Thursday, February 26, 2009

Giving up carbon for lent

I was talking to Jenni Boles, who writes the My Web of Life blog, yesterday and she mentioned that she's planning to give up carbon for Lent. What an interesting idea. Today, her blog begins with suggestions to reduce carbon emissions from transportation.

My first question was "How do you go carbon-free that quickly?" Anyone who's tried to make these massive lifestyle changes knows that to do them completely takes an immense amount of preparation and research. Just check out everything Stephen and Rebekah Hren did to get their house carbon-free, or what James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith did to switch to a purely localvore diet.

The strive for the absolute is a noble experiment, but rarely provides a practical solution for the broader population. It's sort of like space exploration: We won't all be flying space shuttles anytime soon, but we will make use of some of the technology.

With that in mind, the lenten carbon fast is probably a good experiment for many families. Lent, after all, is not a total fast for 40 days. It certainly isn't in modern North America. But in Christian tradition, it is a time for sacrifice. Being kinder to the environment shouldn't be a sacrifice, one might argue, but consider the analogy a little further. The concept of sacrifice during Lent exists as part of prayer and reflection, all in search of enlightenment. The goal is to gain something through that sacrifice.

Since the holy time may be related to food shortages in earlier times, it makes sense to sacrifice something that the community needs you to give up today. Food is plentiful year-round now, so giving up fossil fuels is a much more relevant sacrifice. It will actually require you to change your lifestyle a bit, will require you to think about fuel and resource consumption, and will certainly increase your knowledge about your own carbon footprint and what it will take to significantly reduce it. In that way, you will achieve enlightenment. Perhaps not spiritual enlightenment, but really, isn't enlightenment that will benefit all of society at least as useful?

So, I wish Jenni and her family all the best with this and encourage people to give it a try. And to check out the My Web of Life blog for ideas on how to make the carbon fast work.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What really does go in the Blue Bin?

Last autumn, the City of Toronto announced it was expanding its "Blue Bin" recycling program to add styrofoam takeaway containers and plastic bags. I was pleased by this announcement, as it suggests there may be demand for the products and it will divert a significant amount of waste from landfills.

But these are fairly difficult materials to include in the program, so the instructions in newspapers were a bit convoluted.

Plastic bags are particularly troublesome. Not all can be recycled and they can't be thrown loose into the bin. Thankfully, the city did post instructions for plastic bags and polystyrene on its website. Sadly, the changes rendered the natty card the city sent around earlier in the autumn obsolete, and since my computer is nowhere near my kitchen, I am occasionally left guessing as to whether an item is recyclable. Fear not, Torontonians, they have updated the card on their website. The one I need is here. It's now printing and will soon be appearing on the side of my fridge. If you're in a different part of Toronto (Scarborough or Etobicoke, for example) or an apartment building, they've got ones tailored for you, downloadable from this page.

When I went in search of the new chart, I realized that it's very confusing when it comes to plastics. More confusing than it really needs to be.

I also discovered that far fewer things are accepted than I'd initially thought. Most of the confusion surrounds plastics. The guide said that plastic jugs and tubs are accepted, but plastic egg cartons or berry packages are not. This seemed odd, since many of them have the same number on their recycling symbol. Why would a #1 PETE jug be accepted, but not a #1 egg carton?

To find a clear explanation, I ended up at the City of Ottawa's website. This site clearly explains that the symbols only identify the major component of the plastic. So jugs, which have a high density of PETE are what recyclers want, not the low-density egg cartons and clamshells.

When you're asking "Does this plastic container go into the blue bin or the garbage (or craft box)?" The simplest way to answer in Toronto is "Recycle it if it's a #1 or #2 bottle or jug, or a tub with #5 or#6. If it's not, chuck it."

So the short answer is no, you can't simply go by the numbers, and yes, you'll need the city's chart on your fridge for quite some time. Hopefully one day demand for recyclables will increase (perhaps once oil becomes more expensive again) so that more items will be accepted. Maybe then we'll have a nice, simple guide.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Reusing lumber

Recently, I decided to try my hand at woodworking. You see, I need furniture and I'm a writer. Anyone in publishing knows that means buying new furniture is out of the question.

As it happens, I'm fairly handy, like building things and noticed a table that looked good in an issue of Canadian Home Workshop. And it was labeled as a "beginner" project. Perfect. It went well, and I now have two very nice end tables waiting to be painted.

However, I feel a pang of guilt every time I buy virgin timber. Add to that the poor selection at my local Home Depot (the lumber independent lumber yard at the end of my street closed a couple years ago), and woodworking is a bit tricky. There is forest-friendly lumber, but really, I think that I can do better.

There's a lot of waste lumber in the bins at construction sites or, better yet, behind stores and factories. As another issue of Canadian Home Workshop reminded me recently, shipping pallets are often hardwood. Many are made of maple, such as the stuff being cut down in places I like to ski and hike. It would sadden me to no end to see these noble trees used just for pallets, then burned or chucked in a landfill.

So, now begins my foraging for lumber to re-use. It also means I need a few tools, namely a table saw (need this anyway) and a plane to smooth out this found treasure. My first projects will be for the office, which is a safe place in case they don't turn out the way my dreams would have them.

Where to find good used tools? Craigslist is the most obvious, though eBay can also be a source. I'm also asking you: Do you or any relatives or friends have good used power tools they want to unload? They'll go to a good home and help save some very nice trees.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Green paper supply not meeting demand

According to a report produced by conservation group Markets Initiative, Canadian magazines are clamouring for eco-friendly paper, but the mills simply aren't meeting that demand.

To supply what magazine, book and newspaper publishers want, mills would have to produce an additional 550,000 metric tons of "eco-paper." The group estimates that supplying that paper would result in contracts worth about $560 million.

"There's no reason Canada's troubled pulp and paper industry can't take inspiration from the auto sector and start reinventing by producing a greener product," Nicole Rycroft, the group's executive director, said in the report's announcement. (And thanks to D.B. Scott's Canadian Magazines blog for bringing it to my attention.)

One reason I find this report interesting is that I've been trying to source unbleached, recycled paper for my office (I work in publishing). This is something I was able to buy back in the early 1990s, but today it's almost impossible to find. It certainly is not available from big office supply companies like Staples (whenever I ask, they try to sell me acid-free paper). I haven't seen unbleached toilet paper on a store's shelves since about 1994. To the best of my knowledge, the mills have all moved away from producing truly environmentally friendly paper products. And those are products that can command premium prices at retail.

This all comes at a time when the pulp mill owners are moaning about the state of their industry. Apparently I am not alone in my willingness to pay a premium for a product that is less harmful to the environment, and not alone in my frustration that no one seems willing to acknowledge that there is a demand for better paper products. At least, no one in the Canadian paper industry.

Perhaps this is all a bit more poignant because I'm reading Corporate Wasteland: the landscape and memory of deindustrialization, in which Concordia University history professor Steven High walks us through the social impacts of plant closures, while photographer David W. Lewis provides stark visual cues about the landscapes in question.

The book includes a compelling discussion of Northern Ontario pulp and paper mill closures, situations in which multinationals closed the doors of a mill and walked away from a profitable operation. Those were mills that might have helped meet the growing demand for eco-friendly paper that exists today. Mills that could have helped Canada to be at the forefront of an emerging industry.

Instead, they closed the mills and, in some cases, tore them down rather than allow anyone else to keep them running. For a multinational paper company, it's better to have a closed mill than one reopened by a potential competitor. These closrues were tragic for many mill workers, sometimes devastating to the mill towns. And all the more sad for the opportunities lost because the mill owners couldn't see the new market that was on the horizon.

Markets Initiative suggests that, to be competitive, the Canadian industry needs to increase recycled paper capacity, invest in commercial-scale residue pulping, improve collaboration between producers, consumers and government on policy initiatives, and start planning based on a product's full cycle.

There are a lot of good ideas there. We'll see what the government does with the $170 million earmakred for technology, research and innovation in its budget. Will it rehabilitate the Canadian pulp and paper industry, or will the government just prop up the industry temporarily, effectively funneling money south of the border?

We'll see if the industry moves forward, if new life is breathed into mill towns, and if decent jobs are created for working people in the forest sector, jobs they can once again be proud of.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Riding to the bestseller list

I'm always happy to see an innovative approach to marketing that makes sense and is good for the environment. David Leach, an author and writing professor at the University of Victoria, is taking just such an approach.

Leach knows that books that sell do so because the author's out there working hard to make it sell. Successful authors do radio shows, readings, school visits, all sorts of things. For his book, Fatal Tide, he's taken an innovative approach. Email him and he'll bike to your house and sell you a signed copy in person. There are a few caveats to that offer. It only applies to people living in or near Victoria, BC, where he lives.

This, admittedly, has little or nothing to do with rental properties. But our lifestyles do dictate our environmental footprint to a great extent. Bicycling instead of driving a car makes a huge difference, and I've got bikes on the mind as I look forward to my first car-free summer here in Toronto.

Leach is also, I expect, not doing this because it's a great, environmentally friendly way of promoting his book. Reading his blog, it's clear that he's doing it because, well, he's looking for an excuse to go for a bike ride. If you live in the Victoria area, I do recommend giving him that excuse. Fatal Tide is a fast-paced read. It's the story of an adventure race in the Bay of Fundy that ended in tragedy, and stems from a story he wrote for explore magazine in March 2003. Leach wrote plenty of articles documenting his often foolhardy misadventures biking across the Andes, kayaking in the Arctic, or, most often, falling down hard. Those stories have made him one of my favourite Canadian writers, and one of the people who remind me regularly that life without a bit of risk just ain't enough fun.