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:

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

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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:

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

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And it has tons of wind farms:

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

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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:

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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.


Plastic and paper cleavage

February 22, 2009

frenchrabbitwinesfamily

There’s an ongoing debate, it seems, about whether Tetra Paks are recyclable. Although most municipal recycling depots insist they are (personally, I’m not sure how the plastic-coated cardboard gets separated from the inner foil lining, but I’ll suspend my disbelief for the time being), what I’m wondering is: What happens to all of those Tetra Paks that come with hard plastic screw-caps on top? Most juice boxes are made from a single material, but wine cartons have what look to be #5 polypropylene caps, presumably to keep them fresher and make pouring easier.

Now, because I’m kind of a recycling nerd, I take the time to find my pair of scissors and cut these things off before rinsing the empty carton and tossing it into the blue bin. I do the same with milk cartons that have this because, again, I don’t see how a paper-based material could ever be properly recycled with plastic attached to it. I even make sure to separate my #5 yogurt containers from their #6 (I think) lids, and harass my parents on a regular basis about detaching plastic handles from paper bags and shoelace drawstring handles from plastic bags (thank-you, GAP) before putting them in their proper disposal unit.

Recently, the city of Toronto began talking about ways to discourage people’s use of disposable coffee cups; apparently, while it is possible to recycle the paper cup, this can’t be done when the plastic lid is attached — this is a big problem at the sorting plant.

So is my anxiety over decapitating every single Tetra Pak of wine, every Ceres juice box, every milk carton and yogurt container justified? Should the government be forcing manufacturers to start offering products in single-material packages? Or do most things get recycled, regardless of whether they’re clean or dirty, separate or joined together? And is there anyone besides me who can be found stabbing juice boxes with a pair of scissors every Tuesday morning before the recycling trucks come?


Down to the core (Day 241)…

October 27, 2007

apple core

This one goes out to Patsy Telpner, who remembered my new Simple Saturday feature and thought up a great idea for it: Whenever you eat an apple, eat the core too (just not the seeds, what with the cyanide in them and all). This is a rule that I’ll also be applying to pears, and as many fruits and veggies as possible — I’m going to eat the stems of my broccoli and asparagus (my sister and I actually like to trade stems-for-tops with these ones), as well as the skins of my potatoes, the stringy bits of celery, the innards of cucumbers and zucchinis and the seeds in my squash.

Of course, I might have to leave some food scraps for my worms — what else are they for, anyway?

Image courtesy of this website


Finally! (Day 238)…

October 24, 2007

Diva Cups

Of all the suggestions people have offered me throughout this challenge, there’s been one that has continued to come up over and over again. It has nothing to do with recycling, or tote bags, or going vegetarian. It’s the Diva Cup. Seriously, at least 50 women have written in recommending this alternative menstrual device (or The Keeper, which is rubber instead of silicone), and since the very first day I’ve been waiting to try it; the problem was, I’d gone off the pill and that time of the month was gradually turning into that time of the century — my progesterone had gone into hibernation, my ovaries had gone on strike, and my little cup was left sitting under the bathroom sink gathering dust.

But finally — FINALLY — the time came, and I was able to test it out. Unfortunately, things started progressing in the middle of the night without any warning cramps, so the whole … um … insertion process was accomplished in a hurried, somnambulant daze. When I woke up the next morning, there was a slight complication (OK boys, really, feel free to stop reading now): The cup got stuck.

Reading through Crunchy’s blog posts on this topic, I’d noticed that she and a few other women felt they needed to trim the little stem, but in my case I would’ve been more than happy to have had a longer one, or at least something that was easier to grab onto. Either way, I remained calm and went over to the troubleshooting page at Diva Cup headquarters, where they explained precisely what to do in this situation. I followed the instructions, and presto, problem solved.

This is definitely something I’m going to continue using. Not only is it easier to manage, far more comfortable and less expensive, but it also reduces all the waste that comes with using disposable feminine hygiene products. As the manufacturers of the Diva Cup point out, over 7 billion tampons and 13 billion sanitary pads, plus all the associated packaging, ends up in landfills and sewage systems every year in the U.S. alone. Sick! Who wants to be part of that statistic?

Not me, and I hope not any of my fellow green chicks.

So here’s the fun part! I’ll be interviewing the mother-daughter duo behind the Diva Cup — Francine and Carinne Chambers, from Kitchener, Ontario — and posting it on Green as a Thistle either this week or next. Feel free to submit any questions you have for them below; whoever has the most original question wins a free Diva Cup!


The 10-second rule (Day 236)…

October 22, 2007

spill

OK, so you may not want to bend down and start slurping a spilled can of stale Miller off a dirty parquet floor, but in most cases the 10-second rule should apply, at least if you’re a greenie like me.

It basically stipulates that, if food is dropped on the ground, it’s still safe to eat for a certain period of time, as bacteria requires a few seconds to actually take hold. But of course, as Wikipedia points out, “In some variations, the person picking up the food arbitrarily extends the time limit based on the actual amount of time required to retrieve the food.”

And, it’s pretty much an urban legend anyway. Whatever bacteria is there will either be on the food or not, and will either make you sick, or not. Chances are, however, the germs that land on a sandwich when it’s sitting on the floor will probably be much the same as the ones that sneak onto it while it’s being made on the kitchen counter.

Either way, as my floors are kept pretty clean, I’m going to stick to the 10-second rule so as not to waste food. The only exception will be liquids — I don’t mind a bit of dust in some spilled coffee, but cat hair? Not cool.

Photo courtesy of mhoran on Flickr


A green Halloween, part one (Day 235)…

October 21, 2007

pumpkin

Today will be the first of two posts on how I’m greening my Halloween, often one of the worst holidays in terms of its ecological impact. In a couple hours, I’ll be hopping on my bike and heading over to a friend’s house for his annual Punkinpalooza carving competition. He has a live band playing on his porch, lots of harvest-time food and an official judging panel.

It should be lots of fun, but at the same time I’m not really comfortable with taking a knife to a gourd unless I know it won’t be wasted. While a lot of people do make an effort to toast the seeds, not many folks actually eat the pumpkin after it’s been sitting outside on the front steps with a melting candle in it all night.

But I’m going to make sure I not only eat the seeds from my pumpkin — which I can toast in a frying pan, as I don’t have access to my oven — but the meaty innards, too. They’ll be perfect for soup, or fried up with some other root veggies and lots of olive oil. I just hope the kiddies who come to my door on the 31st will appreciate homemade organic pumpkin purée in reusable Tupperware containers (just kidding).

Image courtesy of this website


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