Home Renovation: Demolish your waste

Meet my friend, Mr. Rip & Tear

This past November weekend was gorgeous here in Toronto. While we’d had snow by this time last year, I have flowers blooming in the containers on my doorstep (no, I haven’t finished winterizing my garden yet). I didn’t spend a lot of time outside, however, because it was time to replace our back door. What can I say, it’s a great source of fresh air (even when shut).

Like many renovation jobs, however, you can’t just take measurements, swap in the new thing and be finished. Oh no. “What are the brick-to-brick measurements?” the door store would like to know. We have to get a custom-sized door because it’s a small opening size, and we’d like to install the door ourselves, since installation service seems to cost about $400.

To determine the brick-to-brick measurements, we had to strip off all the wall materials and trim around the door. Easy, right? Well, two days later we’d pulled down two small interior walls and all kinds of cladding, dealt with some odd wiring and become pros with a reciprocating saw (aka Mr. Rip & Tear). We could see the mortar and brick around the door to take measurements, and uh oh, we had a lot of waste to deal with.

Here are a few ideas on how to reduce the waste:
– Pull nails from all of the structural wood you’re ripping out. Good straight 2x4s, and even long pieces of 2×4, are certainly worth reusing. If you can’t reuse them, freecycle them.
– If you’re getting material hauled away, look for a company that recycles. Many can recycle wood.
– Freecycle or donate any fixtures, switch plate covers and other materials you remove.
– Keep a box of hazardous materials, such as old smoke detectors, for disposal at a designated municipal site.
– Offer chunks of unpainted wood to someone with a fireplace. Bits of wood can make great kindling!

How have you dealt with your construction waste?


November 23, 2009 at 5:48 PM 1 comment

Grocery shopping: avoiding plastic packaging

Pesky plastic is hard to avoid

I’ve had a few things to say in previous posts about avoiding plastic bags while grocery shopping. As I hit my local market last night, it occurred to me that I could shop differently to avoid a lot more plastic. It just means being open to different choices.

You’re going to be thinking “Well, duh!” here, but it was a bit of an Aha moment for me when I thought I’d just look around the veggie section for things that aren’t packaged. So if I want tomatoes, sometimes I’m going to buy tomatoes on the vine, not grape tomatoes (pesky plastic boxes). And if I want mushrooms, I’m going to skip button mushrooms and go for cremenies or portobellos, and put them in a produce bag or paper bag, not buy a little blue box of them covered in plastic wrap. The store has lots of choices, from celery in a plastic sleeve and naked celery, temping Californian berries in plastic boxes or loose local apples, to even cheeses in paper wrapping or cheeses in plastic and meat in butcher paper instead of on foam trays (wrapped in plastic, sometimes two layers!).

It isn’t always easy to shop plastic-free, since sometimes there just aren’t any good choices, particularly at smaller stores that shrink-wrap everything to try to preserve freshness (and therefore reduce waste). Food packaging so quickly becomes recycling or garbage, it’s great for the earth if we can find ways to do without it.

How are you reducing the waste you bring home? Have you swapped one food for another to avoid waste?

November 17, 2009 at 5:39 PM Leave a comment

Winnipeg’s reminder of climate change

greatnorthbear2 bear_tankerI had a chance to visit Winnipeg over the past few days. It was my first time there, and I was lucky enough to have time to tour around and see some sites. It was unseasonably warm, as evidenced by the Santa Claus parade that ran down bare roads. Kids largely ignored the hot chocolate stations, and some even unzipped their jackets to vent some of their anticipation of seeing the Great Merry One. Like most places in Canada, the weather was on everyone’s minds.

Is this climate change in action? It’s hard to say, of course. I thought the display of polar bears near the Manitoba Legislature was interesting. The dozen or so large concrete polar bears scattered across the lawn are from a CancerCare Manitoba fundraising and awareness-raising event held a few years ago. An artist painted each bear to reflect a theme, many of them showing the Canadian north, the northern lights and Native cultural iconography.

The bear shown here tells a story of the Canadian north — including the oil tanker whimsically painted onto its backside. Was this meant to be a reminder of the threat over our shoulder? Or just a piece of real life in the north?

I don’t know the answer, but I’m glad that those bears, such as symbol of all that’s at stake, are keeping watch over the legislature. Perhaps Manitobans could send one to Ottawa.

November 16, 2009 at 12:30 PM 2 comments

Ack! Wasted food!

rotten tomato food wasteTry as I might, I can’t help but waste food. Every week there’s something that I should have used up earlier, something that ripened… and beyond… when I wasn’t looking.

Maybe it’s my somewhat erratic schedule — I’ve given up planning more than a couple of days in advance — or maybe I’m just not a great strategist.

I do like making “kitchen sink” vegetable soups and stews to use up what I have in the fridge, but I think I need other ways of dealing with aging produce.

First, I guess I need to know what I have on hand so I don’t buy the wrong things, or too much of a good thing!
Second, when I have too much I should try to freeze a portion to use in a recipe later. Can you freeze mushrooms though?
Third, I should try to be more inventive in using up food. Let’s see, omelettes, novel pasta sauces, roasted veggie surprise…

Do you have strategies for reducing food waste?

November 9, 2009 at 2:19 PM 4 comments

Add a humidifier, add cosy comfort


According to “The Little Green Book” (Creative Homeowner, 2008), winter’s dry indoor air makes us want to crank the thermostat. “Body moisture evapourates quickly and we feel cold,” according to the book, so if you add moisture to the air you’ll feel warmer, and you’ll use less energy in heating your home.

My skin gets pretty dry in the winter, so I think this is good advice for more many reasons. I chose a hot-water mist humidifier last time I purchased one. I think that the type that essentially boil water will not allow mould growth within the humidifier itself, while I’ve seen this problem in the older filter type of cold mist humidifier.

That humidifier worked for a couple of years, but eventually the seals split and it made a big leaky mess. While looking around for humidifier pictures online, I came across these cute ceramic models. They’re basically vases that you hang from your radiator. I know a lot of people don’t have rads anymore, but if you’re like me and you do, this ceramic option seem to make good sense. You don’t need to plug in another appliance to heat the water, there are no filters to change and unless you drop it hard it should last for a long time.

November 6, 2009 at 2:22 PM 2 comments

Greener train trips

Congrats to Via Rail. Apparently VIA has cut fuel consumption by 25 per per passenger kilometre, and greenhouse gas emissions by 15 per cent since 1990. VIA is now working on equipment and operations upgrades in an effort to further reduce its ecological footprint. That’s good news! (OK, a high-speed electric rail line would be really good news!)

Too bad other train networks don’t have good news to share. Toronto’s new Go train network to Georgetown will likely be diesel instead of oh-so-21st century electric. (OK, many countries had electric trains well before the millennium.)  Actually, they’ll be a type of diesel that doesn’t even exist yet. For some reason it’s better to expect that new diesel technology (I know that’s not an oxymoron, but it sounds like it) to materialize than use tried-and-true electric trains. Don’t get me wrong. Metrolinx is going to study electric. Oh, and they’re going to monitor the air quality. Terrific! Or, they could just do the right thing in the first place, and bring in electrically powered trains with energy offset by Bullfrog power. That’d make a Go train that deserves to be painted green.

November 5, 2009 at 6:57 PM 2 comments

Guide to going greener at home

EcoholicHomeI recently got  a copy of Ecoholic Home by Adria Vasil (Vintage Canada, $24.95). It’s an extraordinary collection of green living advice for the home — I love it because it’s very specific information with a lot of phone numbers and web sites listed, and because Vasil doesn’t pull punches about what’s really eco friendly and what’s not.

Here are few tips from the book:
– When replacing your roofing material, opt for a lighter colour shingle or tile to reflect more heat from your home in the summer. “Black roofing materials turn your attic into a scrambled egg.” (Page 264)
– Switch to cloth napkins and ditch paper. “Who says you have to wash them after every use? Get a different napkin ring for every member of the family, so you can keep track of whose is whose.” (Page 12) Or, buy a different cloth napkin style for each person! Don’t forget to wash them in cold water rather than hot.
– Save energy in the kitchen: “Turn your burner or oven off a few minutes before it’s done and coast on free heat.” (Page 79)

For those of you who’ve started your holiday shopping, this book might make a terrific present for someone!



November 3, 2009 at 7:17 PM Leave a comment

Quick work for your brickwork

Mauern - build 01After visits by ghouls, princesses and Dracula this Hallowe’en weekend, and with all the candy chased out of the house, it was finally time to to finish some energy-saving projects. Aside from typical fall homeowner stuff – raking leaves and emptying eavestroughs, I finally finished the brick work I talked about a few weeks ago, posted here.

My home is a small brick bungalow. It’s in pretty good shape overall, but a lot of little things need attention. A couple of months ago I hired Mike from Red Robin to come and replace some damaged bricks. We even had a few bricks missing on the bottom of one corner of the house! Others had become soft, likely because water had seeped in. Mike pointed out that the mortar between the brick was set too far back, particularly for the base of a wall, making it easy for water to settle on top of the brick and seep down.

When Mike finished replacing the damaged bricks, I vowed to follow-up with the tuck pointing, since there were a lot of gaps, and yes even some holes between the bricks – obvious points of heat loss. Yesterday I finally got around to it. Here’s what I did, for those of you interested in giving your brickwork a little makeover.

I bought mortar mix that takes about 72 hours to fully dry. It stays wet enough to work with for an hour or so. Using a paint mixer chucked into a drill, I slowly mixed in the water, using the base of a juice jug as a bucket (I cut off the top, but left the handle intact). I donned a pair of thin rubber gloves, and assembled my tools: a ladder, a trowel, an old screwdriver an old toothbrush and a spritz bottle.

As I combed the brickwork all the way around the house, from the top of the wall to its base, every time I found a crack or hole I’d use the screwdriver to break out any loose material, then use the toothbrush to clear out the dust. Next I spritzed the crack with water, since the mortar adheres better to a damp surface. If I had a big gap to fill I’d use the trowel, but most of the time I’d just pick up a small handful of mortar and squeeze it into a cylindrical shape, then use my fingers to squeeze it into the gap, tapping it in as far as it would go. I tried to avoid getting mortar on the brick, since it leaves a whitish haze, but I used the toothbrush to remove the mortar I’d missed. Finally, I’d swipe a finger over the wet mortar to smooth it out. (You could use a jointing tool for this purpose as well.)

That’s it! While I’m sure that adding more insulation will do more to prevent heat loss than sealing tiny cracks in the mortar, surely it will help.

Do you have to do anything to get your home ready for winter?

November 2, 2009 at 11:50 AM Leave a comment

Another blow to plastic bags

Produce Bags with FruitI recently heard that at the end of November, Metro grocery stores will offer their customers reuseable mesh bags for their produce (four for $5) as an alternative to conventional thin-film produce bags. Metro has 484 stores across Ontario and Quebec, so there’s potential for a lot of plastic savings. The bags are reusable, washable and stain resistant, not unlike these Canadian-made bags I blogged about earlier.

Thin-film plastic is considered the worst offender among plastic bag material, since, among other reasons, it isn’t durable enough for multiple use.

I hope grocery chains will take additional steps, such as offering starch-based biodegradable bags, so they break down safely in soil, and allocate fewer rolls of bags around the stores to discourage people from using them for everything. After all, veggies should be washed before you use them anyway. (I use a tiny smidge of dish soap.)

Metro revealed results of a customer survey showing that 77 per cent are making efforts to limit their use of plastic bags when buying fruits and vegetables, while 76 per cent said they would be interested in buying reusable produce bags. According to the same survey, 87 per cent of customers prefer to buy individual fruits and vegetables instead of pre-packaged ones. I certainly think we could do without the plastic bags on celery, bell peppers heads of lettuce and more, and I really dislike buying packs of mushrooms, since they’re in a type of plastic that many municipalities don’t recycle, topped by cellophane.

I don’t blame food producers for wanted to add something to their products. Homemakers‘ nutritionist, Rosie Schwartz has mentioned that one the reasons we have a hard time eating healthily is that packaged foods have lots of enticing images and marketing copy on them, while the healthiest food – produce – does not.

How would you reduce shopping-related waste?

October 30, 2009 at 2:42 PM 2 comments

Attic insulation: lessons from above


Gateway to the attic

If you’ve ever done a home renovation project, you know that the project you intend to complete isn’t the one you need to start with.

For example, my partner and I would like to add additional insulation to our attic, so we can make sure we’re using as little energy as possible to heat our home. The attic currently sports a messy mix of fibreglass batts and cellulose. According to our energy audit the level of insulation there only amounts to R 19.9 (R level is a measure of insulation value), whereas the EcoEnergy program recommends R 50.

That project will involve us calling in some help in sealing tops of walls with foam boxes and blowing in more cellulose insulation. But first, before we can do any of that, we have to replace the bathroom vent, and make sure it’s vented it outside. You see, the existing bathroom vent, which is mounted over the bathroom in the attic, isn’t well sealed, and it wasn’t properly vented either, so it spewed warm, moist air into the attic. Yesterday a roofer came by to install a roof vent for the bathroom fan. Excited by the upgrade, my partner decided we should connect our existing bath fan to the roof vent right away. So off to the home centre we went. Half an hour later we had all the insulated ducting, tape and fittings to do the job, and thanks to my partner’s handiwork, the fan is now vented outdoors.

So now we can get on with the business of insulating the attic!

Well, after we have a look at the electrical…

Have you added insulation to your home lately, or are you trying to plan the job?

October 29, 2009 at 10:49 AM Leave a comment

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