Friday, May 30, 2008

People Gotta Move

From the expense of the daily commute to the cost of groceries, gas prices are impacting every aspect of our lives. The bad news is that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Some analysts are predicting that by the end of the summer prices will soar as high as $2.00 per litre.

There is some good news in all of this. Soaring gas prices may force us to finally break our ever-increasing dependence on private motorized vehicles. Since the transportation sector is responsible for approximately 27 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, what's good for our wallets will also be good for the planet.

Getting us out of the family car will be easier said than done. Access to the private automobile determines virtually every aspect of our lives: where we live and work and shop, how, when and where we play, even how we design our cities. There are, however, a number of options worth exploring.

While most of us think of cycling in terms of recreation, there is a growing number of utility riders who use their bikes as a primary mode of transportation. Over the next couple of weeks, cities across Canada will be hosting Bike to Work Week activities. Bike to Work Week festivities vary from city to city, according to the strength of the local biking community and the level of support that it receives from its municipality.

This support is critical to the success of promoting cycling as a viable alternative to driving to work for a couple of very good reasons - safety and road access. In the absence of dedicated bikes lanes, cyclists are often forced to occupy the same road space as automobile traffic. The unfortunate reality is that the drivers of many of these vehicles view cyclists an annoyance that slows them down. The result is that cyclist are often seriously injured or killed on roadways.

"We don’t block traffic," states the Critical Mass website, "We ARE traffic." Critical Mass is a loosely formed group of cyclists around the world that gather together for monthly rides that celebrate cycling and the cyclists’ right to the road.

For those of us who love cycling but can't go the distance, e-bikes offer an environmentally friendly alternative to the automobile. In order to encourage this mode of transportation, the Government of Ontario began a three-year pilot project in October 2006, which exempts e-bikes and other low-powered vehicles from the Highway Traffic Safety Act. Essentially what this means is that e-bikes are legally considered bicycles. As such, they don't require licensing or insurance and operators are not required to hold a motorcycle licence. The only restrictions worth noting are that e-bikes must not exceed 32 km/hr and operators must be at least 16 years of age. Helmets are mandatory.

While e-bikes are relatively unknown in Eastern Canada, Vancouver offers free charging stations for the City's estimated 3,000 e-bike commuters. E-bike riders in Europe measure in the millions, and China has more than 80 million e-bikes on its roads.

I purchased an e-bike several weeks ago and I am delighted with its performance. Its twin batteries provide the bike with a range of up to 85 km. Using my e-bike to commute has added about 10 minutes each way to my daily drive and immeasurable fun to my day. At a cost of $1200, which includes a helmet, rechargeable batteries and a secure bike lock, I estimate that the bike will pay for itself by next summer.

For the rest of the work force whose commute is either too long, or whose body just isn't up to cycling of any kind, Smart Commute provides yet another option. A program of the Government of Ontario, the goal of Smart Commute is to reduce traffic congestion and take action on climate change through transportation efficiency. Smart Commute helps employers and commuters explore and promote different commuter choices, such as carpooling, transit, cycling or walking, as well as telecommuting and flexible work hours.


Check out

For more on e-bikes, visit

“How to Not Get Hit by Cars – important lessons on Bicycle Safety” is a must-read for cyclists and motorists alike and can be found at

Information on Bike to Work Week events across North America can be found at

Critical Mass is an idea and an event, not an organization.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Energy Conservation Week in Ontario

As recent headlines have attested, Ontario's economy is in big trouble. And while major lay offs in Canada's auto sector have contributed to the province's economic woes, our biggest problem is one we literally can't see. Electricity.

It was the availability of cheap, abundant electricity that gave birth to Ontario's economy, the largest in Canada. But as this economy has grown, the need for electricity has grown even faster. As recently as a decade ago, home computers and other electronic equipment were considered luxury items. Now the majority of Ontario's 4.5 million homes host at least one or two computers, printers, DVD players, video games, iPods and various other electronic gadgets. Even when they are not in use, many of these devices continue to draw electricity, pushing demand even further.

Computers and other electronic devices have taken over the business world as well. Twenty years ago, executive would have human assistants. Today, people have been replaced by computers, Blackberries, cell phones and other devices, all of which also require electricity. Let's not forget that the institutional sector is also dependent on a vast network of computers and other equipment that is driven by electricity.

The result of all of this increasing demand is that in less than 20 years, Ontario's peak electricity consumption with rise from 26,000 Megawatts (MW) to over 34,000 MW. Meanwhile, many of our major sources of generation are in need of expensive retrofits or replacement. In order to simply keep up with our need, Ontarians will have to reduce their energy consumption by 6,300 MW by 2025 
- or the equivalent of taking one in five electricity consumers off the power grid. Clearly our current path is not sustainable.

Enter Peter Love, Ontario's Energy Conservation Officer. Appointed in 2005 by the Ontario Power Authority, Peter has enthusiastically embraced the job of creating a culture of conservation within the province.

To help him with this monumental task, the Conservation Bureau recently announced Ontario's first Energy Conservation Week. From May 25 to 31, Peter will be promoting his message of, "Think, Believe, Act."

"The challenge is to make people think about electricity conservation the same way that they think about water conservation." Peter points out that while most people wouldn’t think about letting a tap run, they are oblivious to how much energy they waste every day.

"And unlike water, electricity has to be generated, sometimes hundreds of kilometers away, and then transmitted to where it is available 24 hours a day," said Peter. "The system was never designed for this demand."

"Everyone has to think about electricity and be mindful every time they use it," said Peter. "Hope is not a strategy."

"Believe," is the second part of Peter’s message.

"I need you to believe that you should and can reduce your electricity consumption and that it is in everyone's best interest to reduce our need to generate power," said Peter. As he explains, this isn't just about cutting our own electricity bills.

"The cost of energy in every part of our lives will continue to rise." As taxpayers, we pay for electricity indirectly through our healthcare system, our schools and our public infrastructure. Saving electricity translates into more money available to spend on better health care, more teachers, improved public and social services.

The third part of Peter's conservation message is "Act". As he so accurately points out, the era of cheap electricity is over. The good news is that it's cheaper to conserve electricity than it is to create new sources. As an added bonus, conservation programs and energy efficiency can create new jobs in emerging fields such as renewable energy technology and engineering.

"Energy conservation is pivotal to Ontario’s future," said Peter.

Energy Conservation Week provides a great place to get started. The week kicked off on Sunday, May 25th with Peter throwing the opening pitch at Toronto’s energy-efficient Rogers Centre. Monday invited the industrial/commercial/institutional sector to look at the impact of energy use, while Tieless Tuesday focused on encouraging businesses to save energy by turning air conditioners up two degrees and promoting a casual summer dress code. Watt Wednesday provides everyone with tips for reducing peak summer demand and Thursday is "Count Every Kilowatt Day". Cool Down Friday's focus is what Ontarians can do long-term to ensure the health and sustainability of the grid.


For more information, check out

The Every Kilowatt Counts Summer Sweepstakes encourages Ontarians to reduce their electricity use in the summer, when demand is highest. Go to for more details.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Bottle's Lament

On Saturday, April 26th, a wonderful era ended on Prince Edward Island. With the simple zip of a pop can, Environment Minister George Webster put an end to the province’s 24-year ban on non-refillable pop containers. P.E.I. had the distinction of being the only jurisdiction in all of North America where pop and beer could only be sold in refillable bottles. A similar ban on non-refillable beer bottles had been in place since 1973.

The lifting of the "can ban" marks a complete about-face for P.E.I., which was once touted as Canada's greenest province. As recently as 2003, former Premier Pat Binns defended the ban explaining that glass was better for the environment.

"A pop bottle is refilled on average 17 times," said Binns. "You can imagine the energy that saves compared to filling a can in Montreal, driving it all the way to P.E.I., putting it through recycling and back into the mainstream again. Environmentally, glass is much better product than a can that's been used once."

It's also much more expensive for soft drink manufacturers to collect and refill pop bottles that it is to use cans. Cans, on the other hand, are much lighter and more durable that glass containers, which means lower fuel costs and less breakage.

Ironically, in taking a stand against the mighty soft drink industry, the PEI ban was the impetus for the industry's decision to fund Ontario’s blue box program. If tiny little P.E.I., with a population less than the City of Oshawa, could put a dent in the industry's profit margin, other jurisdictions might soon follow. The industry moved quickly to create Ontario Multi-Materials Recycling Inc.(OMMRI) and forged a partnership with Ontario municipalities to share the costs of establishing the province's curbside recycling program. Over the next four years, the soft drink industry contributed over $20 million to the program and successfully removed any threat that Ontario might follow P.E.I.'s lead.

As the curbside program expanded, so did the industry's financial support. From 1990 to 1995, OMMRI members contributed an additional $45 million to expand the blue box to over 94 percent of all households in Ontario. Somewhere along the line the province's requirement that one third of all pop be sold in refillable containers conveniently disappeared.

With the threat of refillables removed from the equation, OMMRI shifted from being an industry funding organization to an advisory role. Working with municipalities, OMMRI and its successor organizations OMMRI II and CSR (Corporations in Support of Recycling), identified ways to make the program more cost effective.

The question, of course, is more cost effective for whom? Silica, the raw ingredient in glass, is one of the most plentiful and readily available substances on Earth. Aluminum, on the other hand, is a very expensive metal that is extracted from bauxite at enormous environmental cost.

"It's a sad day, not only for the environment in P.E.I., but for the environment in those far-away countries where aluminum is mined under extremely exploitive conditions," said Sharon Labchuk, leader of P.E.I.'s Green Party. "This is a huge step backwards for the environment and social justice."

It's a huge step back for P.E.I., too. In 1989, when my family took its first trip down to the island, I proudly took a case of pop along with us for the ride to reduce the amount of garbage we would generate on our two-day journey. Once in P.E.I., I asked a local resident where I could recycle my cans.

"We don't recycle cans in P.E.I.", was the reply. I was about to arrogantly enlighten him on the values of Ontario's blue box program when he continued, "We have two main industries in P.E.I. - farming and tourism - we don't need a bunch of garbage littering up our fair countryside or trucks from the mainland polluting our roads. Refilling bottles locally is much better for the environment and our economy."

And it's much more effective. Despite the success of Ontario's blue box program, it's been estimated that 500 million cans a year still aren’t recycled.

In lifting the ban, P.E.I. has lost more than its unique deposit-return system. By bowing to public pressure, it has put convenience over environmental stewardship, and in doing so has extinguished a brilliant example of hope.


Okay, there is one more out there. With a system-wide recovery rate of 99 percent, The Beer Store has diverted 70 billion beer bottles from Ontario landfills by reusing the bottles 12 to 15 times on average.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Brave New World

On April 22nd - Earth Day - the McGuinty government made good on its promise to enact a provincial ban on the cosmetic use of pesticides. When Bill 64 is passed, Ontario will become the second province in Canada to have such sweeping legislation. Quebec has already taken this brave step forward.

Learning from the lessons already learned in Quebec, the Ontario Bill has vastly extended the list of targeted chemicals, making it one of the toughest pieces of legislation in North America. And unlike municipal by-laws, which can only limit the use of pesticides, Bill 64 will also restrict their sale. The move will replace a variety of by-laws already in communities across Ontario where the cosmetic use of pesticides is banned.

The government intends to move quickly on the Bill, and the ban will likely take effect as early as next spring.

Critics have already taken pains to point out the legislation doesn't go far enough because it exempts agriculture, forestry and golf courses. It's important to note that this was never the intent of the legislation. It targets cosmetic use only. It's expected that legislation will be forthcoming specific to golf courses.

Other applications, such as agricultural and pest management are already carefully controlled. Given the mounting pressure to minimize the public's exposure to these chemicals, these applications will also face increasing scrutiny and further controls.

This is a very big step for Ontario and one that should not go unrecognized. It is also a rare and encouraging example of a government that has actually listened to what its voters want. 44 percent of Ontarians currently live in communities that have enacted pesticide bans.

"Many municipalities have already shown leadership in banning or restricting cosmetic use pesticides. We're extending that protection to all families wherever they live," said Environment Minister John Gerretsen.

"Our generation is becoming more and more aware of the potential risks in our environment, not only to our health, but to our children’s health. That's why we're taking action on behalf of the next generation of Ontarians, and reducing their exposure to chemicals," said Premier McGuinty.

It's important that everyone who has fought so hard and so long for this major shift in public policy take a moment to let the government know that it's moving in the right direction. The Bill was posted on Ontario's Environmental Registry for a 30-day public comment period commencing on April 22nd. Anyone can - and should - take the time to make their voice heard on this very important piece of legislation.


On a related note, public health and safety is the focus of Emergency Preparedness Week in Canada, which is being held May 4 to 10. As climate change continues to make extraordinary weather events the new normal, flooding, prolonged power outages as well as water and food shortages will also become the norm. Add to this list the potential for man-made environmental disasters such as nuclear accidents, chemical releases and acts of terrorism. Don’t forget to add health emergencies like infectious disease outbreaks that are also predicted to increase.

As one public official warned, "It's not a question of if, but when."

Emergency Preparedness Week encourages Canadians to be ready to cope on their own for at least 72 hours in the event of a disaster.

Everyone is encouraged to follow three simple steps:

* Find out what your risks are in the event of an emergency.
* Make a plan and review it with your family.
* Organize an emergency kit that will provide you with the basic necessities of life.

If all this seems like a daunting task, Public Safety Canada has a great Get Prepared website that can walk you through all three steps. It also offers a tremendous number of resources and guides - everything from "What to do" brochures to Natural Hazards poster map.

You should also take the time to investigate local emergency preparedness plans. All local governments are now required to have plans in place to assist residents at the community level. For more information, contact your local fire department.


Go to the Environmental Registry and make your comments known on Bill 64. The EBR Registry Number for Bill 64 is 010-3348.

For more information about preparing for an emergency, or for a list of kit items, visit or phone 1-800-O-CANADA.

Emergency Management Ontario’s new website was launched on May 2, 2008 just in time for Emergency Preparedness Week.