Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Eco-Friendly Country Living

When Rick and Sharon Rosnak traded their house in Oshawa, Ontario, for a farm in the country, their goal was to leave the hustle and hassle of urban living behind them.

The 53-acre farm that they purchased north of Columbus, Ontario, came complete with a 1,700 square foot ranch style home and a 33 year-old oil furnace, which was desperately in need of replacing. The initial cost estimate they received for a new furnace and air conditioning system was between $ 8,000 and $ 9,000. Local contractor, Martin Versluis, from Maarch Mechanical in Raglan, suggested their property was ideal for an energy saving geothermal heating and cooling system.

Geothermal heating and cooling systems move the heat from the ground into buildings using the same technology refrigerators use to remove heat from food. The system reverses the process during the summer months to provide cooling that is twice as efficient as any other air conditioning system. Geothermal systems also provide hot water and dehumidification.

Geothermal systems work by circulating water through underground tubes. Approximately 50 metres of tubing is required for every tonne of heating and air conditioning. In the Rosnak's case, horizontal loops were buried 1.5 metres below the surface in four 100-metre trenches. Each trench contained a double line of piping, for a total of more than 730 metres of piping. A heat exchanger and pump system do the rest of the work.

While the Rosnak's large property provided space for a horizontal installation, vertical loops can be drilled when space is limited. For example, the Old Oshawa Hotel was recently retrofitted with a complete geothermal installation. An array of 60 metre boreholes was drilled down through an adjacent parking lot, effectively eliminating the building's heating and cooling and hot water heating costs.

The energy bill for the Rosnak's home prior to installation was an estimated $ 3,000 a year. With a total price tag of $ 21,000, Rick estimates that their new geothermal system will pay for itself in 7 to 8 years.

To further improve their homes energy efficiency, the Rosnaks have replaced the existing leaky windows and insulated the attic, which was hemorrhaging cold air.

"When we went up into the attic we were shocked to see that there was virtually no insulation," said Rick. "It effectively had an R value of zero!" The R value of building materials is the unit used to describe its thermal resistance.

While the Rosnaks qualified for a GST rebate on their energy efficiency improvements, they missed out on a $ 3,500 rebate that has since been made available from the federal government's EcoENERGY program for geothermal installations. Despite this, the Rosnaks think that it's money well spent.

"We're very happy with the result," said Rick. "The system provides all our heating, air-conditioning and most of our water heating needs. As an added bonus, the fan comes on in stages, so the system is incredibly quiet." The only downside that the Rosnaks have discovered is that this time of year - when their home is neither being cooled or heated - there is no residual recovered energy to heat water.

"Having to turn the hot water heater on for the few weeks in fall and spring is small price to pay for free hot water the rest of year," said Rick.

When it comes to environmental stewardship, the Rosnaks have not stopped with a carbon neutral heating and air conditioning system. This summer over 10,000 indigenous trees - native red maple, red oak, white oak, aspen, black cherry, white pine, hemlock and spruce - were planted on the couple's property. The planting was a four-way partnership between the Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority (CLOCA), Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust, Trees Ontario and the Rosnaks. The trees, which range in size from 10 centimeters to well over a meter in height, will return much of their property to native forest.


The ecoENERGY program offers homeowners up to $ 5,000 in grants and rebates toward the cost of energy efficiency improvements. For more information, or to book a home energy audit, visit or call toll-free 1-877-732-9888. is an all Canadian company specializing in independent property inspections that assess the condition of the property and building’s systems and components, required repairs, improvements and maintenance. The company’s website contains a wealth of information to help consumers make educated decisions about property purchases.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Car Free Day (and World Record Walk, too!)

The modern automobile has become virtually all things to most people, at least some of the time. It can be a home entertainment centre, babysitter, time machine ("Can you drive a little faster, honey?"), mobile restaurant, status symbol, stress reliever (and creator) all rolled into one. It enables us to live, work and play where we want, when we want. It miraculously stretches time so that it is almost possible to be in at least two places at once, (say at your son's soccer game and your daughter's piano lesson, while picking up the groceries and doing the banking.) And if time does run out to do such menial tasks as preparing a meal, there are countless "drive-thrus" that can literally keep you going.

It's not that the car is a bad thing. I for one love my car and I love the freedom that it gives me. The problem is that things overall are seriously out of balance.

As E. C. McDonagh so brilliantly articulated, "The car has become a secular sanctuary for the individual, his shrine to the self, his mobile Walden Pond."

Or to put it a more bluntly, in the words of Clint Eastwood, "You are what you drive."

The price we pay for all of this status, security and convenience is simply staggering. The burning of the fossil fuels that we pump into our gas tanks is a major contributor to global warming. Every year we pave an additional one million hectares, or enough land to feed nine million people, with new roads and highways.

On a personal level, our health is suffering. We are the most overweight generation in history, and our children are dangerously close behind. An estimated 15 percent of Canadian children are considered obese and a staggering 33 to 37 percent of kids aged 2 to 11 are overweight. A key contributor to this obesity is our "drive everywhere" lifestyles. Riding bikes and walking has been replaced by Mom's taxi or Dad's limo service, while fast food increasingly replaces the family meal.

Enough. Thursday, September 20th is International Car Free Day, a once a year celebration to help us break our auto addiction, if only for 24 hours. For those who love a really big party, Car Free Day is celebrated by 100 million people in 1,500 cities around the world and is supported by the European Union, the United Nations and even the Government of Canada.

Car Free Day originated in 2000, and has been growing exponentially ever since. For those who think it isn't possible to park the car for the day, since 2000, Bogota, Columbia has literally closed the entire city of 7 million people to private automobiles. In 2003, Montreal closed its main street - Saint-Catherine - for 10 city blocks. The event led to a 40 percent reduction in auto emissions and 10 percent increase in transit ridership. Rather than find the day an inconvenience, 95 percent of Montrealers surveyed said, "Bring it on next year."

According to the official website, Car Free Day is about focusing on the problems associated with our dependence on the private automobile such as air pollution, global warming, stress, and safety issues. Car Free Day also emphasizes the rights of pedestrians and cyclists, the need for more and better public transit, and helps people rediscover their local community, outside the confines of their vehicle.

Want a better reason to park your car for the day? How about rising gas prices, expanding waistlines, gridlocked streets and trying to find a parking space. Give your car and the planet a break. On September 20th take public transit, car pool with a friend or co-worker or ride your bike. After work, slap on some comfortable shoes and take a stroll in the park with the dog, or a walk through the neighbourhood with your kids.

If you find you actually like this walking stuff, sign up for the upcoming World Record Walk. On Wednesday, October 3rd, at 12:30 EDT join in the province-wide challenge to break the Guinness World Record for the largest number of people walking one kilometer at the same time. Gentlemen, (ladies and children, too) start your sneakers.


To register for the World Record Walk to go

The World Record Walk is being organized by Green Communities Canada with support from the Ontario Ministry of Health Promotion

Car Free Day.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Plastic Lunches

With the return to school comes the weekday ritual of packing up lunches. While parents struggle to balance what's nutritious and affordable with what their kids will actually eat, there is also the issue of what to pack lunches in.

Plastic packaging, whether reusable or disposable, is a popular choice because it's convenient, lightweight and unbreakable and it keeps foods fresh. According to a report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), Smart Plastics Guide – Healthier Food Uses of Plastics for Parents and Children, there are environmental and health risks associated with this widespread use.

First and foremost, most plastic is made from petroleum, which is a non-renewable resource. Plastic is also difficult to recycle. The plastic that does get discarded is bulky and takes up a disproportionate amount of landfill space.

From a health perspective, the IATP report notes that using plastic for cooking or storing food can pose serious health risks. Even though it is known to pollute food, plastic is classified as packaging, and therefore doesn't need approval from the Food and Drug Administration or Health Canada.

For example, certain plastics contain hormone-disrupting chemicals that can leach into food and beverages. According to the report, "Leaching increases when plastic comes into contact with oily or fatty foods, during heating and from old or scratched plastics."

To balance convenience with environmental and health concerns, the IATP report makes the following recommendations:

Avoid using plastic containers in the microwave. Chemicals are released when plastic is heated. The best bet is to use ceramic or glass containers for reheating. If you have no other alternative, use plastic that is noted as "microwave safe."

Beware of cling wraps, especially for microwave use. The IATP recommends using waxed paper or a paper towel as a safer alternative.

Use alternatives to plastic packaging whenever possible. This is easier said than done, particularly when packing up school lunches. Old-fashioned waxed paper is a safe and inexpensive way to wrap sandwiches. Purchasing a metal lunch kit from the army surplus store may hold a certain appeal for teens. The trick is to make sure the containers actually are returned home for refilling.

Avoid bottled water. Perhaps the single greatest marketing hoax ever perpetrated on the buying public has been the promotion of bottled water. This $ 100 billion dollar a year industry is significantly less regulated than public utilities. The result is that tap water is usually safer than the stuff we're willing to pay big bucks for.

If you really must carry water with you, take adequate precautions. Popular polycarbonate bottles (sold by brand names such as Nalgene) have been shown to leach Bisphenol A, a nasty endocrine disrupting chemical. Bisphenol-A has been associated with alterations in brain chemistry and structure, behaviour, the immune system, male and female reproductive systems, and it is suspected of promoting breast cancer. To reduce the risk, don't use polycarbonate bottles for hot or warm liquids. Discard old or scratched bottles.

The best bet is to purchase a stainless steel water bottle. Make sure that it doesn't have a plastic liner.

Disposable plastic water bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate ethylene (better known as PETE or #1) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE or #2) are recommended for single used only.

The IATP recommends that any plastic containers should be washed thoroughly with mild soap before reuse to reduce bacterial contamination. The report also cautions that harsh detergents can breakdown plastics and increase the risk of chemical leaching.

If that wasn't enough to completely put you off your lunch, the IATP recommends that you get to know your plastics, which can be identified by the number located inside the recycling logo on the bottom of most containers. Avoid those that pose the greatest risk to health.

The most dangerous are considered to be #3 (polyvinyl chloride), which is used in some cling wraps and bottles, #6 (polystyrene), used in foam trays, coolers, carry out containers and egg cartons, and #7 (indicates other plastics, including polycarbonate and mixed materials), used in sports water bottles, baby bottles and the liners of cans and some metal water bottles.

Bon appetite!


The report, Smart Plastics Guide – Healthier Food Uses of Plastics for Parents and Children is available from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. The IATP promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

Healthy Child Healthy World is dedicated to protecting the health and well being of children from harmful environmental exposures by educating parents to make responsible decisions.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Safe Haven

A safe environment is generally described in physical terms: fresh air, clean water, nutritious food and adequate shelter. But a truly safe environment encompasses so much more. Freedom from danger, the absence of war or conflict, a strong sense of community and a general feeling of safety and well-being are all part of what constitutes a safe environment.

For 180 years our farmhouse in the country has been the source all of these wonderful things to nine generations of our family. Our home has provided us with such a safe haven that we have named it The Sanctuary. Our oasis of green in the middle of a farmer's field has nurtured and protected us. The trees have given us shelter from the wind and the sun and generated enough oxygen for 100 families. Our well, deep and pure, has provided us with the elixir of life, and our vegetable garden has given us food for our bellies.

For many years, the old orchard to the west of us provided a safe playground for our children. But all that started to change when housing developments started to replace farms. As the houses have moved closer and closer to our home, other children discovered our secret garden. Without a sense of belonging to the land or the history of the people who originally planted it, it has become a place of destruction. Loud ATVs and dirt bikes rip through the fields at anytime of the day, wild bush parties fill the evenings with noise and bonfires, and the night air is often shattered by the sound of the police helicopter surveying our once quiet sanctuary.

Without ever having moved, we have made the transition from isolated oasis to built community. And yet, outside the annoyance of noise, we had managed to maintain our sense of living in a safe environment until very recently.

All that was destroyed a few weeks ago when our home was broken into and we were robbed. All evidence suggests that the culprits were kids. The window they broke to get into the house was too small for an adult to squeeze through. The items that they stole and the bottles of liquor that were also missing led the police to the same conclusion: bored, disenfranchised kids, looking for something to do, looking for something to belong to. Too old for daycare, too young for jobs, these kids create gangs with names like Porch Monkeys and Chocolates. They find a sense of purpose stealing small electronic devices and other pricey items that they can easily sell to other kids for a tenth of their real value.

In our case, the toll was heavy. Among the many stolen items was the iPod that my husband received as a retirement gift and our video and digital cameras that contained the images of our eldest son's wedding reception. Sadly, our loss is much greater than the irreplaceable wedding photos and video. What has been taken from us is our sense of safety and security.

Our once safe haven has become a fortress. We immediately installed a high-tech security system and our daily routine has become a series of checks and double-checks, passwords and security codes. We are no longer comfortable leaving our home empty, and when we are home we are constantly on our guard.

What I find so disturbing is that we are not alone. Gangs have become a way of life, petty crime and violence has become pandemic. The paradox is that as our communities become bigger and bigger, our sense of community diminishes.

According to a recent study by The Vanier Institute of the Family, the dramatic increase in adolescent crime can be attributed to the lack of family values, adult supervision and constant societal and media pressure to have more.

"Parents who subscribe to materialistic values with a preoccupation for upward mobility or 'moving up socially' often do not have time to relate to their children so as to teach them appropriate values," wrote Anne Marie Ambert, Ph.D., in The Rise in the Number of Children and Adolescents Who Exhibit Problematic Behaviors: Multiple Causes. "When parents invest so much of their time in work for materialistic and competitive reasons, their behaviors serve as models for their children's value and development behaviors."

Ironically, in giving our children so much, they no longer place any value on what they, or anybody else has.


The Rise in the Number of Children and Adolescents Who Exhibit Problematic Behaviors: Multiple Causes, Anne-Marie Ambert, Ph.D., (February 2007), and other related papers are available from the Vanier Institute website.