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Sack your bags

I've decided to accept IRIS Director Dawn Bazely's challenge to blog about creatively reducing, reusing and diverting everyday household waste (see post "Hey, get me out of here, I don't want to go to landfill!").

The first challenge item she has thrown at me is a milk bag. Not being much of a milk drinker, milk bags do not find their way into my life very often. When I do buy milk, though, I purchase the less sustainably packaged wax cartons of lactose free milk.

For milk lovers and bag avoiders, there is hope. Local dairies and dairy cooperatives like Harmony Organic have reintroduced the classic milk bottle, in addition to also offering carton and bag packaging options. Their website states: "All our products are available in returnable glass bottles* which leaves the milk tasting clean and 'fresh from the farm'. Each bottle is expected to make 15-20 trips before being recycled. In an effort to bypass the use of chlorine as a sanitizing agent, we use hydrogen peroxide in our cleaning processes." While I don't drink much milk, I do eat yogurt every morning for breakfast. Similarly packaged in a reusable glass bottle, I buy delicious, creamy, full-fat, organic yogurt from Pinehedge Farms, located in St-Eugène, Ontario.

I case you're wondering, St-Eugène is at the Ontario border with Quebec, between Ottawa and Montreal, and over 500 km away from my home in downtown Toronto. While I love the idea of reusable packaging, I wonder if shipping a relatively heavy glass jar 500 km each way is environmentally better than shipping a relatively light plastic container.  Would I not be better off consuming the equally delicious Saugeen Country Dairy organic yogurt, which is packaged in plastic and hails from Markdale, Ontario, only 150 km away? If this is the case, surely it would also be better to purchase milk in light weight bags (ideally from a nearby dairy) rather than in glass bottles. It seems we are back to generating plastic milk bags.

There are other, more challenging alternatives.  For example, you could forgo milk entirely, taking on a vegan (absolutely no animal products) or paleolithic (dairy-free with only certain plants and animal products) diets. You could live close enough to a dairy farm, so as to not worry about shipping heavy glass bottles long distances. Or you could lobby the government to allow urban backyard bovine, though I doubt a cow would be very happy living in a 20 square meter backyard.

This question is like so many other "what is more sustainable" scenarios, which are highly complex and -- if you're not careful -- might make you think, it's all bad so why bother? In those cases, often a simple act is a good place to start. So, start by reusing all your milk bags (including the clear ones that are impressively durable). Stop accepting plastic bags from retailers and stop buying them as much as possible. While you're at it, stop buying food storage bags and use these instead. In fact, in many cases they could even replace plastic cling wrap if coupled with a rubber band or twist tie. The goal should not be to make your life guilt-ridden or inordinately complicated. Rather, we should all try to use less and use thoughtfully.

What do you think, Dawn? Agree? Disagree?

Ready for  a new challenge? My challenge to you, Dawn, is what should we do about these pesky items -- cigarette butts?


Good luck,


The Big Green Purse! AKA The Sustainable Shopping Bible Pt. 4/4

Pt. 4 - Sustainable Food Shopping, and Other Notes


  • Styrofoam used to store food (i.e restaurant leftovers) can't be recycled or reused after its been tainted by food or coffee. It is also classified as a possible carcinogen by the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services
  • The EPA cautions everyone (especially kids and pregnant women) against eating tuna, due to contamination from mercury that precipitates out of air pollution generated by industrial smokestacks
  • Avoid American BEEF - the European Union officially does not accept meat from the US because of large amounts of growth hormonoes used in the cattle
  • Choosing Sustainable Seafood
    • Shop for seafood sold under the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label - certifies those fish come from sustainable sources
    • Avoid large predator fish when dining out (i.e. shark, tuna, swordfish) bc they play a critical role in marine ecosystems, and also concentrate the most toxins. Therefore best to pick smaller fish i.e. tilapia


  • Rainforests - Disappearing at a rate of 6 soccer fields a minute
  • 40% of Central American rainforests have been converted into pastures for beef production, 90% of which is exported to the U.S. primarily for use in the fast food market or pet food.
  • Chapter 6 focuses on ways to trim meat from your diet as a way of protecting rainforests from the grazing that leads to their destruction
  • According to Environmental Defense, the burning of tropical forests accounts for at least 10% of the greenhouse effect Forests in North America
  • According to the Center for a New American Dream, U.S. paper consumption is the world's highest, devouring 12,340 sq miles of forests each year.
  • Saving paper o The Center for a New American Dream estimates that recycling one ton of paper saves 17 trees, 7000 gallons of water, and 380 gallons of oil
  • According to a U of Washington study, women are more susceptible than men to air pollution and the heart problems it causes bc among other reasons, our blood vessels are smaller.

Air Pollution

  • Everyone is susceptible to asthma from air pollution (I have asthma so this is a big issue for me)
  • Environmental Protection Agency: we all may suffer as many as 554,000 asthma attacks each year bc of air pollution

Remember: The Big Green Purse Shopping Principles:

1. Buy less 2. Read the label 3. Support sustainable standards 4. Look for third-party verification 5. Choose fewer ingredients 6. Pick less packaging 7. Buy local

As a supplement to these notes, please visit for a guide on smart environmental shopping choices.

Four quick tips on reducing your packaging

You can save barrels of oil, lower manufacturing costs, and help the environment by shifting your spending to products that use minimal packaging:

  1. Buy products sold in recyclable or reusable containers that can be recycled again once you’re done with it
  2. Purchase meat directly from the butcher wrapped in paper rather than foam meat trays
  3. Instead of instant soup, buy fresh ingredients or soup stock in the bulk section in cellophane packaging
  4. Carry a reusable mug or cup for coffee, juice, etc.

Tons more info coming up when I discuss sustainable shopping and The Big Green Purse!