Sustainable living: Canada’s environmental report card

 by Theresa Peluso

 In last month’s Green Talk column, I suggested a number of ways that we Canadians can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to raise our standing (currently 15th out of 17 OECD countries in 2010).  Since households are responsible for nearly half of the country’s total emissions, we need to do our part to reduce this embarrassing statistic. Globally, humanity’s carbon footprint has increased eleven-fold since 1961, and despite the efforts of some countries to cut back, many others, like Canada, are short-sightedly doing little, for fear of harming their economic growth.

I have already explained the merits of increasing our house’s energy efficiency, using energy-efficient appliances, reducing gasoline usage and water consumption. But there’s so much more!

Here’s what Environment Canada has to say:

We take our water for granted. Because we undervalue this precious resource, we tend to overuse it and, in fact, abuse it. The apparent abundance of water is deceptive, and the capacity of our lakes and rivers — and even of the oceans — to purify the wastes we dump into them is much more limited than we once thought it was. There is a price for it: billions and billions of dollars to clean up or prevent pollution. It is becoming abundantly clear that water is not a free good. Sooner or later it presents us with a bill: the price of neglect. In many cases we pay less than the actual cost of processing and delivery. For example, irrigation water charges only recover about 10% of the actual costs of the service. The same is true, to a less extreme extent, for water costs to householders….Our overuse of water begins at home. Compared to other countries, we pay very little to have water delivered to our kitchen and bathroom faucets…Canada: $0.31 Spain: $0.47 United States: $0.40-$0.80 Ireland: $0.61 Sweden: $0.69 Italy: $0.70 Finland: $0.77 United Kingdom: $1.28 Netherlands: $1.30 France: $1.35 Belgium: $1.55 Germany: $2.16….(taken from the chapter Wise Water Use) http://www.ec.gc.ca/eau-water/default.asp?lang=En&n=F25C70EC-1#supply. Costs given are per cubic metre of water – quote is taken from the chapter Wise Water Use.

Here are more water conservation tips to add to the ones I listed in last month’s column. According to a 2011 Environment Canada report (http://www.ec.gc.ca/doc/publications/eau-water/COM1454/survey2-eng.htm), Ontario water use was 225 litres per capita per day in 2009. Considering that residents of the United Kingdom only require 154 L/day and Germans require a mere 128 L/day (CMHC, 2005) (evidence that your water conservation efforts clearly improve when you’re paying four or seven times what Canadians do!), we need to try harder to reduce our own water consumption.

Let’s rise to the challenge, and implement a few easy changes to the way we use water.  Wait until you have a full load before using your dishwasher or washing machine.  If hand-washing your dishes, wait until you have a sink-full, then add a small amount of detergent to the water, and rinse the dishes quickly with short bursts of water. Rinse fruits and vegetables in a bowl filled with water instead of under running water.  If possible, try to use greywater (such as the water left over from your bath or shower) to flush the toilet. Use a broom, not the hose, to clean the deck or patio.  Take your car to a car wash that recycles its water or, if washing your car at home, use a bucket of water and a sponge, rinsing the car quickly at the end.  If you have a pool, use a pool cover to reduce evaporation.

When looking after your lawn and garden, in addition to using a rain-barrel, there’s a lot you can do to maintain the moisture level.  Set your lawn-mower blades one notch higher than usual, since longer grass reduces evaporation. Don’t remove the grass clippings after mowing the lawn.  Use mulch, compost and wood chips on your beds. Group plants with similar watering needs together, and avoid buying plants that need to be kept moist unless you have a perennially moist site on your property. Water your garden early in the morning or in the evening, and adjust your sprinklers so they don’t water the walkways or driveway.

Now, what about our fuel consumption, specifically in relation to our cars?  Check the Canadian government’s Auto Smart ratings for the next car you plan to buy for its fuel efficiency and pollution emissions.  Based on these criteria, a modern station wagon is twice as fuel-efficient and half as polluting as a typical SUV that seats the same number of passengers.

Hybrid cars, if you can afford one, are twice as fuel-efficient as gasoline-powered cars. Obviously, small cars are generally cheaper than large ones, and more fuel efficient. Not idling your car (and this includes not using drive-throughs), driving close to the speed limit, and maintaining a constant speed are other ways.  Carpool, and use public transportation whenever possible. Just pretend that gas costs $2.28 per litre (UK prices in January 2014), and you’ll soon think of even more ways to minimize your driving!  And when the time comes to plan your holiday, try to find an interesting getaway nearby.  Ontario and Quebec are blessed with fantastic natural areas and interesting cities, towns, and villages, and the business you give them will be great for the local economy.  Minimize travel by plane if you can; not only does it generate more carbon emissions than driving by car; the fact that the plane’s emissions are released at high altitudes causes a much higher impact.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that the climate impact of aircraft is two to four times greater than the effect of their carbon dioxide emissions alone. (http://environment.about.com/od/greenlivingdesign/a/fly_vs_drive.htm)

How about our food? The Green Eatz website (http://www.greeneatz.com/foods-carbon-footprint.html), published by Jane Richards, a qualified nutritionist, has this to say:

Food produces about 8 tons of emissions per household, or about 17% of the total. Worldwide, agriculture produces about a third of all man-made emissions. Changing the foods that you eat can have a big impact on your carbon footprint. And reduce pollution, preserve the environment and slow global warming. Many of these changes will also save you money, improve your health and even keep you fit! (Jane Richards, 2013)

According to the Green Eatz chart, which lists the carbon footprint of raising and consuming various foods, lamb ranks first at 39.2 kg of CO2 (equivalent to 91 car miles) per kilogram of lamb, beef ranks second at 27 kg of CO2 (equivalent to 63 car miles) per kilogram of beef; compared with cheese, ranked third (13.5 kg of CO2 (equivalent to 31 car miles per kilogram of cheese)); chicken, ranked sixth (6.9 kg), tuna, ranked seventh (6.1 kg), eggs, ranked eighth (4.8 kg); and beans/tofu, ranked twelfth (2 kg of CO2).  Vegetarians will find it interesting that eating chicken instead of cheese lowers your carbon footprint.

So finding alternate protein sources is a good way to start.  Avoiding food waste is even more critical (see the suggestions given in my December column).   Growing your own vegetables reduces handling, packaging and transportation costs to zero, and buying local produce is the next best thing.  Junk food is basically a waste of resources, not to mention the damage it does to your health. Also, take a look at how your food is packaged.  If the container can’t be re-used or recycled, try to find alternatives.  And don’t forget to buy sustainably-sourced marine products!  Just look for the MSC logo.

Last, but not least, and only because I’m running out of space, we Canadians need to stop producing so much trash.

As explained by David R. Boyd in his article Canada vs. the OECD: An Environment Comparison, 2001:

Municipal waste contributes to environmental problems including habitat destruction, surface and groundwater pollution, and other forms of air, soil, and water contamination. Incineration creates toxic substances, while landfills emit methane (which contributes to global warming) and other gases. (accessed August 19, 2008)

Listen to what the Conference Board of Canada has to say about us in its report How Canada Performs – Environment:

In 2009, Canada generated 777 kilograms of municipal waste per capita—the 17 country (OECD) average was 578 kg. Most of the waste goes to landfills or incinerators—of the 34 million tonnes generated in 2008, 26 million went there for disposal…. In 2008, nearly 13 million tonnes of waste were generated by Canadian households.3 Of this, more than 8.5 million tonnes were disposed of in landfills or incinerators; the remaining 4.4 million tonnes were diverted through recycling, reuse, or composting….Canadians must also realize that economic growth cannot come at the expense of the environment. (January 2013)

In addition to the fact that the average Canadian household throws out about 30 percent of perfectly edible food, many people still don’t take full advantage of the recycling programs offered by their municipalities.  Municipalities need to do their part to increase waste diversion by enhancing their current programs and encouraging compliance. We consumers need to buy only what we need, avoid excess packaging like the plague, make sure our purchases are well-made and long-lasting, and take full advantage of all the re-using and recycling opportunities available when we decide to discard the item.  Compost what you can! Buying second-hand clothing, furnishings, books, toys, equipment, and appliances is a great way to save money and give someone else’s purchases a second life.

So much to think about; so much to change – it all seems so daunting!  But if you change one or two of your routines every month, it won’t take long before you realize that it really isn’t that difficult to reduce your carbon footprint.  And if everyone joins in, Canada will no longer be ranked a low, dismal 15 out of 17 in its next environmental report card!