Four for Mother Earth

December 22, 2009

YOU’VE trained yourself to remember the cloth bags when you get groceries. You caulked all your windows. All your light bulbs are compact fluorescents. You at least feel a twinge of guilt about the carbon emissions from your flight to  Cancun.

But without a binding agreement in Copenhagen and Canada’s green reputation in tatters, it’s time to take the next few baby steps.

In the build-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, there was chatter that, for all our noble intentions, individual actions will never be enough to forestall catastrophic global warming. What’s needed is a coordinated government crackdown on polluters.

But, according to Statistics Canada, direct and indirect household emissions account for 46 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas output, a fact noted by proponents of individual action.

“We need both streams complimenting each other,” said Adria Vasil, author of Ecoholic Home and a green columnist for Toronto’s Now Magazine. “We need government clamping down on big emitters, but we also need to clamp down on ourselves.”

If lobbying for a new wind farm or a continent-wide cap and trade system is beyond your ken, and you’re not quite ready to spend $15,000 installing a geothermal heat system, here are four simple things you can do in 2010 that don’t require endless trips to Rona, a weekend of work or a bajillion dollars.


Your cable set-top box can suck up more power than your fridge, even when you’re not watching television. Startling, eh?

It’s called phantom load—the power drawn by household gadgets even when you think they’re turned off. That’s pretty much everything that can be turned on with a remote or that has an internal clock. And it’s your pile of cell phone chargers, Ipod chargers, battery chargers and laptop cords that leach power constantly if they’re plugged in. It’s also video game consoles like the Wii and Xbox. Some of those consume 185 watts of power when they’re just junked up under the TV.

Phantom load accounts for between five and 10 per cent of all the power used by the average household, says Tracy Moroz, Manitoba Hydro’s residential programs marketing specialist.

Granted, Manitoba’s power is pretty green since it’s produced by water not coal or natural gas. But because the province’s power rates are so cheap, Manitobans aren’t great at conservation. The more power Manitobans save, the more green power is available for export, which offsets the need for coal or natural gas plants in the United States.

Moroz has a list of easy to-dos that will actually save you money.

Walk around the house and unplug every charger, appliance and electronic gadget that’s not in frequent use.

Next time you buy a new appliance, don’t just look for the Energy Star rating but also ask yourself whether you need all the bells and whistles like timers and remote controls. Most kitchens suffer from digital clock overkill—there’s one on the stove, the microwave and the coffee maker. Keeping appliances simple saves phantom power.

Get yourself some power bars. It’s annoying to rustle around behind the television looking for the dusty plug every time you want to watch Entertainment Tonight, so the best thing to do is plug all your TV gadgets into a power bar that’s easy to switch on and off. Same with computers and printers that don’t get used all the time.

Set top boxes are a lingering puzzle. Unplugging them usually means losing all your channel preferences. Manitoba Hydro and other power companies are working with manufacturers and cable companies on set top boxes that could one day use just one watt of power instead of the 45 watts some of them suck right now.



If the 100-mile diet is out because you just can’t get through a Winnipeg winter without coffee, chocolate and wine, there are still tons of ways to eat more sustainably.

A vegetarian diet is ideal, but Vasil says even reducing the amount of meat you eat—think Meatless Mondays and Tofu Tuesdays—can make a difference.

Eating less beef is a start. Manitoba’s hog farmers, often criticized for huge factory farms and stinky sewage lagoons, will be glad to hear that pork has about a quarter the carbon footprint of beef, largely because of the methane produced by cow farts and the fertilizer needed for grazing.

Even better is free-range chicken, and even better than that is supporting small, local organic producers, many of whom sell their products at local independent butchers.

“We just ordered a quarter of a bison and a large local turkey for our Christmas dinner,” said Kreesta Doucette, executive director of Food Matters Manitoba. “If you have the time, connect with a local farmer.”

Same with vegetables. Try to buy what’s in season locally instead of vegetables trucked in from afar.

“See if it’s made in Manitoba and if it doesn’t say, ask,” said Doucette.

But Vasil points out one exception to the “buy local” mantra. Greenhouses suck up incredible amounts of energy, so the organic tomato trucked up from Mexico might actually be a greener bet than one grown in a greenhouse.



Winnipeggers love to complain about the transit system. The buses are old, the routes into far-flung suburbs are spotty, there’s no rapid transit system and someone with H1N1 might cough on you.

But experts say taking public transit or biking to work is the single best thing you can do for the environment.

If you suck it up, put on your longjohns, pop on your Ipod and take the bus just one day a week, you could be saving at least 123 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions a year.

According to Statistics Canada, the average commute in Winnipeg is 6.1 kilometres. Even if you left your very fuel efficient 2009 Toyota Corolla at home once a week, you would still save about 2.45 kilograms of CO2 emissions a day, according to the U.S. Federal Transit Administration’s carbon calculator.

That would also save you about $35 a year in gas, which would help offset the cost of bus fare.


Everyone who has tried to break into a new batch of razors or batteries has cursed the layers and layers of hard plastic packaging.

Vasil suggests making a grand statement by leaving the bulky packaging at the grocery store till when you check out or mailing it to politicians. If you’re too shy to do that, try this:

Steer-clear of prewashed veggies like the tubs of lettuce or the bags of salad. Veggies from the shelf are greener and cheaper, especially if you can get away without using one of those flimsy plastic bags.

Do it Costco-style, if you can. Buy a huge tub of peanut butter or one mega-box of cereal instead of lots of smaller ones. But make sure the bulk versions really do have less packaging. There’s nothing worse than realizing each of the soaps in your four-pack comes in its own box, wrapped together in paper and then plastic shrink-wrapped. And, when buying big plastic containers, make sure they have the recycling triangle stamped on the bottom so they can go in the Blue Box.

Next time you go to Rae and Jerry’s, bring your own Tupperware for the leftover onion rings instead of taking the disposable containers. As an experiment, Vasil once sent an intern to all the big fast-food joints to test whether they’d use the interns plastic containers for take-out.

“None of them flinched,” said Vasil. “They just said ‘OK’ and filled it up.”

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2009 H16

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