There’s møre tö Sweden thån IKEA ånd Volvo

October 1, 2009

Hello! (Waving sheepishly) Apologies for the prolongued absence… there’s this thing called the Toronto International Film Festival that sucks up all my time for two weeks every September, and as soon as this year’s fest ended, I immediately hopped on a plane to Sweden for a week-long sustainable housing tour, which I’m writing about for the Post. Those who’d like to ream me out for flying across the Atlantic, feel free to do so now and move on — after all, Elizabeth Kolbert has already pointed out that I’m a slut who loves to fly, so it should come as no surprise (and yes, I made sure to offset the trip for $23.80 at TerraPass).

Anyway, I won’t go into great detail about my trip because there is simply too much information to convey and, frankly, it’ll probably be overwhelming, if not a little boring. So instead, I’m going to point out some highlights, throw in some photos and conclude with the Single Most Important Lesson I learned while in this country, which is best known as the home of IKEA and Volvo and meatballs.

First highlight: Bike paths. Everyone knows that Scandinavian countries kick ass when it comes to bicycle infrastructure, but it’s quite something to actually see it in action. In Stockholm, bike paths are EVERYWHERE; I honestly could not find a single road that did not have a bike path — and trust me, I tried. What’s interesting, too, is that they run on the sidewalks more often than the street, which makes it safer for the cyclists (although pedestrians have to watch where they’re going). Plus, because it’s Europe, there are no road bikes or mountain bikes; everyone rides those cute upright numbers with Art Deco headlamps, and some of the bicycle paths are even marked with fancy brass inlays. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good photo of this, but here’s what they generally look like:

bike path Stockholm

Second highlight: Localised energy and waste management. In Sweden, they take a very holistic approach to environmental do-gooding — so instead of dealing with water, waste and energy separately, effort is made to create systems that combine all these issues at once. Example: In one housing development, there are three pneumatic waste disposal units (one for organic waste, one for paper recycling and one for glass/plastic recycling); you put your low-grade cardboard packaging in the paper hole and shut the door, whereupon it gets sucked through a tube into a nearby sorting and processing facility and, eventually, gets sent with all the other packaging waste that can’t be recycled to a local incinerator, which burns it, sending the heat back into the community to warm up the houses, the water and even sidewalks during winter. The emissions from this process aren’t very toxic because they’re filtered through various scrubbers and cleaning mechanisms before getting released back into the air. Here’s a photo of the units above ground:


And here’s another photo, showing the underground sorting room, where all the tubes end up (yes, it stinks a bit):



And just how does everyone know which types of cardboard can be recycled and which types have been recycled so many times that they must go into the general garbage hole? Well, here’s the next point:

Third highlight: General public knowledge. According to my friend, who lives in Gothenburg (one of the greenest cities on the planet and home to the Volvo plant, which is accessible by transit and runs entirely on wind energy), most Swedes will easily be able to sort their trash into 11 or 12 different streams, so the waste diversion rates are pretty high. And speaking of Gothenburg, one neat fact about the restaurants here: Most of the patios come with a fleece blanket on the back of every chair, so if you get cold, you can wrap yourself up and there’s less of a demand for heat lamps. Here is my friend, Duncan, in his blanket:


Aside from this, Sweden is chock-full of solar panels:


And it has tons of wind farms:


Here’s proof of just how windy it is by those turbines:


On the flip side, we didn’t see many green roofs during our trip, and while there is a good level of density to the cities, there aren’t many high-rise buildings. In terms of water efficiency, I’m not sure how much greywater technology there is, but I did get to make use of this wicked toilet at an eco-education centre that’s separated into two components: A front bit for #1 and a back part for #2 — the pee is diverted to a treatment plant where it’s turned into natural fertilizer for local farms, and the poop goes into the regular sewage. Take a look:



But perhaps the Most Important Lesson I learned was that we really need to start taxing the heck out of ourselves if most of this sustainable infrastructure is to be developed and implemented. The Swedes pay crazy taxes (about half their income), and the majority of these funds are delivered to the municipal governments (which handle things like waste, water and energy). Unfortunately, it’s doubtful that North Americans will ever consent to coughing up this much money to local bureaucrats.

Still, if we start paying more attention to how other cities are addressing climate change — especially when it’s successful and holistic and cost-effective — maybe there’s hope for us yet.

I heart the Fairmont hotel chain!

February 10, 2009


I’ve loved Fairmont ever since the lovely Toronto publicist Melanie Coates emailed me a few years ago, offering to sneak me into their kitchen and show me their crazy organic waste disposal system — it basically involves a conveyor belt and a huge slop bucket — which had been in place years before the city’s Green Bin composting program started (also, when it comes to excess food, the hotel is a big contributor to Second Harvest).

As I would later learn, this chain has been into the environmental scene since the late 1980s; Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York hotel has a full rooftop garden (which is beautiful and full of berries, vegetables and herbs) as well as three fully operating beehives, a restaurant menu focused on local, sustainable food and wine, policies about not cleaning towels and linens every day, discounts for employees who take public transit or ride bikes to work, and on, and on, and on.

Now, they’ve taken yet another step, and it’s one that I’m pretty sure no other hotel (at least in this city) has done:

Serving only sustainably raised and caught seafood.

This is huge. I have one of those Seachoice cards in my wallet and even still I find it impossible to find fish that isn’t on an endangered list, or full of mercury, or shipped from a million miles away. It’s one thing to offer local, grass-fed burgers at a restaurant, but honestly, sustinable seafood is NOT easy, so I fully commend Fairmont for attempting this.

Here’s the official press release:


TORONTO, February 5, 2009 – As a pioneering voice on environmental stewardship within the hospitality industry, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts is proud to announce an extension of its brand-wide Green Cuisine program to include sustainable seafood choices in support of a global effort to conserve precious marine species.

As the latest environmental initiative undertaken by the brand, Fairmont’s hotels and resorts worldwide will remove threatened fish species like Chilean Sea Bass and Blue Fin Tuna from their restaurant menus and will also align themselves locally with reputable seafood watch organizations, ensuring guests continue to be provided with a comprehensive selection of sustainable seafood choices. By Spring 2009, Fairmont’s seafood purchases will be made with the guidance and consultation of these well-respected groups and in consortium with local suppliers.

Put into practice, Fairmont’s commitment to ocean sustainability means working with reputable suppliers who purchase fish that are resilient to fishing pressure and harvested in ways that limit damage to marine or aquatic habitats.  Specifically, Fairmont has identified two seafood choices that are most at risk – and has eliminated them from its food service operations. They include:

Chilean Sea Bass – also called Patagonia Tooth, this is a long-life  fish, meaning it does not reproduce quickly.  Due to worldwide popularity of this  menu item, their numbers have been dwindling dramatically from illegal and  aggressive fishing.

Blue Fin Tuna – heavily over-fished in international waters, the plight  of this species is so serious that the World Conservation Union lists Southern  Blue Fin Tuna in its grouping of most threatened wildlife.  Their numbers have declined by 97%  over the last four decades.

In the face of these findings, Fairmont will no longer serve these two fish varieties on menus and will also make it easier for guests to make informed food choices by identifying responsible seafood choices on its restaurant menus. The end result: healthier practices flowing down to suppliers, who then offer better choices to restaurants.  In addition, by promoting awareness and sustainable alternatives among its guests, Fairmont will play a role in influencing and shaping the tastes and preferences of guests who care about the future of the planet.

Already, a number of Fairmonts have taken up the sustainable seafood call.  Mexico’s Fairmont Mayakoba has partnered with local communities in a nearby biosphere to purchase lobster that is sustainably harvested.  To date, the resort has purchased more than 4.8 tons of the lobster, which comes with a certificate affirming the lobsters have been locally sourced in a responsible fashion. On Hawaii’s Big Island, The Fairmont Orchid goes to great lengths to purchase locally sourced seafood and actively participates in regional moratoriums on any threatened fish stocks. And in Vancouver, The Fairmont Waterfront and The Fairmont Vancouver Airport have joined the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program, a conservation platform created to educate and empower consumers about the issues surrounding sustainable seafood. Ocean-friendly menu options at The Fairmont Waterfront’s Herons Restaurant range from Top Seared Halibut to Pan Seared Sablefish.

Fairmont Hotels & Resorts’ dedication to the protection of the environment goes well beyond helping conserve species that reside in the sea. On a wide-ranging basis, the luxury hotel brand maintains a comprehensive commitment to purchasing local, organic and sustainable food items whenever possible. But it’s important to note that good environmental practices do not mean guests at Fairmont restaurants miss out on world-class cuisine.  Instead, they feast on various fish caught or sourced in ways that ensure their continued survival.

For close to two decades, Fairmont has strived to minimize its impact on the planet through its award-winning Green Partnership program, a comprehensive platform focused on key areas such as waste reduction, energy management, water conservation, and innovative community outreach programs. In a sign of corporate leadership, the company also encourages others to follow in its footsteps and has developed the Green Partnership Guide, a how-to text that any company can obtain to create or grow their environmental programming.  For more information on Fairmont’s Green Partnership program, please visit

Photo courtesy of here.

Conceiving of greener contraception

February 3, 2009


In one of my recent posts, Arduous and I got a little sidetracked in the comments section and began talking about how frustrating it is trying to find an eco-friendly method of birth control.

The only options out there, when it comes to contraception, seem to be:

  1. Taking the pill (like Marvelon, Allesse, Tri-Cyclen, etc)
  2. Using condoms (preferably a brand like Beyond Seven)
  3. Getting an IUD inserted
  4. Using sponges, spermicidal gels and diaphragms
  5. Relying on the rhythm/calendar method
  6. Good ol’ abstinence

Well, considering the pill ends up sending a LOT of estrogen and progesterone out through our urine, into the toilet, down through the sewer system and finally into our lakes and streams where it gives poor froggies unwanted sex changes and eventually depletes their population, that doesn’t seem very sustainable at all.

Condoms — well, fine, they’re probably the most straightforward solution, but they’re still annoying and they create waste.

The thought of inserting a copper wire into my uterus in order to screw up the natural balance of whatever the heck’s in my uterus (can you tell I flunked science?) just creeps me out, but it does seem effective and is most definitely sustainable. Still, though… putting wires where I eventually want to grow another human being?

Sponges, gels and diaphragms are usually messy and there’s the unrealistic expectation that a woman will be able to know precisely when she’s about to have sex and can easily duck into the bathroom half an hour before and immediately after. This also assumes she’s at home… unless she’s the kind of girl who carries all these items in her purse.

Personally, I’m a fan of the rhythm or calendar method, but only because I haven’t gotten knocked up yet. This is considered the most unreliable of all birth control methods, however I think this is mostly because people are inherently lazy and/or stupid and can’t figure out when they’re ovulating (um, yeah…  don’t quote me on this when I end up with child a month from now). Anyway, you basically have to take your temperature every morning as soon as you wake up and chart its progression until you start to see a regular up-and-down pattern. Combine this with other observations such as the look/feel/smell of what’s going on in that region (I will NOT be showing you the rather blunt photo of cervical mucus that Wikipedia does; you can see for yourself), and it actually becomes very obvious when you are at risk of getting pregnant and when you’re definitely in the clear. Honestly, there are only about five to seven days when you shouldn’t be having sex.

And lastly, there’s the absolute most effective and most sustainable form of protection: abstinence. Yep, the old don’t-have-sex-to-begin-with approach. Uh, right. Good luck with that!

Really, though, everyone has a method that works best for him or her, and it all depends on where you’re at in life, who you’re with (or not with), and what you’re doctor says.

Thoughts? What kind of contraception do you guys use?

Image from The Karlos’ on Flickr

How could we let Deadmonton win this?

February 1, 2009


I received this press release in my inbox the other day and was agog — aGOG, I say! — to read what it said:

(Toronto, Canada, January 29, 2009) Today, Corporate Knights magazine unveiled the third-annual Corporate Knights Most Sustainable Cities in Canada list. The comprehensive ranking identifies Canadian cities whose practices leave the smallest environmental footprint possible and create a healthy, thriving population.

But then… then I read this:

The top cities in the 2009 Corporate Knights Sustainable Cities Ranking are as follows:

Large city category: Edmonton, AB
Medium city category: Halifax, NS
Small city category: Yellowknife, NT

EDMONTON?! Is that, like, a typo for Toronto? Or Vancouver? How could a city in such close proximity to dirty oil, a city renowned only for its enormous mall where you can swim with captive sea lions right after eating in a completely indoors “Chinatown” be considered the most sustainable in all of Canada?

Before I could even let my confusion take hold, I read on:

With the lowest unemployment rate of all cities and the second-lowest unemployment rate of immigrants, Edmonton wants to be an “innovation centre for value-added and green technologies and products,” and is measuring progress by the percentage of green collar jobs created. Edmonton is also the only city in our consideration set to have inclining block pricing on water to encourage conservation.

Um, all right, as much I don’t want to knock the city for their green-collar jobs and negative-reinforcement water-conservation strategy, are these actually the most important factors in being sustainable? What about wind turbines, deep-lake cooling systems and green roofs? What about public transit and bike lanes? Carbon taxes? Population density?? FARMER’S MARKETS AND COMPOSTING INFRASTRUCTURE AND A MILLION OTHER THINGS TORONTO IS DOING?!?

OK, so maybe I’m just a sore loser. It’s just that, while I can see why Halifax won in the medium city category (although, I’d vote for Guelph, personally), this whole study seems suspicious to me. Yellowknife? Honestly? It’s frozen solid up there! They’re just sustainable by default.


Vegetarians — avert your eyes! (Day 331)…

January 25, 2008


I know this seems silly, but a part of me wants to make 366 green changes to my lifestyle (yes, that’s 366 — up until now I’ve been saying 365, but of course it just happens to be a freakin’ leap year), without resorting to a vegetarian or vegan diet.

I don’t have a problem with vegetarians; for at least five years of my life I was one of them, and now I only eat meat about once a week — and it absolutely has to be happy meat. Furthermore, I realize it takes a LOT of water, land, energy and other resources to raise and feed the animals, slaughter and butcher them, then package and ship the meat.

But there’s something about those old-fashioned farms with animals grazing outside, being all cute, fertilizing the pastures (and, OK, farting a bit of methane into the air, too) that makes me want to support the people who run them. Same goes for organic dairy and free-range egg farms, even though I don’t actually eat eggs much because they gross me out.

Anyway, like I said, props to the vegetarians out there — you’re leaving a lighter footprint than me, you have great restaurants, but I want my vitamin B12 and I don’t want to get it from nutritional yeast flakes.

Where the hell am I going with this post, you ask? Here’s where:

Wait, have the vegetarians left yet? Because they’re not going to like this.

My green move today was… to sign my father and I up for a butchering class. WAIT! Don’t go rushing to the comments just yet; hear me out. It’s taking place at the Healthy Butcher, a family-run store in Toronto that gets all their meat from local, organic farms. They run these courses where you can go and see where your filet mignon comes from, learn about the different cuts, the different ways to prepare and cook them, and practice your knife skills. This will, I hope, accomplish two things:

One, I’ll have to confront my meat, which will mean I’ll have all the more appreciation for it whenever I decide to consume it; and Two, it’ll help me learn how to cut it properly so that when I try to trim the fat or bone off something at home, I waste less.

OK, that’s it, post’s over. Vegetarians can open their eyes now.

Resleeved, and less peeved (Day 318)…

January 12, 2008

resleeveI’ve been burning CDs recently and thought I might try to find a way to green this process. The most obvious thing that came to mind was doing what my friend Matt does: Uploading playlists to an ftp site and letting people download the mp3 files right onto their iTunes, with no disc, packaging or shipping required.

But unfortunately I don’t really know how to do that — and sometimes, in this digital age, I like to stick to the tangible realm.

With my no plastic pledge, however, jewel cases definitely aren’t an option (plus they tend to crack and break, and are kind of ugly).

So after much searching, I finally found the Sustainable Group, where they sell 100% recycled CD cases called Resleeves (I tried to find them at local eco stores but came up empty-handed, unfortunately). They’re about 50-50 post-consumer recycled fibers and post-industrial recycled fibers, with a round die-cut hole in the middle (open, no plastic screen).

And they’re unbleached, with a big recycled logo at the bottom so everyone knows I’ve made a conscious green decision. That, my friends, is your Simple Saturday change. I’ve got nothing else up my (re)sleeve.

Image courtesy of Sustainable Group