By-law roulette #4

Section 844-23 (PDF) of the Toronto Municipal Code states that:

No person shall:

[…]

C. Pick over, interfere with, disturb, remove or scatter any waste set out for collection unless authorized to do so by the General Manager

That’s right garbage pickers, you’re breaking the law: according to the city, one man’s garbage is not only not another man’s treasure, but it’s also a $10,000 fine for a first offence. And you thought you were doing something for the environment by keeping that old desk out of the landfill. Hrmph.

The end of civilization as Sue-Ann Levy knows it

According to Sue-Ann Levy, the world is going to end tomorrow because she is going to have to pay $0.05 for every plastic bag she gets from a store. Her column earlier this week all but proclaimed it so, listing this gem among her complaints:

Nevertheless, I don’t know how we can possibly be expected to remember to cart some sort of plastic bag around with us everywhere to hold purchases we might make on impulse.

Speaking only for myself here, I remember to “cart some sort of […] bag” with me the same way I remember to cart my wallet around every day: I put it in my pocket before I leave the house.¬† In fact, there are lots of things that I remember to take with me every day: my wallet, watch, keys, and Leatherman chief among them. It’s really not rocket science. I assume that Sue-Ann carries a purse with her everywhere and will learn soon enough to keep a little reusable bag tucked away in there. I also expect that she will admit this to absolutely no one.

An aseptic life

When I was young, the stories of so-called bubble boys were considered to be tragedies, living without contact with the outside world because contact with the germs could kill them. These days, living as a bubble boy is a lifestyle choice for some.

The plastics industry recently released a study (PDF) under the alarming headline “Reusable grocery bags may pose public health risk.” Yikes. But just a second here, this doesn’t really pass the smell test.

Just a few short weeks ago, the plastics industry was extolling the virtues of plastic bags: they’re the most environmentally friendly choice, so practical and extensively recycled that they form the very foundation of Western civilization. Hell, they even recommend¬† that we all “Say YES to reus[ing]” plastic bags! That Big Plastic has suddenly changed its tune from “we’re so good” to “they’re so bad” is telling, and is a real sign of desperation. I’m glad to see that the plastics industry is stooping to this kind of FUD in a last attempt to scare people into using disposable bags.

Just how FUDdy is the plastics industry’s shrieking on this matter? Well, their study claims an “elevated bacterial count of 1,800 colony-forming units (CFU)” on a 16 square inch sample of a reusable bag. Sounds bad. But what does that really mean in context? Well, for starters, the study compares the bacteria level on reusable bags to the safe level in drinking water. That’s pretty pointless seeing as bags (reusable or not) are not drinking water. But let’s play along anyway.

In particular, the study claims that the level of 1,800 CFU is “three times the level of 500 CFU considered safe per millilitre of drinking water.” That is factually true, but one millilitre is not a lot of water: it’s about a fifth of a teaspoon. So a single teaspoon of drinking water can have as many as 2,500 CFU and still be considered safe. A whole cup of water? More than 117,000 CFU and it’s still safe. So to put a different interpretation on their own study, a cup of safe, filtered, potable water may contain sixty-five times the bacteria count found on their scariest, dirtiest reusable bag. Rinsing that bag off would stand a good chance of making it dirtier. Maybe drinking that reusable bag wouldn’t be so bad after all.

The rest of their comparisons are equally suspect: mould on the surface of the bag is compared to mould per cubic metre of air; coliforms on the bag (5) are compared to the recommended level in a millilitre of drinking water (0) instead of the safe level in Ontario (5 per 100 ml from a well). And so on, and so on.

It’s difficult to take anything in the paper seriously, and it’s too bad that none of the mainstream media outlets that reported on the paper really took the author or the industry to task. Most of them chose instead to merely rewrite the press release’s lurid headline and repeat the claims without providing any context. Everyone involved here ought to be ashamed: the plastics industry for commissioning the paper, the researcher for putting his name to this disgraceful and alarmist tripe, and the reporters for not raising a critical eyebrow. Adapt or die, all of you.

For what it’s worth, I’ve been using the same two reusable bags at the grocery store and farmers’ market for about 6 years now. They’ve never been washed. Are they covered in bacteria? Almost certainly. But so is everything else in the world. Unless you’re lucky enough to be a bubble boy.

Crothers' Woods Master Plan

Landscape Architect David Leinster of The Planning Partnership presented his group’s recommendations for the future management of Crothers’ Woods at a public meeting last night. The meeting was attended by about 30 people, less than half of the number that attended the initial consultation in November. I suspect the lower turnout was because the meeting wasn’t widely publicized — I only found out about it from a post on the Don Watcher blog and couldn’t find any mention on the City’s web site.


Map of Crothers’ Woods
map
Pottery Road trail head
map
The Flats
map
Trail head behind Loblaws
map
CN tracks
You have to cross these tracks to get to the Flats
map
CP tracks
These mark the western edge of Crothers’ Woods.

Crothers’ Woods is an environmentally sensitive area in the Don Valley bounded roughly by Pottery Road & Bayview Avenue to the south, the CP tracks to the west, Millwood Road to the north, and the Don River to the east. Although it has no formal access points, it is a very well-used park. Identified users include hikers, dog walkers, trail runners, orienteers, school groups, and birders, but mountain bikers are the primary users of the park by far. They have created an astounding array of trails complete with ladders, teeter-totters, and other constructed elements to make the trails more interesting and challenging. Unfortunately, they’ve also created a looming ecological problem because the current trail system increases soil erosion and instability.

The primary issues that the master plan addresses are restoring the natural environment where it has been degraded by human activity and invasive species, and mitigating the further negative effects of human activity. It sets out a variety of common-sense measures to meet these goals, including native species plantings and “manual” plant control (which I took to mean “weeding”).

As for the trails, they’ll be realigned in many places and closed in the most sensitive or degraded areas. Of approximately 10 km of existing trails, 1.8 km are slated for closure. The rest will be realigned along natural contours of the land where necessary and will be managed along sustainable trail building principles as identified by the International Mountain Bicycling Association.

Also included in the plan will be new directional and wayfinding signage on the trails. This will help cyclists like me stay on the beginner trails and go in the right direction at a fork in the trail. Access to the park will be upgraded from about 10 informal access points to a half-dozen formal trail heads with information kiosks, community bulletin boards, trail maps, and other information. Two of these trail heads, at the base of Pottery Road and behind the Loblaws on Redway Road, will include parking.

Most of the above is non-controversial. The same can’t be said for the plan to close off access to the area known as “the Flats.” A Don Watcher entry provides some background detail about the Flats, including pictures. The study identified this area as among the least ecologically sensitive, so why is it being closed off? It’s all to do with the railway. The area is in a bit of a no-man’s land, requiring users to cross the CN tracks that run along the bottom of the Valley. Unfortunately, the crossing is illegal. CN has been unresponsive to the idea of installing a legal crossing in the area, so the architects of the master plan felt they had no choice but to cut the Flats off from the rest of the park.

End of story for the Flats? Well, it could have been if not for the public consultation. A couple of people at the meeting asked why it wasn’t possible to put bridges across the river, joining the Flats to the main paved Don pathways near Beechwood Drive and Don Mills Road. This would effectively do away with the troublesome railway crossing and enhance access to the Flats.

The answer from the City’s representative, Garth Armour, was that it had simply never occurred to them. He added that he’d look into the possibility, and that there might even be money in the budget for it. So the Flats may be saved after all.

I mention this incident not to condemn the City or the master planners, but to underscore the value of public input into the process. Sometimes, it takes an outsider to point out a painfully simple solution to a room full of experts. It’s not that the experts are stupid, it’s just that the process can become so focussed on one aspect of a problem (how to join the Flats to the rest of Crothers’ Woods across the railway tracks) that they can’t easily see an external solution (join the Flats to the rest of the Valley park system instead).

I’ve been in similar situations myself, where a group of like-minded professionals are concentrating on solving an intractable problem. Then someone else comes along with a dead-simple suggestion and we feel like complete idiots for not seeing the obvious. It’s the professional equivalent of ranting at technical support because your computer is broken, only to discover that you forgot turn your monitor on.

We won’t know until the final master plan is delivered to the city in a few weeks whether the bridge idea or some other idea for the Flats is considered feasible. Either way, implementation of the plan is slated for 2008.