Sunday, November 23, 2008

Getting Off the Bottle

In the USA and Canada billions of plastic bottles are "consumed" annually. That is they are used once and discarded. The manufacture of these bottles consumes about 50 Million barrels of oil annually, and only 1/4 of the bottles are recycled. That means most of them end up in the landfill, where they will slowly degrade and release toxic chemicals into our water supply and soil.

[Edit] Brett made a comment which included a link to this YouTube video called "Twenty-first Century Waterfall" which visually illustrates our "use and discard" plastic bottle philosophy.

Ironically, many of these discarded bottles originally held water. Our local stores carry bottled water from New York (appx 3000 miles/4600 km) away, Toronto (2800 miles/4400 km) away and to my astonishment, the island of Fiji 6000 m/9800 km away!

Like an increasing number of cities, towns and villages the world over, the water in our little town is considered "unfit to drink" for about six months of the year due to the suspension of particles in the water. This is a problem up and down the valley, so huge stacks of plastic bottled water grace the entrances of stores from April to October.

Early in the season, when the grocer's water dispenser was broken down and we were caught without water, I bought a case of litre bottles off the grocer's shelf. Later I consoled myself that it was the only bottled water left to buy that day, but it was cold comfort. I had assumed the "Fiji" on the label was a brand name until I read the label between swigs. The thought that I was drinking water shipped almost 10,000 km literally made me choke.

I think it was at that point that we decided to buy a water filtration unit. Filtering your own water is better for the environment for several reasons.

1) The water is used at its origin. No trucks, trains, ships or trips to the store involved.

2) No power consumed in processing and bottling the water,

3) No bottles required, so no oil or energy used in the production of the bottles themselves,

4) No shipping of empty bottles to the bottling plant, so no fuel used there,

5) Fewer bottles to end up in landfills,

6) And as a bonus for your back, no need to haul heavy cases of water home from the store.

Our filter unit screws onto the faucet, and cost about $13.00 initially, (with a filter included). Replacement filters cost about $5.00. Each filter is good for an estimated 300 litres of water. The filter can be turned on and off as needed, so we filter only the water we drink, make coffee and tea, and cook with. We found that a filter lasts from three weeks (when our tap water is at its muddiest) to three months, when the water is clear.

Here the 500 mL (16 ounce) bottle is the prevalent size. If you look at it from a bottle standpoint, a filter cycle which produces just 200 litres of clean water negates the need for 400 500 mL plastic bottles.

The price for a 24 case of 500 ml bottles of water was $7.99 at the local grocers today. But let us put aside the cost of the water and look only at the bottles. The environmental fee for a plastic water bottle is five cents, so the savings on environmental fees alone on 400 bottles is $20.00. A filter pays for itself in its first cycle, and after that puts money in your pocket every time you drink a glass of filtered versus bottled water. Refills costing $5.00 pay for themselves within 50 litres of water.

We also bought a stainless steel thermos water bottle for taking with us when we make trips to town etc. This replaces the plastic bottles we used before, but which we learned were a source of Bisphenol A, a chemical compound found in many reusable plastic water bottles.

Over the course of the summer we used three filters, which cut our bottle usage by about 1200 bottles. If everyone who drinks bottled water did the same, think how much oil, energy, hydrocarbons and waste we could save. If you use bottled water do the environment a favor and shop for a filter next time you go to town!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Back on the Energy Horse

I've read a number of "climate" doom and gloom books recently, and seen numerous TV shows along the same line. I have to admit the entire climate change-pollution-global warming-mass extinction thing has me more than a bit discouraged.

I finally laid aside one book (billed as "full of hope") which said that even if householders recycled everything possible it would only reduce the waste generated by our industrial lifestyles by one to two percent. Well, that inspires you to sort, wash and carry all those cans and bottles doesn't it?

Once again I think about what we have done, and have not done, to conserve energy and reduce our environmental footprint recently. You might say we fall off the energy horse frequently. I have to admit that we recycle sporadically at best. When we feel well we recycle everything religiously. When we're not feeling so well the cans, glass, paper and plastics go right into the garbage bin. I know it's rotten, and I feel bad about it, but there really are days when we do well to put one foot in front of the other. Our intentions are honorable, but we don't always have the ability to carry them out.

That's why I was so pleased, even relieved, last night when I saw a documentary on PBS called Kilowatt Ours. This film outlines not only how our demand for energy is creating environmental mayhem, but more importantly, what we can do to conserve energy and reduce the need for coal-fired and nuclear powered power stations.

The film points out that recycling one aluminum can, rather than making a new one from scratch, results in the conservation of one kilowatt hour of power. We use very few aluminum cans, but there's probably a similar gain when you recycle a tin can or plastic bottle. At least that makes me feel better about the impact of recycling even on an individual basis.

The film also shows how the city of Austin Texas built what they call an “energy conservation power plant.”  Rather than build a new coal-fired power plant, the community decided to institute aggressive energy conservation efforts instead.  Austin now saves more than 600 megawatts of electricity every day — an entire power plant's worth of electricity - strictly through conservation.   

Austin's success can be achieved on any scale, in any home or community that makes saving energy a priority.  An individual homeowner or apartment dweller can create a tiny conservation power plant by reducing their usage by several kilowatt hours per month.  

Our electricity bill in the Beach House has varied from a low of $16.00 (in June) to a high of $49.99 (last month). Thankfully our power comes from a hydroelectric plant, so we aren't burning a pound of coal per kilowatt hour, but our active conservation of power means less need for coal-generated power in other part of the province, and less pressure to build more dams and hydro plants.

I looked at the How to Build an Energy Conservation Power Plant and Save $1000 a Year chart at Kilowatt Ours. The chart shows how the average home owner or renter can reduce their power consumption enough to save $1000 a year. There's no way we can save $1000 over the course of a year. We don't spend $1000 a year on power.

But an idea we hadn't thought of, and will put to use, is putting electronics on power bars which we can turn off at night, to reduce the amount of power it takes to keep these devices charged or ready to be turned on at the flick of a remote. I'm not sure how much that will reduce our power consumption but at the moment I can point to six electronic gizmos which are sitting idle while little led lights happily signal that they are powered up and ready to go.

But the most important thing for me was that watching this film made me feel as if I can do something to conserve power and slow climate change. My little bit is important after all. I can't change the world, but I can change my little corner of it. Thanks, I needed that.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Clock Says November

There's a pattering on the roof that is not rain.

The garden is several inches deep in leaves of various shades of orange, gold and brown. The flowers are buried in an avalanche of the same leaves that shaded them all summer, and still the leaves come down. We are having a blizzard of leaves.

While the red and yellow mums will thrive and return next spring, I am thinking of my rosemary plant, which is a tender perennial.

How do I save it from the coming cold? Is it possible to keep it alive for next year? I can't dig it up, pot it and put it in a sheltered room or greenhouse. The best I can do is surround it with a wire tomato cage, pull the branches inside, fill the cage with leaves and wrap it well against the wind. There is no shortage of leaves. We are rich with the gold of leaves. The air smells of willow leaves, but my hands smell of rosemary.

The hands of this particular "sundial" appear to still be pointing to August, but the leaves tell time differently. Maybe it's because the dark months of winter seem so much longer than summer. But here, in the Okanagan, "winter" is only a fleeting shadow of what it is in other parts of Canada. I've seen hard frosts in July and August in Calgary. Here we haven't yet had a frost.

I took the Red Chief for a long walk at midnight last night. The air was misty and cool and the street lamps had halos of soft orange light. We walked and walked until I heard the distant yipping of coyotes, then we hurried home to that rush of delicious warmth which surrounds you as you come in on a chilly night.

This morning I couldn't stay inside when it was so warm and fragrant outside. Sal and I had a long walk, and once he was ready to come inside I grabbed my camera and went out again. I spent an hour walking around the park and capturing the day with my camera.

The morning was overcast, yet the sun broke through to illuminate the falling leaves, the cliffs and trees, the green heads of the mallards swimming at the beach. The orange snow fence will keep winter-blown debris off the beach and hopefully discourage the beavers from chewing down any more of the beach's poplar trees.

It's the second of November and the park is more full of flowers than people. Roses, pansies, petunias, geraniums, begonias, mums, lilies, mints and camomile. The dead nettles are poking their noses through the drifts of leaves to bloom as vigorously as they did at any point in the summer.

As usual Robert Frost comes to mind as the leaves spin and flutter past me. Right now it's the willow leaves which are falling. As Maddie, our neighbour down the way, said as I paused to chat, "Golden snow."

In Hardwood Groves

The same leaves over and over again!
They fall from giving shade above
To make one texture of faded brown
And fit the earth like a leather glove

Before the leaves can mount again
To fill the trees with another shade,
They must go down past things coming up,
They must go down into the dark decayed.

They must be pierced by flowers and put
Beneath the feet of dancing flowers.
However it is in some other world
I know that this is the way in ours.
~ Robert Frost

The scents of rosemary, thyme, mint and sage mingle as I run my hands over my still vibrant friends. They seem to like their leaf blanket, the growth beneath the leaves is deeper in colour and happier looking.

Tucked in among the mint a cluster of mushrooms shoulders aside the blanket of leaves and spreads out in the sun. They are ephemeral, tomorrow they will be black and shriveled, but today they stand for their share of air and light, their moment of life.

Just When You Thought Nobody Cared

Our little town of Summerland lies alongside the very large Okanagan Lake. Several small towns in a row lie along the lakeshore, separated by a few miles of a twisting, and at times steep, two lane road called "Highway 97". There's a lot of traffic, especially in the summer. So the province has been widening the congested section between Summerland and Peachland, the next small town to the north along 97.

It's been a bit of a pain. The highway lies at the base of steep cliffs and hillsides, and there's no place to put a detour. So traffic is stopped at each end of the construction zone for 30 minutes to an hour several times a day. During these interludes the construction workers blast away hillside, push the debris into piles on the road and then load it into trucks and cart it away.

Mountain goats and deer frequent these slopes. In fact this area is the preferred spot for mountain goats to kid in the spring, as it is inaccessible to most predators. The work was stopped during the kidding season, and stayed stopped until the mother goats moved their kids to better pasture a couple of months later.

About 10 days ago the construction crew noticed that a large crack had developed along the hillside (see line indicated by the yellow arrow), and an entire section of the mountain was threatening to crumble onto the road below. We're talking massive amounts of rock here, an estimated 30,000 truckloads! They stopped traffic immediately, and now travelers have to take a very long detour.

A few days ago the crew noticed that a young goat had fallen into the crevice, and was unable to get out. They dubbed him Houdini and mounted a rescue attempt, which eventually included tranquilizing the goat and one of the crew giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation! LOL

For a first hand account of the rescue go here And take heart, there are apparently still a lot of really good people in the world.