Archive for the ‘Opinion’ category

Climate Change Effects and Insurance — Berkshire Hathaway Should Be Worried

May 6th, 2016

Forest Fire in Fort McMurray, AB, May 2016  By DarrenRD (straigntened and enhanced by CoolCanuck) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

According to a report on Green Tech Media, shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Insurance have voted to ignore climate risks. Apparently Mr. Buffett “doesn’t think climate change creates serious risks for Berkshire’s insurance business.” http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/berkshire-hathaway-shareholders-vote-to-ignore-climate-risks

Hmm, let’s take a quick look at what’s happening right in Fort McMurray. A massive forest fire has burned through a significant portion of the town leaving tens of thousands homeless and forcing the one of the largest evacuations in Canada’s history. The fires are due to a milder than normal winter combined with less snowfall, fostering an extremely dry spring. In fact, the situation is so bad in northern Alberta and BC, that BC can’t even send its own firefighters to help combat the blaze because they’re worried about their own fire problems.

Most of these properties will be insured — how much is this going to cost the insurers? Recent estimates based on a similar fire which burned through Slave Lake, Alberta in 2011 cost insurers $780 million. Fort McMurray is about ten times the size of Slave Lake. Currently, the estimate is $2.4-4 billion in property damage, however, if the fire keeps raging (and there is no weather relief in sight until tomorrow), it is predicted that the insurance price tag could be as high as $9 billion. To put that in perspective, the Alberta floods in July 2013 cost insurers at least $1.7 billion with more than another $4 billion in uninsured losses — a price tag that now seems paltry by comparison.

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Greenwashing in Real Life

February 2nd, 2011

I always love going to the Interior Design Show. It’s a great mix of unique interior design exhibits, new products, up and coming Canadian designers at Style North and great designer displays. This year was no exception — it was truly a great event with loads of energy buzzing from the crowds. While I walked around the event speaking with exhibitors I was, of course looking specifically for “green” products and features. Speaking with the exhibitors it was pretty easy to become enthralled with the beautiful displays and pitches thrown my way regarding products. But once away from the frenetic pace of the show, there was time to reflect, and reflection allowed me to think back on what I saw and ask critical questions and in a few cases, I wasn’t comfortable with the answers.

A perfect example of pure “greenwashing” is a discussion I had at one of the many paint booths at the show. The paint I was looking at was labelled “zero VOC.” That is, it emits no volatile organic compounds that pollute a home’s indoor air quality. Volatile organic compounds can cause headaches at the very least, but also in some cases respiratory problems, asthma, and in severe instances is linked to some cancers. So there have been a lot of efforts by companies with products that commonly off-gas to reduce the responsible chemicals — or at least convince us that they have done it, when maybe they haven’t done quite as good a job as they’d like you to believe.

Not surprisingly, paint is one of the most significant off-gassing products. I was told all the benefits of this one product: it was washable, long-lasting, came in a variety of finishes from flat to semi-gloss and was available in all the colours the company offered. And here was the rub: if you left it at that you would have been convinced that the paint was a zero VOC paint no matter what — unless you happened to know that you have to ask what happens when you add tints. When I asked, the answer was an honest, “it no longer is a zero VOC paint. It’s a low VOC paint. The tints still emit fumes.” Ah ha. A paint that is being marketed as a zero VOC paint is only zero VOC if it’s not tinted. But there’s no where on the splashy posters that admittedly show a can of white zero VOC paint that explains that. Unless you’re a minimalist, chances are good you’re going to be adding some colour to that paint — especially when the poster is right next to a display board with hundreds of colour swatches.

Will I be likely to use this “zero” VOC paint? I doubt it. Not because I don’t think it’s a good product, but merely because it’s being misrepresented and the company has lost my trust.

Another product that was making a big splash was a reuse product. But this time there was no real “green washing” per se.  The product itself was gorgeous and I was drawn in by the display and the colours and the idea of avoiding landfill. I interviewed the product representative and then my wheels started turning and questions started running through my head. The reuse product involved a lot of processing in order to get the effect produced and some of the chemicals used, while still being high quality, were pretty significant chemicals. Were they disposed of properly? Were labour laws met? How much energy and water was being used to repurpose the product? I don’t know because the information wasn’t offered up and the work is being done in a developing country — that in itself suggests that environmental and labour laws were lax — but perhaps they weren’t. In this case, however, the product was not being marketed as “green” it was only my jumping to conclusions that because the product was being reused it was green. Sometimes it’s a good idea to take a step back and do a little critical thinking when looking for “green” products.

So, you might be asking yourself then “When in the world do I know if a product is green?” Good question. Tomorrow, I’ll post a piece about some of the things to look for in a “green” product. Stay tuned….

Toronto’s Waste Initiatives: Are they Working?

May 7th, 2010

In the last few years Toronto has implemented several changes to its waste management system and I began to wonder what kind of effect they’ve had on waste diversion in the city. The goal, by the City’s waste management team, is 70% diversion from dumps by 2010. This goal has as much, if not more, to do with the cost of shipping the garbage to Michigan as it does with the environment — and by the end of this year we will no longer be able to ship garbage to Michigan. Below are three of the most recent programs that the city has implemented and how we consumers have responded. (Note: the deposit-return program implemented by the LCBO is a provincial program).

Implementation of the $0.05/shopping bag in Toronto. The city imposed a fee of 5 cents per bag as of June 1, 2009. I contacted Matthew Green in the waste department office of the city to find out if it had made any difference to plastic bag use.  He responded,

While the City does not obtain or retain retail sales figures on the number of plastic retail shopping bags distributed from stores in Toronto, we have seen public statements from major retailers describing the reduction in plastic bags.

Matthew sent me figures that some of the major grocery chains have sent him.

In a nutshell,

  • Loblaws reported “distributing approximately 75 per cent fewer plastic shopping bags per $1000 in sales.” Source: http://micro.newswire.ca/release.cgi?rkey=1704203007&view=62151-0&Start=20&htm=0
  • Metro (Metro Ontario Inc.), in June 29, 2009 press release, stated: “”Four weeks after introducing a $0.05 charge for single-use grocery bags, Metro grocery stores across Quebec and Ontario are reporting that 70 per cent fewer bags have been distributed in store, when compared to the monthly average.” Source: http://www.metro.ca/corpo/centre-nouvelles/communiques2009/200906291.en.html

So, basically, a simple and almost insignifcant charge of 5 cents has had a huge impact on single use plastic bag distribution. 70% or greater reduction in single plastic bag distribution at the main grocery stores.

LCBO deposit return program: In the case of the LCBO deposit-return program I wondered if as many containers were making their way back to the Beer Store (return depot) as anticipated. Because glass was already being recycled via the blue box, this program is more about getting a higher quality recycling product.

According to The Beer Store’s Operational Report for 2008, the LCBO’s deposit-return system saw the first year’s return rate come in at 67% on average (the PET and asceptic packaging return rates were significantly lower than cans and glass rates). In 2008, the rate increased to 73% (76% and 79% for glass and can return rates, respectively). This glass is recycled and reused to make new glass bottles and fibreglass, and, according to the report, the new products are produced in Ontario. Note: The average annual return rate for beer bottles is somewhere around 98% (It was actually at 99% in 2008-2009). In the case of beer bottles, most are reused on average 15 times before they’ve outlived their useful life.

Source: http://www.thebeerstore.ca/TBSopreport2008.pdf

If you prefer to put your bottles in the blue box, they still get recycled, but because the glass is mixed it will go into lower-grade products (plus you lose your 10-20 cent per bottle deposit).

Green Bin Waste: The green bin program is now fully implemented across 510,000 single family dwellings in Toronto. Wet garbage account for about 30% of all waste. This garbage is now diverted to an organic waste processing facility where the waste is turned into energy (methane gas production) and compost. The city has a 90% participation rate, and the program diverts 100,000 tons of waste saving 2,750 truck trips to Michigan annually.

Source: http://www.toronto.ca/greenbin/index.htm

Note: Contrary to what you might think, compostable bags are NOT wanted for the green bin program in Toronto. It is best to use ordinary plastic bags. For more information see http://www.toronto.ca/garbage/biodegradable_plastic.htm.

Hey, Prime Minister Harper! What do you mean you cancelled the Eco Energy Retrofit Grant???

April 7th, 2010

Yes, that’s right folks, here in Canada, when it comes to improving your home’s energy efficiency, if you snoozed, you lost. As of March 31, 2010, if you haven’t already booked your appointment with an energy auditor you can no longer apply for any ecoEnergy retrofit grant money from the feds.  Do NOT get me started on the short-sightedness of this latest cost-cutting measure. The only good news? So far it looks like the provincial Ontario grants have not been affected by Mr. Harper’s latest move — keep your fingers crossed they don’t follow suit.

To qualify to receive your federal ecoEnergy Retrofit grant, you must complete your retrofits by March 31, 2011 in order to get the grant money.

You are still eligible if you’ve already had your assessment or have even booked your appointment.

A little warning might have been nice, but there you go.

For more information see the Office of Energy Efficiency’s Home Page.

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