All posts by Solarphile

Safely dispose of your prescription drugs

Many people make New Year’s resolutions to get their home more organized and clutter-free. Regularly cleaning out the medicine cabinet and getting rid of old, expired or unwanted prescription and over-the-counter medications, vitamins and supplements is important. In the past, we were encouraged to flush these down the toilet or put them in the garbage. Well, it turns out that neither of those options is generally good.

Our municipal sewage treatment plants were not designed to remove many of these chemicals and antibiotics, steroids and all kinds of other drugs are turning up in low levels in our lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater. The number of different kinds of drugs, hormones and chemicals that we use and discharge into our watersheds is growing— not just from medications, but also from personal care products. Even the drugs that we use that aren’t completely used by our bodies are excreted and passed into the wastewater stream. All of this is starting to increase risks to our ecological systems and aquatic life in unforeseen ways. Although there don’t appear to be any adverse human health effects yet, the long-term effects are not clear and this is the subject of all kinds of research.

When drugs are tossed directly into the garbage, there’s a risk that kids and animals can get them— that can be a really bad thing, depending on what’s in there! These drugs can leach from landfills into our ground water and come back to haunt us.

For the best option to dispose of your prescription medications, talk to your doctor or pharmacist or call your city’s waste management service to find out if there’s a community drug collection, take-back and disposal program. If there isn’t one in your community, follow these steps from the
Do not flush prescription drugs down the toilet or drain unless the label or accompanying patient information specifically instructs you to do so. For information on drugs that should be flushed visit the FDA’s website.

To dispose of prescription drugs not labeled to be flushed, you may be able to take advantage of community drug take-back programs or other programs, such as household hazardous waste collection events, that collect drugs at a central location for proper disposal. Call your city or county government’s household trash and recycling service and ask if a drug take-back program is available in your community.

If a drug take-back or collection program is not available follow these steps from the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s guidelines :

1. Take your prescription drugs out of their original containers.

2. Mix drugs with an undesirable substance, such as cat litter or used coffee grounds.

3. Put the mixture into a disposable container with a lid, such as an empty margarine tub, or into a sealable bag.

4. Conceal or remove any personal information, including Rx number, on the empty containers by covering it with black permanent marker or duct tape, or by scratching it off.

5. Place the sealed container with the mixture, and the empty drug containers, in the trash.

Renewable Wind Power For Homes

With the rising costs, pollution and greenhouse gases associated with generating and using electricity, environmentally conscious homeowners are looking for renewable forms of energy that are easy to use and set up. Using wind power for homes is becoming an extremely attractive option for those who want to save money on their power bill and do good for the environment at the same time.

Although purchasing a wind power system can be expensive, it can be made much cheaper if you do it yourself. By building your own wind power system using instructions found at, you can build a wind power generator in your very own back yard. You can avoid the cost of paying for power, and the cost of purchasing a wind system.

Building a wind power for homes generator can be a great family project and you will all learn a lot about how wind power works in the process. So go ahead, create a a wind power generator in your home.

Save Water with Rain Barrels for Garden Watering

If you’re a gardener that has access to an unlimited supply of water, consider yourself lucky. There are many of us who live in drought zones where the garden and lawn watering rules are very constrictive to the healthy growth of gardens and plants.

Many people just give up when they find out how few gallons of water they are permitted to use, but some of us have just found ways to cope with less water. There are many ways to optimize your garden to conserve water while still keeping it lush.

Some of the ways include drip irrigation (the use of a pipe or hose with small holes to allow water to gradually seep into the root zones of plants), the placement of plants in groups with equal watering needs (to prevent wasting water on plants that don’t need as much), and using compost or mulch to minimize evaporation and runoff of the water.

Occasionally a period of drought will be forecasted far in advanced, or those already experiencing a drought will be given a rare reprieve, with heavy rains.  To take advantage of this, you should set up one or more rain barrels. Many people think this would be a time consuming, silly thing to do. But it can save you many gallons of water, and hardly requires any work.

Finding the barrels will probably be the hardest part. You can use your own garbage cans, or head to your home improvement store to get 55 gallon plastic drums. These can be expensive and difficult to transport, so keep that in mind before you go to the store. You will want to cover the top of the barrel with a screen of some sort to filter out any unwanted leaves or debris that might fall off the roof of your house and to prevent mosquitos breeding in any standing water.

Once you have your barrels ready, you’re faced with the decision of where to place them. Usually during rainfall, there is one corner or segment of the house that most of the rain tends to pour off of. If you are taking the simple approach to barrel placement, just place the barrel under all the downspouts where you see large amounts of water drainage. However, while this might be the easiest way to place them, you won’t see very high volumes of rain in the barrels.

If you’re open to taking a more complicated approach, you should consider tweaking your roof gutter system a bit. If you remove each individual segment and place it at a very slight slant so that all the water is diverted to the nearest corner of the house, you can place a rain barrel at each corner. So essentially your entire house acts as a catcher for the rain, instead of just a portion of the roof. This will help to maximize the amount of water your rain barrel will catch.

After a heavy rainfall, each individual barrel probably won’t see very much rain. If it looks like it won’t be raining more any time soon, it’s a good idea to empty each barrel into one main central barrel. Seal it and save it out of the way, for whenever you may need it. Then the next time it starts to rain, you’ll be able to quickly put all your catching barrels into place without having to lug around all the water you’ve accumulated so far.

The use of water barrels might sound like an antiquated idea. However, when you’re in the midst of a drought and you’re able to spare that extra couple of gallons for your garden in addition the city allotment, you’ll be grateful for every bit of time and money you spent on collecting all that rain. All it takes is a few trips out in the backyard every time it starts to sprinkle, and you’ll be a very happy gardener when water isn’t so abundant.

If you’re not a do-it-yourselfer, you can always buy and install the many rain barrel or rainwater harvesting systems designed for residential use.  It’s a simple, easy way to be good to a planet where the looming water crisis is sure to overshadow even the climate change crisis.

Eco-friendly Landscaping with Concrete

When you think about concrete, you usually think about the sidewalk, your driveway and maybe your porch— but what about your landscape? Concrete landscaping is extremely versatile, low maintenance, and is all the rage these days. On top of that, it is an eco-friendly product because it is easily recycled.

Most people use concrete designs for the walkways and paths that wind through their gardens. This is more for those with larger yards.  Even if your yard is small you could put down a lively patio for you and your friends to hang out and have drinks or tea or a barbecue. There’s nothing more fun than a little party out on the patio on a nice day.

Stone walls are another form of concrete landscaping that has really caught on like wildfire. They make great retaining walls for raised planting beds, and can double as extra seating. These days you can buy stamps to give the concrete a more natural look and you can also stain it to appear like stone.  If you want a textured look, concrete walls take well to stucco finishes or even tile to complement the overall theme of your landscape and garden.

Finally, even small concrete stepping stones can add punch to a landscape and function as way to keep you from stomping down your plants as you walk through the beds. The best thing about concrete landscaping is that while it can be functional you can make it look as if it’s just there for looks.
There is so much that you can do with concrete landscaping because it is so easy to form and work with. You can use concrete landscaping bricks or you can use whole solid slabs. You can even get custom made concrete landscaping stones that are in unique and creative shapes and patterns. The best part is that concrete projects are do-it-yourself friendly.  Take some time and see all the options out there for concrete landscaping— you might just be surprised.

Go Green and SAVE at

Fireplace increasing your heating bills?

There’s nothing quite like cozying up to a warm open hearth fireplace in the dead of winter, watching the hypnotic dance of the flames while the cold winds rage outside. What you may not realize is that using a fireplace is not conducive to energy conservation and may actually increase your heating bills.

The heat from a fireplace is confined to the area nearby and it doesn’t radiate to the rest of the room or the rest of the house. Heated air from other parts of the house is drawn into the fireplace and updrafts right up the chimney, while cold air from the outdoors is sucked in to replace the heated air in the house. This cold air now must be heated by the furnace system, making it work harder. That’s why you’ll notice that generally, when you use your fireplace, other parts of the house seem unusually cold. Nothing beats the fireplace for the warm ambiance, but you should consider using an energy-efficient insert or stove, if you want to conserve energy and control heating costs. Here are a few tips to increase your fireplace efficiency:
Increasing fireplace efficiency is an environmentally friendly choice not only for reducing energy consumption but also because less pollutants are released into the indoor air.

  1. Fireplace glass doors create a barrier between the living space and the chimney, and increase safety by protecting children from the fire.
  2. Top sealing dampers can be installed at the top of the chimney to keep heated or cooled air inside the house and keep the outside air out all year-round. 
  3. A cast iron plate called a fireback can be placed at the back of your fireplace. It protects the back wall from fire damage and absorbs heat from the fire and radiates it back into the room.
  4. A fireplace heater pulls fresh air from the room, circulates it through a chamber heated by the fire and then blows it back into the room.

Most of these products can be purchased online and are easy to install yourself.

Can eating fruits and vegetables be hazardous to your health?

Canada’s Globe and Mail published an article about a Canadian Cancer Society conference bringing leading scientists around the world to advise on whether restrictions should be imposed on spraying of pesticides on agricultural land.  The premise is that the large amounts of bug and weed sprays used on farmland may pose a heightened risk of several types of cancer for farmers, their rural neighbours and to all of us who eat foods containing pesticide residues.  Cosmetic use of pesticides on lawns and gardens is already restricted in some Canadian provinces and municipalities.  The article quotes Connie Moase, with the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, Health Canada’s watchdog: “In terms of any risk, health risk, Health Canada will only approve pesticides that do not pose a health risk, provided that the label directions are followed.”

I found the article especially interesting because it highlights so many dilemmas and barriers that get in the way of making a clearly informed, sustainable choice:

  • Are organically grown foods a better option than pesticide sprayed food that is cheaper to grow, with significantly higher yields, making it more readily available and affordable;
  • Should we now be eating less fruits and vegetables because of the potential health risks or do the benefits outweigh the pesticide exposure risk?
  • Given the apparent magnitude of the relative risks of pesticides used on lawns and gardens versus agricultural lands, why is the former banned and the latter not?  Is it simply a case of picking the low-hanging fruit versus tackling an area mired with controversy and inherently more serious trade-offs?
  • Do we accept the government’s assertions that approved pesticides are tested extensively and are not a health risk at the exposure levels when used as directed?
  • Or do we side with those groups who oppose the use of pesticides, who remind us that “these are strong poisons designed to kill if used as directed”.
  • Should we be concerned about what happens if directions for use on the labels are not followed exactly?
  • Can pesticide evaluations conducted on one chemical at a time account for unforeseen and untested real-life interactions between the variety of chemicals used on any given farm?
  • Should we trust the results of epidemiological studies linking pesticide use to higher incidence of cancers in farmers seriously, or can we safely discount them as “circumstantial evidence” that may actually be due to other risk factors?
  • Can we truly trust the results of testing on mice and rats, in experiments funded by the pesticide industry?

Etc. etc. etc.  You gotta read the article and form your own opinion— ‘cause my brain hurts.  It’s not easy being “sustainable”.

Is sustainable food consumption a myth?

There can be no doubt that our planet is under severe strain from economic and social development that maintains inefficient production and consumption patterns and an uneven distribution of resources.  The richest 20% of the people in the world consume nearly 75% of the planet’s natural resources.

It’s been said that if all the people of the world were to consume like those in affluent countries, we would need the equivalent of 4 extra Earths, putting unbearable pressure on our ecological balance.  Add to this the fact that the world’s population is expected to increase to 9 billion by 2050, with nearly all of the growth projected to take place in developing countries. 

You may believe that it’s just not possible to produce enough food to feed the global population. You would be wrong. Food wasted in affluent countries is estimated to be up to 50% of all that’s harvested.  Moreover, unequal distribution of food is the main reason why there are a billion undernourished and starving people in the world today.  The huge amount of food waste also corresponds to serious wasteful impacts on fuels for transportation, chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, water and generation of methane. 

Sticking with hunger and poverty for now, here are just a few sobering statistics reported as part of research conducted in 2007 in support of the Millenium Development Goals:

  • In 2005, the worldwide expenditure on military equipment and services was $1001 billion US (that’s more than a trillion US dollars!)
  • In 2006, North Americans spent $37 billion dollars on pet food and pet care products

Contrast that with the following:

  • An estimated $54-62 billion dollars would halve the number of people subsisting on less than a dollar a day by 2015
  • An estimated $29.6 billion dollars would halve the number of people suffering from hunger and halve the number of children suffering from malnutrition by 2015

Shocked and awed?  Although some see these statistics as controversial and lacking rigour, this is just the tip of the iceberg highlighting the urgency of breaking away from socially unjust vested interests and promoting and practicing sustainable consumption worldwide.


Sustainable Off-grid Homes

Notwithstanding the references to “poisoned city water” and terrorists, this is an excellent video that demonstrates the integration of sustainable practices and technologies to create a mass-produceable off-grid home. The home is Robert Plarr and Michael Fulton’s Angel’s Nest/WorldNest Telsa research home in New Mexico.  It’s self-sufficient in energy, water, waste management and to some extent, food production. They use recycled and low-impact materials as well as improving indoor air quality.

They touch on a lot of different areas of sustainability and some of the controversial choices. I especially like their concept of creating a rainforest inside the home which is irrigated by treated grey water from the shower, creating humidity in the atmosphere, which, in turn, is extracted to generate drinking water. I haven’t seen their book, “The Secret of Sustainability” on Amazon yet, but it is available on the WorldsNest website.


The Meat-Lover’s Sustainability Dilemma

Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is set to announce that “The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that direct emissions from meat production account for about 18% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. So I want to highlight the fact that among options for mitigating climate change, changing diets is something one should consider.”

By contrast, transportation contributes 13% of our greenhouse gas footprint.

Greenhouse gases are released throughout the meat production cycle, during land clearing, making and transporting fertilizer, feed antibiotics and hormones, burning fossil fuels in farm vehicles, and emissions from the animals themselves, which is a major proportion of gases emitted. Refrigeration and transportation of the meat for processing, packaging, distribution, retailing and to the consumer are also huge contributers.

Population growth and changing consumption patterns in developing countries will continue to increase pressure on global food supplies and food security. Livestock production has increased all over the world as demand for meat rises. The resulting increase in water scarcity, land degradation and soil erosion are key threats to productivity of farmland, not to mention the effects of loss of biodiversity associated with deforestation for high-maintenance agricultural land. Recent scientific studies have demonstrated that increases in global temperature adversely affects soil fertility, reducing crop yield. Water runoff from livestock farming can cause significant contamination and eutrophication of surface and ground water if the solid waste generated is not managed properly. Farming subisidies (like other poorly applied subsidy programs) tend to create an uneven playing field, further exacerbating the problem.

Possibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with farming animals include genetically engineering strains of animals that produce less methane and ammonia. Organic farming is not a feasible option globally, due to the comparatively low productivity and yield.

We all know by now that eating less meat is better for your health. A price on carbon could cause the price of meat to rise, people would eat less, and, at the same time, reduce associated emissions of greenhouse gases and other adverse environmental impacts. This might just be the added incentive that ardent meat-lovers like me need to make another personal choice that contributes to the sustainability of our planet. Given the magnitude of the impacts, reluctantly, I’m adding eating less meat to my list of simple ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Green your landscaping practices and reclaim your life!

Over the years, it’s become harder and harder to motivate myself to regularly mow, fertilize, weed and water my lawn and garden. With all the extreme weather that seems to be the norm these days, even my best efforts seem to be wasted. Some years, the only reason I dragged myself out to do it or paid someone to do it is to avoid the occasional evil eye from my neighbours. I’ve become acutely aware of how much water, air and noise pollution is generated from conventional mowers, fertilizers and pesticides, in our society’s quest for the most lush, green, weed-free lawn. I used to look at the bags and bags of yard waste waiting for collection day, and wonder how fast the grass clippings were filling up the landfill before we got our municipal composting program.

According to the EPA, 30% of water consumption in urban areas in the eastern United States is for watering lawns, and an average 1-acre lawn costs $700 and requires 40 hours of labor each year to maintain. Not that my lawn is anywhere close to 1 acre… but I’ve decided to reclaim that wasted time and money and do a good turn for the environment by switching to more sustainable landscaping practices.

Slowly, but surely, I’m replacing some of the lawn turf with attractive, low-growing, traffic-resistant groundcovers and my garden beds with a greater variety of native, non-invasive, drought and pest-resistant plants. I like the natural, “woodland” look, which blends naturally with the mature trees in my neighbourhood without looking overgrown and unruly.

I use a push mower for the remaining small patches of lawn, having traded in my old gas mower and storing away my electric mower which never did do a great job, even after it was fully charged.

I dropped off all the leftover pesticides in my garage and garden shed to the hazardous waste depot. I spend just a few minutes every few days monitoring and physically dealing with any signs of disease, pests or weeds.

I compost my grass clippings and most of my yard waste right on site and use it to replenish the soil in the garden and I use almost no soil amendments, fertilizers or plant food.

I’m looking into installing a simple irrigation system with a timer, soil moisture sensor and controllers for more efficient watering, before dawn or after dusk. I’m sick of seeing water from the sprinkler running off my neighbour’s lawn and driveway straight into the storm sewer.

I used to cringe whenever my neighbour picked Saturday afternoon to mow his lawn, just when my guests arrived for a barbecue and a relaxing evening. We couldn’t hear each other speak over the din, with the nasty smell from the gas mower overpowering the tantalizing aroma of whatever was on the grill.

But I have the last laugh, because I’m spending only a fraction of what he’s spending on fertilizers and weed control. I figure I use about 35% less water than he does for his lawn and garden. Not only that, I now delight in the fact that I’m lolling around with a tall, cool drink watching the butterflies attracted to my perennial wildflower garden, grilling freshly picked vegetables or dreaming of a quiet, peaceful warm day in the neighbourhood during my nap (with earplugs on), while he’s hard at work on his lawn.