Here we are, at the start of a new year. Already half of January has gone by, and winter is starting to establish its grip in Montreal. Despite temperatures dropping below zero, snow and freezing ice pouring down on us, it is still possible to think about the environment. We can start this New Year by having an eco-friendly winter. All that needs being done is changing a few common winter habits.
Habit: Starting your car/idling
I bet the majority of Canadians are guilty for starting their cars ahead of time and letting it idle in order to warm it up. I mean why not? Especially with facilities like remote starters, one can easily start their engine with a press of a button prior to bundling up and going outside. Smart? Erm, not environmentally. A study done by Environment Canada found that a 10-minute warm up actually increases your fuel consumption 12-16% . Not to mention for every 1L gasoline consumed, about 2.3 kg of CO2 is emitted . In fact, the engine only requires about 30 seconds of idling before it’s able to sustain your car to drive. The best way to warm up your car is to –you will not believe it—DRIVE! Driving not only allows your engine to warm up, but can also warm up the interior of the car within a couple minutes. Did you know that in order to warm up a stationary car, 10 minutes of idling burns 300 mL of fuel, which releases about 690 g of CO2? . And for those living in constant freezing temperatures, a smart and eco-friendly alternative is to invest in a heating element. Not only does it help with starting your car, but it can also decrease the amount of time it takes to warm up the interior of your car. All you need to do is keep it plugged in 2 hours before driving your car . By breaking this habit, not only are you saving money on fuel but helping the environment as well!
Habit: Cranking up the heat and the electricity bill
Nothing feels better then walking into the warm and toasty indoors, especially after being out in the cold. However, cranking up the heat can increase your bills, burden the electrical system and affect the environment. Did you know that coal releases 1000g CO2/kWh, natural gas releases 500g CO2/kWh and hydro/solar , although less, still releases 50g CO2/kWh ? On average, the kWh/capita used in Canadian homes is around 11,000! That means that we release 550-11000 thousand grams of CO2 per capita! The power demand is high in winter, especially during those cold snaps. We can start helping the environment by consuming electricity more wisely. Don’t just crank up the heat; a simple alternative is to set the house temperature at a constant 22-23°C and then lower the thermostat by 5-10°C at night or when the house is unoccupied. By lowering the temperature by just a few degrees, not only will it spread your electrical consumption, it will decrease the burden on the system and play a role in decreasing CO2 emissions. Results show that by doing so, one may have 6.5% savings in natural gas and 0.8% reduced electricity consumption ! And if the house is still not ‘warm’ enough for your liking, there are simple solutions. Layering up clothing is an excellent way to keep warm during the day. And for those who are cold during the night, warm up by adding fleece or flannel blankets along with your comforter (don’t forget about fuzzy socks!!).
Habit: Too cold to compost
Winter hits and all of a sudden, your compost pile is covered with snow and ice. Does that mean composting is no longer possible? Before we answer that question, let us ask ourselves this: why compost in the first place? Composting is a natural biological process that converts organic material into compost that is then further broken down by bacteria and fungi . There are severe consequences of throwing organic waste (i.e. vegetable matter) in the garbage. Firstly, landfills are filled up prematurely. Secondly, because plant matter is buried under trash, an anaerobic environment is created. This oxygen-lacking environment releases methane gas as the plant matter decays . Methane is ranked as one of the worst greenhouse gases, being 25 times more potent than CO2. Approximately 30-70 million tonnes of global methane emissions come from landfills . Statistics Canada demonstrated that in 2007, Canadians wasted approximately 183 kg of solid food/person or in other terms 680 kg of greenhouse gas emissions per person ! All of this can be prevented by simply composting organic waste. The main contributors in decomposing the matter are microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. Now an important thing to know is that cold temperatures cause microorganisms to revert into a calmer and slower state, resulting in a slower composting process . Now we come back to the original question: is it feasible to compost during winter? Absolutely! According to the Texas AgriLife Extension service, microbes can remain active in a compost pile even when temperatures drop . There are a few ways to make composting in winter easier: using a bin and placing it conveniently near your door will save you from walking in the snow and since food freezes, it will have very little odour to attract animals . In addition, the use of leaves and other browns is not needed so your bin won’t fill up that quickly. Other helpful tips involve using a tarp to cover the compost pile to prevent unwanted precipitation from falling in. By composting in winter, you allow for a continual composting process because by the time warm weather flows in, the microorganisms will be primed to continue where they left off. And for those who new to composting, you can get some help from local companies that provide easy and relatively well-priced services. For those in Montreal, Compost Montreal is a good place to start: http://www.compostmontreal.com/.
Habit: De-icing with salt
Icy patches during winter pose a problem to all. The most common way to get rid of ice is by using salts and other chemicals. They act by decreasing the freezing point so that it falls below 0°C, thus allowing the ice to melt. Although the use of salt helps in keeping roads safe during winter, it causes extensive damage to the environment and plants. Approximately 5 million tonnes of road salt in Canada is released into the environment yearly . Salt accumulates in the soil where it breaks down into the elements sodium (Na) and chloride (Cl). Trees, plants and other shrubs absorb these elements during the early spring causing numerous problems such as leaf scorching, blocking the absorption of important nutrients, hindering osmosis and increasing their susceptibility to pathogens and stress . Plants play a vital role in regulating CO2 levels as they absorb approximately 75% of the CO2 in the atmosphere . CO2 levels are constantly fluctuating season-to-season, year-to-year however, the overall accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere is on a continuous rise. As of December 2015, the atmospheric CO2 levels is 401.85 ppm (that’s 3 ppm more that it was in December 2014!!) .
The Figure below illustrates the growing trend of CO2 concentrations:
Figure 1. Monthly carbon dioxide concentration at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Obserbatory (Hawaii) 
As seen in the figure above, there is some seasonal fluctuation in the levels of CO2 in each year. These fluctuations are found mostly in the northern hemisphere. During winter, annual vegetation dies and decomposes, resulting in the release of carbon back into the atmosphere . Furthermore, plants during winter decrease their photosynthetic activities in order to save energy . The problem of using salt is that the damage only becomes obvious during spring (constant browning of leaves) .Over time, these salt-damaged plants are unable to optimize their photosynthetic capabilities during spring and summer and consequently, cannot properly absorb CO2. Research shows that their photosynthetic capabilities can be decreased up to 86% . Meaning the average tree that absorbs 48lb of CO2 yearly will now only be able to absorb about 15% of what it usually can when it is severely salt damaged. Although the Canadian government has established salt management plans that target areas vulnerable to salt, change can start right at your doorstep . Buying ecofriendly de-icers is a great alternative as well as using sand for better traction. You can further protect your plants by using plastic fencing or covers during winter and flushing the soil near plants in spring to get rid of any excess salts . Alternatively, you can invest in planting salt resistant plants. This is a great website where you can search for plants that are native to Canada that grow in specific conditions: http://nativeplants.evergreen.ca/search/advanced.php
It’s important to think about the environment all year around—even during the winter months. Taking small steps and changing some habits can greatly benefit our planet and its biodiversity.
Have a happy green winter!
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