Wednesday, May 27, 2009

10 ways to survive a garbage strike

There's a serious chance that my city, Toronto, will have a major garbage strike this summer. The last one was in 2002. It was a long, smelly one in the middle of a hot summer. Windsor is in the midst of a very long one.

Garbage strikes are more than an inconvenience, they're a health hazard. But they're also a good time to take stock of what we're throwing out and look for ways to clean up our act. With that in mind, here are some tips on surviving a garbage strike. What ideas do you have? I rent part of a house with a yard, so I'm particularly interested in hearing how these strikes affect people in high-rise apartments. Let's turn the comments section here into a running list of ideas on how to beat the stink!

1. Stop eating meat.
This is easier for the vegetarians, and there's are good reasons why most of us should cut our meat consumption, anyway. But in a strike it's a really good idea. Rotting meat scraps are some of the smelliest stuff we throw away. They're also the most likely to attract rats and create a genuine health hazard.

2. Get composting.
If you have a back yard, get a composter. In Toronto, the city sells them for $15. We're getting a second one because of the volume of garden and rabbit-related organic matter we produce. The first one has, in the past year, consumed enough material to fill many garbage bags. In apartments, consider vermiculure. That is, the fine art of worm composting. If you have kids, they'll love you for it.

3. Freeze!
For a short strike, put the smelly stuff in plastic bags (you may have to conveniently forget your cloth shopping bags one day to get some), tie them up and toss them in the freezer. You could save a little energy too, as food scraps have greater thermal mass than air, and so will hold the cold better.

4. Time for cloth.
As a parent, I washed a lot of cloth diapers. It's not that horrible an experience. They are a significant expense, though, so plan for it to be a long-term solution. In Toronto, disposable diapers can go in the Green Bin for composting. But in a garbage strike, they're going to get ripe awfully fast. I'd rather do an extra load of diapers every day or two than have a mountain of dirty disposables sitting in my living room! (Or, if laundry facilities are inconvenient or far away, hire a diaper service to do the washing for you.)

5. Reduce.
Easy to do. Look for products with less packaging. Buy fruit loose and avoid those clamshell containers - they're not recyclable in my city, anyway. Plastics are relatively easy to store, as they won't start to smell, but all the same, they're some of the bulkiest stuff to go in the bin.

6. Re-use.
A lot of our "waste" is quite usable. A lot of house-related stuff, from the end of a roll of tar paper to 2x4s and even toilets, can find a new home through places such as Habitat for Humanity's Re-Store. There are also places to bring partial cans of paint (because really, how long could you live with the beige your landlord painted all the walls?), furniture (checked out Value Village or Goodwill lately?), and so forth.

7. Double-bag.
If you can't do anything but throw something potentially stinky away, double-bag it. That will help keep the smell down and help prevent rodents from attacking the trash.

8. Postpone.
Now might not be the time to clear last year's freezer-burned Thanksgiving leftovers out of the freezer. You might also want to hold off on projects likely to create a lot of waste.

9. Use the phone book.
Find the numbers for by-law enforcement officers who handle illegal dumping. Garbage strikes lead people to do some stupid things, like toss their trash into local ravines. This is a dangerous, messy and downright uncivilized thing to do. If you see it happen, call the authorities. Write down the license plate number of the perpetrator.

10. Get out of town.
Yes, a garbage strike is a good time to go on holiday. You won't build a pile of waste in your backyard and you won't have to endure the stench of the heap being stored at the local park. Grab a tend, catch a train up to a nice provincial park and do some backpacking. Or take a bus up to the beach. If you're driving, maybe go visit your uncle's farm...and ask if you can make use of one or two of the garbage tags for his municipal pickup while you're at it.

While you're out in the country, take a deep breath, enjoy the clean air and try to remember the really crappy days that some freezing guy came and took away your stinky old diapers, turned a blind eye to that extra bag you'd set out, or loaded your old couch into the truck without complaint. And try to remember that, one day, the strike will end.

In the meantime, add your ideas in the comments section below.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Small wind turbines for the city

Photo courtesy of Wind Simplicity

Before you say it, I know, wind turbines aren't something tenants can put up. But today, The Globe & Mail ran a story of mine about a new generation of small wind turbines that are much better suited to urban applications. And since the first comment to appear asked about links, I figured that Green Tenant could provide them.

To read the story, please click on this link to it.

What makes these turbines special is that they don't spin at super-high speeds. Older small turbines had been a bit of a safety hazard because of their speeds. Many of them don't require tall towers. Some spin horizontally to reduce wear. Others actually make use of the updraft from a roof. And they're all designed with gusty city winds in mind.

The turbine that inspired the story is the Wind Dancer. It's an award-winning Toronto creation from Wind Simplicity (

There's a nifty rooftop model from Wind Terra (

Also mentioned is the Skystream 3.7 (

If you're in a high-rise apartment and have a landlord with a sympathetic ear, you might want to mention that the first Wind Dancers sold were to real estate mogul Shane Baghai. They're on top of one of his condo developments. Maybe this is a way for your building's management to cut down of the cost of electricity in communal spaces, such as hallways and lobbies? Can't hurt to mention it.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A light goes on

Toronto Hydro is giving away free compact fluorescent lightbulbs this weekend and next. The first 350 people to show up at a participating Canadian Tire or Home Depot will get one. According to the flyer, they're "specialty" CFLs, rather than the usual garden variety.

This is good. Many fixtures don't take standard CFLs, and these "specialty" bulbs are designed for chandeliers, vanities and other such non-standard fixtures. There will also be in-store discounts on specialty CFLs and power bars with timers.

A power bar with a timer is a great idea, especially if you're one of those people who always forgets to turn off the lights. Or plug in televisions and other equipment that goes into a "standby" mode rather than turning off completely. By shutting the power off to these appliances you'll cut down on your house's phantom draw. That is, you'll cut the power that's consumed invisibly by appliances you thought you'd actually turned off. Phantom draw from one appliance may not be big, but it adds up. If we got rid of unnecessary phantom draw, we might not need our tax dollars funding a new nuclear plant or our energy dollars going to buy more coal.

So, while I'm not big on promoting big companies like Home Depot or Canadian Tire (though I must confess that I've long enjoyed browsing the latter), if you live near one and are planning on getting up for a morning walk on Saturday or Sunday, go in and pick up a nice new CFL. A list of participating stores, and details about the promotion, are on Toronto Hydro's "Spring Turn On" website.

If you're not in the Toronto area, check with your local utility. Are they doing something similar? If they are, please post the information in the comments section to share it with others. Green Tenant enjoys having readers from around the world (mostly from Canada, the U.S. and the UK, but we're also getting lots of visitors from Central and South America and from Australia), and I'd love to know what's happening where you live.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Changing my mind and planting out

In contrast to yesterday's torrential downpours, Toronto enjoyed a beautiful spring day today. Since yesterday (May 9) was the average last frost day here inspired me to look at my planting calendar. It suggested that this was the weekend to plant seeds for sunflowers, nasturtiums, carrots and onions and that I should already have transplanted my lettuces and broccoli...on April 4!

Since frost seems unlikely, I spent a few hours in the garden today. I'd already directly sown my peas (think I see one peeking up today), a few radishes (doing well), arugula (not sure if it's up or if those are just weeds) and fava beans. The fava beans are doing fabulously, as you can see from the photo above.

In that same photo you'll notice a lot of straw. David and Alison, who live upstairs, have two lovely, fluffy rabbits named Emma and Amanda. These wonderful little fertilizer machines have been providing top dressing all winter long. My plan had been to use their bedding as mulch and just open up spaces for planting. Gardening the no-dig way! Yay!

However, weeding through the straw is a pain and there are a lot of plants to go in. Rather than weed everything and shift mulch about nonstop, I decided to just chuck my grand plan out the window and dig it in (except in a couple places where I'd already begun planting, such as around the fava beans and strawberries). The good news is that, in the bed I planted last year, there are tons of big, juicy worms where there were only a few when I made the bed. My soil looks to be very healthy and I have high hopes for my yields.

Today I planted two large beds. The tomatoes, zucchini and corn have yet to go into the ground (a little early yet), but most everything else is in now.

Bed 1, which is by far the biggest, will have most of the tomatoes. Today, in it, I planted marigolds (the workhorse of companion plants), various salad greens, rainbow chard, basil, parsley, spinach and mint.

Bed 2, which gets the most sun, will eventually have some corn and zucchini. Today it got marigolds, chives, a new everbearing strawberry plant (to compliment the two my dad gave me from his patch), some lettuces and spinach, nasturtiums , leeks, carrots and nine rows that alternate between onions, beets and radishes. There's also garlic at the far end, around a little rose bush.

Tomorrow, as weather and work permit, I'll work on beds 3 and 4.

So far, my only disappointment has been the poor germination rate of my marigolds (everything else I ordered from Brother Nature has had a decent germination rate, so this is probably an anomaly). But a little shop on the corner sells them and they're very inexpensive, so no worries. I also bought my tomato plants from them. No rare heirloom tomatoes this year, just sweet 100s and romas. But next year I'll get my act in gear earlier and plant some that will be a bit more fun.

Oh, and the carrot patches should be fun. I mixed three different seeds. Every time I pull up a carrot, who knows what it'll be. Nantes Touchon? Tendersweet long hybrid? Purple haze? (Yes, I planted purple carrots. Part of the goal is to have fun gardening with my six-year-old son.)

In addition to the other two beds, I still have four or five pots and various window boxes. Because the garden has so many veg, I think I'll use all the planters for flowers. After all, a garden shouldn't just be productive, it should also be pretty.

Some gardening posts that might be of use to you:
Vertical gardening
A handy gardening book for apartment-dwellers

Friday, May 8, 2009

The long-running toilet

Ever since I moved into my new apartment, the upstairs toilet has had a habit of running. I'm tired of reminding visitors to "jiggle the handle," so today I got off my duff and did something about it. After dropping my son off at school, I rode his scooter over to the hardware store (needed a new nut for the wheel and... well... it was fun, too).

The problem with my toilet is a common one. The old plastic handle is cracked and that somehow causes it to jam in a depressed position. That is, it keeps the flap open.

Before getting into the step-by-step instructions, let's think about why we're bothering to fix the handle. It's quite simple: A running toilet wastes water. If a toilet flushes with 6 litres and takes 30 seconds to fill up (which is probably slower than in reality), then that's 12 litres per minute. Don't notice for five minutes and you've wasted 60 litres. Don't notice while you nip out to the shops for half an hour and you've just flushed away 360 litres!

Water systems are one of the biggest energy costs for most municipalities. A leak of this size will result in a higher water bill (if you pay bills directly), likely higher rent (if water is included in your rent), higher taxes (again, likely translates into higher rent) and possibly less money for the city to spend on more important things like social housing or public swimming pools.

There are lots of possible repairs to make on a toilet. If there's a shutoff valve at the bottom, they're all pretty easy to make. In my case, it's one of the easiest. You don't even have to turn off the water. Here's what to do.

Take the magazines off the back of the toilet and remove the lid. Put it somewhere safely out of the way and don't drop it on the tile floor. That would be nasty.

Unhook the chain from the end of the rod attached to the handle. If you can, hook it over something nearby so you don't have to fish it out of the water when you're done. Not that it's a big deal, there's nothing to fear from the water in the back of the toilet. It should be pretty clean. There's a great Canadian tradition of using the toilet tank to rapidly chill beer. But that's another story.

The handle is held on with a large nut, probably made of plastic. Using an adjustable wrench (my 10" one did the trick nicely) loosen the nut, then slide it off the end of the rod.

Slide the old handle and rod out of the tank.

If you're like me, you thought of fixing this problem while you were already out, and so didn't know how long of a rod to get with the handle. Thankfully, adjustable ones are quite common and cost $5-7 in Canada right now.

Hold the old one against the new one to figure out how long to cut the new one. Measuring is easy, as there are only three lengths and the adjustable models have marks to help you easily cut them to length. "Easily" is a subjective term. Scissors won't do the job on this thick plastic. Tin snips probably would. I found that, on the Moen model I bought (a dollar cheaper than the other universal one) it was easy to just bend and break the rod at the correct point.

Remove the nut from the new assembly, slide the rod in and then put the new nut on to hold it all in place. Make sure the nut is snug, but don't overtighten it. Don't want to crack it and have to walk all the way back to the hardware store (how can you tell I've made this sort of mistake before?).

Hook the chain into place and give the toilet a test flush. If the handle sticks in the open position, you may have overtightened the nut. If you encounter other problems, bring them up in the comments section and we'll see if the Green Tenant readers can't help you out.

Now put the lid back on the toilet and return your magazines to their proud, newly refurbished home.

For other water-saving repairs, see the following posts:

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Those of you who have been reading for a while will know that I recently got into woodworking. This is partly because money's tight, partly because I like working with my hands. But working with wood can be problematic for people who care about the environment. Sure, it's nice to look at and feels good, and it's not made from petroleum or harsh chemicals. But a lot of it comes from big clearcuts. And some really nice woods are from threatened species of trees. Believe it or not, a lot of it is harvested by tree poachers.

I have nothing against cutting down trees. They're a renewable resource, and a good one for many things. I do have problems with large-scale clearcutting, tree poaching and non-sustainable forestry practices. It also takes a lot of fell the trees, haul them out, mill them and ship them down to the city.

So I was happy to receive a literal windfall.

This winter saw some heavy snow up near my parents' place (a couple hours north of Toronto), and it knocked down an old apple tree in the back field. While visiting last weekend, I grabbed a dozen or so of the logs my dad had cut. They're in the basement drying now, and should provide some lovely wood for crafts. No extra fossil fuels used, no killing of a live tree, just ethically pure lumber. It's not a lot, maybe a dozen board feet or so to be claimed from foot-long logs. But that's enough for a couple little projects I've got in mind.

But what about those bigger projects? Sure there's certified "forest-friendly" timber out there. But I'm a tenant. I'm not often looking for studs. Since my wood needs are mostly for furniture or crafts, I want smaller quantities of pretty wood. Ethical wood, if possible.

After my first post on the subject, my friend Dimitra suggested checking out Urban Tree Salvage. Their wood isn't cheap, but they've got some spectacular material available. And it's all from sources that'll set even a hardcore environmentalist's heart aflutter. I'm a bit distracted with the garden right now, but I do plan on ordering a bit of lumber for projects to be done next winter.

Great as all this sounds, how bad is conventionally sourced lumber? We all know about clearcuts. I've certainly spent time in some huge ones in Northern Ontario, and seen bogland drained to speed tree growth. There are plenty of questionable practices here and abroad. But putting those concerns aside for a moment, just how much energy does it take to produce my lumber?

According to Dr. Howard Odum at the University of Florida, it takes about 40,640 BTUs to produce an eight-foot 2x4. According to NRCAN, that's just shy of 12 kilowatts (about 39 cents at today's wholesale prices in Ontario). The Ontario grid, last I checked, produces about 0.22 kg of CO2 per kwH, so if all the energy were from the grid, producing that 2x4 would generate 2.64 kg of carbon dioxide. It seems fair to assume that it's actually going to be higher than that, since Ontario's grid includes hydro and a bit of wind power, while harvesting the lumber will be done with diesel trucks and machines. Oh, and there's also the question of how far the board has to come...

But at the very least, my little windfall stash should save a kilogram or two of CO2 emissions. Not a lot, but just enough to make me feel good about it. Thanks for the logs, dad!