Saturday, 16 May 2015

Peas trellised and first harvest of the season

I got the trellis up for the peas today.  The peas themselves are doing well, though a few of them have clearly been trimmed by bunnies or birds or something.  In case it's bunnies, I put some chicken wire around the bed to hopefully prevent further damage.

The rhubarb was also overflowing its bed, so I took the liberty of thinning it out.  3kg so far.  Last year we got almost 6kg, the year before, just 2.  With likely 2 more pickings to go, this should be our best year yet.

We also decided we wanted to do our part for the butterflies.  Milkweed is an important larval food source for monarch butterflies and other insects.  We found some at Greenway Blooming Centre (who also have a neat butterfly house you can visit in the summer) and we're going to put together a butterfly + bee friendly flower bed.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

5 Signs of Spring

It has been a long and stressful winter.  There were many challenges for us these past few months.  We added a little boy to our family last September, and we're still struggling to keep up with certain things.  Hence the lack of writing.  But some things just have to be appreciated.  A warm Spring day in April is one of them.  So here are five reasons I know it's Spring:

Rain barrels are set up and ready to go.  April is usually pretty rainy, so these will overflow faster than I can keep up, but I leave one of the taps partially open.  This way I can use the barrels to slow down the runoff from my property.

Garden beds are cleaned up and ready to go.  In fact, today I planted peas, carrots, onions, beets, radishes, spinach, and arugula.  I used up all of the compost that we have ready, and will have to head to the dump to get some more.

The yard looks much nicer this year.  I spent a lot of time last summer cleaning up the landscaping and planting what appears to be grass, but is actually mostly clover.  Clover adds nitrogen to the soil and is, in my opinion, far more useful than grass.  It also doesn't grow very tall, so it doesn't need to be mowed as often.  It stays green in dry weather, and loves to be walked on from time to time.  Plus it will keep us busy for hours trying to find the fourth leaf.

We haven't added any more garden space this year.  For now the size matches our skills/experience well enough.  We will have to think a bit more about layout when we do expand the garden.  One day we might even achieve this...we have about the same amount of land.  Unfortunately the archaic (albeit very recent) by-laws in Waterloo forbid urban livestock.  Even chickens.

Drying clothes outside.  This is, I think the third opportunity for us to do this.  After hanging clothes inside all winter, we look forward to the extra capacity and outdoor freshness that comes with the outdoor line.

Seedlings growing inside.  I started these tomatoes, eggplants, and hot peppers late in March.  I started re-potting the tomatoes today.  The eggplants were slower to sprout so they can wait another week or two before being re-potted.  The hot peppers haven't sprouted yet.  I never have had good luck with peppers, but I decided to give them one last shot.

I'm trying out a new grow-light this year.  I hadn't used one previously, but my seedlings were always a bit on the small side.  This one connects to a standard light socket and is LED, so it produces only the colours that the plants can use, and only burns about 12 Watts.  It was about $35 to buy it on, so it was worth a shot.  So far, I think the plants are doing better than in previous years, but that might just be the placebo effect at play.

Deck furniture.  Finally it is free from its winter slumber.  Time to enjoy watching the squirrels, birds, and bunnies as they forage for food and frolic in the sun.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

"12 Days of Christmas" impact: Day 5

In an effort to help reduce waste this Holiday season, I am looking at the lifecycle and proper disposal of gift ideas found in Bob and Doug McKenzie's "12 Days of Christmas."  If you haven't already, you may want to start at Day 1.
On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:  five golden touques

We've already talked about clothing, so there's really no point in discussing touques.  So I'm going to take this literally and assume the touques are made of actual gold.

Generally speaking, the idyllic days of panning for gold in the Yukon are gone.  An article in the Washington Post by The Green Lantern (who I referenced on Day 3) explains modern gold mining.  It is almost entirely done in open-pit mines where every ton of ore might produce a few tenths of an ounce of gold (a standard 18 karat gold wedding band produces about 20 tons of waste).  Further, the mining and smelting process releases a lot of toxic gases, most notably mercury, which contaminates the air and water.  This is one area where bigger is better, because bigger operations can afford to employ proper emission controls.  Small mining operations produce about one fifth of the world's gold, but are the biggest source of mercury pollution.  Unfortunately, there is no real way to support any particular mining operation, since the source of the gold is rarely, if ever, reported to the consumer.

With such a high impact from mining, it is vital that any existing gold is used to its fullest potential.  Certainly it should not be tossed in a landfill somewhere.  But that's silly, right?  Nobody would do that.  Well, as explained in the infographic on the right, there are actually a lot of precious metals in landfills.

Gold and silver are used to create electronics.  If you've ever looked at an electronic circuit board and said "that gold-coloured thing," there is a very good chance that the thing you were describing is, in fact, real gold.  Each year, more than 320 tons of gold (about 7% of what is produced) is used to make consumer electronics, a lot of which are thrown in the trash rather than being recycled properly.  The problem is so bad that weight for weight, there is about 50 times more gold in electronic waste than in gold ore.  This makes e-waste recycling as well as landfill mining a very lucrative business and companies are really starting to catch on to this.

Unfortunately, processing e-waste is a highly unregulated industry and is certainly not guaranteed to be environmentally friendly.  It might even be worse than mining in some cases.  The video at the end of this post explains a very bad situation in Ghana.

So what can we do?  Gold is pretty useful stuff, and highly sought-after.  However, according to the earlier-referenced Washington Post article, there is lots of gold out there.  At least 157,000 tons of gold has been mined throughout history, and 104,000 tons of that is just sitting around in the form of bullion, coin, and jewelry in possession of individuals.  So the best way to be environmentally friendly with gold is to keep the gold we already have moving.  If you no longer need a particular piece of gold, sell it to someone who will recycle it.  If you can't find someone to buy it, just turn on the TV or step out your front door for once.  Gold is so valuable right now that everybody and their brother is begging to buy it from you (but shop around; most seem to be offering a small fraction of what it's worth).  If you don't want to sell the gold, you can always hire a jeweler to make it into a new piece of jewelry for you.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

"12 Days of Christmas" impact: Day 4

In an effort to help reduce waste this Holiday season, I am looking at the lifecycle and proper disposal of gift ideas found in Bob and Doug McKenzie's "12 Days of Christmas."  If you haven't already, you may want to start at Day 1.
On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:  four pounds of back bacon
Peameal  bacon

Also known as Canadian bacon, this is one of my favourite breakfast foods.  Much less greasy than the traditional North American side bacon.  It is made from the loin (middle of the back) instead of the belly.  It can be smoked or unsmoked, or maybe even brined and rolled in peameal (officially Canadian bacon is just the bacon itself; the stuff that's brined and rolled in peameal is called peameal bacon, but it's stupid to point that out because everybody believes that peameal bacon is Canadian bacon, and that makes it true by argumentum ad populum).  All options are great.  But the song just says "back bacon," which is more of a way of cutting the loin, rather than a specific recipe, so we're just going to look at the pork.

A 2012 report from Meat Office International indicates that each kilogram of pork contributes 6.9 kg of CO2 equivalent gases.  47% of these emissions come from feed production, and 42% of this is in manure management.  Canadians can feel slightly better that pork production in North America contributes slightly below average at about 6 kg of CO2e per kg of pork, however, Eastern Europe and Russia fare better at closer to 5 kg of CO2e per kg of pork.  Although these numbers are relatively low compared to some other animal farms (e.g. beef), the same report talks about what Canada is doing to improve this industry.  One interesting finding in this report is that very small scale production actually emits fewer greenhouse gases per kg of pork compared to industrial farms, presumably because the manure can be managed more effectively in small quantities.  This is in contrast to what we learned about chickens yesterday.

A 2009 report by the Animal Production Systems Group states that "production of 1 kg of beef protein also had the highest impact, followed by pork protein, whereas chicken protein had the lowest impact."

So eat your back bacon, perhaps from your backyard pet pig who just got too old to keep going, and feel good that at least it's not beef.  It could be poultry, but that wouldn't be nearly as tasty.  If any of it doesn't get eaten, hang your head in shame as you put it in the green bin.

Back bacon almost always comes in a plastic wrapper, often with one of those moisture absorbing pads.  Unfortunately, none of this is recyclable and must be put in the trash. The Region of Waterloo does accept such plastic wrappers, but insists that the wrapper must not have been in contact with meat or cheese.  This same problem exists for side bacon.

If you can find your back bacon at a butcher counter, that's the way to go.  They will wrap it in brown paper for you, and that paper can be placed in the green bin.  So look for it at a butcher counter.  You may have to buy a pork loin and then either slice it yourself or ask the butcher to do it for you.  If you choose to slice it yourself, you have the option to make whatever recipe you want with it.  Side bacon is much easier to find at the butcher counter, and is often cheaper and almost always tastier than the pre-packaged stuff.  Another advantage of using the butcher counter is you get to say exactly how much you want and you can even pick the slices.

Back bacon is very lean, so you don't get much, if any, fat drippings when you cook it.  Side bacon, on the other hand, leaves you with a pool of greasy goodness.  Don't put it down your drain.  It will ruin your drain and it's not good for sewer systems at all.  It could go in the green bin after it congeals, but the absolute best thing to do with it is to put it in a can in the freezer (or some keep it on the counter).  Use it when you pan fry just about anything (saves cooking oil).  Use it to grease cookie sheets and muffin tins (saves non-stick cook spray or butter).  There are lots of ways to use precious bacon grease.  Throwing it out is almost as shameful as throwing out the bacon itself.

Friday, 5 December 2014

"12 Days of Christmas" impact: Day 3

In an effort to help reduce waste this Holiday season, I am looking at the lifecycle and proper disposal of gift ideas found in Bob and Doug McKenzie's "12 Days of Christmas."  If you haven't already, you may want to start at Day 1.
On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:  three french toast

French toast is a delicious breakfast food.  I'm eating some right now.  Mmmmm.

So what goes into french toast?  Bread, milk, and eggs are the only ingredients involved, although my favourite recipe (from "Cooking With Sin") involves Quantro and orange rind.  But let's stick with the basics.


Your most basic bread consists of water, yeast, salt and grain flour.  This is basically the same stuff as beer, which was covered on day 1, so I won't reiterate things here.  The only unique ingredient is salt, which is either mined or extracted from sea water.  Both processes require energy, especially extraction from sea water.  Mining carries its own environmental risks, and at least with extraction from sea water, you get fresh drinking water as a waste product.  As fresh water becomes harder to find and more water must be obtained from desalination plants, we will have plenty of salt to use for baking.

Baking bread is also pretty energy intensive.  But is it better to bake at home or to buy bread?  It turns out, that it depends on how far you travel to get that bread.  I found a great presentation that breaks down the major factors.  The result is that, in general, the bread with the lowest impact is produced with organic grains (unless land use is of most concern), milled and baked at a factory, and sold in a supermarket.  Milling at home is never the best option.  Baking at home is only best if you live more than 0.5 km from the supermarket and you make a special trip in a car to buy only bread.  Local bakeries are a nice middle ground between environmental impact and tastiness.

So of course you should eat the bread.  But what if you don't manage to eat it all?  If you really don't like to eat the ends of the loaf, or if the bread goes stale, use it to make your own bread crumbs.  If the bread is growing mould or is otherwise contaminated, put it in the green bin.  Putting bread in your home compost is an invitation for pests.  Plastic bread bags are recyclable in the Region of Waterloo.


Groupe Ageco put together a presentation that covers the environmental impact of milk production.  They found that 2.05 kg of CO2e are produced per 1 kg of milk consumed.  73% of this is from the cows, 9% from packaging, and 3% from transportation and grocery store logistics.  Cadbury determined that 60% of their greenhouse gas emissions came from the milk they use.  The dairy industry is looking at ways to reduce this.

If your milk goes sour, it's best not to pour it down the drain:
One litre of full cream milk has enough fat in it to cover the surface of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
It will also make your drains stink if it isn't flushed properly.  Try applying it to your garden.  If you can soak it up in something organic, it could also go in the green bin.  I'm not sure what the best answer is, but down the drain is not it.

Milk comes in a variety of containers, each with their pros and cons.  Glass is reusable but heavy, however, if reused properly, it uses about half the energy over its lifetime than the other rigid options.  Plastic jugs and paper cartons are both hard to recycle.  I couldn't find much information on the plastic bag because it's not all that common outside of Canada and a handful of other countries.  However, now that it can be recycled, the plastic bag, which uses a lot less material than other packaging methods, may be the best choice of all.

Milk cartons as well as plastic milk bags (inner and outer) are recyclable in the Region of Waterloo.


The environmental impact of egg production is discussed in great detail in this article, including reference to an official report.  To summarize, eggs have about the same environmental impact as chickens, which is pretty close to other animals like pork and similar in some aspects to milk production.  It turns out that the factory farm model uses the least amount of land and energy to produce eggs, with organic, free-range farming requiring about 20% more feed, energy, etc... to produce the same number of eggs.  However, the treatment of the animals (free range is obviously considered more ethical than densely packed cages), and other external factors such as pesticide use need to be considered.  Pollution from the animals (i.e. ammonia in the manure) is another point in favour of the industrial farm, however, since it's harder to contain the manure from free range birds.


Eggs are typically sold in cartons made of either paper, plastic, or polystyrene foam.  One of Canada's major egg producers, Burnbrae Farms, talks about the difference between these materials in their FAQ:
All packaging has some sort of environmental impact. Because fibre packaging is made from recycled paper, which is recyclable and biodegradable, we lean towards using it. However, there really is no strong favourite when weighing the pros and cons of each. De-inking agents are used to produce fibre cartons, which are not needed for foam or plastic. Landfill sites are designed so that nothing breaks down in them so the biodegradability is really not relevant. However, fibre and plastic can be recycled if the cartons make it to the recycling facilities. With the fibre egg cartons, the quality of the paper is so poor that it has to be combined with lots of high-grade paper in order to create an adequate quality paper product. Egg cartons are basically last in the recycling hierarchy and the poor quality lowest grade paper tends to be used for them. The plastic is readily recyclable and there are facilities for this. There are not adequate facilities for recycling foam. Foam and plastic take less energy to extrude - a hidden benefit that is really not that obvious.
So it appears there is no clear winner.  They talk about biodegradability not being relevant, however, that really only applies if you throw the carton in the trash.  Do not put it in the trash.  Leyla Acaroglu explains why in her TED talk:
In landfill, those same carbon molecules degrade in a different way, because a landfill is anaerobic. It's got no oxygen. It's tightly compacted and hot. Those same molecules, they become methane, and methane is a 25 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So our old lettuces and products that we have thrown out that are made out of biodegradable materials, if they end up in landfill, contribute to climate change.

Paper egg cartons should be recycled or added to your home compost or the green bin, where it will decompose quite quickly.  There is also great potential to reuse cartons in crafts and for other purposes, such as reducing echoes in a room.  Paper or plastic doesn't seem to matter too much here, although foam seems to be a terrible choice for its lack of recyclability.

Every egg comes wrapped in a shell which is rich in calcium.  Don't throw these in the garbage.  They can be crushed up and added directly to your garden or your potted plants.  You can obviously also put them in your home compost or your green bin.  Don't let the dump steal all of those wonderful nutrients.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

"12 Days of Christmas" impact: Day 2

In an effort to help reduce waste this Holiday season, I am looking at the lifecycle and proper disposal of gift ideas found in Bob and Doug McKenzie's "12 Days of Christmas."  If you haven't already, you may want to start at Day 1.
On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:  two turtlenecks

Turtlenecks are most commonly made of cotton or jersey, but it is not hard to find them in wool, silk, cashmere, or a variety of other materials, both warm and dressy.  Basically, when we talk about the impact of producing turtlenecks, we are talking about the textiles industry as a whole.

A garment factory in China.  Photo from The Guardian
The textile industry is big, and it has an enormous carbon footprint.  The details of the textile industry are too complicated to discuss here, but I found a detailed discussion of this industry elsewhere.  The industry as a whole produced about 60 billion kilograms of fabric in 2008, using 1074 billion kWh of electricity (equivalent of 132 million metric tons of coal), and between 6 and 9 trillion liters of water.  To summarize the linked article's findings, using natural fibers is better than synthetic fibers.  Organic cotton was the best material looked at, followed by hemp and conventional cotton.  On the worst offenders side, nylon is the worst, followed by acrylic, and polyester.  So, if you want to minimize your environmental impact when purchasing clothes, look for items made entirely (or at least primarily) using natural fibers like cotton, hemp, and wool.  Silk, as a natural fiber, is also a great choice, if you can afford it.

The dyes and bleaching agents used in textiles can also have an enormous environmental impact.  Furthermore, some of these chemicals may be harmful to the wearer of the clothing.  The Global Organic Textile Standard looks to identify clothing items with a low impact of production, including consideration for the dyes and chemicals used, but I have never seen this logo before, so I'm guessing adherence to this standard is not too common just yet.  In fact, at the time of this writing, only two companies in Canada are listed by the GOTS web site:  Fiberlinks Textiles Inc., and Kosma-Kare Canada Inc.

Since it takes so much energy, water, and chemicals to produce fabrics, the key here is to buy quality over quantity.  The fashion industry over the past few years has been moving toward making disposable clothes (or "fast fashion") by using factories in countries where they can pay workers next to nothing.  Working conditions are often given a back seat to cost, as we saw last year when one of the Joe Fresh factories collapsed with people working inside, despite obvious signs of the imminent collapse.  Some of these factories have been accused of taking serious environmental shortcuts as well.  The quality of the clothing is not important; only low cost.  Unfortunately, if quality is ignored, the clothes don't last very long, and even more textiles need to be made to replace them, putting an ever greater burden on the environment.  Look for quality clothes that you only have to buy once and you'll be doing the environment and your wallet a great service.
Factory collapse in Bangladesh.
Photo from CTV News

The question of proper disposal is pretty obvious, though apparently not well understood.  According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the average American discards about 68 pounds of clothing per year.  All that material just ends up in a landfill, making it comprise 4% of America's waste stream.

When you are done with your two turtlenecks (or other garments), let somebody else make use of them.  Sell them on sites like ebay, craigslist, or kijiji.  Or, if you don't want to be bothered to exchange money, Freecycle is a great option.  If you just want to be lazy, or if you have clothes that nobody is going to take, the best place to dispose of them is in one of the countless used clothing drop-off bins, such as the Salvation Army Thrift Store.  Do this even if they are ragged, stained, or otherwise unusable:
Salvation Army Thrift Stores often receives donated clothing that cannot be sold in stores because it is torn, stained and/or overly worn.  The Salvation Army is still able to generate funds from these clothing donations and divert them from local landfills by selling them to cloth graders. The cloth graders re-sort the materials; turning some into rags, selling other parts for the fibre content used to make things such as upholstery stuffing and carpet padding, or resells the items in foreign markets.  This results in a win-win situation for the environment and for The Salvation Army as these clothing items stay out of our landfills and generate funds to help our organization provide community programs and services such local food banks, shelters, daycare programs and children's camps.
When we are finished with something that is not obviously trash, our first thought is whether we can donate it to some place like the Salvation Army, the Re-Store, or some other community organization.  If not, then we fall back on kijiji if it is in good condition and worth at least $20.  Otherwise, it goes onto Freecycle for a few days before getting scrapped.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

"12 Days of Christmas" impact: Day 1

The gift-giving Christmas season is coming up and consumers everywhere are buying and disposing of products at the highest rate of the year.  The Region of Waterloo this week sent out a pamphlet indicating that about 14% of trash they pick up is actually recyclable and 53% is organic waste.  So people are clearly not properly using the waste disposal services as the Region intends.  But what's the best way of disposing of products?  Moreover, what else should we consider when buying products?  Well, those are very complicated questions, but I want to look at a few examples.

Perhaps the products in the "12 Days of Christmas" are a good place to start.  The traditional song isn't all that interesting to talk about because most of the gifts seem to be living, and talking about disposing of geese-a-laying is a bit gruesome, let alone the completely inappropriate human trafficking involved with giving lords-a-leaping and ladies dancing.  So I will use Bob and Doug McKenzie's version, which gets back to basics with more attainable and simple gift ideas.  They also only had 8 (maybe 9) gift ideas, so it's simpler.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:  a beer

This one is close to my heart.  Beer is a hobby of mine, both making and tasting a wide variety of interesting beers.

A young hops plant.
This grows to about 16 feet tall within 2 months before
producing papery cones, which are harvested in late August.
The production of beer involves a lot of organic material.  Grain (usually barley), water, hops, and yeast are the main (some say "only") ingredients.  In general, about 2 kg of grain is used for every case of 24 beers.  Energy and land is used to grow the grain.  More energy is used in the malting process.  And then the actual brewing process requires a lot of heat.  Hops farming, water treatment, water for cleaning equipment, and yeast culturing are other sources of inputs into the brewing process.  So, in general, beer has a relatively high environmental impact.  However, done at large enough scales, and with sufficient attention to capturing and re-using waste during the process, a lot of this impact can be mitigated.  A few breweries are doing this to not only reduce their impact, but their costs as well.  Home brewers such as myself have a lot more energy and water waste compared to big breweries.  Amelia Loftus has some interesting ideas for home brewers to consider in order to reduce this overhead.

Transportation of beer seems like it would be pretty costly.  Glass and metal packaging as well as the beer itself is not very dense but is very heavy.  However, through efficient distribution systems, transportation turns out to not be all that significant, according to this report from the Institute for Environmental Research and Education (IERE), which looks at the entire lifecycle of beer production and consumption:
Brewing in a snow storm.
The environmental impacts of beer consumption are primarily related to material inputs, brewery operations, and beer consumption. The ingredient phase of the life cycle is the main contributor to ecotoxicity, ozone depletion, and water use at all five breweries; it is also the prime factor in eutrophication, land use, and smog at four breweries. The brewery phase is the primary contributor to climate change and acidification at three breweries; this phase has the highest smog value at a single brewery. The consumer use phase contributes heavily to climate change given the release of CO2 when beer is consumed. The packaging phase is not a common prime source of impacts among the breweries; nonetheless, it is the main contributor to eutrophication and land use at an individual brewery.

Disposal of packing material is simple in this case.  In Ontario, take everything back to the Beer Store:
We take back all the bottles, cans, cartons, caps, kegs, plastic bags and can rings that we sell to consumers, as well as from the 16,700 bars and restaurants we sell our products to. In fact, we’re a global leader in this practice. All collected materials are either reused or recycled.
Wort in the fermenter 
Until the recent addition of kegs to our home brew operation, we often reused bottles several times ourselves before returning them to the Beer Store.

If you don't live in Ontario, things are a bit more tricky, but still not bad.  In general, every part of beer packaging is recyclable.  The bottle caps can be recycled with other metals, but you have to be careful.  Sorting stations tend to lose the bottle caps because they are small.  So several sources, including this one, suggest putting metal bottle caps inside a steel can and crimping that can closed.  The bottle caps will be contained in a container that is made of a similar metal.  The plastic liner in the caps will be removed when the metal is melted down.