Friday, July 31, 2009

EcoSchool How To

In Ontario, we have an EcoSchool program that encourages schools to compete against themselves to be as environmental as possible in practice and attitude. I found it to be a great way to encourage teachers to change some of their current behaviours. Some people, believe it or not, don't really care much about all this environmental stuff. But they do care about their jobs. As a school with a significant enrollment drop, advertising our Gold EcoSchool status is one way to attract more students and thereby keep more teachers and elective courses.

I've been environmentally conscious all my life. My parents lived during the depression and had that "don't be wasteful - ever" mentality. We were collecting cans and papers for the Boy Scouts decades before the blue box program started. I was already using hemp paper in class and teaching with the lights off. So when I heard about EcoSchools, I jumped on it for a chance to get more people on board.

I found the program a bit overwhelming to get my head around when I first read through all the info. If you're just starting, here's some organizational tips in plain English that might help:

The Basic Idea

There are six categories: communication, energy, waste, landscaping, curriculum, and activities. To get a gold standing you have to get about 90% in each category. If you blow one category, you can still get silver or bronze, which have slighty lower standards. There's a new standing now: Platinum. So I have to temper my bragging! Platinum schools have an additional mentoring program.

Where to Begin: Introduce the Idea to Staff

Prepare a 3-4" binder with 8 dividers: one for each category, a section for other ideas people have done, and a chronological section where you keep track of things that happen as they happen. The last two sections might help you fill out some of the categories at the end.

In September or early October, tell the staff about EcoSchools. Get people on board to form an EcoTeam. For full points, you need to include an admin person, a custodian, a secretary, a parent, another teacher, and some students in the team. They don't have to come to every meeting. You really just have to meet twice a year. But each person has to show up to at least one meeting. The most important person in that list, I think, is the custodian. Without custodial support, it will be a hard road. Keep a list of everyone that helped with anything all year in the communication section. And save all the agendas and minutes from every meeting that even mentions EcoSchools. Also save a copy of student announcements.

Part of the announcements and discussion should be around curriulum. You'll need seven lesson plans that last at least two classes with a focus on the environment from various teachers. I'd get face-to-face with the geography and science heads to start. But I ended up with lessons from art, business, and history too. Not only do you need the lesson plans, handouts, and rubrics (or other evaluation methods), but you also need a copy of student work. Ask early and ask often to get this section together. You can also check out the curriculum labels at the side for some lesson plan ideas to offer to teachers.

Do the Audits Early in the Year

Then do the waste and energy audits. You have to do an initial audit, and an ending one, and they have to be done six months apart, so early October is the latest. Do the waste and energy audits both at once. Unless your head caretaker keeps records of all this, it involves some hands-on work and a bit of time. Make a chart with a list of all the rooms in the school down the sides and on the top columns for recycling weight, garbage weight, lights off, monitors off, TVs unplugged, curtains closed, re-use-it box (or GOOS box) available, etc. Divide up the school, and send groups of people to different areas with a scale to record their findings. At the end, figure out what percentage of the school (roughly) is turning off the lights at night, closing curtains, how much people throw out and recycle, etc.

The other part of the audit is to go through a day's worth of garbage to see what percent is recycling, compostable, etc. This is a many-hands-make-light-work kind of job. This year I did it with a few teachers and one student. The rest of the club didn't show up even though they picked the day to accomodate the most people. That happens. Next year, I'll be getting my class to do it as part of the anthropology unit.

Finally, you'll have to meet with the head-custodian at some point to find out all about your heating and cooling systems. Have a student do an interview with the questions on the checklist!

Fill out the forms necessary, and put all the info (including rough work) in the energy and waste sections.

Now What?

From October to March, you need to actually try to educate and alter behaviours around environmental issues. Start by "making an action plan with your EcoTeam." In other words, get together with anyone interested and brainstorm everything you might do to affect people in the school. Even an impromptu discussion in the staff room should be included. Write it all down and include it in the communication section as a whole, but then also include how you're going to affect energy, waste, and landscaping, and what kinds of activities to plan (you need four for full marks) and put those ideas in the individual sections. It's a lot of paperwork, ironically. Next year they might be willing to do much of it on-line.

Action Plan Ideas

Also check out the "cool ideas" label at the side. I'll keep including more as I come up with more - and hopefully others, like YOU, will have some ideas to add too. As you implement the plan, take photos of everything.

* Put stickers on the lights and monitors that remind people to turn them off.
* Put a sign by the door that asks people if they turned off everything and unplugged (or turned off the power bar attached to) the TV, DVD player, etc.
* Offer prizes if any class has all their monitors off at the end of the period. This takes a bit of work from students to check.
* Make Earth Hour last a day (preferably not a Saturday), and encourage teachers to teach with the lights off regularly - even if they just turn off a bank of lights. We've found low lighting makes the students calmer too.

* Get a recycling program going if you don't have one
* Get composting going
* Put up signs to remind people what can be recycled - even better: put signs on the garbage can to indicate only the items that should go in there. (pretty much just candy wrappers and meat, cheese, dairy waste if you don't have a digester)
* Put a "re-use-it" box (or GOOS box) in each room. My high school kids didn't like the GOOS (good-on-one-side) word, so we changed it.
* Put recycling boxes in the bathrooms if you use paper towels to dry hands. It's still paper.

Landscaping / Schoolyard Greening:
* Create an area somewhere that students can work outside
* Plant some shade trees or windblock trees

Activity Ideas

Pick four of these. If you have more ideas, please let me know in the comments or by e-mail if it's detailed.

* Set up a Free Store.
* Get together a team for the Envirothon.
* Hold a "Leave Your Car at Home" week.
* Have a Paper=Habitat week. We held an assembly with Down To Earth, and I tried to get staff and admin to decrease the amount of paper they use (my suggestions). Unfortunately they think we need a committee to discuss it all before we can begin.
* Sell mini-bins for smokers to put their butts in to stop the yard being littered with the most toxic and most common pollution individuals make.
* Hold a Water Week. Sell stainless steel water bottles, offer water taste tests including water from the school's tap, and show a movie like Sharkwater or FLOW.
* Have a movie night with a speaker and a current environmental film like Wall-E. Or an oldy like Dawn of the Dead. (It's about mindless consumerism - really.)
* Have a poster making contest that deals with a specific environmental concern.
* Get on board with Turn off the TV or Mental-Detox week.
* Have a bike rally - like a car rally but with teams of bicycles.
* Make a film about what your school has done this year.
* Have an Earth Day celebration. We do an EarthFest concert. I'll write more about that soon.

Final Audit

In early March, do another waste and energy audit. Get your students to start hounding teachers (or other students at this point) for their environmental lesson plans.

The Package

Take a day off. We get release days, but do what you can if you don't. Go through everything you collected over the year and make sure all the checklists are complete. Did you meet with every type of person on the list? Are the audits and action plans complete for the energy and waste sections? Do you have photos of the landscaping plans and actual landscaped areas? Do you have info on all your activities? Did you scrounge up seven lesson plans with student work?

Send it in to your board rep usually early April or late March. Someone might come in a few weeks from now to check out your school. After that, think up a display for the EcoSchool presentation ceremony.

Thank everyone involved profusely and with food, so they'll come back next year to do it all again.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

The Big Necessity

This photo is from a Globe and Mail article on Oliver Parsons- Baker who, it's hard to tell, is dressed as a giant turd in order to bring attention to the plight of people without clean water. He's one of many Trafalgar Square Plinthers who mix art and activism. His sign says, "G8 leaders - take action on the sanitation crisis NOW."

When we're talking about people getting sick from drinking dirty water, the vast majority of the time it's not because of industrial pollutants clouding the water. It's feces. Human feces.

When I saw the Borat movie, I laughed at parts, but thought the bit with him defecating in a plastic bag was too over the top. Come on - who doesn't know how to use a toilet?!

Then I read The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters by Rose George. Lots of people, a good 40% of the world, don't have access to toilets, and many have never seen one. And the crisis of water-borne diseases spreading, and babies dying of dehydration isn't primarily about drought or environmental catastrophes. It's about people not having adequate sanitation. The water crisis is really a poop crisis.

And the plastic bag scene? They're called helicopter toilets. In some places people really do use a plastic bag, then throw it up on the roof. At the very least it keeps the streets clean right?

Here's a few tidbits I got from the book and share with classes. Page numbers follow each fact:

Four in ten people in the world have no access to any type of toilet, bucket or box. They are open defecators. They live surrounded by human excrement that gets brought into the house on their feet, fingers or clothes. (2) A toilet isn't a right; it's a privilege. A huge privilege.

"A gram of feces can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts, and 100 worm eggs." (2) This is the reason I have issues with using green bin "compost" that includes dog feces and diapers as fertilizer on food. Diarrhea kills a child every fifteen seconds. It kills more than AIDS, TB or malaria. 90% of diarrhea is caused by fecal contaminated food or water. It's not a water-related disease, but really a shit-related disease. We focus on water sources and pollution, but not on the real cause of the problem: poop in the streets. But nobody wants to talk about that. The greatest hurdle that has saved the most lives worldwide isn't medicine, but sanitation. "No act of terrorism generates economic devastation on the scale of the crisis in water and sanitation. Yet the issue barely registers on the international agenda." (68) "Cholera and typhoid kill so many million kids a year, which amounts to two jumbo jets full of children crashing every four hours." (78)

Ninety percent of the world's sewage ends up untreated in oceans, rivers, and lakes. Most of that comes from big cities in the developed world. "Even the best-equipped humans still don't know what to do with sewage except move it somewhere else..." (6)

Sewer systems in large cities are stymied by oil and fats poured down drains, and by garbage flushed down toilets or dropped down the sewer grates in the streets: cellphones, Q-tips, pads, goldfish, etc. Flushing with water means we increase the gallons of waste flushed by twenty times. (19-21) At our cabin we use a composting toilet - the waste product goes under the trees deep in the bush, not on the garden or anywhere near a water source. The toilet uses no water at all. When you think about it, it's kind of insane to use drinking water to flush the toilets. We got the bottom of the line model, and I highly recommend it.

Many people are getting involved in this crisis including Matt Damon (NGO H2O), Jay-Z, Chris Martin... "Globally, if universal sanitation were achieved by 2015, it would cost $95 billion, but it would save $660 billion." (72) One toilet for the few people on NASA's space shuttles costs over $20 million. (225) Unfortunately, sanitation wasn't part of the Millennium Development Goals. It's still seen as less vital than malaria and AIDS aid even though it kills far more people.

Shit can be used to build bricks, and biogas can cook your food. (111) It's being used as an alternative to propane or coal in India and China. (124)

There's an entire chapter devoted to biosolids and the hazards of having sludge too close to living quarters or food (or crops). It hasn't been studied enough for anyone to say conclusively that it's a problem, or else we'd have to stop spraying crops with crap. "The waste-water industry is intimidating...dissent is not encouraged.... We are their lab rats." (169)

The best part of the book, I think, deals with human psychology. How do we change people's habits? "Health messages rarely have an impact.... Reason rarely persuades people to change behaviour.....Target the product to wants not needs." What do people want? Status and friends (even more than cash, which is really just a means to get status and friends). So some activists in this fields use the catchprase, "Building dignity through toilets." They also found it useful to awaken disgust, to use crude language about they way people are living, in order to encourage a different way to live: pit latrines are the most economical system for impoverished countries. None of the people that are developing ideas discussed in the book have applied for patents. "None wants to remove his useful ideas into expensive inaccessibility." (218)

By 2050, half of all people will live in countries that are chronically short of water. Yet we waste it so carelessly all the time. In times of drought, people stop flushing toilets unless absolutely necessary. "In a drought context, darker yellow pee in toilets signifies moral rectitude." (236) People can get used to anything.

And the conclusion?

"In 1940, Harold Farsworth Gray concluded that "urban man today still unnecessarily pollutes streams, bathing beaches, bays and estuaries, without benefit of the excuse of ignorance which was available to his ancestors." We have less ignorance and less excuse. The first thing sanitation needs is a spotlight shining on it. It needs to be unshackled from shame." (238)

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

E-Car Rebates

Dalton McGuinty is planning to give us a break if we buy an electric car in the form of a rebate worth up to $10,000. It's not, as some critics suggest, a break only if you buy an electric Chevy as a means to help GM, but any e-car. It's a way to encourage all manufacturers to change direction. And some manufacturers are way ahead on this one, like the Zenn producers in Quebec. I haven't been much of a fan of McGuinty's mainly because of his preference for golf courses over environmentally-sensitive spaces, but I do like this idea.

Jim Bradley says, "We want all auto makers to embrace this strategy to help Ontario become a centre of production for innovative, world-leading automotive technology."

Even better, though, would be ways to motivate people to stop driving. Locally, some people think the Light-Rail Transit will be successful on that front. I'm still dubious. People change their behaviours only if the rewards are great enough. You have to really hate driving to be willing to walk or cab or drive to the train station, take the train, then walk or cab to work from there. I'm not convinced traffic is bad enough in this region to make LRT a more rewarding alternative. And a $10,000 rebate is a pretty hefty reward attached to a new car.

In Germany, one company is offering a 7% discount to all customers who leave their car at home. The green rebate is already attracting 3-5 customers each day. And it is hoped to reduce traffic and parking problems in the area as well as attracting more business.

We need more initiatives like this - and soon.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Some Burning Questions on Campfires

When we're out camping, it's always a treat to sit around a campfire roasting hot dogs or s'mores. But, unless the fire is necessary for warmth or food, I think it really is best as a treat that happens rarely, not an every-night event. We typically save it for the final night.

Here's my thinking on the matter: 1. When dead trees decay naturally, they release the same amount of GHGs as when they are burned, but it happens much faster unnecessarily. 2. The more firewood people buy, the more trees are felled for the wood, so we can stare at something pretty. So the fewer trees we have to absorb carbon dioxide. I think trees are more important (and prettier) than fires. 3. Even if people only burn wood they find on the forest floor, so no trees are cut then dried for fires, those decaying trees on the ground provide important habitat for many insects, birds and animals.

Any arguments to the contrary? (So I can feel okay about that last night of the trip.)

If you're going to have a fire, don't do it like this:

Campfire Fun - Explosion - Funny blooper videos are here

Do it a bit more like this:

How to Minimize Your Campfire's Impact on the Environment -- powered by

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Asbestos and Benzene: On-Going Threats

Hey, here's my first guest post! It's from James O'Shea with The Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center (maacenter), "the web's leading organization for relevant and authoritative information regarding asbestos and health complications associated with asbestos exposure."

Green Living: Improving Health For Today and Tomorrow

Much attention has been paid in recent years to what seems to be a growing environmental conscience in the United States. Going green used to be considered expensive and a luxury for those who could afford the trend. Now it appears that we are learning that not only is adopting more environmentally conscious attitudes good for our economic situation, but also our….health? Yes, if we dig a bit deeper we can see that dirty industries and backwards policy are actually harming the health of the earth for our children and the health of her inhabitants today.

How Does Environmental Policy Affect Public Health?

There are two levels of health consequences associated with dirty industry, both direct and indirect. The direct consequences are examples like increased asthma rates in areas with high smog indices. Chlorofluorocarbon release into the atmosphere has shown to decrease the filter of direct sunlight on the planet, resulting in more concentrated ultraviolet light reaching the surface of the earth. Perhaps it is no surprise then that in countries with depleted atmospheric gas, skin cancer rates are among the highest in the world.

The indirect health consequences are harder to see immediately, but closer examination reveals that these are, in fact, perhaps the most hazardous. Bi-products of dirty and backwards industries, such as coal and oil processing, include cancer causing substances like asbestos and benzene. A U.K. study conducted in 2002 indicated that coal and oil industry workers are at a much higher risk of developing pericardial mesothelioma (associated with asbestos exposure) and leukemia (traced to benzene and heavy-metal exposure). Dr. Robert Taub among many other doctors who specialize in this area understand that these are substances that can be directly traced to antiquated pre-regulation equipment in industries whose environmental hazards are even more inherent.

Can we really afford to continue on the path we were on before? Investment in clean industry means not a healthier planet for our children and grandchildren, but also a healthier place for us to live today.

--July 13, 2009 Written by James O’ Shea with the maacenter

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

On Bags and Garbage

It's funny how often a little change causes a big uproar. Then, after an adjustment period passes, everybody gets on board, and we wonder what all the fuss was about. I'm thinking specifically about grocery bags, but it applies to so much in our lives.

I've done groceries with a large knapsack* and several other bags for decades. What's changed for me is that the packers are much more accommodating now. I used to have to tell them, "I've got my own bags," often over and over with increasing volume as they start bagging on auto-pilot. And I'd have to race to the end of the roller to start packing because they rarely packed my knapsack with any thought to what it feels like to have many cans jammed against your spine on the bike ride home. I want some cool bags of milk next to me, thanks. Or at least a largish box of something.

Now I just plunk my bags down at the start of my stuff, and they do it all for me.

Some people were concerned with the new five cent price of bags. It's such a small fee, but a few letter-writers in the local paper were outraged at the injustice of being charged for something that used to be free. And others are still a bit concerned at the potential for bacterial breeding in their food soaked bags. They can be washed pretty easily. I never wash mine, personally, but I like to live life on the edge. And others were worried what they'll put their garbage in without grocery bags to line their cans. I'm tellin' ya, if you use a compost and digester, you won't have any gross garbage anymore, so you won't need a liner in the garbage can.

What I do have in my garbage is lots and lots of packaging. I recycle what's the city will accept, but there's plenty left. For us it's two things: First is the waxy bags inside cereal boxes. We're positively Seinfeldian in our cereal consumption. And secondly, and slightly more embarrassing, junk food wrappers. I know I can make popsicles with healthy freshly-squeezed juice in my freezer, but I guarantee my kids won't eat them. And if they didn't individually wrap them, they'd all stick together. Going garbage-free is a challenge I can only dream of after the kids grow up.

None of the main arguments against trying to eliminate plastic bags can hold a candle to the fact that plastic in the garbage is taking a huge toll on sea life. The Pacific Gyre, a huge waste land of plastics that have largely been swept by wind and water currents into a big pile in the ocean, is now twice the size of the United States. If we care about survival of sea life, and our own survival, then we should do everything we can to stop treating plastic as an easily disposable commodity.

And I really have to get on those juice-popsicles and bulk cereal.

*I must lament that I bought a knapsack from Wilfrid Laurier University in my first year, back in 1986, and used it steadily up until two years ago. I used it daily for groceries and camping and large book purchases and assignments and marking, and it showed no sign of wear at all. Then finally the zipper gave. I have no idea what magic fibres it was made of, but since then I've gone through a knapsack a year. Alas. I'll try to find another use for the one that just self-destructed on me.

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Green Bin Garbage

Toronto has started experiencing problems with their green bin program. I'm glad this is coming to light sooner rather than later, and I'm most pleased that the Toronto Star has been able to expose all these problems.

One of the problems they're having is that some of the compost being created from bin waste is proving "toxic to plants." I wrote of my concerns a while back on this very issue. I can't buy that it's a good idea to spray our food with decomposed carnivore feces and meat. If it's toxic to plants, what's it doing to us?

From The Big Necessity: "Additional scientific work is needed to reduce persistent uncertainty about the potential for adverse human health effects from exposure to biosolids." Some people who live near areas that are sprayed with sludge have been hospitalized for neurotoxicity, and experience seizures when the sludge is applied. And in 2000, biosolids that were judged "to pose a risk to healthy adult sewage workers, [were] judged risk-free even when applied to fields near young children, the elderly, and the immuno-compromised." Funny that.

When asked if biosolids are safe, one expert claimed, "I can't answer it's perfectly safe. I can't answer it's not safe." Here's the thing: if we don't KNOW that spraying agriculture with bio-solids is perfectly safe, then maybe we shouldn't be doing it.

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Camp Soap

For those who don't know, and I meet more and more people who don't, biodegradable soap or "camp soap" only biodegrades on land. If you've always lathered up then jumped in the lake thinking it's okay because it's camp soap, think again. Camp soap will disrupt the plants and fish in the lake - even in a running river. Camp soap should be used at least 200' from a water source.

I think nothing is more important right now than keeping our water clean. Some say, if you wouldn't drink it, don't put it in a lake, river, or down the storm drains. But really, don't add anything to a water source but water.

I'm still debating how best to talk to people about things like this. At my cabin, some of the residents there still think it's okay to use camp soap in the lake - and it's a very small lake. How do we speak up without shutting people down. I tend to say nothing, then kick myself later. Just the other day a friend tossed a cigarette butt in a storm drain. I was aghast, but when's a good time to get on an environmental soapbox (200' from the lake) without putting people off?

And I get into arguments sometimes about storm drains. People object that all the stuff dripping off cars when it rains, and all the stuff that leaks from cars otherwise, it all goes into storm drains, so what's the big deal about a gum wrapper? That's right that car pollutants often end up in the storm drains, and it's unfortunate because the storm drains all lead to lakes and rivers. So why on earth would we want to add to that travesty by dumping extra concrete on the street, or washing a car on the driveway (instead of on the lawn or at a car-wash), or tossing butts directly into the drains??

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