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.


A better Brita, thanks to Beth

December 11, 2008


Just thought I’d fill everyone in on my recent interview with the fabulous Beth Terry, aka Fake Plastic Fish, for the National Post (that’s her in the photo above… isn’t she cute?). We spoke about her Take Back The Filter campaign, about tackling Brita bureaucracy, and what 581 mouldy filters smell like. The full story is here, and below (P.S. scroll down to the bottom and check out Beth’s Top 5 tips for aspiring activists!):

(Also, P.P.S. I promise, one of these days, I will eventually stop talking about water and filters and Brita)

National Post
December 11, 2008
By Vanessa Farquharson

There are 581 mouldy Brita filters stinking up Beth Terry’s dining room, and she couldn’t be more pleased.

The 43-year-old accountant will eventually deliver all of these back to Brita, the water-purification company, to be properly recycled — something that’s only possible thanks to a campaign she spearheaded called Take Back The Filter. It took a lot of back-and-forth letter writing and phone calling, numerous posts on her blog, “Fake Plastic Fish,” and over 16,000 petition signatures, but on Nov. 18, Terry finally succeeded.

In a press release, the company explained that as of January, consumers across North America would be able to recycle their old filters by dropping them off at participating Whole Foods locations, where they’ll be included along with yogurt lids and other No. 5 polypropylene plastics in the Preserve “Gimme 5” program (those who aren’t near a Whole Foods can mail them directly to Preseve; see

Eventually, the filters will be turned into new plastic products, from toothbrushes and drinking cups to cutting boards and other types of kitchenware.

It’s a significant move on behalf of Brita — which is owned by Clorox — because they had recently spearheaded their own enviro-campaign called FilterForGood, using television ads and a website to inform the public about the amount of waste generated by plastic water bottles, and how using something like a Brita filter can produce clean-tasting water without the need for petroleum. It was somewhat hypocritical, however, considering the Brita filters themselves are made of plastic and must be replaced every few months; as well, the only place to recycle them up until now was in Europe.

When Terry — who lives in Oakland, CA, and keeps track of all the plastic she purchases and discards as part of her green blog — realized she couldn’t recycle her filter, she decided to email Brita and ask why. In return, she got a standard form letter explaining there was a lack of recycling infrastructure available in the U.S.

“I sent another email after that,” says Terry, “asking why Brita was able to build its own facility in Europe but not here, and then I didn’t really get anything from them, so I just kind of blogged about it and ranted, then eventually let it go.”

Sometime later, however, when she was checking her Google analytics to see what search terms had directed people to her site, Terry noticed the words “Brita” and “recycling” came up a lot. This prompted her to ask around and see if there was interest in starting a campaign, and so began the process of letters, petitions, websites and meetings with various environmental organizations.

And how, exactly, did she end up with 581 used Brita filters in her dining room?

“We were inspired by a bunch of guys who were collecting those promotional AOL CDs you get in the mail,” says Terry. “Their aim was to return a million of them back to the company. We liked the idea of that and decided to try for 1,000 Brita filters.”

So she set up a P.O. Box, but realized she’d still have to store them somewhere, and somehow, they ended up under her dining room table.

“It smells pretty bad.”

The reason for the foul odour, she explains, has to do with moisture.

“Some of them were all right, but others were soaking wet and full of water, and that was the worst because the Ziploc bags holding them would collect all this mould and bacteria. You’ll notice the Brita press release says they’re collecting dry filters.”

In the end, she received filters from all over the place; in fact, after California, Ontario had one of the highest mail-in rates. While Terry never reached the 1,000 mark, this is probably a good thing. It not only demonstrates the efficacy of her campaign, it means her dining room will probably smell a lot better come January.

What’s most impressive about the Take Back The Filter campaign, though, is that it began with a single, frustrated woman not knowing how to get rid of her water filter and ended with massive structural change at a multi-national corporation in just months.

One might guess Terry, herself, is astounded by such a feat. But she downplays it.

“When I received the call from Brita saying they were going to make an announcement and basically go ahead with [the recycling plan], it wasn’t as big of a rush as it maybe should have been,” she says. “Brita is obviously a huge company, but Clorox was already taking steps toward improving its environmental image, like with its Greenworks line of natural cleaning products, which were developed with the Sierra Club. So we weren’t really pushing a huge boulder. It was moving slowly to begin with — we just got behind it and helped to push it faster, and in a slightly different direction.”

Terry — who now chooses to drink plain tap water without any filtration mechanism — believes that what ultimately convinced Brita to make such a significant change probably had more to do with keeping customers happy than saving the environment.

“I think they just needed to know that people really wanted it,” she says.

Beth Terry’s top 5 tips for aspiring activists:

1)    First, conduct research — a lot of it. “Find out what the company is already doing, what their position is and what factors are involved.”
2)    Put out feelers. “See who else is concerned about the issue and what organizations are already doing something or may get behind you.”
3)    Connect online. “Get in touch with bloggers, the media or other connected, influential people. Being creative by making little icons and badges that bloggers can easily put on their sites also helps.”
4)    Don’t go after a company that has no desire to change. “Start with companies that are already moving in an eco-conscious direction.”
5)    Pick up the phone and call people. “You never know who will support you, so just start talking to anyone who will listen.”

Water is the new oil, according to James Bond

November 27, 2008
Bad water baron! Bad!

Bad water baron! Bad!

After watching Quantum of Solace (yes, I know, I just effectively outdated this post by mentioning a movie that came out a month ago, but bear with me), I arrived at the following conclusions:

1) Water is the new oil; 2) Eco-villains are the new sinister-eye-patch-wearing-Dr.-Evil-type villains; and 3) As much as I’m a proud Canadian, CSIS spies really have no place in a Bond film.

But back to the first part — as I wrote in my last column for the Post (you can also read the full story below), it really does seem that as private water companies expand, especially into areas like the Global South, we’re going to be talking less about oil barons than water barons; instead of protesting against Texaco, Exxon-Mobil or Shell, activists will be banging at the doors of Suez, Vivendi (renamed Veolia) and Bechtel. To explore this a bit further, I interviewed Maude Barlow… and, well, you can read up on what she had to say at the bottom of this post. In short: She freaked me out almost as much as Al Gore did back in the day with his slides of drowning CGI polar bears.

Part of me wanted to drop everything, infiltrate Veolia headquarters and cut off their water supply to see how they like not being able to make tea or wash their hands after using the bathroom or flush the toilet or just freakin’ hydrate themselves to stay alive. But then Reality knocked on my cubicle and told me to just finish the damn article and go home to my cat.

Still, at the very least, it’s driven me to be even more of a (publicly controlled) tap-water advocate — and with that, I’m going to ask you readers to help me out a bit. In my house, I currently have a carbon filter on the top floor, a Brita jug and filter in the kitchen, a stainless steel container, and this new thing called Zero Water, which is basically like the Brita jug and filter except it comes with a little meter that lets you test how many parts per million of dissolved solids are in there before you take a swig — the company sent it to me and they claim their filter takes out four-times as much as most carbon filters (although I’m still waiting to hear back from them about whether the plastic jug is BPA-free). I can’t do any of those filters that attach directly to the faucet because my faucets aren’t really adaptable to that, unfortunately.

Anyway, I’m planning on doing a bit of a taste test so that I can finally figure out which filter system is a) the most environmentally friendly (as in: Can the filter be recycled? How often does it need to be changed? What kind of packaging does it come with?); and b) produces the best-tasting water. When I come to a conclusion, I’m going to present my research to anyone who insists that bottled water tastes better and challenge them to do a blind taste test (or, if they refuse, hurl a lot of petty insults at them until they feel guilty).

Here’s where I need your help, though: Have you tried out a lot of different tap-water filtering mechanisms? Is there one that you think stands out as a clear winner? Do you think tap water tastes just fine and we should quit complaining about it in the first place? Does is just need to sit for a while and get cold to lose its metallic taste? Does a stainless steel container help or hinder? Comment below!

I’ll update everyone on my taste-testing in the coming week or so.

In the mean time, here’s the Post story:

To most James Bond fans, the villain in Quantum of Solace may come as a surprise – this time, it isn’t some disfigured, revenge-obsessed arms dealer working out of an underground lair in Russia, but rather a plain-looking guy in khakis named Dominic Greene, head of a prominent environmental organization.

What classifies Greene as evil is the fact that he wants to privatize Bolivia’s water supply and subsequently drive up the country’s utility prices – hardly a plot to wipe out all of humankind, but it’s not exactly a nice thing to do, either.

But while he may seem a little benign, Greene nonetheless marks the first true eco-baddie the Bond franchise has seen and personifies a very pressing concern in real life: access to water.

“The thing that’s really frightening in Quantum of Solace is that it’s true,” said Mathieu Amalric, the actor who plays Greene, in an interview with the L.A. Times. “It’s not a big fantasy like in the Bond films of the 1980s.”

Indeed, the plot is loosely based on what happened in 1999, when the U.S.-based firm Bechtel signed a contract to privatize the sale and distribution of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Massive protests and a series of organized strikes ultimately returned control of this resource to the local government; however, Bechtel then attempted to sue for some US$50-million in lost profits.

A year before and across the ocean, local councils in South Africa began privatizing water, forcing citizens to pay into a meter system at every well. Those who couldn’t afford it ended up drinking from polluted streams and ponds instead and, by 2002, the country had suffered its worst cholera epidemic in history, one that infected more than 250,000 people.

“What the world needs is a quantum of water justice,” says Maude Barlow, a Canadian activist and senior United Nations advisor on water. “It really is an issue of life or death. It’s bigger than energy, even – oil destroys the environment and companies are stealing it and so on, but no one in the world has to die from a lack of oil. People are dying from lack of water … the crisis is here, and anybody who moves into desperate countries in the Global South to make money by denying water to people who can’t afford it will increasingly be seen as villains.”

Barlow believes that, as we become more environmentally aware, we’ll talk less about oil barons and corporations such as Exxon, Shell and Texaco, and instead focus on water barons and firms such as Suez, Vivendi, Nestlé, Bechtel and Thames Water of England.

In a recent interview on CBC Radio about the future of this industry, an executive with Thames referred to water as the petroleum of the 21st century.

“There will be world wars fought over this in the future,” he said. “Water is a limited, precious resource, so the growth market is always going to be there.”

Gerard Payen, who directed the overseas expansion for Suez, agrees, adding: “Water as a business is very effective when you look at the needs. We purify water and bring this water to your home. We provide a service, it has a cost and somebody has to pay for it.”

Well, yes. But the question is, does someone also have to profit from it?

In a year-long investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, it was shown that private water companies have now expanded into every region of the world, with more than 300 million people getting water from a commercial source. As an example of the immense growth rate of these companies: RWE, when it acquired Thames Water (it has since sold it), went from earning about US$25-million in 1990 to US$2.5-billion in 2002.

“You’re starting to see the sale of whole river systems now, too,” Barlow says. “In Canada, there’s tons of interest in exporting our water into the U.S., from northern Manitoba down to Texas, for example. And last month, the Montreal Economic Institute put out a study calling for the export of Quebec’s water to the U.S.”

Daniel Klymchuk, author of Water Exports: The 1% Solution, thinks plans like this aren’t necessarily a bad idea – in fact, he argues that a pipeline from Hudson Bay to the U.S. border exporting 1% of its water would earn the province US$1.33-billion a year and have no effect on the surrounding ecological system, as the flow would be diverted just before it enters the ocean.

“To assume no other province will sell water in the future is an unforgiveable error in judgment,” he writes. “If we do not act soon, we will ultimately price ourselves out of the water market.”

Of course, sitting somewhere in between Barlow and Klymchuk are those who believe in public-private partnerships, where a private corporation provides the infrastructure and technology but the utility itself is still owned by the local government.

It’s a complicated issue, and part of the problem is that the legalities behind water aren’t always clear.

“We don’t have a decent national law – the last water act was passed in 1970 – and we haven’t really mapped out our groundwater,” Barlow says. “We’ve stopped the privatization of water treatment plants across Canada but we haven’t banned the commercial export of water, and there are ongoing fights between communities around the Great Lakes and bottled-water companies like Nestlé.”

As a sign that it’s on top of such issues, Nestlé – which owns Perrier, Vittel, San Pellegrino and other international water brands – has released a video to address any concerns over its sources, how its water is treated, packaged and so on (the website also has a few pages devoted to sustainability and environmental responsibility). Meanwhile, the Coca-Cola company is holding a conference next month to look at the impact of privatization and whether it’s possible to strive for a “water-neutral footprint.”

“Still, the facts are pretty stark when you look at what they’ve done,” Barlow says. “Water barons are smart, persistent and ahead of the curve, so they know a crisis is looming and they’re basically trying to overcome this ‘bad guy’ reputation before it gets even worse.”

Dual-flush with joy (Day 339)…

February 2, 2008

dual flush

Although installing a dual-flush toilet may not seem like a very Simple Saturday change, it is for me — because it was already installed! To my surprise, when I moved into the new place and used the bathroom, I noticed the handle had a little symbol on it with instructions to push forward for a wee flush and backwards for a full flush.

Woohoo! Of course, I’ll probably still keep to pledge #166 and throw a filled water bottle in there just to be extra-green, but I love that I can finally make a substantial change without actually doing anything (other than, you know, buying a house).

P.S. For those who haven’t yet heard about my successful green move, Lloyd Alter was kind enough to write about it over here on Treehugger (he says it was only partially successful because a truck was used for some of it and he ended up driving to my place on top of that, but still — I’d say we did a good job, and at least showed a few onlookers that it was possible to cram pillows, a VCR player and half a kitchen onto a cargo bike).

Image from these dudes

Croak if you love alternative energy (Day 335)…

January 29, 2008


Ever since Bullfrog Power landed in Toronto, I’ve been DYING to sign up. Living in a condo with standard monthly fees and shared energy bills meant it wasn’t an option, but as soon as I signed the deal on the house, I was like a kid sitting in front of my Christmas presents, waiting for mom and dad to wake up already so I could start tearing into them. All I could think about for weeks was the day I’d finally be able to pick up the phone, call Hydro to set up my account and then log onto so they could start putting some more wind turbines to good use.

That day, my friends, was today.

What I love about Bullfrog is that it’s not just about offsetting. As they explain here, users continue to draw power from the Ontario grid, but Bullfrog then injects that same amount of energy — in the form of wind power and low-impact water power — back into the system to compensate.

All of their generation facilities have met the environmental criteria of Environment Canada’s EcoLogo certification process, and they publish their green power audit on an annual basis so you can check up on them.

From what I’ve heard, most Bullfrog users don’t end up paying more than $5 or $10 extra per month for this service — but maybe my parents could chip in here, seeing as I made them switch over months ago!

Squeegee to the Bee Gees (Day 330)…

January 24, 2008


This suggestion comes, yet again, from my assistant Eva: Squeegeeing the walls of my shower to prevent mildew and soap scum from building up, which in turn means less cleaning, and thus less product used.

While I may not actually listen to the Bee Gees while squeegeeing, it would be kinda fun. Although when I think of dancing and showers — especially my showers, which take place in almost total darkness — I immediately think of spinal injuries. And that’s just not fun.

Also, don’t even think for a nanosecond that I went out and bought myself a new squeegee for the sake of this change — obviously that would go against my no new plastic pledge. In fact, I was ready to just let out a sigh and toss Eva’s idea in the trash (or, um, recycling bin?) until I remembered that I actually had a squeegee thingy sitting in the back of my storage closet from when I tried to clean my balcony windows last summer.

So from now on, whether it’s here in my condo or in my new house, my shower walls are going to be squeaky, squeegee clean.

Photo courtesy of kittykowalski on Flickr

The dishwatering can (Day 289)…

December 14, 2007


OK, so this picture might be confusing. Here’s the explanation: I’ve realized that washing dishes by hand and letting them dry on a tea towel means all the water dripping off ends up wasted. It soaks into the towel, rendering it smelly and in need of laundering, which just uses even more water.

Clearly, the answer to this is a dish rack so that I can use the water collected in the tray for my indoor plants. However, dish racks are often made of plastic and I’d prefer not to buy a new one. Then again, something about getting a used dish rack off Craigslist or Freecycle grosses me out.

So my temporary measure is to let everything dry on the top rack of my dishwasher (currently not in use), and stick some plants underneath to catch whatever drips down.

If anyone has any better ideas for catching dish drippings — ones that don’t involve purchasing anything new or sacrificing the cleanliness of my smoothie blenders — please let me know!