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Ever since our family did a one-week garbage-free experiment last summer, I’ve been trying to keep our kids’ packed lunches and snacks as litterless as possible. The average Canadian kid’s lunch (like the one pictured above) is estimated to create about 30 kg of waste each year. I’d been at the kids’ schools at lunch and snack time and had been surprised by the amount of garbage being produced.

We have piles of reusable plastic containers, water bottles, real cutlery and cloth napkins that the kids are very good about returning in their lunch boxes each day. We also have a plastic bento-box style lunch kit that is great for lunches. We got ours as gifts from Laptop Lunches and they are sturdy, clean easily and can carry a lot of food for a hungry kid.

We also try not to pack individually-wrapped foods such as granola bars or cheese sticks. The kids take juice boxes from time to time, but usually have water or juice in a reusable bottle. They bring home any small plastic sandwich bags or snack-size bags to be recycled. It would be nice if our older child’s elementary school could provide recycling facilities in the lunchroom, but that’s something I hope to raise with the school shortly.

Here’s a picture of one of our kids’ lunches that I made last week:

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Yes, it’s true, she has a paper napkin but that’s because all the cloth napkins were in the laundry that day!! Besides, she brought it home and it went straight into the compost.

I also picked up stainless-steel water bottles for the kids to use after reading several reports raising concerns about dangerous chemicals leaching from plastic water bottles into water. They love them, but they were a bit pricey so every time they leave the house they get a “Don’t lose your water bottle!!” reminder. So far, so good….

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For the first time since we got our outdoor compost bins, we are adding green waste like fruit and vegetable peels to it all winter long. It has kept the family of squirrels living in the maple tree in our back yard very happy as they have everything from canteloupe rinds to avocado skins to munch on in the cold dead of winter.

But this is what the bins look like now:

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We had decided just to shut down the bins for the rest of the winter and start composting again in the spring once everything thaws and we can take out the new compost from the bottom of the bins and spread it over our garden. But after three days of throwing out egg shells, used Kleenexes, apple cores and banana peels, we had to stop. The guilt was overwhelming – we couldn’t believe how many bags of garbage were leaving the house.

So we decided to bring in the big guns — a pound of worms. We picked them up from our local Eco-quartier office where a couple of hours after I called they had them waiting for us in a plastic yogurt container. The little wigglers cost us $15 and provided no end of  amusement for our kids, who were making up songs about their new pets on the trip to pick them up.

We had an indoor worm composting system years ago when we lived in an apartment, and still had the bin that the worms used to live in. We filled it up with shredded newspaper and moistened it with water:

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Then, we unleashed the worms. You can watch the worms arrive in their new home here. Click on the picture below or here.

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We’ve fed them once and it seems some of the worms are smarter than others. The smart ones are already eating the fresh worm food, the no-so-smart ones are still in the little pile of compost they came in. 

We’ve yet to see if the worms can handle all our green waste. We’re saving some of it to take to my parents’ place in the country this weekend. They have a big compost pile in their back yard, so we’ll dump a few plastic containers of green waste on theirs and let the worms do their magic on the rest here.

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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