Category Archives: Environment

Make a Choice Not to Suck

Looking for a novel way to do some good? Has it become tedious, all that paying for the coffee for the next person in line at the drive-through? Are you tired of making soup for the sick, are you bored with donating blood? Keep doing those things – they’re making a difference – but here’s a new idea to add to your roster: Say no to straws.

That’s what the Dakota Tavern in Toronto is doing, after staff there learned about the harm that plastic straws are doing to wildlife and the environment. For instance, plastic gets mistaken for food by marine animals, and it disrupts their normal feeding and reproductive patterns. (Not convinced? A cringeworthy video of a sea turtle with a straw lodged impossibly deep in her left nostril has been making the rounds… and changing minds.)

At the Dakota Tavern, a new sign on the wall reminds patrons that “Straws Suck.” Many other dining establishments around the world are also making the choice not to stock straws. Some places make biodegradable straws available to customers who request them. (Straws, after all, can be made of paper or bamboo. Then there’s my personal favourite, cookie wafer rolls. And what kid hasn’t ever sipped their milk through a piece of red licorice with the ends bitten off?)

According to the Plastic Oceans Foundation, we are throwing away over eight million tons of plastic every single year. Straws can’t be recycled, so they get dumped into the garbage, where they end up in oceans – and in sea turtles’ noses.

Straws suck. But you certainly don’t have to. When you order a drink, consider doing without a straw – or ask for a stick of licorice to go.


The drink looks delicious. But the straw looks mean. (Photo by Zirconicusso /

Hold Your Water

Two nights ago, in Toronto where I live, a miracle fell from the sky. I’d almost forgotten what a soft summer rain feels like. We’ve had an uncharacteristically dry month. I know my perennials were desperate for a few precious drops of water. Despite my best efforts with the garden hose, a newly planted hedge was showing signs of distress. Certainly my lawn had retreated into a self-induced catatonia. And then, suddenly, wondrously, we were presented with precipitation. All became right again in the world.

Our part of the world, anyway. I’m fully aware that I belong to a privileged few who can actually count on clean water to fall, fairly often, from the clouds. And if it doesn’t, all we have to do is turn a tap. At our command, clean water conveniently flows inside our house. We can have as much as we want, at whatever temperature we desire. My households enjoys two outdoor faucets and eight indoor ones, in addition to multiple fresh-water hookups for toilets and appliances. The rest of my community is similarly fortunate.

In the rest of the world, there are people going without every day. The World Health Organization estimates that 663 million people are without access to suitable drinking water. That means for every single Canadian, there are 19 people somewhere in the world (and sometimes closer to home than you realize) who need clean water.

Yesterday a crew of four cyclists concluded their five-day, 1,000-km fundraising route from Calgary to Vancouver (that’s 620 miles for you imperialists). In order to raise awareness about Wheels for Wells, a charity that contributes to sustainable water projects around the world, the team completed their endurance event through the Rocky Mountains without drinking any bottled or tap water. The cyclists only drank from natural fresh water sources, like streams and lakes.

It may sound like they ought to have had water aplenty, and of course they did. We are in Canada, after all, where we enjoy a full fifth of all the fresh water in the world. But tell me, when’s the last time you drank from a pond? I mean, personally, I live close to a creek, but I also live close to urban runoff, and you wouldn’t catch me dipping into that murky stuff.

See how water-spoiled I am?

Props to the cycling team for their achievement. It wasn’t an easy road (no, really, there were a ton of hills), but their dedication helped an important cause. To them I raise a glass – of clean, fresh water, of course.


Cheers. (Photo by khunaspix /

Ahead of the Pack

There are three ways you can tell that the men behind Saltwater Brewery are salt-of-the-earth good guys.

One: The microbrewery in Delray Beach, Florida, is named after the world’s wide, wondrous oceans. The founders are self-described as “fishermen, surfers and people who love the sea.”

Two: Part of the profits from selling the crafty products – various beers have entertaining names like Screamin’ Reels and Sea Cow – are donated to charities that benefit the oceans.

Three: The team, in collaboration with the WeBelievers ad agency, has developed the world’s first edible six-pack ring. This matters, because no matter where in the world you happen to drink your beer, your plastic six-pack ring tends to end up in the ocean. And even if the rings are designed to break down in sunlight after a few weeks so they don’t entangle aquatic animals… well, all they really do is transmute from big plastic pieces into tiny plastic pieces. Fish mistake these bits for food (totally not their fault – they have fish brains), and end up stuffing their stomachs. Not a very healthy habit. Potentially even fatal.

Saltwater Brewery is trying to help marine life, not destroy it. So its beer cans are now attached to rings made from leftover brewing grain. If these rings do find their way into the sea, they’ll break apart into biodegradable and perfectly edible chunks.

Compared to shards of plastic, this is gourmet fare.

Anyway, who says these will end up in the ocean at all? Maybe this microbrewery has unwittingly kicked off a new foodie trend. Mix in a little chipotle seasoning, and you’ve suddenly got a snack go with your beer.

Hey, why not? I’ve seen what you put in that chip bowl during game time. At least the six-pack ring is low in trans fat.


It doesn’t even have to be chipotle. I’ll bet nacho cheese would be a hit. (Photo courtesy of Saltwater Brewery)

Power Hour

Did you observe Earth Hour on Saturday night? How did you choose to mark the occasion? In my city, some people spent the time between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. enjoying an acoustic music performance at a downtown pub. Others demonstrated their commitment to the planet with a candlelit yoga class (I imagine there’s something to be said for downward dog in the dark).

In fact, millions of people were expected to participate around the globe, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Here in Toronto, our use of electricity dropped by a somewhat shabby six percent. That’s not quite as much as last year’s Earth Hour, although on my own street the rate of participation seemed unnaturally high – I noticed several darkened houses, displaying a high respect for energy conservation in my ’hood (unless, of course, those folks were simply out somewhere, dancing to pounding techno-pop under strobe lights).

Sure, turning off the lights for an hour is a symbolic gesture. But that doesn’t make it less meaningful. Or less fun. As far as I’m concerned, we’re all more attractive by flickering candlelight. And by the same token, everything’s a little more interesting.

At 8:30 in my house, the family – including the dog – gathered together in one dim room for a snuggle and deep conversation. We passed the hour (quickly, it seemed) with several rounds of “Would You Rather,” each one sparking a spirited three-way discussion. Likewise for two other games we invented on the spot, one I’ll call “What Would Your Happiest Moment on Earth Look Like” and another called “If You Could Have the Answer to Any Mystery on Earth, What Would It Be” (contenders were “what’s beyond this universe?” and “who borrowed that book from me back in the seventies?”).

You know, when your kid is 14 and life is a whirlwind, having an hour to talk together as a family, with no electronics, noises or distractions, is pure gold.

So as much as observing Earth Hour was a sincere gesture of goodwill, I have to say, the privilege was all mine.

Waste Not, Want Not

What can you do when you’re knee-deep in detritus? If you’re Jason Sylvester or Nissa Marion or their pals – they’re all ex-pat Canadians living in Hong Kong – you challenge the folks around you to do roll up their sleeves and take on a dirty job. This year, just like the five years before that, a team of Canadians has combed the beach to collect as much rubbish as they can. It’s part of the Hong Kong Cleanup event organized by Ecovision Asia, involving over 39,000 people. The members of Team Canada currently number over 100. According to a news story, coordinators originally lured Canadian volunteers with the promise of free beer, but that’s no longer necessary. (I’ll bet they still drink the beer).

The news report goes on to criticize the high volume of trash and food waste piling up in Hong Kong. But by no means are they the only country struggling under this problem. In fact, we Canadians are managing to generate 31 million tons of garbage a year. And that includes $27.7-billion in wasted food.

Maybe action groups like Ecovision Asia will spur more of us to reconsider the environment – and eat up our leftovers? It’s not a bad start. I, for one, quite enjoy it when eating and good deeds go hand in hand. Hand me a spoon.

Tree to Be

Of those millions of North Americans who plan to celebrate Christmas, a good many kicked off the season this past weekend by decorating a tree. For some, that may have meant trolling the out-of-town farms for the perfect balsam fir to haul home. For others, it required digging through the basement boxes for a more polyvinyl-chloride-inspired way to express their holiday spirit.

Which brings us to a burning question. Which do you think is kinder to the environment – a genuine, traditional, farm-grown tree, or a plastic knock-off?

There are arguments for both, which is why public opinion is divided. According to the Ontario Forestry Association, 46 percent of us believe that fakes are environmentally friendlier, while 42 percent think true trees are better for the planet.

Real trees, says the OFA, release precious oxygen when they’re planted densely on farms. They’re replaced with seedlings once harvested. And after the holidays they return to mother earth as mulch, thanks to our municipal waste programs. Fake trees, however, gobble up fossil fuels in their manufacture and transport, and eventually languish in landfill.

I’m not sure it’s as clear cut (no pun intended) as all that. After all, fossil fuels are also required to truck the farm trees into the cities where they’re sold, or to pick them up at curbside after Christmas, even to chow them down into that very special, slightly tinsel-tainted park mulch. And when artificial trees are made from recycled materials, they’re doing at least some good.

Which makes it all a little confusing for the poor person who just wants to hang sparkly stuff. Personally, I go for the biologically genuine. I hope it’s the greenest choice. But besides that, there’s just something special about that lovely piney scent that fills the air and clogs up my nose the instant I walk into the room.

Nothing like a little nasal congestion to bring a family together, right? It’s the real thing for me.

Close-up of cedar  tree

Good things come in trees, right?

Google Earth

A colleague on Facebook posted a graphic the other day. As we all know, graphics on Facebook fall into one of several categories: they’re funny, they’re sappy, or they’re of cats in peculiar poses with pigeon-English captions (“kitteh can has cheezburger”).

The fourth category is thought-provoking. The graphic my friend posted belongs here, sort of. It’s titled “Grammar Matters,” and it displays the most popular searches that start with “how can u” (“how can u get herpes” tops the list, followed by numerous other diseases transmitted by the most intimate of contact). This is compared to the most common searches starting with “how can an individual.” Results include “how can an individual impact the course of history,” “how can an individual make a difference” and “how can an individual affect society.”

The inference is that those who use the grammatically proper “an individual” in place of the shorthand non-word “u” have higher aspirations. Or at the very least, their worldly learning is not limited to safe bedroom practices.

Since I don’t believe anything I read online, I tried out this experiment on my own. I got similar results. Then I tried something else. I began a search with “how can we.”

Want to guess the top four results? I got “how can we stop global warming,” “how can we help the environment,” “how can we save water” and “how can we stop bullying.”

I’m not dismissing the importance of grammar. Of course grammar matters. I make a living based on this credo, so you won’t get any argument from me. (Case in point: I hate that many, many question marks are missing in the aforementioned Google searches.)

However, I think this little demonstration proves that inclusiveness also matters. Just by substituting the word “we” in place of “I,” by thinking of us all as a single force working together, our focus changes from personal hygiene to saving the world.

The two are not mutually exclusive. I recommend you strive for both wherever possible.

“Let’s eat, Grandma.” “Let’s eat Grandma.” Grammar may matter, but punctuation saves lives.

Bottoms-Up Bungalow

Sometimes you have to turn your world upside down to make a difference. A builder on the island of Borneo has done his part to draw attention to the environment by creating a “house in reverse,” or Rumah Terbalik in his Malaysian language. The topsy-turvy living quarters include furniture, appliances, light fixtures and even a toilet attached to the ceiling (I won’t even attempt to imagine the logistics of that).

The builder claims his vice-versa villa is a reminder that we’re depleting our natural resources, and that one day we’ll find our entire world has turned upside down.

I’m focusing on the best part: According to the website, the house, even in reverse, is wheelchair accessible. If I ever find myself in southeast Asia with my hubby, you can bet Rumah Terbalik will be on our bucket list of local attractions.