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Free Your Ride: what’s the best car-sharing service?

autoshareThe summer after 9th grade, my parents moved my little brother Mark and I from Montreal to suburban Mississauga, a gaping 35 kilometres from downtown Toronto. Back in Montreal, I was used to taking the city bus to school downtown and subwaying around to meet friends. In Mississauga, I quickly figured out you’d have to wait a good 30 minutes for sparse busses and walking got you nowhere in a hurry. My family got real car dependant real fast.

These days, my household is technically car-free, though I do have memberships to pretty much every car-sharing service in town. Call it research for my car-sharing guide, but each one has different advantages (trunkless Smart Cars, for instance, are a bad idea for trips to IKEA, though I did manage to cram a giant patio umbrella in one of these puppies, which made me want to try shoving a dozen clowns in here, too).  I know there are some hardcore treehuggers who would rather lie under the tire of an 18-wheeler rather than get in a car and, on the other end of the spectrum, a lot of you living far from car-sharing services let alone descent transit will be rolling your eyes right now, muttering, “I don’t think so, honey.” I know it’s not ideal for jobs that make you drive to all corners of the earth hauling gear and that sort of thing. But if you’ve got car-sharing services in your ‘hood, I really recommend checking ‘em out. Gas and insurance are included, it’s way cheaper than owning and it’s definitely a lot easier on your carbon footprint. I still love my bike and I’m super lucky to have a streetcar running right outside my front door (except for at 6am when it starts dinging its bell every few minutes) but I won’t deny how happy I am to pull out one of my car-sharing membership cards when I’ve got a trunkload of stuff to pick up that won’t fit in my bike basket. Anyway, think about it and if you live in Toronto, take a look at my car-sharing reviews.

Rain, rain, come and play: the updated rain barrel guide

algreen barrel postcardThere’s something about growing up in Canada that makes us want to just open up the taps and let the water flow free like the wind. I distinctly remember being 11/12 years old and taking 45 MINUTE long showers without a second thought (I probably cycled through a whole small lake in that time!). Maybe because we have over 2 million fresh lakes and water costs us next to nothing to use, we just don’t think about it as a problem the way, say, Californians do. Except for in the dead of summer, when the rain stops falling and your municipality starts calling on us to refrain from pulling out our sprinklers so often. When that precious rain does come, don’t let all that free water hitting your roof flood storm sewers and basements. Rain barrels can capture thousands of gallons over the summer to help keep your garden green without chlorine. So which barrel’s worth buying? By the way, I’ve updated my reviews since these first appeared in NOW so be sure to dig in.

HEAVEN & EARTH COLLAPSIBLE

This one may be super-convenient to pack up come wintertime, but it’ll totally disappoint you if your ground’s not level. Plus, some stores sell a version that’s made of vinyl (softened with hormone-disrupting phthalates), which is a bad idea. If you do get an H&E barrel, make sure to opt for one made of polyester or nylon. $99. 2/5

FISKARS

I tested out this rain barrel last summer, and it drove me nuts. Yes, the spigot provides clearance for watering cans. But without a second spout at ground level, it’s impossible to empty this sucker out without turning it on its head, so a lot of funky water can fester on the bottom. I thought I’d drained it completely, but I hadn’t, and it froze and split over the winter. Did I mention that the diverter is a pain in the ass to install, since a hole saw isn’t included? Made in the U.S. No recycled content. $160. 2/5

RTS

There are a lot of fake wood rain barrels on the market. This flat-backed one, made in Canada, will work just fine if you have room to rest it directly under your downspout. Otherwise, it’s not the barrel for you, since it doesn’t offer a diverter. You also have to clean the screen periodically to keep it from clogging. There’s only one spigot and it’s low to the ground, so this barrel has to be put on a stand to access the 189 litres it holds. $120. 3/5

ALGREEN

Let’s face it, most rain barrels are not the prettiest things. Algreen’s are probably the most style-conscious out there and great for high-visibility spots (see image at top of post). Plus they have planter-friendly lids for cascading greenery. These barrels (from 190 to 380 litres) are built to withstand Canadian winters, meaning they shouldn’t crack like others do. They’re made an hour outside Toronto, and the charcoal and brown models have 15 per cent recycled content. Bonus: the company offers a cool pump kit to help get H20 from the barrel out through a hose. Update: since these have a spout at the very bottom for drainage and a spout at a good height to allow for watering cans, you don’t need to put these on stands. Good slim-line options on hand for compact spaces. I may get one of these if I can squeeze one at the front of the house, but making room for recycling/garbage/compost bins and two barrels may be pushing my luck in a tight urban space. It’s like a giant game of Tetris out there! Best prices are at amazon.com. $150+ 4/5

RAINBARREL.CA, RIVERSAFE

If you’re in the market for a new rain barrel RAINBARREL.CA BARRELSand aren’t so fussed about its appearance, look for one that gives twice – once to the earth (by recycling rain) and once to charity. Rainbarrel.ca sells über-eco upcycled food barrels (most are 220 litres and $60 for the basic barrel) largely through non-profits as a fundraising tool. To find a barrel near you or a DIY barrel kit, head to this website. UPDATE: I bought one of these. Love that it kind of smells like olive oil. Yes, it’s a bit of a honker, especially since you have to raise it a foot high to access the water (their recycled plank stands are super green but aren’t visually discrete). Having tested this puppy out on a compact, urban semi-detached property, it only confirms my initial sense that these barrels may not be for tight, high visibility spots, especially if aesthetics are an issue. Although, hey, these are paintable so my good friend & upcycling queen Tiffany Pratt will be coming by in a couple weeks to help me sass it up. I’ll keep you posted on how it turns out! Good news is Rainbarrel.ca sells both in Canada and the US. RiverSafe barrels, on the other hand, are pretty local to Toronto. They raise funds for the non-profit water protectors at RiverSides. These are super-sturdy and pretty huge, holding 460 litres, and the black ones are 100 per cent recycled. (You can score one at Evergreen Brick Works or riversides.org, $225.) 5/5

**If you’ve got a little Mike Holmes in you somewhere, you can also try making your own DIY rain barrel out of an old garbage can or wine barrel. There are loads of DIY instructions on the net.

SIDE NOTE FOR WORRIERS: I’ve heard from a few of you that were worriedthat barrels would start overflowing after one downpour. Don’t worry! This is why barrels tend to come with an overflow valve. And if you buy a diverter, that water just keeps on chuggin’ along down your downspout if your barrel is full. Pretty clever.

SIDE NOTE FOR GLOBAL WATER WORRIERS: I interviewed a bunch of leading thinkers on water issues at the tail end of This Drowning World photo exhibit in Toronto. Author Alanna Michell, clean tech guru Tom Rand and others were on a panel post photo exhibit tour so I interviewed them for their take on why we’re drowning and how humanity can rescue itself. For the full article head to NOW and scroll past the barrels.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in NOW Magazine. 

Go with the flow: what kind of water filter is right for you?

Glass of waterI’ve been writing the Ecoholic column for, oh, a decade now (actually it was just Ecoholic’s 10 year anniversary!) and some questions trickle in again and again in my inbox. Probably one of the most common reader Qs I get is about water filters. I write about them every few years but the thirst for knowledge of this front never ceases. So I revisited the topic in a recent column, and boiled down the latest info on filter types. We weighed environmental factors against filter quality.  Writing about environmental health, I’m certainly straddling two worlds – a lot of enviros will tell you they don’t own water filters (from an environmental footprint perspective, tap is greenest), but holistic health peeps are highly concerned with filtering out trace contaminants. The final call is yours. But if a filter is effective but super wasteful, sorry, points have to be docked. We also scored filters by type, not by brand (so your particular pitcher filter might score higher). Without further ado…

PITCHER/GRANULATED CARBON

Your least expensive level of protection. Most rely on granular activated carbon, which is quite effective at getting rid of trace pharmaceuticals in water but not good enough at reducing lead to meet certifier standards. To be honest, pitchers are fine if you’re not all that worried about your water quality and you just don’t want the taste of chlorine. A basic Brita pitcher is certified to reduce “cadmium, chlorine, copper, mercury, taste/odour, zinc.” Mavea is also certified against perc (the dry cleaning chem). Santevia isn’t certified (by a water quality organization) but says it also alkalizes. Only one pitcher in Canada is certified to reduce lead, chromium, chlorine and other heavy metals: ZeroWater. Overall, pitchers scored a 2/5.

DISTILLED

This energy-intensive filtration system basically vaporizes water, then captures the steam. It’s top-notch at killing bacteria and viruses (useful in rural settings with no municipal water treatment), but it also strips all the beneficial minerals out of water, which explains why the World Health Organization advises against it. It doesn’t remove chlorine or chlorine disinfection by-products like chloroform, hence why distillers often also run water through a carbon block filter. 2/5

ULTRAVIOLET

Zapping untreated water with UV light is another great way to kill off bacteria. In fact, the city of Toronto voted to treat wastewater at Ashbridges Bay with UV a few years ago to eliminate carcinogenic chlorine disinfection by-products. But to be honest, urban households getting treated tap water needn’t bother getting a system that includes UV. It’s largely a waste of electricity for urban home use, so we’re docking points. 2/5

 REVERSE OSMOSIS

A long-time fave in the holistic community, since RO systems get rid of a lot of stuff not tackled by carbon filters, like fluoride, arsenic, bacteria and hexavalent chromium (made famous by Erin Brockovich). It also strips mineral content and doesn’t inherently get rid of chlorine or volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Not all RO filters are created equal – some do more than others. (See ewg.org’s water filter guide.) Where it loses points is waste: an RO system dumps three to 20 times more water than what it sends out of the tap. Probe before you buy.3/5

CARBON BLOCK

These super-condensed carbon filters are the type recommended by the Silent Spring breast cancer report (see column). They won’t remove fluoride (gotta combine it with reverse osmosis or alumina for that) or hex chromium, but are great for chlorine, lead, other heavy metals and a long list of VOCs. They don’t take extra energy or water to run, making them inherently greener. Shaklee makes a carbon block pitcher, though it’s certified to reduce less. Quality varies among countertop, faucet-mounted and under-sink versions. (See ewg.org’s filter guide.) 4/5

This article originally appeared in NOW Magazine. 

Cookware unscrambled: the latest dish on fying pans

Fried eggs

This column first appeared in the Mother’s Day issue of Ecoholic in NOW Magazine. Let’s get straight to it…

NON-STICK

First the good news: Teflon, the most famous of the polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) non-stick coatings, is now being manufactured without the notoriously persistent, suspected human carcinogen PFOA, as the result of U.S. government pressure. However, critics argue that replacement chems are under-researched. France-based T-Fal’s website says it’s still manufacturing with PFOA, though like all non-stick makers, it says the final pan surfaces are PFOA-free. Regardless, Health Canada says PTFE pans can give off poisonous fumes at very high temps. FYI, some titanium pans use ptfe non-stick coatings, so be sure to probe.

SCORE: 1/5

ANODIZED ALUMINUM

Aluminum’s great at conducting heat (hence, all sorts of pans have aluminum cores), but plain aluminum skillets do quite a bit of leaching. Anodizing the metal in an acid bath with electric current hardens it, creating a non-stick surface that leaches a lot less aluminum. But it still seeps out over time if you’re cooking high-acid foods like tomato sauces. Health Canada says levels are low enough that you shouldn’t worry. But why invest in one of these when there are so many other options on the market?

SCORE: 2/5

 CERAMIC

Often branded as “eco” pans because their non-stick glazed ceramic surface doesn’t use PTFEs or Teflon. I’ve tried a good half-dozen ceramic brands over the years. Some scratched within six months (like Eco-Chef, which came with a one year warranty) or just failed to deliver consistent non-stick performance (Orgreenic). Earthchef and Green Pan, both of which test for lead and cadmium in the glazes, were more durable, but I’ve found ceramic will lose its non-stick skills if you’re searing or cooking at high heat often. Nice part is Earthchef comes with a five-year guarantee. My advice: reserve these for eggs, and cook with another pan the rest of the time.

SCORE: 3/5

STAINLESS STEEL

Few pans are more durable and resilient than those made of stainless steel. They won’t rust like cast iron or wear out like ceramic, aluminum or conventional non-stick pans. You can scrub them with steel wool if need be and on they live. They can leach a little nickel and chromium into your food, though “not enough to cause concern,” according to Health Canada. Rundown aluminum and copper pans may leach to a more worrisome extent. A lot of pro chefs use carbon steel, which is mostly iron without the nickel or chromium in stainless steel. It’s more like lightweight cast iron and still needs seasoning. (De Buyer B Element from France is carbon steel with a beeswax coating.)

SCORE: 4/5

CAST IRON

I love old-fashioned cast iron pans. Okay, yes, they’re a bit of a pain in the arse since they’re heavy as hell and you have to wash and dry them with care. But if you buy good seasoned pans (Lodge crafts quality, American-made ones), these are wonderful chef-friendly surfaces. Plus, iron cookware can actually boost your daily iron intake by some 20 per cent – a bonus for vegetarians! Too heavy for you? Try carbon steel.

SCORE: 4/5

Battle of the Cleaning Cloths + Is Borax Really Toxic?

Ecloth column

Back in the day (as in up until, oh, a year ago), Ecoholic used to be a straight up green advice column. Every week readers wrote in with questions and I’d answer them in Q&A format. We’ve changed things up since then (mixing in product guides, nature notes, greenwash of the week, green finds of the week), but sometimes there’s no better way to get at a topic then with an old fashioned reader Q. Like this one on borax. Actually, I was at the Green Living Show in Toronto in late April when two women ended up asking me about borax. It hit me that I’ve never addressed the whole borax controversy with you guys so I figured there’s no better time then the present. It’s an important read for anyone that does DIY cleaning or uses all natural products. So is borax actually toxic? It’s a complicated issue. I get into it all in the column but thought I’d provide you with some direct links to reports for those of you looking for background details.

A few years ago, the European Union said boric acid/borax were reproductive toxins at high levels but not endocrine/hormone disruptors (which can trigger problems at quite low levels). At that point, they issued another report assessing the actual risk to consumers and they said levels used in detergents/soaps/cleaning products were safe. Then things shifted. They ended up putting boric acid on the list of potential hormone disruptors. I think it’s important to clarify that the list basically prioritizes substances for further research for endocrine disrupting effects. The list contains some seriously troublesome chems, like known toxin PCB,  as well as BPA, on which hundreds of studies have found hormone disrupting effects. Boric acid doesn’t have the same lengthy rap sheet in terms of hormone disruption. So a lot of people are confused. Should we should keep using it with abandon? Should we shelve it for good? Well, I think we should certainly pause and wait for more research. It’s also unclear why the EU only put boric acid on the list and not borax, when they’ve lumped the two together before. In the meantime, you can double click on the image above to read the column laid out as it appears in print or click here for the online version. You’ll get the full dirt, I promise.

While I was talking borax, figured I’d do a product guide to cleaning tools that promise you can get your home spic ‘n span without any cleaning products (natural or mainstream) altogether. Plus I’ve gotten a ton of questions over the years from Norwex fans asking, ‘Why didn’t you review Norwex in Ecoholic Home?’ ‘Why did you say Norwex contains nano silver in an old column?” “Why don’t you do an updated guide to cleaning cloths?” Yes, there’s a small army of green cleaning women and men wanting an update on this situation so voila, I’ve updated my cleaning cloth guide. Again, you can peruse it above or read the whole shebang here.

So what do you guys think? Which cleaning cloths do you like/hate? Will you be packing up your borax or will you keep using it anyway? A lot to mull over on cleaning day, that’s for sure.

Hello, sunshine: the solar tech guide for every budget (& more)

woman in the fieldSome people dream in technicolour, I dream in solar panels. Well, not every night or anything, I’m not a lunatic. I’m still saving for a house clad with shiny blue panels (oh wouldn’t it be awesome to go off-grid and never pay a utility bill again?). In the meantime, I’ve got a little guide here to solar technology for all budgets (just ignore the part that talks about the Green Living Show, which has now passed…yes, I’m behind on blogging again). It covers everything from pretty solar patio lights to solar chargers all the way to solar shingles. Plus, you’ll find my super cool Green Find of the Week (moss graffiti kit!), news on H&M and Zara‘s commitment to green up their rayon, the latest push to get us all planting milkweed (the only plant monarch butterflies can breed on) & more. Now that’s a variety pack! Who else gives you solar tech, fashion news and gardening tips in one blog? Click here to read on…

Burning truth about firelogs, foam insulation and Tresemme

NMFSC_026_0116 firelogsMaybe it’s the defiant Montrealer in me, but I really don’t mind a -30 day as long as the sun is beaming down from its blue sky perch. Of course, it helps if you’re tucked warmly inside. Okay, maybe that doesn’t count as a true love of the cold, but I’ll take icy blue skies over a week of frigid rains any day. No matter what your take on winter, it’s prime time to tackle some cold-weather questions.

This week in Ecoholic, you’ll find a product guide to fire logs. I got some flack from an astute reader who was appalled that I could recommend compressed firelogs over good old locally cut wood. And you know what, he has a point, I never did address the local factor in this guide, but one thing I do know from government stats: compressed synthetic logs weirdly burn cleaner than plain cordwood. Sorry, it’s just the truth. Doesn’t make compressed logs uber green or local or affordable or even an option if you have a wood-fired furnace, but they do burn cleaner. At the end of the day though, neither compressed logs nor plain wood logs are permitted in areas where wood fires are banned because of winter smog concerns.

Most logs have ditched the petroleum wax and now use recycled content but it was surprisingly tough to find out what wax companies did use. Still waiting to here from Northland on that one.  In the meantime, check out this week’s log guide.

Also this week, I answered a question about spray foam insulation. Is it safe? Is healthy? Is it green if it saves you energy? Are they all created equal? You’ll get the complete lowdown…except, sadly, Walltite Eco never did get back to us about what kind of flame retardants they use in their Mike Holmes-endorsed foam insulation.  Kind of odd.

And finally, you’ll get the dirt on our Greenwasher of the Week: Tresemme Naturals. They’ve reformulated this one to ditch the sodium laureth sulfate but there are still plenty of other dodgy ingredients in here to make us question their ‘natural’ claims. For the red hot truth about all this and more, check out the full column in NOW.

 

‘Tis the season to be giving: karma-boosting gifts

NMFSC_048_1212_v2 ethical guideMy family stopped exchanging Christmas gifts a good 15 years ago. My sister, in med school at the time, told us she just didn’t have time to shop for us (pshaw, what an excuse!). And just like that, the whole card castle crumbled and we gave up the whole swapping tradition ever since.  Instead, we just hang out, laugh and eat as much as humanly possible. There is one exception to the rule: kids. If you’re under 18 you’ll still on the “nice” list and will get gifts beyond love and hugs.

Whoever’s still on your gift list this year, make sure you’re opting for options that aren’t muddying your karma. I’m including my ethical giving guide (above) and my toy guide (below) for a survey of some of what’s out there. Just click on each image to lead you to my guides in NOW. Oh and check out my DIY gifts of the week each week to get some super last-minute ideas made with 100% upcycled and/or local/organic ingredients. Happy holidays!

NMFSC_037_1219 toys

 

The Bright Idea Edition: lightbulbs & Tzeporah Berman

Lightbulbs guide image

In this issue of Ecoholic, we’re just brimming with bright ideas, both literal and figurative. The literal ones come from the latest innovations in lighting – figured a roundup on light bulbs would be useful right about now since most basic incandescent bulbs are being phased out in a couple weeks. The figurative ones come from Canadian activist extraordinaire Tzeporah Berman. I got to have dinner with Tzeporah when I was hosting Earth Day’s Beyond Green Youth Summit that she was speaking at. I have to say I love this woman. She’s a power house for change and the new green economy. (I definitely recommend putting her bio “This Crazy Time” on your holiday reading list. You can read some snippets from her fascinating speech on Petropolitics here, along with my bulb guide and greenwash of the week (Raw Essentials!).

Ethical coffee guide: Is your cup green ’til the last drop?

Coffee guide columnI’ve got to confess, I actually gave up coffee cold turkey about a decade ago because it wasn’t waking me up, just messing with my stomach. But I know an ethical cup o’ joe when I see one, and I also live with a coffee snob, who insists that the java that gets brewed in my house is as fresh ‘n potent as it gets. So what do we buy? We get Merchants of Green Coffee, roasted in east end Toronto. They’re awesomely ethical and crazy fresh. But if you live in BC or Calgary or anywhere else, I really ethical beanrecommend supporting the local, organic, fair trade beans roasted closest to your home. As I say in the column though, if you’re in a major grocer and in urgent need of beans, Kicking Horse and Ethical Bean are two excellent organic, fair trade Canadian  companies with nationwide distribution.

As for the trashy score I gave coffee pods, a few of you emailed me to say that pods don’t always have to be landfill bound. Keurig does offer a reusable filter so you can fill your machine with whatever certified fair trade, organic beans your heart desires. Also, you can start a Tassimo Brigade and mail in your old pods to TerraCycle for upcycling into new products like cutting boards and plastic garbage cans. I still say there is less of an enviro footprint to going the reusable filter route but at least it’s an option for those that already own Tassimos.

Also in this Ecoholic, you’ll find nature notes on the illegal carcinogen found in 100 shampoos (is your ‘natural’ brand guilty?), as well as enviro orgs legal push back against censorship, a petition for bike lanes on Bloor and our Greenwash of the Week…SmartKlean!