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Looking to declutter or just get free stuff? How Buy Nothing groups cut waste

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look the benefits of Buy Nothing groups, explore a fanciful version of an eco-conscious artist's apartment and ponder how to sustain outdoor ice rinks in a warming climate.

Also: This artist's apartment has a polar bear in the freezer and caribou in the closet

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

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This week:

  • Looking to declutter or just get free stuff? Buy Nothing groups aim to cut waste
  • This Canadian artist shows how climate activism starts at home
  • Europe's cities are turning outdoor ice rinks into roller rinks. How will ours adapt?

Looking to declutter or just get free stuff? Buy Nothing groups aim to cut waste

Two women stand in a kitchen behind a table full of food, household items and clothing. One woman with a ponytail holds up a shirt.
Rebekah Stoller and Christine Nelson-Didych prepare a number of items to gift in the Transcona Buy Nothing group in Manitoba. Nelson-Didych is the administrator of the group, while Stoller is a member. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Is there something you need or want but don't want to buy for financial or environmental reasons? Got a few things in your fridge, closet or garage that you probably won't use? Chances are there are people in your neighbourhood who can help with both of those problems — and local Buy Nothing groups are there to make the connection.

The Buy Nothing Project was started as an experimental "hyper-local gift economy" by Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark on Bainbridge Island, Wash., in July 2013. They were looking for ways to reduce waste, but wanted to go beyond dropping things off at a local thrift store. They wanted to build community in the process, said Crescent Moegling, a spokesperson for the project.

Canada was early to jump on the bandwagon, with the first group starting in Barrhaven, Ont., later that year.

Since then, the project has spread to 44 countries. In Canada, there are groups in almost every province and territory, including B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, P.E.I. and Nunavut. They're connected through Facebook or the BuyNothing mobile app. Moegling said worldwide, the number of Buy Nothing group members grew from two million to seven million over the pandemic.

The Buy Nothing group for Anagance/Peticodiac/Corn Hill in New Brunswick was started a couple of years ago by Salma Burney, who had discovered the Buy Nothing Project when she lived in Hamilton, Ont. 

"I thought, wow, that's a good idea, instead of putting everything in the landfill," Burney said. 

After moving, she decided to start a group in her new community. It now has close to 200 members who have exchanged items ranging from a bed headboard to books to glass jars. She herself got some items for the campground she started, including a child's swing and tires to make other swings and an obstacle course.

Among the things Burney has given away were a microwave oven and 200 cloves of garlic, after she bought more than she could plant. (She chose the recipients by asking people to share the recipe they would make with the garlic.)

Group members are encouraged not only to give things away, but also to make requests. This week, someone in the Buy Nothing group in my Toronto neighbourhood asked for a doll to use as a prop in a musical. Last week, there were requests for five-spice powder for a recipe and ocean-themed decorations for a surprise party. Interesting gift offers this week included children's snowshoes that make dinosaur-shaped footprints, a grey sectional couch and an unopened carton of Not Milk.

Moegling said she's seen people ask for very specific things — such as the charger for a particular obsolete electronic device — and find them. She's also seen touching exchanges, such as people giving airline miles to help someone fly to a loved one's funeral. 

I myself have found homes for a number of items that I probably couldn't or wouldn't sell, such as toy cupcakes stained with permanent markers. They went to a therapist who requested that brand of play food "in any condition" to use in her work. Through the group, I've also received gently used and fully inflated balloons for my daughter's birthday party and a random novel in French that my son and I found very compelling.

Burney says Buy Nothing groups are about much more than just decluttering or getting free stuff: "You're actually making someone's life better."

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

Susan Ens Funk:

"I read with interest your article on sustainability and fashion. I have some wonders about the 85-item wardrobe. I have recognized for some time that one can buy too much clothing. I can see that one could easily have enough clothing with 85 pieces. My question is, at what rate are those pieces exchanged or updated? If a person has 85 pieces of clothing and updates them every year, that is still a lot of clothing. If a person has 85 pieces of clothing and updates them as they wear out, how long a time frame is typical? How many pieces would a person buy a year?

"These are details which matter when looking at overall sustainability and would help individuals as they look at the potential choices for sustainable lifestyles."

Ingo Oevermann: 

"Thank you for your usual lineup of interesting articles. I'm a senior who has an abundance of clothing, so when I read the '85 items,' I went to my closets and counted — a total of 51 pieces, including coats, boots and shoes, and a few which need to be disposed of.  I believe the '85 items' author can do much better than the article describes."

Toni O'Brien:

"I say finally! Finally there is some focus on the extravagance in our own lifestyles.  Let's live a little more simply and a little more frugally and cut back on everything — from clothing to our focus on 'keeping it modern' (homes and furnishings), to  the number of cleaners we have in our homes, to food waste, to paper usage, to the contents of our makeup bag.... Those of us who can afford our car and our home live very extravagantly. It is time to cut it out. It is time for individuals to stop pointing fingers at governments and big business as if it is their job to curb our extravagance. It is time for us to learn to use more self-discipline in making the choices we know are the wiser ones for our environment."

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Also, check out our radio show and podcast. This week, we head to Saskatchewan to find out how ranchers and Parks Canada are working together to protect carbon-rich grasslands. What On Earth airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: An artist shows how climate activism starts at home

A slideshow of sculptures including a polar bear, a bunch of caribou, animals fleeing a fire on an ironing board, a squirrel and recycling bin, a boy and oven
(Toni Hafkenscheid, Emily Chung/CBC)

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Montreal-based artist Karine Giboulo, like everyone else, was confined to her home. That inspired her to create a fanciful version of her apartment, filled with miniature scenes — such as animals fleeing a forest fire on an ironing board; a warehouse full of caribou inside an Amazon box; and a bloated squirrel eating shredded trash spilling from a recycling bin.

Exploring her Housewarming exhibition at Toronto's Gardiner Museum recently was captivating for my whole family. (In one of the photos above, you can see my son eyeing a cow skeleton embedded in a dried-out pan of brown cake.) It's like walking through an Ikea showroom mixed with Miniature World or Little Canada, but full of thought-provoking surprises.

Among them, a polar bear in the freezer licks a rainbow puddle melted from the box of tropical-flavoured popsicles on the shelf above.

"It's kind of funny, but sad at the same time," Giboulo said of her work. Ultimately, she wanted to speak to the larger ecological consequences when humans "treat themselves."

"The things that we do in our homes have an impact on the environment outside," she said. 

It was something she was very conscious of during the pandemic, particularly since habitat destruction has been cited as a risk for future pandemics. She hopes Housewarming makes visitors reflect on how their daily activities make a difference to the planet.

The exhibition runs until May 7.

Emily Chung

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Europe's cities are turning outdoor ice rinks into roller rinks. How will ours adapt?

A man and woman on skates hold hands on the ice.
People skate on the ice rink at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on Feb. 17, 2023. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

It's been a warm winter across much of Canada, making slush of the skating season in many places — including Ottawa, where it was announced last week that the iconic Rideau Canal Skateway would not open this year, for the first time since it was first cleared for skating in 1971.

Earlier that week, speed-skating practices for Canada Winter Games athletes at the Halifax Oval were delayed by heavy rain and temperatures of 8 C that left its surface a large puddle.

In other parts of the world, below-zero winter temperatures are already unreliable, and chillers, which require lots of energy to make artificial ice, are crucial.

Many cities in more temperate climates decided to skip their traditional winter ice rinks altogether this year. In some places — such as San Jose, Calif., Monaco and a number of French cities, including Tours and Gembloux — they were replaced by roller rinks.

All blamed high energy costs and many European cities cited the energy crisis linked to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But the demise of seasonal outdoor rinks is a trend that's been heating up in France for a number of years, where eco-conscious municipal governments have been questioning the sustainability of ice skating in a warming climate

In order for a natural outdoor ice rink to survive, the average temperature needs to be below –5 C, says Robert McLeman, a professor of environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. He's also one of the principal investigators of RinkWatch, a citizen science program that tracks the length of the skating season for outdoor rinks across the country.

While this is not yet a problem in the Prairies, McLeman said January temperatures are now near that –5 C threshold in southern Ontario, the St. Lawrence Valley and Atlantic Canada.

Until now, many communities in those regions have relied on natural ice rinks for outdoor skating in winter. But McLeman says he's getting more inquiries about when they need to make the transition to refrigerated rinks.

"One of the challenges is the fact that refrigerated rinks are far more expensive," he said. "They also use refrigerants and energy, which contribute to the root source of this, which is greenhouse gas emissions."

Because of the higher expense, communities can afford fewer of them, making rinks less accessible, especially outside Canada's biggest cities, he said. Even some big cities have been finding it a challenge. Montreal promised in 2016 to build refrigerated ice rinks around the city, but they ended up costing millions more than expected, delaying construction.

The cost will also go up as the climate warms further. Refrigeration systems need more energy to maintain the ice the warmer it gets, McLeman said. 

Still, many communities see outdoor ice skating as an important investment. 

Shari Lichterman, acting city manager for Mississauga, Ont., said the pandemic drove people outdoors. "There's higher demand than ever, really, for outdoor activities."

For that reason, the city, which has relied largely on natural ice rinks and indoor ice arenas until now, is looking into adding more artificial outdoor rinks.

One of the locations that's being considered for a new refrigerated or synthetic skating trail is along the Credit River, which has traditionally been a popular natural skating rink. 

Lichterman said the city is taking climate change into consideration for all its park's amenities now. "As we look at the winter and we look at ice, you know, we really have to look at synthetic surfaces, certainly refrigerated surfaces — it's very difficult." She acknowledged those are costly to maintain.

While some parts of Canada are preparing for a future where much of the winter is rainy and above freezing, that winter climate is already a reality in B.C.'s Lower Mainland. And yet, a few years ago, the City of North Vancouver decided to build its largest outdoor rink, right on the waterfront. How they built it could offer some ideas for other cities.

Karen Magnuson, the city's chief engineer, acknowledged that creating an outdoor skating rink in North Vancouver's temperate climate was challenging. The rink was designed with a retractable roof to protect the ice from the sun and rain.

But a key strategy was to use a CO2 chiller to cool the system. Magnuson said it's "incredibly efficient" at removing heat from the ice via a web of pipes under the ice surface, compared to other kinds of refrigerants and refrigeration systems.

That efficiency is boosted even further by feeding waste heat removed from the ice into a local district heating system. That provides hot water and space heating to local buildings — enough to heat the equivalent of 43 homes — offsetting the use of natural gas.

Magnuson said the result is that the Shipyards District rink is two to three times more efficient than a standard ice rink.

"I think it's really important for cities to provide places for the community to come together and play," she added. "We just need to make sure that when we're creating these entities, we're doing it as efficiently as possible." 

— Emily Chung

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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