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Archive for February, 2008

 

There’s an interesting story in today’s Montreal Gazette about the impact of idling your car. Besides polluting and wasting fuel, it also damages the car engine because newer cars are designed in order not to have to be idled before you start driving, even in the winter.

Idle Threat

Bylaw rarely enforced. Only 106 out of 1.3 million tickets issued last year were for idling

Andy Riga, The Gazette

With some exceptions, it’s illegal to idle your car for more than three minutes in Montreal. But don’t worry too much about getting a ticket for the infraction.

In 2007 – the first year the bylaw was on the books in most boroughs – only 106 tickets were handed out for illegal idling. Of those, just two were in the downtown Ville Marie borough, the area with the heaviest traffic and most motorists needlessly idling.

They were among the 1.3 million tickets given for non-moving violations across the island.

Despite the low number of tickets, Alan DeSousa, the city executive committee member responsible for the environment, said he thinks the bylaw has reduced idling and raised awareness about its detrimental effects. The practice wastes fuel, causes pollution and creates greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

If Montrealers are ever going to break the idling habit, however, experts suggest the first steps will be to debunk persistent myths about car engines and to convince motorists they should forego the luxury of toasty cars.

The rest of the story is here.

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I’ve been reading a couple of interesting things recently about the oil sands projects in Alberta.

The first is this series, published earlier this year in the Globe and Mail. The eight-day series looks at the development of the oil sands, and the environmental and social cost of the projects, which are estimated to have a worth of $90 billion.

The second is the book Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (And Doesn’t Seem to Care) by William Marsden, a colleague of mine at the Montreal Gazette. Marsden, who is an investigative reporter, spins a great yarn about the development of the oil sands, from a loony plan to blast the oil from the sand with a nuclear bomb to the boom/bust/boom experience of a Calgary oil man.

Reading the book left me with an impending sense of doom. The amount of fossil fuels left on the planet is finite, yet we seem not to care, building more roads, buying more cars, and ignoring the environmental costs of harvesting energy this way.

Reading about the oil sands has been making me think about what our family can do to conserve fuel and oil around our house.

We switched to an electric furnace a couple of years ago to reduce our fossil-fuel consumption. Now our biggest fossil-fuel user is our minivan, and I’ve been trying to use it less. It has been more challenging than I thought.  I’m hoping once the weather warms up and I can get my bicycle and kids’ trailer back out on the road I’ll truly be able to reduce the amount of time we use our van.

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The winds are howling, it’s a cool  -6C (-14 with the wind chill) outside and all I can think about is a plan I cooked up to grow a big garden this summer at my parents’ house in the country.

A couple of months I ago I read Barbara Kingsolver‘s excellent book Animal, Vegetable Miracle, the tale of her family’s year-long experiment to eat locally. They moved to a farm in Virginia and decided to eat only food that was produced near them – either on their farm or by local farmers. Bananas were out but there was much excitement during asparagus season.

It’s a great story about food production, the changing seasons, agriculture and modern food production. It made me want to plant a big garden that would feed our family for at least a few months of the year. But we don’t have the soil for it — our city back yard is small and shaded by an enormous decades-old maple that keeps our house so nice and cool all summer long. But my parents, on the other hand, have a few acres of land in the country where they say we can plant a big garden.

Soon, once this neverending snow melts and the ground starts to thaw, we’ll be heading out there to get our hands dirty. I can’t wait.

You can whet your appetite for summer’s vegetable bounty with this recipe, designed to use up an overflow of zucchini in the Kingsolver’s garden. And you can dance around your warm cosy house while the wonderful Arlo Guthrie sings the Garden Song.

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Last summer you could hardly go a couple of days in Quebec without hearing about blue-green algae, a toxin affecting the province’s lakes and chasing swimmers out of the water.

While agriculture and sewage from lakefront homes greatly contribute to the spread of blue-green algae, a small part of the problem is phosphates coming from things like dishwasher detergents. So we switched to a phosphate-free brand that we picked up at our local health food store. But at $8 a box, it seemed awfully pricy. I thought there had to be a better way.

So I mixed up some homemade dishwasher detergent — half baking soda and half Borax. It cleaned well for a while, and I felt very virtuous and thrifty. But then we started to get a whitish film on our dishes. That’s when we started alternating the homemade with the outrageously expensive store brand.

Then our dishwasher conked out. My husband spent hours taking it apart, peering inside, and swearing. We thought we would have to buy a new one, but he managed to resurrect it from the near-dead. And then put a ban on the Borax after he found a warning on the company’s website to not use it in the dishwasher.

So my ears perked right up today when I heard that the federal government is instituting a country-wide ban on any detergents with more than 0.5 per cent phosphates, something the Quebec provincial government has already done. The bummer in today’s announcement from Ottawa? It doesn’t take effect until 2010. Greenpeace slammed the decision today, saying Quebec pharmacy chain Jean Coutu has done more to restrict phosphates by refusing to stock phosphate-containing soaps.

Even Quebec’s Environment Minister says even with the new restrictions on phosphates, we’ll be stuck with the blue-green algae for at least another 10 years.

Until the phosphate bans come into effect, I’m going to try this homemade dishwasher detergent and see if we can do our small part in the crusade against blue-green algae — and not break the dishwasher while we do it.

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A few years ago I wrote a story (see below) for the Montreal Gazette about a British Columbia couple who were following what they called a 100-Mile Diet. For a year, they would only eat food that came from a 100-mile radius of their Vancouver home. Their project later became this book.

Writing that story really put the idea of trying to eat local in my head. Ever since, whenever I’ve had the choice, I try to buy locally grown food on my weekly (okay, sometimes daily) shopping trips. It’s not a hard job in the summer, when Quebec produce is everywhere, and we get a weekly box of organic vegetables from farmers  Jamie & Nora Quinn’s farm in Elgin, Qc.

But in the dead of February, with 20 cm of fresh snow on the ground, and last summer’s harvest just a dim memory, it’s another question altogether. You can usually find some root vegetables, maybe some hydroponically-grown lettuce and tomatoes, and apples from storage. Still, I thought I did a good job on a locally-grown dinner for the fam tonight:

  • Mashed Quebec potatoes and one of the last heads of celeriac from last summer’s vegetable deliveries
  • Quebec-grown turnips
  • Quebec-raised turkey meatloaf with Quebec carrots and onions
  • And for dessert, stewed Quebec apples.

Not bad for a snowy February day, I’d say.

Here’s that story I wrote:

How what we eat helps climate: What’s good for the environment is great for the economy
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
By Monique Beaudin, The Gazette

Eight months ago, Vancouver writers and J.B. MacKinnon undertook what many thought would be an impossible task – for a year, to eat only food produced within a 100-mile (160-kilometre) radius of their home.

They were concerned about the environmental impact of the global food-distribution system: trucks carrying summer fruit and vegetables to snowbound Canadians, burning fossil fuels and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“Our food is travelling even more than we do, and that seems ridiculous when a lot of things like salads, carrots and potatoes can grow locally, but you don’t necessarily see them in your local grocery store,” Smith said.

They never expected their “100-mile diet,” which they chronicle in an online magazine, to draw international attention and generate buzz all over the Internet.

(more…)

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Take a deep breath

ph_info_smog_menu_ptp.jpg

I was out running earlier today when a bus accelerated past me, blowing a big cloud of exhaust in my face. It’s hard to think that running is good for your health when that happens.

When I got home, I heard there was a smog warning for Montreal today and that reminded me of some tips I had read for getting a run in without the harmful effects of air pollution in the city. I usually follow these rules in the summer when the smog warnings come fast and furious in Montreal, but they apply in the winter too.

1. Run early. Air quality deteriorates during the day, so it would be worse to run in the afternoon or evening, especially during rush hours.

2. Avoid running near highways or busy roads. That’s where all the car & bus exhaust fumes are.

3. If the air quality is particularly bad, don’t run at all. Take the day off and hope for better air tomorrow, or head inside and run on a treadmill.

And lastly, leave your car at home and cut down on your own air pollution production!

P.S. The city monitors air quality and calculates an air quality index. Find up-to-date info on this page.

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This story by my colleague Michelle Lalonde at the Montreal Gazette had me rounding up our plastic sippy cups and the kids’ drinking cups and checking their bottoms for the right recycling symbols – if it has a 7 inside that little triangle, there’s a good chance they contain the dangerous chemical bisphenol A.

Here’s what Environmental Defence had to say this week about its new research on baby bottles and bisphenol A:

A new study by Environmental Defence shows that a harmful chemical, bisphenol A, leaches from popular brands of plastic baby bottles found on Canadian store shelves. Bisphenol A, is a known hormone disruptor and is associated with adverse health effects, including breast and prostate cancer, early puberty in girls, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and obesity.

From Toxic Nation, here’s a list of safe plastic baby bottle alternatives.

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