Tuesday, May 30, 2006

World Environment Day

Ask any schoolchild when Earth Day is, and they'll likely give you the right answer. Ask them the same question about World Environment Day, and you'll probably get a blank stare in return. In fairness to the kids, it's really not their fault. Despite the fact that World Environment Day was established by the United Nations back in 1972, it's largely a non-event in Canada. I suspect that is this because many of the functions and celebrations of the United Nations are often focused on need - something few Canadians know anything about. Programs like World Environment Day, World AIDS Day and other UN programs don't even enter our radar because we live in a land of such bounty and privilege.

Perhaps it's time for a brief history lesson. The United Nations General Assembly established June 5 as World Environment Day in 1972 to mark the opening of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. On the same day the UN General Assembly passed another resolution that led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (or UNEP), arguably the most important vehicle we have for dealing with global environmental problems.

According to the UN, the purpose of World Environment Day is to stimulate worldwide awareness of the environment and enhance political attention and action. The 2006 theme, Deserts and Desertification, was chosen because on the UN calendar, 2006 is also the International Year of Deserts and Desertification. (Bet you didn't know that, either - I sure didn't.)

With predictions that catastrophic climate change might be just around the corner, this year's theme couldn't be more timely - particularly for Canadians. Alberta and Saskatchewan are already suffering through record drought conditions and much of southern Alberta has been engulfed in uncontrolled forest fires for weeks. If this keeps up, Canada's breadbasket may soon become part of the vast drylands of the Earth, which already cover more than 40 percent of planet's surface.

What I find astonishing is that these arid lands are already home to more than two billion people, or one-third of the world's population, most of whom are the most vulnerable members of the family of man.

"For most dryland dwellers, life is hard and the future often precarious," said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. "They live on the ecological, economic and social margins. It is essential that we do not neglect them or the fragile habitats on which they depend."

It may already be to late. With human activity already altering the climate at an unprecedented rate, many of these arid regions are becoming the world's political hotspots. Civil wars are raging in many countries where fundamental resources such as food and water are scarce.

"Across the planet, poverty, unsustainable land management and climate change are turning drylands into deserts, and desertification in turn exacerbates and leads to poverty," said Annan. "There is also mounting evidence that dryland degradation and competition over increasingly scarce resources can bring communities into conflict. Furthermore, people whose livelihoods and survival depend on drylands are swelling the ranks of environmental and economic refugees who are testing the already stretched resources of towns and cities across the developing world."

Clearly, this is a major problem that requires our concerted attention. The suffering of two billion souls cannot go unheard. To bring it even closer to home, the mounting death toll of our Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan bears witness to the fact that unrest anywhere in the world affects us all.

There's much to be done. For starters, we can begin by learning more about World Environment Day and finding out what other countries around the world are doing to celebrate. It's both interesting and embarrassing to note that Canada doesn't even appear on UN's list of countries that are planning World Environment Day activities. Even the US is hosting seven major events.

If you're stuck for ideas or need inspiration, the official UNEP website features The World Environment Day Alphabet which offers 77 ways to celebrate. This A to Z listing has suggestions for everything from Awareness Days to Zero Emissions. The list is inspiring and a clear reminder of exactly how much more we Canadians could be doing to protect Mother Earth.


For more information about World Environment Day, including The World Environment Day Alphabet, and other UN programs visit the United Nations Environment Programme

The UN's Convention to Combat Desertification

Friday, May 26, 2006

Climate Changes

The Canadian delegation at the current climate change talks taking place in Bonn, Germany, has made it abundantly clear that the Harper government will not honor our commitment to the Kyoto Protocol. What makes this even worse is that Canada is currently chairing the two-week long session that is simultaneously looking at both the1994 UN Framework Convention of Climate Change (which was supported by 189 countries) and the 1997 Protocol, which was designed to strengthen the Convention with legally binding targets.

It is important to note that less than twenty years ago, Canada led the world at the 1987 Changing Atmosphere Conference in Montreal. It was at this conference that the international community recognized that human activity was threatening to destroy the ozone layer. With Canada's leadership, a consensus was reached to eliminate ozone-depleting substances such as chlorofluorocarbons. The result was nothing short of miraculous. Despite the industry's opposition that it couldn't be done, and that the economic costs would be devastating, we did it. Brilliantly. The result is that we averted a global catastrophe, our international economy is stronger than ever, and the hole in the ozone layer is showing signs of improvement. It should also be noted that it was a Conservative government that made this all happen.

How far our once visionary and courageous nation has fallen. From leading the world and making a difference, to misleading the world and making excuses. Rona Ambrose, Canada's Environment Minister and chair of the Bonn talks said,

"Canada's position is that we support the two-year assessment period that is going to commence after the meetings in Bonn right now, and a number of countries are supporting that assessment period as well, and then we will, after that, decide whether or not we can make further [Kyoto] commitments." Huh?

She added, "We have an excellent international negotiating team in Bonn right now, and they are acting in the best interests of Canada, and I have full confidence that they will do what's needed."

Ms. Ambrose misses the point entirely. This isn't about what's in Canada's best interests. This is the global community gathering together to reach a consensus on what we can do to stop (or at least slow down) the single greatest threat to life on this planet. International boundaries will be meaningless in the face of dramatic global climate change.

The process has already begun. With the worst hurricane season in history only months behind us, the forecast for this year is even more dire. This week, climatologists have predicted that hurricanes of the 2006 season will increase in both frequency and severity, even beyond the magnitude of last year's killers. The polar ice caps are melting at an unprecedented rate, and the weather is getting weirder almost everywhere you look. Last week while Western Canada basked in mid-summer temperatures, Eastern Ontario saw the mercury dip just above the freezing point, while at the same time, rainy old England was rationing water.

Meanwhile, back in Bonn, our leaders fumble while the world slowly burns. Perhaps someone should hand Ms. Ambrose a fiddle.


Earlier this month, the Harper government cancelled its support for the highly successful Energuide for Houses (EGH) program, including low-income housing support and the popular rebate program for residential homes. The EGH incentive program was one of the leading lights in Canada's energy conservation strategy that rewarded individuals for voluntary leadership, supported community-based outreach and the development of a conservation industry. For more information, visit Green Communities Canada

To voice your opposition to Harper's cancellation of the EGH program, or to voice your concern about Canada's position on Kyoto, email the Prime Minister at pm@pm.gc.ca. Don't forget to send a copy to Environment Minister Rona Ambrose at Rona.Ambrose@ec.gc.ca

Fortunately, there are leaders who are willing to stick their necks out and be counted. Former US Vice-President Al Gore has embarked on a fervent crusade to halt global warming's deadly progress in its tracks by exposing the myths and misconceptions that surround it. His journey is the subject of a new documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth", that will be coming to theatres across North America in June. For more information, including screening dates and locations, visit An Inconvenient Truth

When all else fails, batten down the hatches. May 21 to 27, 2006 is Hurricane Preparedness Week. For more information, visit the US National Weather Service's Hurricane Center

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Return to Sender (revisited)

A couple of years ago I was walking our dog Jessie one sunny Sunday, when we came across the remains of a Burger King dinner in the middle of the road. While Jessie was eager to explore her newfound treasure, I was wishing that I could find its rightful owner and return it.

Since I couldn't hope to find the anonymous idiot that pitched the stuff in the street, I decided to do the next best thing. I called the nearest Burger King restaurant and asked to speak to the manager. I told her that I had found something that belonged to her store, and asked if someone could please come and pick it up. She wondered exactly what it was, so I told her.

She said, "Just because our name's on it, doesn't mean that it's our responsibility."

I am quite sure that the employee who made that statement had no idea how profound it really was. The majority of the garbage that makes its way into ditches along our roads is either fast food leftovers or beverage containers. The cheap, disposal nature of carryout packaging has made the entire fast food industry possible. The same can be said for the soft drink industry. They both benefit from the disposability of these items, and yet they appear to bear no responsibility for them.

More importantly, they don't seem to care. This is the point that I find so interesting. The fast food and soft drink industries spend billions of dollars every year on advertising and promotion. These companies aren't just selling products. They engage some of the brightest minds in advertising to help sell an image. What is so astounding is that none of these marketing geniuses has made the connection between that carefully crafted image and what happens to it when it ends up squashed in a ditch or smeared all over the road. It strikes me that this is really bad public relations.

Look on any fast food wrapper. It's unlikely that will you find the words, "Please don't litter". Ditto for pop cans and bottles and perhaps the most prolific of the ditch dwellers, coffee cups. The whole convenience food industry needs to work on educating the public about responsibly disposing of their packaging after it leaves the store. Rather than packing food into bags at the drive-thru window or take-out counter, fast food restaurants should use litterbags instead. Maybe then consumers would actually think before they roll down the window and pitch. And for food that's actually eaten inside the restaurant, reusable plates and cutlery might be a fresh idea. Tim Horton's already gives its staying customers the option of real plates and coffee mugs, so it is possible.

I was reminded of all this last when we made a rare stop for coffee at a Tim Horton's drive-thru. As we pulled away from the pick-up window, we were greeted with a sign that said, "Please be a good neighbor. Don't litter."

While most people would see this as a mark of good corporate citizenship, I found the sign offensive. Somewhere along the line both the fast food restaurants and the consumers have accepted the idea that a tremendous amount of garbage and littering is the price we have to pay for the convenience that we take for granted. It's time to re-visit that perception.

First of all, the Tim Horton's sign puts the onus for disposal on the consumer. Fast food companies, like Tim's, should be making a more concerted effort to encourage customers to use their own refillable containers, not discouraging them.

For example, on several occasions when I've presented my reusable coffee cup at McDonald's, the clerk actually poured my coffee out of a disposable cup, and then threw the cup away. The explanation: throwing away cups is the only way that the world's largest restaurant chain can keep track of how much coffee they sell. Honestly.

It's been several years since that sunny Sunday morning when Jessie found those Burger King wrappers, and things haven't gotten any better. In fact, they're much, much worst. So from here on, when I see a squashed Tim Horton's coffee cup, a flattened Coke can or Big Mac wrapper in the street, I think I'll be calling the advertised owners and asking them to come and pick up their stuff. I invite you to do the same.


Contact your favorite fast food outlet and let them know that every time one of their branded containers ends up in the ditch, they look bad:

Tim Horton's



Burger King

Friday, May 12, 2006

Too Hot to Handle

It would appear that everything old is new again. Incineration, once the bane of the waste industry, is rising like a phoenix from the toxic ashes as a perceived win-win solution for two of the major environmental issues that we currently face: What do we do with our garbage and how do we meet our growing demand for electricity?

Proponents of the technology argue that this newest generation of incinerators, which they prefer to call energy-from-waste (EFW) facilities, bears little resemblance to the polluting monsters of a few decades ago. Gone are the belching smokestacks, replaced with high tech scrubbers and high temperature furnaces that promise to not only rid us of those problematic garbage piles, but also to create much needed electricity.

What's interesting is that because all these supposed benefits, you'd expect that municipalities everywhere would be touting incineration as the perfect waste management solution. But they're not, and with good reason. Incineration is one of the most emotionally charged environmental issues ever put on the table for discussion. The very mention of the word - incinerator - evokes great passion and anger on both sides of the debate. The result is that most politicians still consider the issue too hot to handle.

"I don't hear any public debate on these issues. I don't hear any kind of forums or open houses ... on energy from waste," said Ontario Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller. "All I hear is: `We don't want to talk about this.'"

Well we should. And we should for reasons that aren't likely to show up on either side of the debate, so let's talk about them here. Incineration, like landfilling, is an end of the pipe solution to a problem we have been avoiding for decades. In 1988, the City of Toronto filed for an environmental assessment exemption when it first began looking for a new landfill site on the grounds that it didn't have enough time to do one. Almost two decades later, we're still looking for an easy solution to a very difficult problem.

I think it's time we grew up. As my husband Brian is very fond of saying, "A failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine." Well, we have failed to plan and now we're running around hoping that somebody - or more accurately something - will save us from our own excesses.

This isn't going to happen. The problem isn't what to do with our garbage. The problem is that we are the only living species on the planet that produces more waste that the natural ecosystem can reabsorb and reuse. We are apparently very smart but shortsighted little monkeys. We manage to create such diverse and interesting mounds of waste that are so repugnant and so difficult to dispose of, that like some petulant child who won't clean up her room, we refuse to deal with them.

So here we are with our backs up against the wall, once again. With time, space and options running out, incineration will increasingly be put forth as the preferred solution despite the learned opposition. The process has already started. The regions of York and Durham, and Hamilton and Niagara are already looking to site incinerators. It would appear that Gord Miller will get the debate that he's looking for, and it won't be pretty.

And that's because incineration isn't pretty, nor is it a solution to the world's waste problems - it's definitely part of the problem.

Incinerators don't eliminate waste: they simply reduce the volume, historically to 20 percent of the original volume and 10 percent of the original mass. Site an incineration in your community and be prepared to host a toxic ash dump as well. That's because when you burn garbage, it produces toxic ash. This ash ends up in one of two places: the atmosphere or in a toxic waste facility.

Thanks to improved scrubbers and filters, most of the toxins will be caught by scrubbers and filters and end up being dumped. However, what they can't eliminate are dioxins from flying up the stack. Incinerators are the largest single source of dioxin, a substance so toxic that it has no known threshold. In other words, there is no level - ever - at which dioxin is no longer considered toxic.

Incinerators are counter-productive to waste recycling and reduction initiatives, because they compete for the same materials. Despite industry claims that waste-to-energy facilities will only burn trash that can't otherwise be recovered through recycling programs, paper and plastic are the most efficient fuel, and some of the most easily recyclable materials.

Incinerators are also very hungry. In order to feed them, municipalities who choose to host one will likely end up importing garbage from other communities to keep temperatures burning high enough to ensure proper combustion and hence keep stack emissions at a minimum.

And then there's the cost. "Energy from waste is not a cheap way to produce power, it is an expensive way to get rid of garbage," said Nigel Guildford, a board member of the Ontario Waste Management Association.

Those who argue that EFWs will at least provide much needed electricity must instead consider the amount of energy that is wasted producing the products that end up in the garbage.

The solution is that we will eventually have to arrive at - sooner rather than later - is not stop producing garbage in the first place.


Read the report, A Changing Climate for Energy from Waste?, by Dr. Dominic Hogg, available at Friends of the Earth

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Environmental Factor

With the official opening of gardening season looming on the horizon, and municipalities passing by-laws to restrict the cosmetic use of pesticides, the beleaguered lawn care industry has gone on the offensive. The industry would have us believe that abandoning pesticides would leave us vulnerable to the ravages of dandelions, crabgrass and lawn grubs.

Fortunately, it isn't an either/or situation. Thanks to the innovative ideas of one Canada's greenest entrepreneur, it's possible to have a weed-free, healthy lawn, without having to resort to cancer-causing pesticides.

When Lorelei Hepburn abandoned her unfulfilling career in the insurance industry, she had no idea that she would eventually revolutionize lawn care. Combining her love for the planet and a desire to make a difference with her life, Hepburn started her own organic lawn care company, The Environmental Factor, in 1991.

Like many successful entrepreneurs, Hepburn gleefully admits that her first venture wasn't quite as successful as she'd hoped. An inventor by heart, one of her earliest experiments was to try and make square tomatoes. Rather than genetically modifying the plants, Hepburn built small Plexiglas boxes that she would place over the tomatoes as they grew. Hydroponics had always been a hobby and she thought it would be both fun and practical to create tomatoes that would fit better on a sandwich.

"The tomatoes would grow to a certain size and then split the boxes," she said wryly. "Not one of my better ideas."

Hepburn also soon discovered that there weren't any commercial organic products available on the market, so she decided to make her own. Coincidentally, at the time the city of Oshawa had been infested with white grubs. Working with scientists and researchers she experimented with nematodes, microscopic parasites found naturally in the soil. Juvenile nematodes use white grubs as a host when breeding. By increasing the concentrations of nematodes, Hepburn discovered that they could effectively eliminate grub infestations.

"The nice part was that we weren't introducing anything that wasn't already there: we just put more in," said Lorelei. "And once the nematodes' food source was used up, they died." Hepburn began fermenting the nematodes at her head office in Oshawa. Today she ships nematodes across North America.

Hepburn next turned her attention to developing an alternative to chemical fertilizers. Her research led her to the discovery of corn gluten as highly effective "weed and feed" pre-emergence product.

As Hepburn explains, corn gluten is an ideal alternative to chemical products, which as a rule require increasing applications to achieve the same result year after year. By contrast, corn gluten becomes increasingly effective at controlling crabgrass and dandelions with every application. Used in conjunction with healthy lawn practices, the product is 60 to 70 percent effective in the first year, 80 to 90 percent in the second year, and continues at this level of effectiveness for each subsequent year that it is applied.

Hepburn got her first order for her corn gluten product when word of mouth reached a garden centre in Windsor. Hepburn was still a one-woman operation at this point, so she loaded a ton of the product into the back of her pick-up and delivered the order herself.

Word of her products grew as she began attending industry trade shows. Hepburn's proudest moment came at exactly 3:18 pm on March 7, 2003. That's the moment that she received a fax from Health Canada officially confirming the registration of TurfMaize, her corn gluten product, as Canada's first non-chemical weed control.

"The best thing about this product is that when you use it, you don't have to worry about having your children or dogs play on your lawn," said Hepburn, "Homeowners no longer have to choose between a weed-free lawn and the health of their families, neighbors and pets." TurfMaize has proven to be effective for home lawn applications, golf courses, gardens and public green spaces such as parks, athletic fields and waterways.

Despite the fact that Hepburn has received a number of substantial offers, she has thus far declined bids to sell the formulation for TurfMaize. Instead, she has focused on building the franchise operation of her business. To date, she has twelve franchises operating in Ontario, as well as one each in British Columbia and New Brunswick, making her operations coast to coast across Canada. With projected sales figures for 2006 expected to top $ 1 million, Hepburn has proven that you can be both environmentally responsible and financially successful.


For product or franchise information, visit The Environmental Factor

For more information on organic lawn care, visit theThe Organic Landscape Alliance

Monday, May 01, 2006

Cancer Prevention

We all know the phrase. "Cancer Can Be Beaten." It has been our mantra for decades, and yet despite all kinds of advancements in cancer detection and treatment, cancer is still a leading cause of death in this country." According to the Canadian Cancer Society's (CCS) report, Canadian Cancer Statistics 2006, released earlier this month, "An estimated 153,100 new cases of cancer and 70,400 deaths from cancer will occur in Canada in 2006." The CCS estimates that if the current cancer rates continue, 38 percent of Canadian women and 44 percent of Canadian men will develop cancer in their lifetimes. Approximately one out of every four Canadians will die from cancer.

While there have been some advances made in both early detection and treatment, clearly we need to rethink our battle strategy. The problem is that an estimated 90 percent of all cancer research dollars goes toward either treating the disease, or looking for a cure. According to the members of the Prevent Cancer Now (PCN) coalition, it's time we started focusing on cancer prevention. PCN is a coalition of Canadian environment, health, labor, and social justice leaders who have come together to put the prevention of cancer first in government policy, in delivery of health services, and in the public's mind.

Thanks to aggressive public awareness campaigns, we are all well aware of the cancer risks associated with smoking. What hasn't been public knowledge is that so much of what we're exposed to in our everyday environment also contains cancer-causing substances. There are carcinogenic chemicals in household products, cleaners, pesticides, food additives and much more. Routine emissions of radioactive matter from nuclear power plants are also an issue, as is medical radiation. The tragedy is that virtually all of these exposures can be reduced or eliminated.

"Most cleaners aren't clean at all," said coalition Co-Chair Liz Armstrong. "We have to start paying attention to those elements in our lives that we just take for granted." According to Armstrong, we're exposed to over 100,000 man-made chemicals that have been introduced since World War II. Since only a handful of these chemicals have actually been tested, we have no real way of determining what the ultimately health effects of exposure will be. In addition, there is almost no data on the synergistic or cumulative effect of multiple chemical exposures.

To demonstrate exactly how pervasive some of these chemicals are, Environmental Defence Canada conducted a body burden study of 11 Canadians from coast to coast in 2005. Each participant had blood and urine samples that tested for 88 known toxins. Sixty chemicals were detected in the combined results, including 41 known or suspected carcinogens, including benzene (found in beauty and personal care items, household and cleaning products) and formaldehyde (found in everything from plywood and carpeting and facial tissue, table napkins, and roll towels.)

And these are some of the known carcinogens. Just imagine the toxic soup that we're exposed to every day.

Anyone who has witnessed the devastation of cancer knows that this has to be stopped. What's needed is both the political will and a dedicated financial investment. Cancer is a multi-billion dollar industry. The pharmaceutical companies and other related industries benefit directly from the sale of cancer medications and other treatments. Small wonder that there is little corporate support for prevention initiatives. Just follow the money.

Which is why Coalition members are joining together to raise money to help prevent cancer before it starts.

This May marks the Third Annual Run, Walk and Roll for Cancer Prevention. The goal is to raise $ 150,000 (a truly modest sum when you consider the tens of billions of dollars that have gone into cancer research) to help educate all Canadians about the full scope of the cancer threat, share viable strategies, and urge action on all fronts. The funds raised will go toward a number of projects, including the Spring 2007 launch of the new book, Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic (New Society Publishers), a major cancer prevention conference planned for April 2007, and the ongoing support of numerous local cancer prevention projects, such as municipal pesticide-free by-laws, and green school campaigns.


For more information about The Third Annual Rock, Walk & Roll for Cancer Prevention, including dates and locations, to sponsor a runner, or to participate yourself, go to Stop Cancer.org

Sign the Cancer Prevention Declaration posted at Prevent Cancer Now

Information about Environmental Defence Canada's body burden study is found in the report, Toxic Nation.