it’s in the same recycling category as plastic shopping bags).

So, the next time you have a choice, why not choose bulk? You’ll use less packaging; what you use is recyclable; and you’ll likely save money since bulk food is usually cheaper than the packaged, brand name stuff!

Pick up that plastic

April 29, 2014

Keep plastic out of our waterways

Plastic is a blessing and a curse: it’s very durable for our everyday uses, but VERY persistent in the environment. As well, because plastic is so light, it floats in water and is very prone to getting blown around by the wind.

As a consequence, littered plastic often ends up in our oceans – carried there by waterways and the wind – where it remains for a LONG time. (Google “great Pacific garbage patch” to learn just how serious an issue this is.) I first learned about this problem while canoeing in early spring several years ago – an otherwise pristine stream had more than its share of plastic floating around in it.

So at this time of year, when litter is emerging from under winter snow, the wind is blustery and waterways are running fuller than usual with meltwater, please help keep plastic out of our oceans by picking up whatever littered plastic you can.

That’s it; just pick up some plastic!

1-800-fix-it-please

March 19, 2013

Call those toll free numbers

Recently, the packaging of my brand of oatmeal changed: it went from a soft plastic bag with a #4 recycling symbol to a bag made from a crinkly type of material labelled with the #7 recycling symbol.  Alas, #7 plastics are a catch-all class of materials that don’t fit the other categories; they are for all practical purposes unsortable and unrecyclable.  Trash, hidden behind a recycling symbol.  (More on that here.)

Well, like most consumer products, my oatmeal bag had a toll-free consumer hotline – so I called it and to inquire why a company would change from recyclable to a non-recyclable packaging.  The person on the other end promised to forward my concern to the engineering department.

Alas, my oatmeal still comes in a #7 bag.  But if enough consumers called that toll-free line to question the packaging, I know the folks in the engineering department – and the boardroom – would take note.

Gandhi said, “We must be the change we seek in the world.”  Here’s a simple way you can Be The Change: if you come across packaging that is labelled as a #7 plastic or that is an unrecyclable mix of materials (there’s plenty of it out there), why not call that toll-free number and make your concerns known?  Enough calls = action and positive change!

Avoid exfoliating soaps with plastic beads

Imagine designing a product which, when used exactly as directed, releases tiny bits of plastic that can wind up in the ocean and persist for ages.  Crazy, right?

Crazy, but true.  For years, many exfoliating soaps have been laced with plastic microbeads.  They’re an abrasive, to remove dead skin particles, but they end up going down the drain.  If they make their way into marine environments (and that’s often what happens), they stay – for a long, long time.  Microbeads from exfoliating soap are contributing to the millions of tonnes of plastics swirling about in the world’s oceans today.  But they’re about the only plastic there by design.  What were they – or we – thinking?

Unilever, the maker of brands like Dove, Vaseline and Pond’s, announced in January that it would be phasing out plastic microbeads – but only completely by 2015.  My quick search found no similar commitment by Procter and Gamble, maker of brands like Noxzema and Olay.  So what to do right now?

Happy scrubbing!

Please-not plastic!

October 19, 2010

A greener way to pick up after your pet

Pets are usually walked for more than just exercise, and stooping and scooping is a good thing to do.   However, if you use plastic bags, you’re putting one of nature’s fastest degrading substances into something that degrades extremely slowly.

So it’s far better to use paper bags or biodegradable bags made from corn-based materials.  Then you can:

1. dispose of them in your trash – they’ll break down quickly in a landfill; or

2. compost them – but if you do, be sure to set up a separate compost for pet waste because it can carry some pretty nasty pathogens, and don’t use the compost on food crops.  Check out these composters designed specifically for pet waste and read some excellent guidance from Green Calgary; or

3. if you have the space, bury them several centimetres in the ground where they’ll quickly break down into plant nutrients (again, not in a food garden).

The key message: please don’t use plastic bags for pet waste!