Loaner Bags by Deposit

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lightbulbEver felt guilty for forgetting your re-useable bag at home? Felt the accusing stare of the clerk or fellow shoppers?

With the memory of Christmas giving so fresh in our minds, redolent with blister packs and bubble wraps, perhaps plastic shopping bags are kind of insignificant relative to our total plastic footprint.

Which is why it should be utterly painless to stop using them altogether. Here’s how a deposit system could rescue the absent-minded and why we should use it.

There are plenty of heart-wrenching reasons why we should stop using disposable bags —islands of garbage or seabirds starving with stomachs packed full of plastic bottle caps but I am not going to go there. Being wasteful is stupid and disgraceful. So, since none of us like to be stupid in public, plastic bags are hereby banned.

Avoid the fish juice

I am going to assume you are all pumping your fists in the air shouting, “Yes! YES!”

Yes, we can. Go buy some biodegradable bags for your pet waste so puppy’s poop does not persevere. While you’re at it, grab some garbage bags that, since they were actually designed to hold garbage not groceries, will not leak fish juice all down the stairs when you take the garbage out. And, of course, recycle all you can and compost your food scraps so your garbage won’t smell even though it now takes three weeks to fill a bag.

But, sadly, we are all too human, and that means we will sometimes forget our reusable bags. The first time this happens I suggest you splurge and have your groceries delivered to your home by bicycle. But the second time you forget, wouldn’t it be great if you could just borrow a bag and take it home? In fact, what if you could just pay a small deposit, like you do on beer bottles, (which have a 97 per cent return rate) and take all the bags you want?

This doesn’t seem so hard; stores already accept bottles and cans. In addition to selling reusable bags for you to keep all for yourself, stores could have loaner bags by deposit.

It would be easiest if we could return our bags to any store that struck our fancy, so perhaps a Neighbourhood Business Association could organize the effort — a small step, really, for the Commercial Drive Business Society, which already makes and sells shopping bags (and umbrellas) made from the Drive’s old banners.

Imagine with me an entire neighbourhood re-using old banners to make bags that are loaned to the forgetful for a modest deposit. What could go wrong with that?

Keep it clean

Well, a study —funded by a very dispassionate plastics group—found reusable bags might have elevated levels of mould or bacteria. Once again, we can thank our lucky stars we managed to beat back fascism and put a man on the moon what with everybody staggering around retching from food poisoning contracted from those hillbilly reusable bags.

Nonetheless, I don’t expect past examples, like, say, the Aztec Empire (no plastic bags) or the Roman Empire (also no plastic bags) to sway people who like to recreationally waste oil, so let’s just make sure these deposit bags are washed between uses. Commercial laundry companies are providing clean linens all over this country, so this shouldn’t be a problem. A modest fee to cover the cost of laundering will also serve to keep the incentive on bringing your own bags and shouldn’t cost any more than the 25 cent fee more enlightened jurisdictions levy on plastic bags.

Of course if you do care about those fish or seabirds, we should stop using styrofoam as well. Like Portland, Seattle and 23 cities in California. I hate being less green than Americans.


New Ways to Warm Your Bum

Originally published on

lightbulbForget patio heaters. Use the heat restaurants cook up.

I live in a nice neighbourhood. The pleasantly tattered barbershops and import food stores of Little Italy are only recently being replaced with baby boutiques and doggy bakeries. The main street practically defines café culture, which means lots of outdoor seating, and as the seasons change, lots of patio heaters.

If there was ever an example of why we do not fundamentally deserve our opposable thumbs, this has to be it. As soon as we developed grip, we started warming the planet. Let’s refresh — some of the world’s leading scientists say climate change could affect rice production, the staple food of half of humanity, will eliminate half the species on the planet by 2100 and that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 100 per cent if we wish to avoid runaway warming that will kill everybody who can’t make it to the Arctic fast enough.

Our response? To pinch that little knob and turn the flame up higher — it is a little brisk out here in the middle of December.

We seem to think we deserve to be warm at all times, regardless of season or activity. So we are burning fossil fuels outdoors. Just burningthem. Outdoors. We are trying to Heat The Outdoors. There is no way I can say this that makes it sound any smarter.

Maybe you need a kotatsu

The British seem to be the only place that cares about patio heaters. The environment minister was quizzed in parliament about the GHG emissions (about 300,000 tonnes per year across the United Kingdom) and Wyevale, a garden centre chain has stopped selling them.

Deliberately turning away from a half million in sales, Jim Hodkinson, Wyevale’s chairman, said: “Phasing out the sale of gas powered patio heaters is not just the right thing to do, it also demonstrates our determination to establish and adhere to a meaningful green agenda in every area of Wyevale’s business.”

So what would be a smarter way to stay warm in the cold weather? Oh maybe being indoors, with a nice well-insulated wall and some double-pane windows between you and the cold. Or, I once enjoyed an al frescodinner at a Vancouver restaurant that had blankets folded over each patio chair. You could also put on a hoody, a vest, a jacket, a shawl, a toque or perhaps some nice fingerless gloves.

The Japanese use a heated table, called a kotatsu, to keep warm in the winter. A quilt is draped over the table frame and the table top is placed on top. Charcoals (or an electric heater) keep you toasty underneath. They are much more efficient since only the space under the quilt is heated. As opposed to the whole outdoors.

Siphoning restaurant kitchen heat

Let’s get even more imaginative, as we need to do if we want to die old and happy, and from something other than climate chaos. Restaurants have lots of waste heat, in liquid form from the incessant dishwashing, and as hot air rising from the oven and range.

Martin Air Systems, a Burlington, Ontario company, fits waste heat recovery systems. They have been able to cut restaurant gas bills by 35-40 per cent. Considering that our Kyoto reduction targets were 12 per cent, making a 35 per cent cut that pays off in one or two years seems like a pretty good idea.

How about we circulate that heat through a bench on the patio? A warm bench on a cool summer evening? You would never want to leave. Don’t try to tell me this isn’t possible, warm air was circulated under floors in ancient Rome.

What about the poor restaurant owners, unable to compete without the extra seating space? As a former restaurant owner, I have remarkably little sympathy, in fact this may be the only time you will hear me support the free market.

Suppose a restaurateur had a dream of a little joint that serves only dry toast. This place — named, I am sure, White or Brown? — doesn’t even serve a glass of water to help you wash it down, just toast.

When White or Brown? encounters financial difficulty, do you think taxpayers should step in to subsidize their stupid, crumbly dream? Of course not. So why should we chip in part of our national carbon allowance for patio heaters? That would be dumb.

Throw no more on the barbie

Finally, and here is where my eyelids lose their battle and my eyeballs actually pop out of my head, what about the ardent barbequeist? You know, the one with the big stainless steel barbeque, and the stainless work surface, and the bar-size stainless refrigerator — a whole outdoor kitchen that must be kept warm as the sun goes down with a nice stainless patio heater.

This is wrong on so many levels that I can only hope lightning is attracted to all the stainless steel. First, there are many people, not just in other countries, that don’t have a kitchen, let alone an extra kitchen.

Second, your spare kitchen doesn’t just spring forth, from some sort of immaculate industrial conception; the resource extraction, manufacture and transport of your extra kitchen generates GHGs. I could go on, but all I need say is: You are Heating The outdoors. With fire. The outdoors.

Your lap blanket awaits you.


Let’s Claim Our Rotting Riches

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LetsClaimOurA truly cool city would feature a short stroll to the local worm bin.

You and I are caring people. And caring people care about composting, which is why many of us bemoan the fact that our civic governments do not collect compost. The well-informed among us may even talk fondly of municipal organic waste collection systems, like those started in San Francisco in 1998 and Toronto in 2004.

But let’s play these municipal collection systems out a bit. First the city gives every household a pricey new plastic rolling tote. They buy additional trucks and hire more people. Those trucks chug up every single lane in the city until they are full, then they drive somewhere far away and dump the organic waste. Large machines pile and re-pile the organics for a few months until it breaks down into compost. They do this two to four times each month, 12 months of the year, for the rest of time.

There’s an obvious environmental cost, and the cash price is none too pretty, either. Take my hometown of Vancouver as an example. The current cost of garbage collection in the Vancouver area is about $15 per tonne. Metro Vancouver collects 1.5 million tonnes of garbage, of which 180,000 tonnes is organic waste.

So the cost of collecting that organic waste, whether in garbage trucks or compost trucks, is $2.7 million every year, plus inflation, wage increases, and fuel surcharges — and speaking of fuel surcharges, diesel has increased in price by 65 per cent this year. Analysts from the investment bankers Goldman Sachs predict oil could spike to $200 per barrel by winter of 2008.

Landfill potpourri

Cities are going to have an increasingly difficult time paying to move garbage from place to place. Something will give, and solid waste is usually the last thing to get a budget cut — people get real cranky when the rats are bigger than the cats. Say goodbye to daycares and libraries.

It doesn’t help that many cities have landfills already overflowing with packaging, construction debris and built-to-break gadgets, and must resort to increasingly tortuous and expensive ways to dispose of their waste. So far, the “best practices” solution seems to be shipping it overseas or to other jurisdictions by trainbarge or truck.

Organic waste is a big part of that problem. We truck enormous amounts of food into our cities; in Canada about 1,000 kilograms per person per year. The waste from that food is mind-boggling. A recent report found the U.K. throws away almost a third of its food — and that’s counting only the food that could be eaten, not the piles of peelings and seeds.

So forget about compost? Of course not. You care. And so you care about compost. Composting returns nutrients to the soil. It is part of closing the loop of nutrients; from the soil to us, from us to the soil. As cities increase food security, reconnect with living systems, and increase affordability through urban agriculture, composting will be a critical part of the urban permaculture.

You also care about climate chaos, and composting reduces greenhouse gas emissions from organics rotting in landfills. Methane, a greenhouse gas 27 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is formed as organic waste decays in airless conditions. Some places burn landfill gas for heat and power generation, but it is not a high-tech system — a big rubber sheet is spread over the dump to collect whatever leaks out. But the garbage bags are still tied shut — organics are mixed with mattresses. The system is far from optimized for methane generation.

Local composting: pick your method

Why not build a composting system that does not rely on a constant river of oil, and start saving part of that $15 per tonne — not to mention lowering our greenhouse gas emissions, cutting down on carcinogenic particulates and reducing the number of noisy trucks waking us in the morning?

To cut back on fossil fuels, everything needs to be on a walkable scale. This will require several kinds of composting systems, depending on the neighbourhood density.

Many cities offer subsidized backyard composters and balcony worm bins, and this obviously needs to continue. Nothing could be better than closing the loop right at home — eat food, compost scraps, spread compost on your garden, eat more food.

The next scale up would require small apartment buildings to compost on site. If a row of three or four backyard composters won’t keep up with the organic flow, small automatic composters use an electric heater to accelerate composting and an auger to automatically turn the compost, producing finished compost in two weeks.

For still larger buildings, industrial scale worm composters can really chew through the food. The Mount Nelson Hotel in South Africa uses worms to make short work of leftovers from the artichoke and asparagus assiette.

But, when I spend some quality time, just me alone with my dreams of composting, I always imagine a neighbourhood bio-digester. This would fit nicely near an intersection, so the residents from the four surrounding blocks can easily walk to it. After you throw your compost in the chute, enzymes and bacteria break it down to produce methane. The methane is burnt in a micro-turbine to generate electricity, which is sold back to the grid. The money raised through energy sales can be used to buy hot dogs and drinks for block parties. The nice thing about this neighbourhood node, other than compost-fueled block parties, is that it would be a logical place to expand into other waste streams like textiles, furniture, brass and steel. It would be helpful if urban planners could start thinking about space for these collection points.

Organic waste: your next career?

Diffusing decomposition into the community creates other opportunities that we wouldn’t get from a fleet of diesel trucks. Right now we have an under-recognized workforce harvesting the nutrient flows of aluminum cans and plastic bottles from our dumpsters. Compost maintenance could provide jobs for those who would like to augment the money they make binning. Traveling by bicycle through the alleys, carrying an aerating tool, these waste technicians could turn your compost and add leaves or grass clippings as necessary. Well-turned compost breaks down faster and hotter, making for fewer flies and better compost. They could also increase the four-block range of the biodigesters by collecting compost from a wider area in bicycle trailers and dumping it into the digester.

So what is it going to be? Shall we build oil-based systems that are doomed from the start, or regenerative systems that can only grow stronger?



The 50-Million-Tree Slurp

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coffeeHey coffee drinker, isn’t it time you started mugging it up?

We have some amazing technology developing here in Canada. Homegrown high-tech whiz-bang — Nobel Prize material, really.

This system is too good to be true: it can provide fuel, or be easily processed into one of our most versatile building materials; it can sequester CO2 to slow global warming; be harvested for food; increase ecosystem health and biodiversity by providing habitat for animals, birds, plants and insects; slow damaging storm-water runoff; purify water; and help remediate contaminated soils. The feedstock is free and abundant, and maintenance on the system is negligible.

Or, we can destroy trees for pulp to make paper coffee cups, which, after 15 minutes of use, we throw in the garbage can. Then, we pick the cups up with pollution-belching trucks and throw them in a dump, where they rot and create more greenhouse gases. To say this is not an elegant solution to beverage transportation is quite an understatement — but what could we replace it with?

I have never really understood the delight with which coffee companies brand their paper cups. After all, we usually throw stuff in the garbage because it is low quality or broken. Take a walk down any inner-city alley and you will quickly get a picture of which mattresses sag too soon and which televisions are prone to burning out. A look in the garbage cans will tell you which coffee shops are serious about the environment, and which ones are causing serious environmental damage.

Disposable taste buds?

There are lots of problems with disposable cups. Up to 90 per cent of flavour comes from the aroma you inhale, so the non-recyclable styrene lids make your morning jolt about one-tenth as delicious.

Paper cups are all lined with plastic to prevent sogginess and, if you want to keep your reproductive organs functioning, plastic is seldom considered a good marriage with hot or acidic liquids.

And of course, trees are elegant and amazing organisms that deserve better than to be pulped into coffee cups — think Stradivarius. Forests generate value with an ease industry will never replicate. The unmeasured economic value provided by Canada’s boreal forest for things like water filtration and air purification has been has been estimated at $93 billion. That is two and a half times as much as the combined economic value of the forestry, mining, oil and gas and hydroelectric industries in the boreal forest. This would represent eight per cent of Canada’s entire GDP, and trees don’t need a pension or healthcare.

And yet we keep grinding them up — North America uses 60 per cent of the world’s paper cups, 130 billion of them per year. Those cups require about 50 million trees and 33 billion gallons of water, which could sequester 9.3 million tonnes of CO2 and quench 550,000 drought-stricken citizens of the state of Georgia, without even asking them to lower their ridiculous consumption rate of 166 gallons per day.

Easy solutions

So. Please stop. There is really no need to argue further. Paper cups are stupid.

Let’s dispense the obvious solution quickly: buy a travel mug. I bought a pocket-sized stainless mug in 1997 and engraved my phone number on it in case I forgot it somewhere. But, if for some reason the same species that landed on the moon, climbed Mount Everest and eradicated polio cannot remember to carry a travel mug, we might want to have a few back-up systems.

A good place to start would be a deposit system, which has been very effective for milk, beer and soda bottles — there is even a café in Toronto selling coffee beans in returnable bottles. I would suggest that a few stores or chains agree to co-brand metal travel mugs so you can return your mug to Joe’s Café or Caffe Roma, whichever is more convenient. A cargo bike can redistribute mugs as needed if they start piling up in one store.

And, a deposit system suddenly gives value to used cups, something we used to call garbage. In fact, deposits fund a whole industry of binners, or dumpster divers — servicing those of us who are too lazy to sort recyclables from trash. Just put your mug down anywhere and one of these hard-working urban recyclers will be happy to return it for you. So if those mega-chains just can’t imagine living without the brand value of their cups spilling out of garbage cans everywhere, well, that pretty clearly speaks to who is just greenwashing, and who is truly trying to be green.

Looking at a stranger’s mug

On a smaller scale, a coffee shop could head to the thrift shop and buy up the ceramic mugs. When I owned a coffee shop, we bought only the mugs that had been personalized with photographs. You know, the kind that say To Grandma, with pictures of babies on them. Some were more exciting, though. My favourite pictured a brunette in white lingerie, holding a glass of champagne and reclining on a hotel bed. Creepily, theI Love You message was in kiddie-style crayon writing.

Armed with these cheap mugs, the café can just give them away for customers to sip and stroll their way up the street. If a dozen metal, newspaper-style boxes were placed six blocks away, in a circle around the café, customers would come across a handy box to put their cup in just as their coffee was finished. Along roll the cargo bikes again, to whisk the cups back for washing.

Even as we transition to systems of deposits and reuse, let’s remember to slow down and savour. Do you think the English are so passionate about a cup of steeped leaves, or is it the break, the time to think and talk and reflect, that they love?

So instead of throwing away our cups, let’s throw away the smell of bleached paper and the cuts from sharp plastic lids. Once again, it turns out that living sustainably is actually more joyful — not just better for the world, but better for us.


Let’s Pave Streets Green

Originally published on


Would you give up your extra parking spot for a garden plot?

The asphalt will crack and erupt, and green plants and vines will sprout forth.

No, this isn’t my end of the world prophecy, this is about parking. Or gardening. Or both.

The street I live on has several apartment buildings and five houses. In other words, every person who lives on my street has underground parking or their own spot off the back lane. Yet the street is lined — choked — with parked cars. What’s the problem here? Or rather, what’s the solution?

I am not usually one to advocate for another law — in fact, I have considered running for office on a “One Bylaw Repealed Every Day” ticket. But, an easy way to free up space in our cities would simply be to require that if you have a parking spot on your property, you use it. Leave the public space for public use.

Mapping it out

So how much space is there, and what could we do with it? Google Maps shows my block is 850 feet long and a little quality time with a tape measure finds the distance between sidewalks is 41 feet, so in just one block we have 34,850 square feet to play with.

First, let’s make it a one-way street, one lane wide, with a couple of pullouts. This maintains access for emergency vehicles, taxis and mini-buses for wheelchairs. We could also throw four spots for visitors into each block. At one end we can put a half-court for basketball, street hockey, skateboarding or rollerblading so once again shouts of “Car!” will mean the players get a short break. For the rest of the block, I propose gardens. We have enough space left for 150 very nice garden plots, each about 3 by 4 metres, plus walkways.

Or, we could continue to enjoy the heat rising off the asphalt, with the rich visual stimulus of dented bumpers and the sound of car alarms.

Volunteers anyone?

Cleveland, Ohio is a hub of Asphalt Gardening, where planter boxes are put right on top of parking lots, separated from the polluted soil and oily road by a layer of wood chips. This would be a great way to try Garden Streets — do a block or two, then a couple of years later rip up the asphalt and put roots down.

I happen to live in Vancouver, where the city council passed a motion to have 2010 new garden plots by 2010. A handy graph on the linked page shows there is not even a dream of actually achieving it, even though it is a pittance by some standards. (The city-state of Singapore, for example, produces 25 per cent of its own vegetables.)

So call me the answer to Vancouver City Hall’s prayers because 2010 new garden plots is only 14 blocks of Garden Streets.

Could we start street gardening without a controversial bylaw to eliminate street parking? Sure. The city could run a newspaper ad explaining the idea and asking blocks to volunteer. Let the citizens do all the legwork of convincing their neighbours. Using bio-intensive gardening methods, my block could provide all the vegetables needed for 22 people, plus all the plant material needed to keep the soil productive — no need for chemical fertilizers here.

Tasty numbers

Arable Acres found that Vancouver could grow all its own produce by farming the existing front and back yards. Times have changed since the study was done in 1980 — there are more people living in the city, and development has eaten up space. But other things have changed too. That study suggested those gardens could produce $100 million worth of produce. That is $265,000,000 in today’s dollars. The possibilities make your head spin — 70 hectares of farm in Burnaby produce 10 per cent of the vegetables grown in the Fraser Valley. Arable Acres estimates Vancouver has about 3,000 hectares in streets and another 3,000 hectares in yards. Putting this into practice, the Edible Estates project is farming front yards in six cities across the United States, from Lakewood, California to Maplewood, New Jersey.

All of these delicious statistics beg the question whether the current trend in zoning experiments — reduced on-site parking so drivers have to fight for spots on the street — is entirely a good idea.

The idea has been: remove parking and you will remove cars, thus helping build more great places like the pedestrian-scale streetcar neighbourhoods that are being or have been gentrified all over North America. And yes, this appears to be at least a mossy shade of green.

But why should we let private cars be pushed onto the public street in the first place? Why should the taxpayers, including the pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders, pay for the real estate and the asphalt underneath other people’s cars?

True cost of cars

Land in urban centres is at such a premium that each street parking spot in front of my building is worth $25,000. Add to that the fact that each car actually has three to four parking spots scattered around the city, just waiting for it (otherwise you wouldn’t be able to find a spot at the end of your trip and would be forced to drive back home, spinning like a hamster in a wheel). The total subsidy to drivers is at least $100,000. If drivers had to mortgage their street parking, they would be paying $600 per month. And to think I can’t find bike racks.

It would be easy to turn my block, with all its underground parking, into a Garden Street, but why stop there? Imagine your own block stuffed with flowers and vegetables. Big sprays of lupins, colourful mats of marigolds, nodding rows of poppies. The big white blossoms of pumpkin changing to the shiny orange of jack-o’-lanterns-to-be. Fat, red Early Girl tomatoes alongside the sweet Gold Nugget grape tomatoes.

Speaking of grapes, why not trellis a few up for summer shade and delicious juice? And, instead of the “decorative” street trees, you can have fruit and nut trees — with no cars for fruit to fall upon there is really no reason not to do it.

If what I’ve said here makes sense to you, please feel free to practice this rallying cry: A garden plot — not a parking spot — for every citizen!

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