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So, in a previous post, I said I’d follow up with a post on food courts using real dishes and cutlery.  Well, there is one that recently popped up in my own back yard and it’s so exciting!

My daughter and I checked out the new Urban Eatery at Toronto’s Eaton Centre a while ago and you should too!  Not only does the new food court look spectacular, but it’s leading the way by serving everything in real dishes.  Way to go!

Pictured is my daughter, enjoying Chinese fast food on a real plate and with a real fork!

Here she is handing in her tray at the Collection Station.  There are no garbage cans, so everything actually gets sorted properly by the person working behind the counter.  Please thank them!

Here she is washing her hands at one of the washing stations.  What a great idea to reduce traffic to washrooms, and fill up your water bottle too!

And there is even a little sign at each table letting you know where to take your tray.

So exciting!!!

This is the first of it’s kind in Toronto, and won’t be the last, but Toronto wasn’t the first to offer this new aged food court.  I had been planning to visit Oakville Place, which led the way in Ontario opening it’s new food court in June 2009.  It was all over the headlines that they had ‘gone green’.  Customers were given the choice of reusable or disposable dinnerware, and they reported that 9 out of 10 chose reusable.  Cadillac Fairview, the same company that re-did the Eaton Centre, revamped the food court at Carrefour Lavalin Quebec in November 2009.  Oxford Properties has redone the food court at Yorkdale Shopping Centre which recently opened.

When I was searching for articles on new food courts, I was surprised to find few headlines focused on the new green option and that most of them focussed on the the updated look, and the new upscale eateries including a vegan option.  The fact that food was being served in real dishes and that waste was being reduced by 85% barely registered more than two or three sentences in most articles, which I found very disappointing.  No praises for placing the environment ahead of ‘convenience’, for thinking of the future.  I’m surprised that the decor outshadowed the obviously huge step towards sustainable fast-food eating, and wonder what that says about our society or our journalists….

Well, I for one, am so very thankful that we can have our cake and eat it without creating excess garbage.  We shouldn’t have to choose between eating or creating garbage, and now we don’t have to.

We all do it.  We stick something in the recycling bin and we pat ourselves on the back for being responsible.  But what really happens to what we trust will be recycled?  And does increased recycling actually encourage us to continue being a throw-away society and discourage us from reducing our consumption habits?

After much pondering over the subject since starting this blog, here are some of my thoughts about recycling….

Reduce, Reuse, RecycleAlthough recycling is considered the third ‘R’ in ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,’ I think in the minds of most people recycling is the first ‘R’ in their lives.  We’re just too busy to make the effort to reduce and to reuse stuff, so we conveniently continue our throw-away lifestyle by recycling.

Well, I have always been a bit suspicious of the merits of recycling, and it occurred to me as I was sitting down to blog that I never actually think of recycling as the third ‘R’.  On the contrary, when I put something in the recycling bin it always feels to me that it is really only one step better than the trash can.  When put this way, recycling doesn’t look all that heroic, does it?  When we look at the problems surrounding recycling we can really see that this is true.

I have often asked myself, and I’m sure many others have as well, what really happens when I put something in the recycling bin?  This video about plastic water bottles  and our electronics from The Story of Stuff Project was really eye-opening for me.  Many aspects of recycling are rife with problems.  It certainly is not the ideal we all know it should be.

What are some of the problems?

  • Recycling still takes a lot of energy and resources.  Albeit, it is usually appreciably less than manufacturing virgin material, it is still contributing significant amounts of carbon and pollution to our planet.
  • Much of recycling is really downcycling – unlike glass and aluminum, things like paper and plastic cannot be endlessly recycled back to its original condition.  Plastic is always downgraded, and paper can only be recycled so many times before virgin wood content needs to be added.
  • Just as much of our manufacturing is shipped overseas, so is much of our recycling.  What is the sense in shipping what is essentially our garbage to another country to be processed?
  • Recycling shipped overseas is often poisoning the poorest of people in developing countries and often doesn’t end up being recycled at all.
  • Recycling programmes in most cities are inefficient or non-existent.  Compliance rates by the public leave a lot of room for improvement.
  • The recycling of petroleum products is the most problematic.  Many plastics are very specific, and cannot be contaminated with other plastics, a near-impossible feat.  And because plastic is currently downcycled, it is only a matter of time before it becomes landfill anyway. The petroleum industry certainly hasn’t made recycling plastics a priority.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Garbage

Reduce, Reuse and Recycle is not only an incomplete picture, it gives a false impression that recycling is better than it is.  Even the symbol is misleading, as the arrows suggest an endlessly sustainable cycle which overemphasizes recycling.  We can now see recycling is far from sustainable.   Here is a rough but more accurate representation of the three R’s as they would ideally be.  We need to emphasize the first ‘R’, include garbage in the spectrum, and put recycling in it’s rightful place just above it.

What does this all mean to us as concerned citizens? For me, it means checking out what is in my recycling bin, just as I do with my garbage bin, to see what items I am regularly throwing away and to try and eliminate or reduce them.  That’s the first ‘R’, and we’ve got to keep it first, in our minds and our hearts.

Reach for a sponge….

Nothing bothers me like the commercials that have duped millions of us into using disposable products.  We have the ‘most absorbent’ paper towel, they claim.  Our paper towel absorbs like a sponge!  Really?  Do you know which towel is the most absorbent?  I do.  A real towel!  And if you need a sponge how about using… a sponge?  Brilliant!  I’m surprised more people don’t see through it.

If you are wanting to reduce the disposables in your household and don’t know where to start, many people find that eliminating paper towels is an easy first step.  Most of us have something that will do in their place, such as tea towels, old rags, or just a plain sponge.  In fact, after some thought, many people wonder why they depended on paper towels in the first place.  Most people find they can go cold turkey, and others have a roll around just in case of emergencies.

Paper towels were never really a part of my household growing up.  My parents had a roll around, but they never touched it.  They always had rags and sponges handy for everyday messes.  The only time I remember them ever using paper towels was for soaking up the oil from deep fried foods such as egg rolls or prawn crackers at Chinese New Year’s.  Otherwise, the roll of paper towel sat unused on top of the fridge, and probably sat there for several years.

Needless to say, I never got into the habit of using paper towels either.  I do have a two-pack of 100% recycled and unbleached paper towels (so I can compost it easily and safely) sitting around that lasts me about a year or more.  I use it for ‘emergencies’ like picking up cat puke and nice things like that. (If I didn’t have a cat, it would probably last me many years as well.) Otherwise regular messes are pretty much taken care of by my all-purpose cellulose sponge.  I prefer sponges over rags or tea towels for any type of cleaning because they’re absorbent, you can rinse them right away and you’re as good as new, and they don’t add to the laundry.

Some interesting statistics regarding paper products that I came across while surfing the topic:

  • 90% of North American households use paper towels
  • 3000 tonnes of waste generated by paper towels are disposed of every single day
  • it takes 324L of water to produce 1 kg of paper
  • one tonne recycled paper saves 60% energy, 17 trees, 682 gallons of oil, 7000 gallons of water, and 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space
  • North Americans uses more than 700lbs of paper products per capita per year, compared with the world average of 94lbs.

We don’t need to use trees, the lungs of our planet, to clean up our messes, do we?  Having said that however, there is a whole new market out there trying to sell ‘reuseable paper towels’, which really irks me, even if the company is ‘green’.  Do we really need to replace one product with another?  A rag is a rag, is a rag.

Before I get into this post, I want to say, that I am not singling out the company in the picture below.  It just happens to be that I enjoy popcorn chicken, and once in a while I indulge.  To the company in this picture I want to say, why don’t you read this post and my blog, and then lead the way to more responsible fast food?  It’s inevitable that fast food will have to become more environmentally conscious, and the company that leads the way is going to attract more customers than those that don’t.

I was at a food court a couple of weeks ago and my daughter and I had a craving for popcorn chicken.  I ordered the $3.99 special for myself which included a piece of chicken, some popcorn chicken, fries, and pop.  I usually intervene, but today I deliberately didn’t to see how much ‘stuff’ would be included in my order.  The results are pictured below.

Fast Food Waste

Waste generated from one fast food meal.

The tally:  1 large paper cup, 1 plastic lid, 1 plastic straw, 1 paper straw wrapper, 1 paper box, 2 paper french fry sleeves, 1 plastic dipping sauce container, 2 ketchup packets, 1 plastic fork wrapped in 1 plastic package, 2 napkins, and 1 paper placemat.   15 disposable items came with my meal.  Unbelievable.  This doesn’t even include the waste from my daughter’s meal, which was similar.  All these items, manufactured to be used for a total of… only 10 minutes and disposed of.

So, as I said above, once in a while I indulge in some fast food.  But, as I am sure it is for many, it is always bittersweet as I contemplate the waste that always seems to come with this food I am wanting to enjoy.  When I think of the trees that are clear-cut everyday to feed the fast food industry, it all seems quite ludicrous.

So what can this company, and others do?  As I have suggested in more than one post, let’s take a look at the garbage and see where they can make a difference.

The paper products:

  • The box.  Well, you have to have the food in something.  At least under the box it says that the “package contains a minimum of 51% recycled material including 25% post-consumer”.  It also says in bold lettering, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”  Well, let’s see them start getting to work on the first 2 R’s themselves!
  • The french fry sleeves.  When I opened the box, I was shocked to find the fries and the popcorn chicken separated in their own paper sleeve.  Excuse me, but isn’t everything in the box fried and greasy?  So what if they got a little mixed up?  The sleeves were so unnecessary.  And they were made of white, bleached, paper with no claims of recycled content.
  • The napkins.  Again, white, bleached paper with no claims of recycled content.  Also gave me way more than I needed (we returned two).  Easy enough to ask the customer how many napkins they need.
  • The placemat.  We don’t need it.  It’s just advertising for the company.  Unfortunately, the placemat doesn’t make the same claims as the box in terms of recycled content, although it looked as if it could have had some.
  • The cup.  Again, white, and no claims about recycled content.  And it’s big.   If the drink is in a combo, how about letting the customer opt out of the larger drink if they want to, so they can use a smaller cup and not have to dump the extra that they aren’t going to drink?
  • The paper straw wrapper.  What about those straw dispensers that dispense straws one by one?

Conclusion on the paper products – reduce and use 100% (or as close to it as possible) recycled unbleached paper products made with technologies that conserve water, as many other restaurants are already doing.  Really, the only paper that was necessary was the box, a cup, and maybe one napkin if you are neat.

The plastic:

  • The lid and straw.  How about fast food companies asking you if you would like a lid or a straw?  If people in cafeterias can carry their mugs of coffee or glasses of juice to the table, I think people in food courts can handle the same.  It’s only necessary to have a lid and straw if you are taking your drink to go (and if you fill the cup right to the brim).
  • The fork.  As you can see, I didn’t even use the fork.  It’s finger food, for goodness sake.  And why the heck it is wrapped in plastic, I don’t know.   Certainly unnecessary, as plenty of fast food and take-out don’t give out plastic-wrapped utensils.  What about making utensil dispensers like the ones for straws?  Also, ask the customer if they want utensils instead of automatically giving them one or sticking one in the bag.  My daughter actually returned the fork from her meal.
  • The condiments.  Well, McD’s got that right many, many years ago, at least here in Canada.  Let the customer pump their own condiments into a mini paper cup, or better yet, right onto their fries or chicken.   Again, easy solution.

Conclusion for the plastic?  None of it is necessary for a sit-down meal.

The result?

Low litter fast food meal

Waste from low-litter fast food meal.

The low-litter fast food meal – 1 paper cup, 1 paper box, 1 napkin.  3 items that could potentially be made of 100% recycled material.

What a huge difference.  And it would save the fast food companies a lot of money, even if they were to spend more on recycled content.

Future post:  Going a step further with food courts now using real dishes and cutlery!

I felt it appropriate to post on the day of Earth Hour, but don’t read this during Earth Hour, which is 8:30pm to 9:30pm local time today!

The focus of this year’s Earth Hour is on what you are going to do beyond the Hour.  Are you planning to reduce your energy use, ride your bike to work, or recycle?  Well, I’m going to challenge you to do more.  I’m going to challenge you to eliminate as many disposable products as you can from your lifestyle.

When it comes to issues regarding reducing our personal energy use, it seems to me that there is a lot of emphasis on our direct energy use, i.e. through our use of electricity, oil and gas, etc.  But what about our indirect energy use?  I believe this issue should also be at the forefront.  That is why I started the Non-Disposable Earth Project, because I don’t think there is enough focus on how much energy use we can reduce by eliminating disposable products.

If we all turned off lights we aren’t using, that makes a significant difference collectively on our energy use.  However, if  we were all to stop using say, paper towels, that would have more impact than we realize.  That’s because all we see is the product’s end use.  We take it out of the package, wipe something up, and throw it out.  No energy use except our own, right?  We might feel guilty about adding garbage to the world, but do we stop to think about how much energy went into manufacturing that paper towel and getting it into our hands so it can be used just once and thrown away?

Let’s look at some of the benefits I can think of if we all stopped using paper towels:

  • we would save all the energy (fossil fuels and electricity) that is consumed to clear-cut trees, transport them, process them into paper, package them, transport them to the stores, transport them home, and then transport them to the garbage dump
  • we would have cleaner air by reducing the burning of fossil fuels
  • we would save millions of trees
  • we would preserve habitats for countless animals
  • we would preserve countless plant species
  • we would reduce our garbage, thus preserving the trees, plants, and habitat on land that would have been used for burying garbage
  • we would have even more clean air because we have more trees and plants
  • we would save a significant amount of water from the processing and manufacturing of the paper towels
  • we would keep the chemicals used in the processing and manufacturing of paper towels out of our water supply
  • we would save some money, and get to skip the paper towel aisle at the store, saving us some energy too!

And the list could go on.  As you can see, eliminating just one disposable product from our lifestyle not only greatly reduces our energy use, but also has other far-reaching benefits.

Earth Hour is about a global movement towards a sustainable Earth.  What better action to take than to eliminate the unsustainable practice of using disposable products?  Think about it today during Earth Hour and let’s make this a Non-Disposable Earth.  Look through your garbage and find a disposable product that you can live without.  Then live without it.  It’s that easy.

It’s March Break and I just had to purge.   I don’t know how it happened, but things just started overflowing out of my closet.  I don’t even remember getting much stuff lately.  A fair bit of it is stuff that I hoard because I can’t bear to throw it away – office supplies, gift bags, plastic containers, plant pots.  I can’t bring myself to recycle perfectly good stuff, and it’s not the kind of thing that you can take to the local thrift shop.  So I keep collecting them and don’t know what to do with them.

So, how do you dispose of things without actually disposing of them?  Well, for those who haven’t discovered them yet, Craigslist and Freecycle could be your ticket to clutter and landfill freedom.  Craigslist is essentially the largest free online classifieds, started as a hobby by Craig Newmark in San Francisco.  I use Craigslist when I have something decent that I know someone will want to buy.  If it doesn’t sell in a couple of weeks or so, I consider Freecycling it.

Freecycle, of course is free.  Their misssion is to keep things out of landfill.  If someone wants what you have, they are pretty quick to pick it up too.  It’s so great having people come to your door to take your stuff away for you!  I’ve picked up a few things this way through the generosity of others as well.  I think it’s pretty awesome that people are giving away stuff freely through Freecycle.  And free doesn’t mean it’s just junk.  Most of it is completely good stuff that people just want to get off their hands.

This week, I’ve moved a fair amount of stuff out the door – my daughter’s outgrown toys, her bicycle, skates, excess craft supplies.  I passed on a huge pile of office supplies that I’ve been hoarding, sold an all-in-one inkjet printer I never used, the cart it was sitting on, gifts that were never used, baby clothes that were never used, items that I bought that I never used, some shelving, you name it!  All taken away either sold or gifted.  Now I have a bedroom that is almost empty, with only a small box to take to the thrift shop, one bag of paper to recycle and one bag of garbage to show for it.  Incredible!

Now if only I could find someone to come and make all the paperwork on my desk disappear!

For those of you who don’t know David Suzuki, he is Canada’s foremost environmentalist.  A scientist, author, and prominent media figure, he has been educating Canadians about science and the environment since the 60′s, mainly through his long-running series of more than 30 years, The Nature of Things, which is also well-known internationally.  When CBC had their Top 10 Greatest Canadians vote in 2004, David Suzuki came in 5th, after Tommy Douglas, Terry Fox, Pierre Trudeau and Sir Frederick Banting.  That actually put him, an environmentalist, as the No. 1 Greatest Living Canadian.  Yeah!

Back in October, I took my daughter to see David Suzuki at Harbourfront give a talk about his latest book, The Legacy.  I heard him speak a few years ago at U of T, and I wanted my daughter to have a chance to hear and meet this amazing person.  She is only 7, but I have heard that there may be fewer opportunities to hear him speak in person, not because of his age or health, but because he feels it’s about time he reduced the environmental impact of his flying around the world.

With 'David Suzuki' at the Green Living Show, 2007

It was special for us because I took along a a picture I had of my daughter with ‘him’ (a cardboard cut-out) at the Green Living Show from a few years ago to show him. He laughed when he saw it, and was more than happy to have her take a picture with the ‘real thing’.   My brother had also given her one of his children’s books, There’s a Barnyard in my Bedroom, for one of her birthdays, so it was nice to get that signed as well.

Hearing David Suzuki speak is unlike watching his show, The Nature of Things. He is far more passionate and free to talk from the heart.  He has such a gift for simplifying science and the environment and making it captivating and easy to understand.  Even my daughter seemed to follow a lot of what he was saying.  I know I have had many epiphanies listening to him talk or reading his books.  The man is truly brilliant.  Meeting him, you can also feel his kindness and warmth.  You feel he is truly a person who cares about the planet and its people.

I am sure many of you have fond memories of watching The Nature of Things, and of David Suzuki growing up.  I remember the first time I saw his show in my Grade 6 class almost 30 years ago.  His image has been firmly implanted in my brain ever since, as I am sure it has in every Canadian.  David Suzuki has changed the way everyone in this country thinks about the Earth and our balance within it.  His influence is immeasurable.

Getting book signed by the real thing at Harbourfront, October 2010

On March 24th, 2011 David Suzuki is turning 75.  If you have fond memories of David Suzuki, and appreciate how much he has dedicated his life to educating us, and to protecting us and our planet, help celebrate his 75th birthday by making a donation on my sponsor page.  It’s part of a campaign to raise money for The David Suzuki Foundation in celebration of this remarkable man.  Show your support for David, and help the foundation continue to make changes to help protect the diversity of nature and the quality of life in Canada.  Sponsor me today.

Happy 75th Birthday, David Suzuki!

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