Technology & Science·What on Earth?

A clean getaway: How to make your cottage stay more eco-friendly

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at how to make your trip to the cottage (or cabin, or chalet) more environmentally friendly and how Swedish eco-warrior Greta Thunberg is getting to North America (hint: it's not by plane).

Also: Greta Thunberg's transatlantic journey

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, folks! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • A clean getaway: How to make your cottage stay more eco-friendly
  • Greta Thunberg's transatlantic journey
  • Fireworks can be more environmentally responsible

A clean getaway: How to make your cottage stay more eco-friendly

(Fred Thornhill/Canadian Press)

Ontarians go to the "cottage," Albertans head to a "cabin" and Quebeckers hang out in a "chalet." The concept has different names across the country, but the general idea is to find a rustic, secluded oasis. It's a way to reconnect with nature and it's become a summer ritual for many Canadians.

In order to get there, though, we drive for hours in a car loaded with people, pets and provisions. Once there, we typically keep ourselves busy with activities like boat rides and fishing, as well as munching on our favourite snacks dockside, which means having to deal with the packaging afterward.

Indeed, many of us don't realize that this quintessential Canadian tradition comes with a cost to the environment.

Liann Bobechko, deputy editor of Cottage Life magazine, acknowledges that what is meant to be a return to nature also has an ecological downside. But she said that "climate change is on everyone's mind for cottagers."

While driving to the cottage in a gasoline-powered car creates a carbon footprint, Bobechko says that cottagers can reduce this by carpooling, taking a smaller vehicle or driving more slowly, which increases fuel efficiency.

Fuelling up for a weekend away may also include getting extra gas for watercrafts. Bobechko suggests cottagers look into electric- or solar-powered boats or try paddle boards instead of Sea-Doos or kitesurfing instead of motor boats. (An added bonus is that these alternatives would reduce noise pollution on the lake and create fewer waves, which can erode the shoreline and disturb the wildlife that lives and breeds there.)

Then there's the physical waste. After a weekend of fun at a cabin, having to sort through garbage, organic waste and recycling can be frustrating, and many seasonal residents are unfamiliar with a municipality's landfill and recycling policies.

For close to a decade, the municipality of Highlands East, on the outskirts of Bancroft, Ont., has sold a "cottage kit" for a nominal fee. The kit includes separate plastic bags for household garbage, recycling, fibres and information on hazardous waste disposal dates.

The district of Kootenay in British Columbia has expanded its recycling options to take in items such as styrofoam, aerosol cans and Ziploc bags at some landfills in order to cope with increased seasonal residents and tourists in recent years.

Even if the municipality you're in doesn't have a separate organics program at the landfill, it doesn't mean you can't buy a composter or digester for your cottage to take care of bones and food scraps. (But don't forget to toss spices with strong smells in the garbage — they can attract unwanted furry guests.)

Looking for more advice on how to reduce your environmental footprint at the cabin? Here are some tips from Cottage Life. (Note: Some of them apply to owners rather than renters.)

  • Even if a soap says it's biodegradable, don't use it in the lake.

  • Check in with your local conservation society or cottagers' association to stay informed about ecologically sensitive areas on the lake. 

  • Buy your groceries at a local farmers' market. Work with your guests so you don't have too much food and get them to take leftovers home with them.

  • Monitor your septic system regularly to ensure it's working properly and not overloaded and draining into the lake.

  • Looking to remodel? Cottagers are returning to a vintage esthetic with deep window overhangs, meaning that the sun doesn't stream into the building and keeps the cabin cool during those scorching summer afternoons.

Olivia Robinson


Reader feedback

We always welcome your comments. They help inform future issues of the newsletter.

Comments or suggestions? Write us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Old issues of What on Earth? are here.

The Big Picture: Greta Thunberg's transatlantic voyage

Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, who began weekly school strikes last year to draw attention to climate change, has become a world-renowned speaker who harangues governments and business leaders to do more to protect the environment. She is scheduled to attend the UN Climate Action Summit in New York in September (as well as COP25 in Santiago, Chile, in December). But as someone who has disavowed air travel because of its carbon footprint, how would she get there? Her only option was by boat — although not a typical passenger ship, which would also emit a lot of carbon. Instead, she was offered a ride on the Malizia II (below), an 18-metre yacht owned by a German property developer. The vessel is equipped with solar panels and underwater turbines, which means it runs on zero-carbon electricity. The journey will take two weeks.

(Andreas Lindlahr/Team Malizia/Handout via Reuters)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • A number of countries have committed to ambitious tree-planting initiatives (see: Pakistan's "Billion Tree Tsunami"). But how many of them have planted 350 million in a single day? Only one: Ethiopia.

  • If you've bothered to look up in most world cities, you will have noticed a lot of all-glass buildings. Many of them add a certain flair to the skyline, but the preponderance of glass means they're less environmentally friendly, because they require more energy to heat and cool. That's why a number of esteemed architects and engineers are calling for a ban on them.

  • China is the world's biggest emitter of carbon, but a new study in Nature Sustainability suggests that this country of one-billion-plus could reach its emissions peak well before its 2030 target.

  • This week in the ongoing plastics purge: IHG, which owns Holiday Inn Hotels and Resorts and InterContinental Hotels & Resorts chains, among other hotel chains, has announced that it will eliminate mini bottles of shampoo and the like from its more than 5,600 hotels worldwide.

Fireworks can be more environmentally responsible

(Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

We're coming up on the first weekend of August, which not only means a longer layoff for some (lucky) Canadians, but a strong chance of fireworks.

The fizzing-screeching-banging noises and the accompanying light show have become a familiar part of long weekends, but not everyone appreciates the spectacle. The clamour can stress out animals and spark wildfires.

In recent years, there has been a move to make them less environmentally harmful. For example, in 2018, Banff, Alta., abandoned traditional firework displays for quieter light shows during its Canada Day celebrations. It's a large-scale version of the pyrotechnics used for concerts and stage performances that maintains the flashy colours of normal fireworks while minimizing the racket that typically accompanies the explosions.

The decision to abandon fireworks was made by city council to protect pets and wildlife that inhabit Banff National Park. 

"During fireworks displays, many of the domestic animals in our neighbourhood showed signs of distress, such as shaking, hiding or running away," said Reg Bunyan, vice-president of the Bow Valley Naturalist, the conservation group that suggested the switch.

Animal shelters also see an increase in lost animals during fireworks sessions. Many animals injure themselves "in panicked attempts to escape the blasts," said People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Rachel Bellis, a spokesperson for PETA, said fireworks have similar effects on wildlife. "Deer throw themselves into roadways and birds fly into windows and buildings," she said.

Traditional fireworks are wrapped very tightly and normally use metals like aluminum as components, which helps create a louder boom, said John Conkling, professor emeritus of chemistry at Washington College in Maryland. Quiet fireworks, on the other hand, use more black powder and are wrapped more loosely.

Reducing animal stress is not the only reason cities are switching. The National Fire Protection Association in the U.S. estimates that fireworks start an average of 18,500 fires per year.

With that in mind, cities in states like California, Arizona and Colorado have used drones to put on light shows for the Fourth of July to reduce the likelihood of wildfires. The drones created constellation-like outlines of the American flag, a plane and other designs during the electronic light show.

But alternatives to fireworks do have some issues. 

Ray Brazeau, a licensed pyrotechnician and president of StarLite Pyrotechnics Ltd., said it is impossible to make extravagant visual patterns without at least some noise. And while traditional fireworks can theoretically go as high as about 550 metres — the height of the CN Tower — Brazeau said quiet fireworks with a weaker chemical composition probably won't even go half as high.

Lavaniya Rajah


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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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