By Bruce Rhodes
There’s nothing like travelling outside the province to put into perspective the efforts we make, or haven’t yet made, in Ontario to minimize our ecological footprint. I spent nine days with a colleague in June  travelling from London, England to Calais, France (via the Channel Tunnel), and through Belgium and Netherlands up to Hamburg, Germany. (A main objective of my trip was to see a World Cup soccer match, but that is not the focus of this piece. However, I did observe an excellent footprint-reducing idea at the game, described below.)
My trip observations are grouped into two sections: good ideas from Ontario for Europe, and good ideas from Europe for Ontario. To be sure, neither side of the Atlantic has a monopoly on practices for sustainable living. While “The European Dream”, by ecologically-minded author Jeremy Rifkin, sings the praises of European values and their way of life, I observed at best a mixed picture “over there” with respect to living in a healthy and sustainable way. Here’s hoping that we can learn from each other.
The freeway in Belgium had a posted speed limit of 120 km/hour; traffic moved at 140 km/hour. In Germany, there was no posted limit; traffic typically moved at a minimum of 170 km/hour, and many vehicles cruised at 215 km/hour. If a desirable goal is to squeeze maximum mileage from fuel, Europeans fail miserably. Ontario, with its 100 km/hour-limit on 400-series highways, looks responsible by comparison, even when drivers travel at 125 km/hour. (In my ideal world, we’d all travel at 90 km/hour, but that footprint-reducing step seems unlikely to be implemented anywhere, any time soon.)
As of today, patrons in English pubs, restaurants and train stations can smoke freely. The good news, though, is that in 2007 England will ban smoking in such places. Germany, by contrast, continues to be a smokers’ paradise, and has no plans for a ban. Tobacco companies lavish German political parties (including, for a while, the Green Party) with lots of cash, thereby insulating the industry from restrictions. One night, in a smoke-filled pub in Hamburg, we asked a woman, whose two year-old granddaughter was on her knee, whether she had any concern about the little girl breathing secondhand smoke. The woman gave us a blank stare, and sincerely did not know what we were talking about.
When my family lived in Hamburg in the late seventies, I travelled through much of Europe. If I saw any graffiti at all, most was in Italy. Last month, I saw graffiti everywhere in London, as well as along the entire route of our trip to Hamburg. Hamburg itself, which was once very tidy and orderly, is riddled with graffiti in both public and private spaces. I’m no sociologist, but I’ll guess that the authors of this work are young and bored. Back in Ontario, I’m seeing more graffiti, although thankfully not yet at the scale observed in Europe. To whatever extent Ontario government social policy can identify the reasons why people draw graffiti, and then prompt them to not use their spray paint, we could end up with happier citizens, unblemished buildings and bridges, and less money spent on removing graffiti.
Lots of beer and Coca-Cola flowed during the World Cup at the 50,000-seat soccer stadium in Hamburg. Each drink was sold in a thick-gauge plastic cup, for which the vendor collected a 1 Euro deposit (see photograph, below). While a few fans kept the cups as souvenirs, most returned them to get their deposit back, allowing the concession to wash and reuse cups many times over. At the end of a game that I attended, I peeked into three different large garbage bins for use by fans. All three bins were empty! Perhaps sports facilities in Ontario could adopt this trash-free practice. As it is, I saw hundreds of pop cans thrown away, rather than recycled, at a recent Toronto Argos game at the Rogers Centre. The reason I was given was that the City of Toronto will regard as contaminated, and therefore treat as garbage, any volume of recyclable cans if it finds even one slice of pepperoni, from a pizza slice, stuck to a can.
An ultra-modern biogas facility has supplied clean energy for the Hamburg soccer stadium. Food waste from the entire urban area has been processed into long-distance heating for all of the energy demands of the stadium using a new environmentally friendly method.
Nine hydrogen fuel cell buses were among the fleet that transported fans between subway stations and the Hamburg stadium. Because the hydrogen is obtained from certified regenerative power sources, the buses run carbon dioxide-neutral.
I live in Richmond Hill, population 162,000; our town is a 45-minute ride on the GO commuter train into Toronto. Each weekday, a total of four trains run into Toronto, all in the morning. (To be fair, GO also offers ten weekday buses from Richmond Hill to Toronto, but they take 32% longer than the train, are less comfortable, do not operate after 2:15 p.m., and are relatively unpopular.) Contrast this with the service from the English city of Guildford, population 130,000, a 72-minute train ride into London. Each weekday, there are 68 trains from Guildford to London. On Saturdays, 64 trains run from Guildford to London, while Richmond Hill has no trains to Toronto. I do not propose a 17-fold increase in the number of trains from Richmond Hill to Toronto, to thereby be on par with Guildford to London. However, a four-fold increase, to 16 trains per weekday, might be justified as a serious way to get cars off the Don Valley Parkway.
There were wind turbines scattered through the five countries I visited. While there was never a vast cluster of turbines, such as the hundreds installed at Palm Desert, California, the windmills felt like a normal, accepted part of the European landscape. Ontario may need to get to this stage if it is to reduce its reliance on coal-fired plants.
Over half the vehicles on the road in Europe run on diesel fuel, which typically yields greater mileage than the corresponding gasoline version of a given vehicle. Even the BMW SUVs are diesel. While diesel fuel has traditionally had a poor reputation for its emissions, both the fuel itself, as well as the engines using it (e.g. particulate traps), have reduced the ecological footprint of using diesel, to more sustainable levels.
I observed a few filling stations offering biodiesel, a mixture of traditional petrodiesel and vegetable oil-based fuel. Biodiesel sells in Germany for 10% less than petrodiesel. In Hamburg we rode in a taxi using 100% (B100) biodiesel (see photo, below). On the one hand, the driver said that the B100 mixture damaged the engine’s valves, which is unfortunate if it is true. On the other hand, Mercedes and the taxi firm deserve credit for trying to reduce consumption of traditional fossil fuels.
The cost of gasoline in Germany (0.99 Euros/litre, about CDN$1.40) and in England (0.99 Pounds/litre, about CDN$2.20) may be the reason why motorists drive smaller, more efficient vehicles than one finds in Ontario. If only we could get the Europeans to drive at more fuel-efficient speeds!
The water conduits in London are so old, and in such poor repair, that the system leaks enough treated water to fill 357 Olympic-sized swimming pools every day. Between this drastic loss of water, and a virtual drought currently in southeast England, there is a ban on watering lawns and gardens. (I stayed at a home in a well-to-do town south of London, and there was not enough water pressure to have a shower.) While it is unfair to hold today’s waterworks managers responsible for problems with a system that is for the most part over a century old, we in Ontario can regard the situation in London as a cautionary tale: if today we choose to regard water as being precious and scarce, it may result in water never actually becoming scarce.
Copyright © 2006 Bruce Rhodes. All rights reserved.