Take Out the Take Out

Today I went out for lunch to the local food court with two people from work.  As we walked up, I started to think about my lunch garbage.  Looking up at the various neon signs starting back at me, I realized that if I wanted to avoid Styrofoam (polystyrene foam), then my choices would be severely limited.

Of the 9 food outlets, 5 of them required the use of a Styrofoam container, 2 of them gave you Styrofoam for about half their meals and 2 of them were Styrofoam free.  So if you do the math, out of the hundreds of lunches that were pumped out each day, approximately 2/3s generate a Styrofoam container.  How many containers is that per lunch hour?  This is just one food court, out of many downtown, and many more throughout the city.  How many containers are thrown out per day, just in my city?  Then multiply that by 251 working days per year, then by the number of cities in North America, then by the number of years we have using Styrofoam…

Stop!  My head is spinning.

So on this day, I did not order a lunch with Styrofoam.  Normally I would have.  Today I did not.  What difference will my choice make?  How will my choosing to not use Styrofoam, among the mountains of Styrofoam produced each day, make a difference?  This is where I start to get weary.  Why even try if it doesn’t even make a difference?

Well I am voting with my dollars, by shopping at those establishments that have Earth-friendlier packaging.  If everyone did what I do, I am sure that these establishments would quickly get the message.

There are alternatives to Styrofoam.  There is a high density cardboard, which I have seen around town.  Why can’t food stores switch out?

Why?

I carried my non-Styrofoam lunch to a food court table to eat with my coworkers.  Looking down at my meal, I realized that even without the Styrofoam, I still had a napkin, a plastic fork, a paper plate and paper tray liner all to throw away.  It was the first time I had ever thought about this.

So much of our waste in landfills is due to single use items.  Napkins, drink cups, straws, coffee cups, hamburger wrappers, fry containers, Styrofoam containers… We just use ‘em then lose ‘em without a second thought.  Have you ever brought your family to McDonalds and looked at the tide of garbage on the tray afterwards?  We just open the shoot, dump ‘er in and away we go.

In grade eight there was a girl at school whose parents would go to McDonald’s and bring all their own dishes.  I am sure the McDonald’s workers were very confused.  How do you make a burger without putting it on the wrapper first?  How to you serve fries without the container that fits the fry dispenser?  How do you put a regular cup in the pop dispenser where paper cups should go?  Everyone at school talked about it.  I thought it was cool.  How brazen and defiant! 

But this was back in 1988, people.  It is not a new idea.

Today’s resolution – refuse napkins, forks/spoons/knives in stores (carry my own in my purse) and avoid Styrofoam.

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Shop ‘til you Drop

Black Friday was just this past weekend. It is an American tradition, so we Canadians just sit back and watch in awe. We are still impacted a bit of course, with the TV commercials and spam emails from our favourite online retailers. Someone in Canada decided to start an opposing tradition for this day, called “Buy Nothing Day” in protest against the spectacle of consumer gorging.

It is a simple issue really. We love to shop, but in doing so we are rapidly using up the resources of the planet. As the title of my blog indicates, we only have One Earth to Live. Once we run out of resources here, there isn’t a spare Earth floating by that we can all hop on to. This is it. Some people have likened this to the idea of a spaceship. Earth is our vessel as we careen through space. We need to use resources aboard wisely, to ensure that they don’t run out, that everyone has enough, and that the conditions required to keep life alive persist.

So the core idea of being Earth friendly is to be less wasteful. That is it. Don’t use (consume) more than you have to. What you do take, use wisely and efficiently. Make less garbage and use less energy. It is simple really.

So why is it so hard to do? Why do most people not do it? Heck I didn’t do it. For me, it took a series of exposures to this issue, over a period of about 4 years, which finally culminated in my reading “Now or Never” by Tim Flannery that made me sit up and really take stock. After reading the book in one night, I found myself crying at 2 in the morning, vowing that from that moment forward to take action. I worried for my children and future grandchildren. I desperately wanted the world to change, not to save the Earth, but to save ourselves – humanity. It took this drastic awakening in me, for me to start to change my ways. What will it take for everyone else?

I was driving in my neighbourhood one day, this caught my eye (actually my son pointed it out):

Then we found this one nearby:

Hmmm… a shopping cart at the top a mountain of snow, right in front of Wal-Mart. How interesting. How symbolic really. We are all climbing a mountain – working and striving to make money to support our families and to buy stuff. We work harder and harder to buy bigger and better stuff, so that we improve our standard of living and live more comfortably. Does this make us happier? Well perhaps it does, since why else would we all do it? At the end of the day, the stuff is somehow supposed to equal happiness and success. It is the shopping cart atop our mountains.

My 5-year old son thought it was funny. I bet the kids who pulled this prank probably thought it was funny too, I am sure they were rolling around laughing at the sight of it. I wonder if they thought about the symbolic piece of landscape art they had just created….

Air Dry II

So the results are in. Air dry was a success. Folding took less time as expected, due to the pre-sorting involved with hanging. After a short while, my four loads of kid’s clothes looked like this (minus the socks, underwear, bathing suits and tights):

My one worry was the crunchiness of the clothes after air drying. This proved not to be a problem for most items. Out of everything, the cotton was the stiffest. However cotton knits were not a problem at all, and luckily, most of my kids’ clothes are cotton knits (pyjamas, pants, t-shirts). To get out wrinkles, all I did was smooth them out with my hands. This is what I normally do with dryer-dried clothes anyway. Here are pyjama pants before the smoothing:

Here they are after. No problem.

The crunchiest items were the jeans. To soften them up a bit, I just rubbed them together at the waistband.

The weave cotton items could not be smoothed out. So out of the nearly 100 items washed, I decided to put 4 cotton weave dresses and 1 pair of pants into the dryer for one minute to fluff. It worked okay, not great. I am not sure I will try it again. It is a small stain on my otherwise dryer-free experience. Purist! An iron was probably necessary but I was too lazy.

The next step is all the adult clothes and linens/towels. I have completed 2 loads so far! As expected, hanging is a breeze as there are way fewer items than with kid’s clothes. Plus, drying rack space does not get used up so fast. Bonus.

Overall, the entire process was not nearly as hard as I thought, and more gratifying than I ever imagined. It sounds weird, but I feel more connected to the clothes, more responsible for them somehow. Just doing this has opened my eyes to the full impact that our clothes have on the environment. The fabric production process utilizes an astonishing amount of water, and then we continue to use water and energy to maintain them. So that has me thinking – what else can we do to reduce our clothing foot print?

Air Dry

I have never air dried my clothes. There is one exception – when I was pregnant I borrowed maternity clothes from a friend and didn’t want them to shrink. She air dried them, so I did too. All other clothes have always gone in the dryer, every time.

I briefly thought about this fact when we were in Australia 6 years ago. Apparently most people air dry their clothes there and don’t even own dryers. I felt a slight twinge of guilt for not doing the same, but that feeling quickly passed when I realized how much extra work it would be. Plus how are you supposed to dry your clothes outside when it is below freezing 6 months a year? This is not Australia people, this is Canada.

Once I had kids, the thought of having to air dry all the little baby clothes and blankets seemed crazy to me. Have you seen how much laundry babies make? Kids can make even more, due to the sloppiness of eating and the dirtiness of playing. I felt thankful for my dryer, and continued to push through load after load.

Well, I have been putting laundry off since I have turned over my fresh new environmental leaf (about 3 weeks ago). I now have a totally different way of thinking. One of my main goals is to live the life I want everyone else to live, so I really want reduce my carbon footprint. Now I am pretty sure the big 5 – fridge, stove, dishwasher, washer and dryer – are pulling out a lot of wattage. The most wasteful one right off the bat seems to be the dryer, since there is a relatively easy viable alternative. This is the reason why Australians hang their clothes, as do many people in Europe. So I should just suck it up, and give it a try.

Today I went out and bought two extra hanging racks. Check it out (third rack not shown):

As stood in front of the washer and drier I wondered how I was going to deal with all the little socks and underwear. Then I realized it was staring right at it – laundry shelves! Perfect. You can see by the amount of underwear (note that there are additional rows in some places) that I have been really putting off laundry.

My husband said when he saw all the kids’ underwear and socks, that it gave him the same image of someone comin’ home after a duck hunt. Ewww.

So anyway… here is the analysis, having just completed the hanging:

  1. Load by load, this is much faster. I mean, you have to wait about 50 minutes between each cycle when you use the dryer. With the washer only, you can be in there to switch loads in about 25. So for these 4 loads it took just over 2 hours.
  2. Load by load, it takes a lot longer to hang all these little people clothes up, compared to chucking them in the dryer. It took me about 15 minutes per load to hang, and I was getting faster by the end. The grownup people loads would be even faster of course, as there is about one-third the items per load.
  3. I feel like although it took longer to hang, it will be faster to fold. Much of the sorting is done (some pairs of socks already hanging together as you can see).
  4. I actually don’t mind the act of hanging, or folding too much. It is somehow relaxing, and I cannot explain why.
  5. I feel good. My dryer stayed quiet and cold.

There is one thing I am a bit worried about – what shape the clothes will be when they are fully dry? The climate here is quite dry in the winter, so wet things dry really fast. This is a good thing, since I have another 8 loads or so waiting in line… But drying fast means that fabric can feel stiff, crunchy even. Maybe excessive shaking out or precision folding will help with that. Worst case scenario is that some items go back in to the dryer for one minute for a fluff. I will let you know.

Being an accountant, I want to put numbers to all this stuff. How much power do I actually save based on my total drying time and the kWh used by my dryer?

Find these things out, I will.

Urban Sprawl Y’all

I first started thinking about this topic when I heard that they were considering closing our neighbourhood elementary school. We live in an older area (my house is circa 1956) and there are demographically less kids (but more seniors!) here than in other areas. Nobody wanted to see our school closed, it was a vibrant force in the community with over 220 children. It was next door to one of the best daycares in the city. It shared the same field as an indoor ice rink, an outdoor rink, a baseball diamond and a spray park. It had been operating for 46 years. Most importantly for me, it was just down the street.

The potential closure of our school really brought the community together. I met a lot of my neighbours. I talked to a lot of other moms. I learned things about our community that I did not know before. I slowly started to feel like an active citizen, as I got more involved in this process. I attended public school board meetings. I attended roundtable meetings. I attended town hall meetings. I wrote letters.

In the end, our school closed anyway, along with 4 other schools nearby. There are many reasons why it closed, but many residents blamed the short-sighted views of some of the public school trustees in not considering how community adds value to the quality of a school. The school provides the community with an anchor, a gathering place. A sense of community – the feeling that you belong and are part of something – I think it really does enhance quality of life, happiness even. You watch out for each other, help each other. Crime goes down.

The main reason our school closed, though, was urban sprawl. That really is the root of it all.

So why do we live so spread out? I suppose many young families prefer to live out on the edges of the city, where they can get a bigger, nicer house for less money. But what about the new infrastructure that is required – roads, power cables, phone lines, natural gas conduits, water mains? Obviously, a city with a large geographical footprint per capita takes a lot more tax dollars to run. Usually also, transit is bad. Basically, sprawling cities are inefficient.

The most efficient cities are ones like New York, where people can walk to any service they want and most don’t even have to own a car. Higher density living lessens the strain on the infrastructure, the tax base and most importantly, the environment. In sprawled out cities, people have to get in their cars and drive for a long time multiple times a day. Farmland and natural areas are lost.

Now don’t get me wrong, we did not purchase our house 8 years ago with the environment in mind. Back in 2002, I recycled but that was about it. The location was determined by triangulating ourselves between work, my parents and his parents. We did not want to drive more than we had to. But now that we are here, what we really enjoy are the huge mature trees (see our big tree)…

…not to mention the local schools (despite the closure), and many services like the library, grocery store and restaurants within a 10 minute walking distance. Plus it only takes 12 minutes to drive to work, and better yet, the bus is super easy to take from here. Add to that, our heating and electrical bills are lower than that of a big house, and I don’t buy as much stuff we don’t need, since we really have no place to put it.

In short, living in a smaller house that is closer to the places we need to go, gives us a lower carbon footprint. This makes me feel good, and mostly offsets the annoyance relating to small closets and not enough cupboards.

There is another serious issue though – urban sprawl can have devastating effects on a city if left unchecked. The core starts to rot. More schools close. Families move out, crime moves in, and it is a hard cycle to reverse.

Today’s resolution is to continue to advocate for limiting urban sprawl in my city. I will do this by talking about it, voting for city councillors that advocate higher density communities, and learning more about the topic as it relates to my city.

I can feel that little inner active citizen acting up again…

Here is a great song by Arcade Fire. The video montage of 50s suburbia makes me realize that my house would have been located in the suburbs during this time!

Toy Packaging

Garbage is especially appalling after a kid’s birthday party. Why do toys have to come with so much darn packaging? They all have an oversized cardboard box, and then clear plastic innards that hold the toy in the best display position so that it can be seen through the clear plastic window. If that was not enough, they then have about 10 twist ties holding the whole thing together from the inside. To top it all off, sometimes toys are even screwed in to the packaging, meaning you have to get out your screwdriver. It can take up to 10 minutes to unleash the thing from its unwieldy cage. Why do we need all that?

Well I suppose people like to see what they are buying. Apparently a picture on the box doesn’t suffice; we want to see the toy in the clear plastic window. In addition, a larger box lets you see all the cool things you can do with the toy, and sometimes gives you pictures of other toys you could also purchase that would make playing with this toy more fun. My 5-year old son always wants to save the box, he loves looking at them. But what if we got it in a reusable mesh bag, and then looked on the Internet together to see all the cool things the toy could do?

Do you know what kind of toys come with no packaging? – The ones from a garage sale or from goodwill. You just pick it up off the table, dust it off, pay a fraction of the price for it, and then toss it in your tote bag. How great is that? No packaging, ultra cheap, and to top it all off – you are reusing it. It is about as green as you can get.

At night after the kids go to bed, I try to go around the house and pick up and put away toys. Sometimes I just look at it all and think – where did this all come from? There are so many toys, and 90% of them are plastic. Probably 80% of them were purchased new. They are not in the landfill yet, but one day they probably will be. How many pounds of plastic will our toys take up in the landfill one day? It is something I have never even thought about until today. Not to mention those toys with the “don’t throw out” symbol on them, because they might contain heavy metals or something. I don’t know. What happens to these toys? I donate them to goodwill and then the next user just tosses them with abandon? What is the impact?

Today is one month until Christmas. More toys will come into our house; as will more packaging.

So today’s resolution is to scour 2nd hand stores for Christmas toys and stocking stuffers and toys this year. Santa doesn’t want his Arctic Ice meltin’!

Turn it Off, Turn it Down

Today I plugged in all our chargers and electronics upstairs into one surge strip bar, so that I could turn the whole thing off at night. Apparently a lot of energy is wasted by leaving power converters plugged in, even if they are not charging anything. Plus if you have one of those TVs where the red standby button stays on, you are burning electricity for the privilege of a quick start up time next time. So line it up like this, in an easy to reach spot…

…and turn it off at night. Easy peasy.

Secondly (yes I did two things today!) I set our thermostat to a weekly schedule. I had already turned it down, but now it goes down even lower than before on weekdays and at night. More savings!

The catch is that I work part-time, so we are home sometimes during the day, like today. I am currently wearing an extra sweater, as are my kids. Really though, I noticed that the house kept its temperature better today, due to the bright sunshine we had streaming through the windows. We have a sunroom, and it warmed up considerably, as compared to outside. It was probably 10°C (18°F) warmer than the outside temperature! The power of the Sun… if only we could harness the thing to turn all this free energy into a form we could use everyday… Hmmmmm, let me think…

 Anyway, it will be interesting to see how all these small changes add up. Now that I am thinking about this stuff, my head is swimming with new ideas on what I can do.

Stay tuned!

Turn Off the Light

Nelly Furtato. Not only is she a Canadian girl with a cool sense of style, but she had it right. Ya gotta turn off the lights. Now she might have been singing more about holding up a rough and tough exterior until the lights go out. But really, how rough and tough can you be with all these lights on?

Wait a minute… why are all these lights in my house on?!?

My house is lit up like a Christmas tree at night. Part of it has to do with the fact that it is dark outside right now from 5 pm to 8 am. Also, I share my lodgings with a 2-year old and a 5 year-old, who have limited physical access to the light switch. But mostly, it is due to bad habits. We leave lights on.

So my challenge today is to see how much kilowatt hours of energy I can save in a month by going around turning off lights everywhere. Let’s live in the dark people! Really though, you only need a light in the room that you are currently in. You don’t need lights on in rooms that you will most likely visit in the next few minutes, but are not visiting now.

Typically, my kitchen light is always on, until late at night. My living room lights are always on. My kids’ bedroom lights are always on, in case they want to wander into their rooms to play. Hallway lights are also on to accommodate said wandering. But do we need all those lights on all the time?

I got a great idea! I can equip my kids with crank-powered LED light head gear, so that they can get around safely in our dark house, just like a couple of miniature miners. Is that pushing it too far? (kidding!)

But what else can I turn off? How low can I go?

I am reading “Sleeping Naked is Green” by Vanessa Farquharson right now. In the book she attempts to “green” her life from top to bottom. One of the things she tries is taking her morning shower in the dark. She rationalizes that showering in the dark is closer to sleeping in your bed than showering in the light. So I tried it. She’s got a point, it was not too bad.

So today’s resolution is to have a maximum of 4 lights on at all times when the kids are awake. When the kids are asleep, then we can have a max of 2 lights. That is one light per person, which should be more than enough.

I am sure it won’t be a problem, especially if we are spending time together as a family.

Baby It’s Cold Outside

And I just turned down my thermostat.  Go figure.  It is currently -27°C (-17°F) and my furnace was running and running and running, working hard to keep us warm, and burning all sorts of natural gas for the privilege.  So I turned it down one degree.  How much difference can one little degree make?

 A lot, it turns out.  No longer toasty warm, we are sitting now at warm, with a bit of chill around the edges. Toes and fingers are especially susceptible.  But overall, it is not so bad.  Throw on a sweater!  Get out your fuzzy socks!  Toss another blanket on all the beds! 

The bit of a chill actually feels good.  It is a constant little reminder that I am DOING something, taking the one small first step to a greener lifestyle and a smaller carbon footprint.  When I first realized that I had to do something, and do something big, that I no longer could live the way that I was living before, I felt so hopeless.  What can I do about these massive environmental problems?  What is one little voice?  How can I possibly make any sort of difference at all?

I did not know which felt worse – the fear and sadness over the impact these problems will have on my children, or the hopelessness and despair about not being able to do anything about it.  How could I look into their little faces and carry on as before?

My ultimate goal for the blog is to inspire social change, which I believe will lead to political change, and hopefully, ensure that rules and regulations we desperately need to get our carbon under control will finally be put into place.  We live in a global village, but it is going to take individual actions (person by person, country by country) to get this thing done.   Ultimately, it comes down to this inspiring quote:

“You must be the change you want to see in the world” – Ghandi

Now excuse me while I throw on another sweater!