Going Green 2: Laundry

Back to basics, back to going green. Green I tell ya, green! Let’s do it together and get some green sh*t done.

Over the years I have had a love-hate relationship with laundry. At age 10 or so my Mom used to make me help fold the odd load, and I hated it. Why do I have to fold these stupid towels, I didn’t dirty them. Why do I have to fold my sister’s clothes, when they are not mine?

Ha ha ha. If only my 10 year old self only knew the laundry mountains that awaited…

From about age 12 or so I did my own laundry. By that I mean picking up the contents of my floor, throwing it in the washer, forgetting it for a while, throwing it in the dryer, then using the dryer to find socks in the morning. Finally someone would nag me to take my laundry out of the dryer already so I would throw it in a laundry basket and continue to mine through it for socks each morning. Who needs a closet anyway?

Hey, I was twelve.

Since then I have matured somewhat and now I have a husband and two dirty darling little kids and I do all the laundry. I used to be on an “I’ll do it when I feel like it” sort of schedule. This worked for a while, until I stopped feeling like it, and then the mountains grew and grew and nobody had socks…

Then I turned all green and the laundry mountains came tumbling down. I have totally different relationship with laundry now. It has obtained a sort of zen like status. I can’t explain it. Somehow smoothing, hanging and folding clothes is very calming for me in a hectic, busy house. I do it exclusively in the laundry room, with no distractions. I have a schedule. I rock it.

How do you feel about laundry? Love or hate? At all green? How would you classify yourself on this sliding green scale:

Dabbler

You tend not to use dryer sheets. Those things are filled with chemicals anyway. That is why some people carry dryer sheets to keep bugs away. The bugs know better. You don’t want to smother everything that touches your skin with these things. You use dryer balls or tennis balls instead to cut the static. I started doing this when my first baby was born.

Intermediate

You just wear your clothes more. This is so easy. Just wear a pair a jeans, and then the next day, wear them again. Make your kids do it too. All pants get worn more than once in my house. Unless they are muddy or have food on them can’t be picked off (I am only slightly joking). Pajamas are on a three day rotation. As for shirts, you can wear it again if the following is true:

  1. it is a sweatshirt or sweater and does not lose its shape with one wearing
  2. you are a kid and therefore don’t have any concerns with BO issues, at all, ever
  3. you are me and it is a Saturday and you just don’t care what you look like and you are just cleaning up around the house anyway. Besides, who cares? Less laundry is almost always better.

Hardcore

Make your own laundry detergent. This is really easy, I have been doing it for over a year now. It takes about 10 minutes and lasts about 4 months. I don’t mess around with the liquid detergent recipes, I go straight for the dry ones. I just let the detergent dissolve in the water a bit before putting the clothes in. My clothes come out clean and I use ingredients I understand, like plain bar soap, baking soda and borax. I use recipe #4 or #9 from Tipnut. My fave is #9, here is what you need to make it:

Here it is all finished. You only need 1/8 cup per wash. It is literally pennies a wash.  Plus there is no throw-away plastic container.

If you don’t make it, then you buy the ultra greenie type of washing detergent at the store. No bleach (dioxins are bad).

Ultimate

You line dry your clothes. Most of the world does this anyway. Most of our grandparents did this. Australia does this. For some reason Canada seems to have a hardcore dryer culture. Maybe it is because it is too cold to dry our clothes outside for over the half the year. I line dry inside, it works like a charm. I would even go as far as to say that line drying INSIDE in the winter is EASIER because the clothes dry FASTER. Like in 12 hours. Dry, done, folded. But that is winter. In spring, it is more like 24 hours.

So I have not turned my dryer on in over a year. It took a few months to give it up all together. Now it just sits there but does make a very nice surface on which to fold clothes.

Sometimes I will pull sheets out of the closet that I have not used in a while and put them on the bed and smell that outside smell all around them and just close my eyes in that dreamy way those chicks in those laundry commercials do when they smell their chemically scented laundry… Ahh, freshness.

I also like folding line dried laundry. It is not all crumply. It is smooth and straight and slightly crisp. My t-shirts come out looking ironed. Everything folds up easy and fast. Also when you wear the clothes, they are crisp and fresh and I just like it better now.

The best part is the electricity savings. Here is a graph of two years of electricity use at my house (I am nerdy with a spreadsheet that way). I switched all my lightbulbs to compact fluorescent and turned off the dryer late in 2010, so the blue bars on the graph is old way of doing things, the red is new. I am not sure how much of the drop is due to light bulbs or laundry, but those are the only two big things I changed.

When you run the math (which I did, since I am an accountant and all) I saved 22% in electricity. So easy. Done. Waste not.

Bonus Points

Do you get any bonus points?

  1. You wash in cold water. I admit, I do not do this in the winter. The water here is so cold here it hurts your hands. Seriously! In summer it is a more reasonable cold. Lately I have been putting a bit of warm in, letting the soap dissolve, then switching to cold. Seems to work.
  2. You wash more often and buy less clothes. This is more related to cutting some consumerism habits vs. greening your laundry. But I thought I would just throw it there in for good measure.
  3. You have been known to pick off an unknown crusty bit from a sweater so you could wear it again without washing. Secretly.

So where do you fall on the sliding green scale – dabbler, beginner, intermediate, hardcore or ultimate? Do you get bonus points? Any change for the green is a good change, no matter how small. So take the poll, check all that apply:

Let Them Know

You might have a concern for the environment. It may just be a niggling concern, a bother really, something in the back of your mind that can’t quite get rid of, can’t quite shake. It might be a deeper concern, but you have trouble making the connection between your actions and action on climate change. What can one person do, after all? Or you might have a full out concern, combined with a fear and desperation, for the world to change. So much so that you might decide to start changing that which you can control – yourself.

We all make individual choices how we live our individual lives. But we take cues from others, from society. As a result, most of us don’t do things that are considered really taboo, and we generally all act within agreed upon moral and ethical guidelines. We tend to do what those around us do – what we have learned from our family, our friends, from media and society. We start out doing things a certain way, and for the most part, we don’t change unless something pushes us. We like our habits.

Sometimes we do change our habits due to cost, hassle or convenience. But normally, it takes a lot for us to bother to change. We don’t even realize this. We don’t even think about it. We just do the things we have always done.

For some of us though, one day we suddenly “wake up”. One day we learn a bit more about the environment and climate change, and that adds to body of knowledge we held on the subject before, and before we know it, the scales have tipped. We can no longer ignore it. We can no longer rationalize being a bystander. We finally see the cold hard reality for what it is, and simultaneously, see our part in it. In that moment, we discover within ourselves – something new. We discover that the responsibility for changing the world starts with us, with our actions, and that as individuals we have a role to play. We discover that we are compelled to act.

And so, we change.

It starts small, with the little changes, and then grows bigger. Day by day, we discover new ways to change, new habits to form. We find ourselves considering in every decision – what would be best for the environment, for climate change?

At least, this is how it happened to me. But I am sure it is how it happened to you too, at least somewhat (unless you grew up as a hippy child where these kinds of things were already the norm from the start!). You would not be here, reading this, if you did not have at least some interest in being green.

So we want to change our habits, we want to change the world, make it a better place. Now what?

Well our changes are magnified ten fold, when we let others in on them. When non-greenies observe a greenie doing things that they themselves do not do, sometimes the non-greenies pause and reflect. It adds to their body of knowledge on the environment. Perhaps they think “wow, I cannot believe she does that, she must really have a concern for climate change or something. Why is she so worried about it? Should I be worried about it? Maybe I should…”

Our actions will have more of an impact, if they inspire others to change as well. We want to create a ripple effect. We want to be part of the bits and pieces in people’s lives that get them to stop and reconsider. We want to not only change ourselves, but be a catalyst for change in others. 

So when you do something green, let them know.

There is a fine line to walk here. Do not preach. Let them know through your actions, not words. If you must use words, just describe what you do, and then stop there. Don’t get into why everyone should do it, or why they should consider doing it. Nobody likes being told what to do. We don’t want to turn people off; we want to bring them in.

In doing so we discover that do not live our lives in isolation, and we start to notice all the little (and big) connections we have with others. No matter the connection, where you can, and when it makes sense to do so, try gently letting them know.

For example, when somebody asks me about where I park downtown, or how long my commute is, I tell them “oh I take the bus to work so I don’t need parking, I find it much more relaxing than driving and am trying to be more mindful of my carbon footprint.”

I just let them know.

When I meet someone at a coffee shop, I always get a ceramic mug or bring my own. I don’t say anything. If they ask me why I did not get one “to go”, I just say that I am trying to reduce my garbage where I can.

Let them know.

When somebody starts talking about grocery shopping and asks me where I go for the best prices, I tell them that I try to shop mostly at Farmer’s Markets when I can, because I really enjoy eating local and plus it is fun to talk to the farmer that grew your food.

Let them know.

When a server at a restaurant asks if I would like my leftovers wrapped up, I ask her if she could put it in my reusable container if that is okay, it is just that I swore off Styrofoam and I am trying to reduce my garbage where I can.

Let them know.

When I come out of a public bathroom with wet hands and my girlfriend looks at me funny, I just say that I saw the paper napkin delivery at my office building one day, and was shocked at how many pallets were used for only one week! Ever since then I feel guilty using one or something, it is weird. So, I just shake off my hands instead, or fluff my hair, or just swipe them on the back of my pants. Easy peasy.

Let them know.

When discussing the chore of laundry with other moms, I tell them that the one good thing is how they smell when you hang them to dry outside. Plus it is nice to get outside for just a few minutes, and be alone with your thoughts, listening to the birds sing as you hang wet clothes. It is amazing how much electricity a dryer uses; I can see a marked decrease on my bill. Who doesn’t like saving money?

Just let them know.

I have a saying at the bottom of my work email. I wondered at first, if I should put it there. What would people think? But I was compelled to act, compelled to share my views in a small way, in a hopefully intriguing way. I wanted to be that person that stood up for change. I wanted to be that person that didn’t hide. So at the end of every email it reads:

You must be the change you want to see in the world.” – Gandhi

Let them know.

Laundry Time

It has been a while since I wrote about laundry. One of my first green changes was to stop using my dryer. I figured that it took a lot of energy to roll that big drum thousands of times to dry each load, as well as to heat the thing up so that it was blowing a steady stream of hot air all the while. I thought about my big five appliances that sucked up electricity in my house – fridge, oven, dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer – and decided that forgoing the use of the dryer was by far the easiest and most practical.

So I have been air drying all our clothes for about 4 months now. I have learned some things along the way, and changed it up a bit, so I thought I would share my experiences:

The first change I made was to switch from just air drying clothes, to air drying everything – towels, cloths, sheets, blankets – you name it. Most of it is no problem and I can’t even tell that it has been air-dried. The towels are a different story. Let’s just say that we don’t have fluffy soft towels in our house anymore. Ours are a bit more – crunchy. When I started this process, I would put the towels in the dryer to “fluff up” after they are already dry, but now I just don’t bother. The benefit of crunchy towels is that they are super easy to fold (think straight as a board) and also, they are super absorbent when you are getting out the shower. They also may or may not have additional exfoliating properties…

The second change has to do with how I to hang the clothes to dry. At first I would just take them straight out of the washer and hang them on the rack. However I found that some things, especially 100% woven cotton items, would come out wrinkly. So now I lay each shirt out on top of my washer, still wet, and smooth it out a bit, then put the next one on top of it, smooth that one out, and then the next one – and so I go, layering and smoothing, layering and smoothing, until the entire load is smoothed out, with all the items stacked up on top of each other like this (these are kids clothes):

Once I am done stacking and smoothing, I hang them on the dry rack. When they are dry, they are so nice and smooth – it is like I actually ironed them (which is something I never, ever do). They are nicer than if they had just spent 1 hour in the dryer. There are no wrinkles, not even on the wrinkle-culprit items. Folding is really fast, since the garment is straight, smooth and ready to go.

The third change is the laundry soap I use. As part of my Nothing New challenge, I wanted to force myself to attempt to make some homemade cleaners from ingredients I can understand, with the hopes that I would be shielding my family and the environment from harmful chemicals, as well as reducing the amount of plastic container garbage I generate. I tried making dishwasher soap and liquid dish soap, with disastrous results. But my laundry soap making was a resounding success.

Google indicated that making powdered soap was the way to go, as the homemade liquid stuff was difficult to manage, required large plastic buckets, and came out really gloppy. The powdered soap is easily mixed, stores easily in small containers, and is easy to use. So I tried Tipnut’s recipe #4, and later, her recipe #9. Here is the review:

Recipe #4
2 cups finely grated bar Soap (I used Sunlight soap)
1 cup Washing Soda
1 cup Borax
 - Mix together, store in airtight container and use 2 tablespoons per load

Since it contains more borax overall, there is more whitening power for your whites. However, it is not as colour fast for your darks – so the odd white sock mixed into a dark load will come out looking more dingy than I would have otherwise noticed. However in general, I have not noticed any colours or darks fading, in fact I think there is less fading, since the clothes are not being tumbled around in a dryer for an hour, wearing out by rubbing against all the other clothes.

Recipe #9
3 parts Borax
2 parts Baking Soda
2 parts Washing Soda
2 parts finely grated Bar soap (I used Sunlight)
 - Mix together, store in airtight container and use 1/8 cup per load

Since it contains less borax, it has less whitening power. However, the baking soda is very good at softening, which is a bonus for air dried clothes.

So now I use Recipe #4 for my whites, and Recipe #9 for everything else. I would say it cleans just about as good. Some stains get missed – perhaps one item out of 5 loads per week I will be disappointed with, which is not bad at all.

The fourth and most important change is my attitude towards doing laundry. I used to not enjoy it. I used to fold 5 loads a week, sitting on the floor in front of the TV, slightly annoyed that I had to do this chore. Now I do all the hanging and folding downstairs in the laundry room. I am away from everything that is going on in the house; I am alone with my thoughts. I have a new-found appreciation for the clothes we purchase, wear, wash and maintain. I  try to be mindful of that as I am handling the clothes, smoothing them so that they will dry nicely, keep their shape, last a long time… I find this peaceful. If I am feeling anxious or upset about something, 10 minutes downstairs smoothing wet clothes and hanging them up is just what I need to get centred again. I am not sure why – perhaps now this work has more purpose than it had before, and therefore is more rewarding than the same work was without that purpose.  Whatever the reason – I find it more therapeutic.

Overall, the laundry process does take a bit longer, but I make up some of the time with fast and easy folding. Overall it is more enjoyable than my previous method. I don’t think I will ever go back.

How about you – any laundry tips to share?

Checking in

Well, it has been about 10 weeks since I started this journey of greening my life, step-by-step. I thought it would be worthwhile to check-in and review what I have done, and provide some reflections so far. So to recap…

Reduce Energy Use
Some of the first things I did:

  1. Turn down the thermostat
  2. Turn down the hot water heater
  3. Consolidate chargers on a power bar for easy shutdown
  4. Unplug small kitchen appliances when not in use
  5. Replace every single light bulb with a compact fluorescent
  6. Implement the 4-light rule when the sun goes down (no lights when sun is up).
  7. Air dry all our clothes.

I still have a long way to go in this department. For example I want to look at installing additional weather stripping around doors. I also want to investigate solar panels. I also would love to get an energy audit done on our house. It is older (1956) so I think there maybe opportunities that could save us money and carbon in the long run. 

Reduce Garbage
After getting some easy quick wins above, I really started thinking about garbage. I had just finished reading “No Impact Man” by Colin Beavan at the time. He analyzed a week’s worth of his trash to see where it was all coming from, so that is what I did too. I was astonished to see how much of it was related to food packaging. I especially hated the single-use items like coffee cups, paper napkins and Styrofoam. So I dug in my heels, and now do the following:

  1. Use reusable or homemade gift bags for presents. I got through Christmas without using a scrap of wrap.
  2. Swore off Styrofoam completely. This meant changing where I go out for lunch at work.
  3. Purchased a pretty coffee travel mug. If I don’t have the mug, I don’t get the coffee.
  4. Swore off all grocery bags that are not reusable. I decided that not one more time, would I forget my bags. I keep an extra stash in the car, and have about 20 of them kicking around. This has been really easy, now that I am totally committed to it.
  5. Swore off all other plastic shopping bags. I purchased these awesome little nylon bags that fold up into a pouch in my purse and have not brought home a plastic bag since.
  6. Use mesh produce bags instead of plastic. They are thin and stretchy, and I like how apples and tomatoes bounce in them! I also reuse woven mesh bags you get with some produce. If it comes in a plastic bag, I either don’t buy it, or I wash and reuse the bag.  All in all, I have greatly slashed the number of these that I send to the landfill:
    Thin plastic shopping bags

    Image via Wikipedia

  7. Swore off boxed food. This actually has been one of the biggest changes. I had a large drawer dedicated to boxed items, now it is box-free and filled with my bulk bin overflow. This brings me to my next point:
  8. Purchase all staples in bulk, using as much as possible, plastic bags that have been reused. This has had the biggest change on the contents of my cupboards. Instead of opening up the door and seeing boxes with pictures of the food on it, I open up the door and see my actual food through glass jars. I have way more space. I appreciate what I have, the bounty of selection and variety. I feed my kids different snacks now, such as peanuts, raisins, and trail mix, or other little goodies from the bulk bins.
  9. Reduce food waste. This means keeping better tabs on the fridge.
  10. Bake my own bread. This saves a bread bag every time! Plus, I love doing it, kneading the dough, providing for my family. It is fluffy and yummy and I can’t go back.
  11. I also bake my own granola bars, cookies, tortilla bread and crackers. It started off as a way to reduce packaging and feed my kids foods that is preservative-free. Now I also use local flour and this is a big benefit for me as well. This leads me to the next big set of changes…

Eating Local Food
I was really inspired by the 100-Mile Diet book by Alisa Smith and James MacKibbon. I now realize that a big part of my carbon footprint relates to the goods I buy, and much of what I buy is food. So this is what I now do:

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

  1. Go to the Farmer’s Market every week. I now buy these items exclusively at the Farmer’s Market: eggs, bison, bacon, sausage, carrots, onions, potatoes, beets, cabbage, leeks, tomatoes, cucumbers, pickles, pears, apples, pear-apples, honey and mint tea. This list will expand in the summer.
  2. Look for other local foods not available at the Farmer’s Market. Some of this is available at the grocery store, some at specialty bakeries, and some at Planet Organic. Here is a list of local foods I have purchased around town: wine, canola oil, flour, hot cereal, yogurt, sour cream and goat cheese.
  3. Purchase non-local produce sparingly. I purchase bananas once every second week. I have not purchased oranges in a month. The only non-local vegetable I regularly purchase is broccoli.
  4. Set up an indoor herb garden in my kitchen.  This gives me fresh local herbs at my fingertips, and helps to satisfy my longing for spring and greenery.

I am still on the look-out for local foods and have emailed several local companies about where they source their ingredients. Eating local is not that easy, I will admit. But when I prepare a meal, and bask in the realization that it is made from mostly local ingredients, it feels really good.

I have some really big eating local plans this coming year. Eating local here in Canada means you have to store and preserve your produce for winter. So starting this summer, that is exactly what I intend to do. I want to preserve tomato sauce, salsa, peaches, pears and berries. I want to make pickles, apple sauce and jams. I also want to freeze local peas and local corn.

Finally, I want to grow my own food. This is super local. I really want to pass these skills on to my children. Part of me fears that they are going to need these skills in an uncertain future with an uncertain food supply (yes, even here in Canada). But for now, I really want them to have a connection with nature, with the land. I want them to have an appreciation for food. For example, a few days ago I was talking to my 5-year old son about how vegetables grow. It turned out that he did not even realize that all food was grown in the ground! Then just yesterday, he made up a song called the “Farmer of Life”. It was so beautiful. The song started off about a little boy who did not have enough food to eat. Then the little boy met a farmer, and the farmer grew food for him, and became the “Farmer of Life”. Just having this little conversation with him inspired this burst of creativity and my heart beamed with pride. I want to take this further, and let my kids get dirty in the garden.

Reduce Consumption
This was a big one. I made a commitment to not make any purchases that are not related to food or toilet paper for the first 3 months of 2011. Well, one month later, and it has not been a problem. I don’t even miss it. In fact, I am enjoying it (as is my bank account).

Reflections
I have made many changes since I started 10 weeks ago, and have really mixed up my daily habits and how I spend my time. Some of the changes have been totally easy, like the shopping bags and the travel mugs. Some changes have saved time, like the no-shopping rule. However some changes now take up more of my time, like air drying clothes and baking bread. Some take a lot of research, such as eating locally. Overall though, I am enjoying it. I do feel busier on the weekends, between the extra laundry time, the Farmer’s Market and the bread… But I am doing things that mean a lot to me, and that I actually do enjoy doing. My life feels enriched. I feel like my actions have purpose. I feel like I am making a difference.

I feel good.

Resolutions

Ah… a fresh new year, a new decade even. Around this time I always find myself reflecting on the year that passed. My 5-year old son and I actually took our 2010 family calendar down from the fridge this afternoon (the one that is scribbled and scratched upon beyond recognition), and paged through it month by month, remembering the events of the year. Some of it was not so great (such as a hospital stay for my daughter last January for pneumonia) and some of it was wonderful (such as our family vacation to Waterton). I think it helped him better understand the passage of time and the seasons.

With reflection comes resolution for the year ahead. This year – it just feels different. Instead of making my typical resolutions like “exercise more” I am making resolutions that I am really excited to do, not just what I should do. Somehow making resolutions that are less about myself, and more about the world I live in, is way more motivating. Here is what I have come up with:

Resolve to LEARN:
1. How to compost my food and garden waste
2. How to make natural cosmetics and soaps
3. How to make natural household cleaners
4. How to grow a vegetable garden

Resolve to DO:
5. Reduce kilometres traveled in my vehicle
6. Reduce spending on brand new items
7. Track and reduce all energy and water use
8. Become more political

Resolve to WRITE:
9. New weekly series called “Foodie Fridays” – each post will be about eco-food choices and recipes. I decided to do this because it seems like many of the green changes that I am making right now come back to food. Food definitely has its own footprint, both on the planet and on our health. So let’s try to minimize the former while maximizing the latter!

10.  New bi-weekly series called “Letters to Leaders” – each post will be in the form of a letter that I will write and send to either a politician, or a leader of a company. The purpose of this is to lend my voice in a rational and open way, to hopefully engage these people to consider alternatives. I want to start discussions, I want people to take me seriously and I want to share what I am doing with you.

This list beats “exercise more”. Totally beats it! I will inherently be exercising more due to resolution #5, which will undoubtedly involve more walking. This list is so exciting for me, because I will be learning new things and doing new things, and adding my voice to where it is desperately needed. Knowing that I may do some good, not for myself but for others and for our fragile climate, is so much more motivating. I feel more connected, engaged, alive.

Happy New Year.

Green Team

Okay… um, I think I just suggested that I would set up a greening office program at work for an office of about 800 employees. Ya. Also, I did it in my written performance review. I just blurted it out at the very end and then sent it off to my boss before I could change my mind. Say whaaat?

I am not sure what his reaction will be. I hope he shares it with his boss, and that together, they think it is a good idea. Worst case scenario – they think I am a nut.

What business do I have with this idea? I am an accountant, I work in Finance, I work with numbers and excel all day long. I am not HR or Communications or Facilities Management or anything like that. I don’t even really know anyone in these departments.

I was actually inspired by Bill Gerlach of the New Pursuit. He started a grassroots movement at work to green the office. When I read about what he had done, it hit me. Why can’t I do that too? I am looking for things to DO. I want to HELP. I am greening my life, but what else? What else what else what else? I know! Green the office!

Here is a little known secret. Back in the day, when I was a mere 19 years old, I worked for Environment Canada as a co-op student. I was on the “green team” which was mostly comprised of other students. It was organized by the internal communication managers, and we were the grunt labour. We posted green “did you know” facts inside bathroom stalls (these were mostly annoying), we took away everyone’s garbage can and replaced it with 1) a recycle bin 2) a tiny garbage can that could sit on your desk and 3) a compost keeper. Then we set up worm composting in the office. Worm composting! This was 1996 people! The worms were so popular that we had to go from 2 bins to 4 and then eventually to 8 bins, to manage our office organic waste.

So I have some experience in this area I suppose. I remember that the Finance department was mad that we took away their garbage cans, so some people brought in big ones from home. C’mon people – roll with it! It was only the accountants that took issue though, which was good. I would have a bigger problem with people who study fish and wildlife rejecting the transition. But hey – now I am an accountant and look at me! I want to start a green team all on my own!

I will keep you posted on developments. I say there is a 50/50 chance of “brilliant idea Sherry” and “Um…no”.

Light bulb Idea

So everyone says we have to “move past changing light bulbs and carrying reusable bags”. It is true. The changes that are required are so significant; it is hard to even wrap your head around them. Some people think we have to achieve an 80% reduction in CO2 by 2050 in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. How is that even possible? My daughter will be 42, with children of her own. What kind of world will it be for them?

Anywho – back to light bulbs and reusable bags… I think we all agree that they are an important first step for people. Do this, and you might be ready to take on other simple changes. Like air drying your clothes! Or using a travel mug! Or avoiding Styrofoam! There are so many things we can do. A million acts of green really. This gives me hope.

In light of this, (pun intended) I have a confession to make. Are you ready? As of last week, I still had incandescent light bulbs in my house.

What? The shame, the horror!

My reason was that the compact fluorescents just would not fit in most of my overhead light fixtures. It tried several brands, several sizes… The problem was that the base of the bulb was too big. So I changed all the ones I could and left the rest.

No more. Last week I marched down to my local hardware store and purchased some of these:

So do you like my Christmas tree in the background? I love Christmas tree prettiness. This is a light source I will not give up! I normally type at my computer at night after the kids are in bed, sitting in the dark with only the Christmas tree to light my way…

Back to light bulbs… These are small. They use only 9 watts. They shine brightly nonetheless. I switched out 7 of these for my 60 watters. So instead of 60 watts x 7 lights = 420 watts total, I have only 9 watts x 7 lights = 63 watts total. It is like getting a 7 for 1 deal really. It is an amazing reduction in wattage, a whopping 85%. I am so proud of these little 9 watters.

I also really like the Blue Planet brand; they seem to have more varied selection, they shine brightly in a nice warm white, and are cheaper. Bonus. Plus there is a pretty blue planet on the box. Really, you can’t beat that.

Oil Sands over Breakfast

Today I went to a session on the Alberta oil sands.  It was a breakfast meeting, and the audience was other financial professionals like me.  The speaker was from industry, and he was there to give the industry’s side of the oil sands story.

After the session I went to work, and a younger guy I work with asked me about it.  This particular guy used to work on an oil rig.  He found the work so physically demanding and dangerous, he decided to pack it in and become an accountant like me!  He told me that he felt that talking about the oil sands in social situations was akin to talking about politics and religion.  Everyone has a different opinion, and people get offended easily if your opinion does not match theirs.  I thought that was so interesting.

Talking about the oil sands is now taboo?

I can totally see his point though.

I first learned details about the Alberta oil sands about 4 years ago.  I attended a luncheon, put on by the same financial association actually.  An expert from industry told us that the total oil deposits in Alberta are second only to Saudi Arabia.  We were told that it was an economic engine for Alberta, for Canada.  We were told that it will stream royalties into provincial coffers, which will help keep Alberta income taxes low.  We felt proud to live here, with all this wealth, this jewel.  I remember walking out that meeting feeling impressed, feeling lucky that Alberta had such a treasure.

Then slowly over time I learned more snippets of information.  I heard it takes 3 barrels of water to make one barrel of oil.  Then I heard that it takes 8 barrels of water – which was it?  Then we heard about the 1,600 ducks that had landed on Sycrude’s tailing pond, and all died.  Hmmm.  That is not so good.  Then more news stories started coming out.  There were several billboards put up in several US states, telling Americans to boycott travel to Alberta, to protest dirty oil.  Now the Alberta tourism industry, an innocent bystander, was being dragged into this mess.  Oh oh.  Then we heard that Walgreens was boycotting Alberta oil.  Then Dr. Schindler from the University of Alberta came out and said that the oil sands were polluting the Athabasca River and showed images of deformed fish.  Alberta Environment said the pollutants were from naturally occurring sources.  Environment Canada decided to dispatch 6 independent scientists, just to make sure.  Then James Cameron (director of Avatar) came to tour the Alberta oil sands and the media was all in a tizzy.  What would he say?  Well after receiving tours by both industry and by native aboriginals, he said that the oil sands will be a curse on Canada if not managed properly.  Hmm.  A curse?  Then another two hundred ducks landed on more tailings ponds and died.  Then LUSH cosmetics and Concord Transportation boycotted.   Then just last week Avon said they were boycotting.

Now I don’t feel so proud.  People think our oil is dirty.  Some people say that the oil sands are a stain on Canada’s environmental record.  Stain? 

There seem to be two main problems.  One is the water – pollution from the tailings ponds and pollution in the river.  The other is the C02 – they need to burn energy (natural gas) to get the oil.  So they are burning a fossil fuel to get a fossil fuel, which we will then in turn, burn.

But oil is oil and we all use it when we drive our cars and purchase our products.  We are the reason the oil sands exist.  If there was no demand, they would not be pulling it out of the ground.  The companies are only doing what we demand.

One response to this problem is to reduce our dependence on oil by cutting back on how much we drive our cars and how many goods we purchase.  We the people, can make this conscious decision.  It is hard, I know.  People love their cars and so many of our North American cities have been built around the automobile, so nothing is in walking distance and transit is not very good.  There are exceptions to this, however.

The other response is to look to government to help us.  Can they regulate these oil companies to leave a lighter foot print?  Pollute less water?  Use smaller tailings ponds?  Use a portion of renewable energy to pull the stuff out of the ground?  Cut emissions?

I think we need all of these things.

During the breakfast meeting this morning I walked in thinking that I should ask a question.  I felt it was my environmental duty to pose a well thought out, rational and polite question.  So I did:

Sherry:  How many barrels of water are actually used?  Is it 3?  Is it 8?  We hear conflicting numbers in the media.

Oil Sands guy:  Our company uses 2 barrels of fresh water from the Athabasca river and 8 barrels of brackish water from underground aquifers.  The brackish water is saline and not drinkable.  We recycle 87% of the water used.

I was on a role and gaining courage, so I asked another one:

Sherry:  Given the international image of the oil sands that you are trying to repair, has your company ever thought about the use of renewable energy to get the oil out of the ground, such as wind, solar or geothermal?  I know it would cost more, but may provide a better image to the world.

Oil Sands guy:  Yes we have thought of that actually. The problem is that the contribution of energy of renewable sources would be negligible, and is very expensive.

Just. One. More.

Sherry:  We heard on the news that Dr. Schindler from the University of Alberta found that there was pollution in the Athabasca river downstream from the oil sands.  Then we heard Alberta Environment report that he was wrong, there was no man-made pollution.  Then Environment Canada sent 6 independent scientists to check it out.  Again – conflicting stories in the media.  Who should we believe?

Oil Sands guy:  Dr. Schindler is a very smart guy, but my understanding is that his study might not have been long enough to provide an accurate picture.  There is also the issue of naturally occurring oil sand that cuts into the river – it is difficult to separate out the naturally occurring pollutants from the man-made ones.

So there you have it.  I put forward my voice in a room full of professionals.  In the past I would have remained silent, and kept my thoughts to myself.  But new found environmental leaf makes me feel like I must speak.  Perhaps my words got someone else thinking.  So let’s talk this thing out.  Let’s have a dialogue. 

Back at work, I was talking about the session with the one younger co-worker that had asked me about it (the one who used to work on an oil rig), and other co-workers overheard us and joined in.  By the end there were 7 of us talking about it.  It seemed to be a topic we were all interested in.  I realized by the end that we are all rational people (being accountants, and all) and we all kind of thought the same thing:

We can’t keep on just waiting – waiting on the world to change.

My Electric Kitchen

My small kitchen appliances are sucking up electricity when not in use and I didn’t even realize it. My toaster has an indicator light. My coffee maker has a clock. These are left on 24-7. I am not sure how much energy that wastes. Unplugged, they waste nothing.

No more of this:

Instead, this:

When I am done using the appliance, just unplug and go.

It turns out that when you use your electricity is important. Electricity must be used when generated, it cannot be stored. So if you use a whole bunch of electricity at peak times of the day, you add to the strain on the grid. In some cases, that means firing up less efficient, possibly more polluting power plants to meet peak demand. The system is built to reliably meet peak capacity, so if we can reduce our peak capacity, we will need a smaller system.

Here is a graph of electricity use and prices in my province over a 24 hour period (yesterday):

Source: Alberta Electric System Operator

 

Looking at the graph it is best to use all your electricity in the middle of the night. This is fine if you are nocturnal (which I kind of am…) but this is pretty hard to do. What I can do is run my dishwasher right before I go to bed, instead of right after dinner, during the peak of all peak times.

So that is what I will do. If I forget, I will have dirty dishes to greet me in the morning. So I better not forget!

Teeth brushed, alarm set, dishwasher run. Check, check, check…

No Impact Man

I just finished the book, No Impact Man by Colin Beavan. I got it from the library, along with the No Impact Man film. I started reading the book, watched the movie, then finished the book. 

I was feeling lonely before, in my quest to be and do all things green. It baffles me, now that I am here doing these things, why everyone is not doing them as well. Perhaps they are not fully aware of the problems of climate change, or they would be doing just what I am doing, right? Is it not the only rationale response to this issue? Perhaps they are aware, but push it so far back into their minds that it does not really register, or impact any decisions. If they put those horrible thoughts back there far enough, perhaps they are not true and will go away…

That must be it.

But not so with Colin Beaven – he was feeling the way I was feeling. He wondered what he could do. He realized that he could talk about it a lot, but his words would not have much meaning if he was living a lifestyle that included eating take out every night and creating 9 gallons of trash over 4 days. He was not happy were the world was going, but also not happy where he was going. So he made some changes. Big changes.

He starts off just like me. He doesn’t know much, he is not a trained environmentalist. He is a just a regular guy who wants to make a difference. Despite feeling like he can’t make a difference (which we all feel, don’t we?) he decides to try. Trying is the most important part, because you never will know at the start the difference you will make in the end.

He decides to live his life in New York City, while having no impact on the environment. His wife (Michelle) and his baby daughter (Isabella) go along with this plan. One year, no impact. This ultimately includes making no garbage, eating only locally grown food, giving up meat, giving up coffee, using only self propelled transportation, buying no new items, no elevators, no take out, no TV, no washing machine and by the midpoint of the project, no electricity at all. This means no fridge, no oven, no stove…

There is a point in the movie where he and his wife and child have all their friends over to their apartment to share a beautiful meal. At the end of it each person holds a lit a beeswax candle and then he turns off the breaker. Darkness falls. The people in his living room all stand there holding candles, looking at each other in amazement. Look what this family will do for the environment. Look at what they will do. They will live in darkness, with only the candles to light their way. They are surrounded by the support and love of their friends. It is a beautiful moment.

His wife, prior to the challenge was a self professed shop-oholic who drank 4 iced quad espressos a day. With each new change she is a bit apprehensive, but by the end she has fully embraced the lifestyle. The hurried rush of their lives slows down. They spend more time talking to each other. They spend more time playing with their daughter. They spend more time shopping for their food, and preparing it. What used to be an inconvenience and required take-out, now becomes time spent nourishing their family.

It turns out that he did make a difference. Once people heard about what he was doing, the radio stations, TV stations and newspapers started to call. He gave numerous talks to children and community groups, and did numerous interviews. He wrote a book, he made a movie, he wrote a blog. He got his message out there big time, and inspired so many people along the way. 

He inspired me.

At the end of the book in the epilogue, he gives real concrete examples on what you can do to make a difference. He provides lists of books, websites and environmental websites to join. He tells you that people seem only to get the message once they start doing things for the environment. It is the doing, the starting, that is the spark. Once they are set off, they start coming up with new ideas and plans and ways to get involved all on their own. They don’t need convincing.

So here I am, doing. As was the fitting last sentence of his book – What will you do?