Earth Week(s) Climate Challenge

Spring has (finally) sprung, and guess what’s coming? Hint: what’s even better than a 4-day weekend? Earth Week, of course!

Now, our guest of honour has been having a rough time of late. Climate change is looming large, and many of us don’t know where to start. Luckily, we got your back and have put together a solid list of 24 ways you can act on climate right now.


Come see this and more, way more, at our travelling Earth Week Booth. See our lovely calendar for when it’s coming to you (and thanks Sinthusha for your amazing design work here!).



Climate Change is a Health Care Issue

A lack of progress in reducing emissions and building adaptive capacity threatens both human lives and the viability of the national health systems they depend on, with the potential to disrupt core public health infrastructure and overwhelm health services.

This is not a quote from Greenpeace, Al Gore, or David Suzuki. It is from The Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world. More and more health organizations are recognizing climate change as the biggest global health threat of the 21st century. Canadian health organizations, such as the Canadian Medical Association, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, and others are urging decisive action from political and business leaders, institutions, and individuals to reign in CO2 emissions that are causing climate change.


Flash Flooding in Toronto. Photo Source

The following are some of the major health care impacts of climate change as identified by The Lancet, IPCC, numerous academic institutions, and intergovernmental agencies spanning the continents:

  • Exposure to warmer temperatures and more heat waves increases population risk for heat related illnesses, including heat stress, cardiovascular disease, and renal disease.
Population Warming

Due to urban heat island effect, populated areas [such as Toronto] experience more warming than the global average, meaning most people are exposed to worse warming than average global numbers. Source: The Lancet

  • Higher temperatures are a risk factor for occupational health, particularly for outdoor workers. Heat associated health issues have led to significant loss of labour productivity and will continue to do so if temperatures keep rising unabated.
  • Extreme precipitation (flood and drought) events are becoming more frequent as a result of climate change (See IPCC SR1.5). These events lead to acute loss of life by flood waters and longer term mortality caused by water-borne illnesses and mental health issues associated with loss of infrastructure, property, livelihoods, etc.
  • Increased incidence of wildfires, leading to immediate risk to life as well as disease associated with inhalation of fine particles.
  • Shifting climate zones are increasing the range of certain climate sensitive illnesses, and increasing the ranges of key disease vectors. Lyme disease is a key issue in Ontario as the range of ticks carrying the disease expands.
  • Food security and undernutrition. Global food systems are dependent on a stable climate and crop yield potential is decreasing as global warming advances.
  • Combustion of fossil fuel that causes global warming also leads to significant air pollution. Ambient air pollution is the cause of an estimated 4.2 million deaths per year globally. Therefore, mitigating climate change by limiting the combustion of fossil fuels would lead to direct health benefits and reduction in costs to healthcare systems. In Toronto, where UHN facilities are located, air pollution is estimated to give rise to 1,300 premature deaths and 3,550 hospitalizations each year (see Toronto Air Pollution Burden of Illness Update 2014).

Even though impacts in Canada may not be as severe as in more vulnerable parts of the world, the healthcare impacts listed above will be felt to varying degrees of severity by UHN and other Canadian hospitals. It is clear that climate change mitigation is one of the top issues facing health care providers worldwide. It is also worth noting that Canada is warming at DOUBLE THE RATE of the global average.

For many people and organizations including myself, an alarm bell sounded when the IPCC released the 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C. Previously, the most frequently discussed target to prevent catastrophic climate change was 2 degrees C of warming above pre-industrial averages. This report draws stark contrasts between the projections for Earth under 1.5C and 2C warming scenarios.


Source: IPCC SR1.5

Because of the severe impacts of a 2C warming scenario, the IPCC identifies 1.5C warming as a more realistic goal for a livable planet with a climate adaptable to future human populations. However, having already blown past 1 degree C of greenhouse gas induced warming, this target leaves a very small window in which drastic action must be taken to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. In order to achieve the 1.5C target, greenhouse gas emissions reductions of 45% over 2010 levels must be achieved by 2030 (11 years away!!) and net-zero emissions must be achieved by 2050. This means that any new building construction project must be capable of net zero performance as that building will definitely still be in operation in 2050. Think about this: if you have a young child, they will barely be 30 years old in 2050. The climate crisis will impact current generations.

So What is UHN Doing About it?

Due to the success of UHN’s energy management program, we may have a little bit of a head start in tackling this issue. The chart below shows that our energy savings initiatives have also led to significant greenhouse gas savings.

UHN Savings

This chart includes scope 1 emissions (gas/fuel burned on UHN sites) and scope 2 emissions (emissions from production of steam and electricity that is purchased by UHN  from utilities). Our absolute emissions in 2018 are down almost 19% compared to 2010 levels. This is despite adding over 52,000 square meters of new floor space during that time. Our 2018 emissions were 10% lower when compared to our weather adjusted baseline. Major emissions savings were achieved at our research sites through the implementation of demand controlled ventilation (see more info here and here). A significant portion of these savings can be attributed to the elimination of coal fired electricity generation in the province of Ontario.

Over the coming year, the Energy and Environment team will be undertaking a study to understand projects that need to be prioritized in order to meet the greenhouse gas reduction targets laid out by the IPCC. We are also implementing a process to incorporate the societal cost of carbon emissions into business case development and analysis.

At the same time, we are working closely with infrastructure project implementation teams to ensure climate resilience is part of the decision making process for major projects. For example, by adding extremely efficient cooling capacity and redundancy to hospital sites. Check out the blogs for the redevelopment of the cooling plants and TGH, Bickle, and Lyndhurst.

The climate crisis is an incredible challenge to face. Aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets will be very difficult to meet in the critical care, 24-7 spaces that are common at UHN. But ultimately, we must solve these problems. The risks posed to human health by further inaction are far beyond the capacity of global healthcare systems. These are the types of problems energy managers get up in the morning to try to solve and we truly must be successful in responding to this challenge. The consequences of failing are too great.

When in doubt, throw it out … goodbye wish-cycling



The well-meaning but misguided process of wishing and hoping something is recyclable (because it should be!!!), and throwing it into the recycling bin regardless of your local rules.

In reality, this contaminates the recycling stream, making the rest more likely to end up in landfill.

Hey, we know this comes from a good place. We want to recycle! We don’t want to add to landfill. Throwing things in the garbage can induce some major guilt and despair. Recycling those items makes us all feel better … and that’s sometimes the problem.

When we throw things in recycling that don’t belong there, we jeopardize the whole process. For recycling to work, it needs to be clean and uncontaminated.

We can’t always have Jack Armstrong calling our recycling plays, so here’s a little hint:

What NOT to put in almost any recycling bin:

  • no containers still covered in food (rinse out that yogurt cup, and trash the foil lid)
  • no paper plates smeared with food (this is awesome in the compost bin, nasty in recycling)
  • no napkins, tissues and paper towels (they also prefer the compost bin)
  • no bottles filled with juice or pop, and definitely trash that straw! (better yet, don’t use one)
  • no coffee pods (even the “recyclable” ones are rarely accepted. If/when they are, the grounds go in compost, foil lid in trash, then rinse out the cup to recycle … pretty complicated for a convenience product. Return-to-vendor programs are good, but not as good as brewing old-school and composting the grounds)
  • no plastic cutlery
  • no chip bags or candy bar wrappers (though tasty, it’s junk for you and the environment)
  • no stand-up pouches (pictured below since people stare at me blankly when I mention them)
  • and above all else … no trash in the recycling.

    Stand-up pouches go in the trash

We talked about how recycling works, way back in 2017. Kinda like Fight Club, the number 1 rule of recycling is that there are no universal rules. Local recycling companies make their own rules based on what they know they can sell. Some areas also have recycling laws e.g. in Ontario, Thou Shalt Recycle these 6 things, so trashing them is illegal:

  1. Aluminum food or beverage cans
  2. Cardboard
  3. Fine paper
  4. Glass bottles and jars
  5. Newsprint
  6. Steel food or beverage cans

These materials are all great in the recycling bin. I noticed one glaring omission: plastic, and plastic is everywhere! Some of it is recyclable but a lot is not. It begs the question, why do we use plastic that has no end game but landfill, or worse, the ocean?

plastic litter in tree

plastic bags caught in trees and shrubs, spotted on my walk home. Yuck!

So many places use black plastic for take-out containers because it makes the food look good, but very few recycling programs take black plastic. With the advent of more takeout meals than ever, this can really pile up!

Funfact – black plastic is hard to recycle as sorting machines don’t see the difference between it and the conveyor belt underneath. Add the difficulty in finding a buyer and we see why it’s usually trashed.

Things have changed since 2017, namely, the biggest customer for recycled materials no longer wants them. To be fair, why should China be the dumping ground for the world? That said, without China as a market, a lot of recyclables, particularly plastics, are having a harder time finding a good second home.

This market shift is changing lots of recycling programs, including ours. UHN and many other hospitals in the GTA have some new rules for recycling, starting in April.

What NOT to put in UHN’s recycling bins (coming soon, Spring/Summer 2019):

  • All the advice above
  • coffee cups (the plastic lining in the paper cup makes it hard to process)
  • black plastic
  • plastic bags and any soft plastic
  • foamed polystyrene (aka Styrofoam)
  • blue sterilization wrap (great for reuse as a drop cloth, or more)
mr.recycle - veng in blue wrap suit Veng Chhin in a blue sterilization wrap suit for the height of 3R fashion!

What else can you do?

  1. Buy less garbage – and stop the problem before it starts
  2. Find reusable alternatives for things you use once (looking at you, coffee cups, food containers, shopping bags etc.)
  3. Learn your local rules at home and at work (which may not be the same)
  4. Follow those rules, and help your friends/family too
  5. If in doubt, throw it out in the trash … no more wish-cycling
  6. Buy stuff in easily recyclable or compostable packaging
  7. Even better, buy stuff in reusable packaging à la deposit-return, or no package at all
  8. Ask companies to change their packaging for the better. They might listen to customers.
  9. Ask politicians to make rules so that companies make better packaging and less pollution. They might listen to voters.

As always, the best way to combat wish-cycling is to not buy those things in the first place. You can’t trash ’em if you don’t have ’em. Look for reusables and better alternatives.

Want to dig deeper?

Change Notice: an earlier version of this piece noted that UHN’s new recycling rules would begin in April. That has been amended to “spring/summer” due to the need for a transition period for tools, materials and workflow. 


Five ways to save energy beyond Earth Hour

This Saturday March 30 is Earth Hour, a now twelve year global tradition of turning the lights out to signify a collective commitment to the wellness of our planet. If you’ve ever participated in Earth Hour –whether it was this year or five years ago– you know that it feels good to do. There’s something about taking part in a global movement that makes you feel empowered to make a difference. So the question is, why only do something that makes you feel empowered for an hour?

The truth is there are plenty of ways you can keep that feeling going by reducing the energy use in your everyday life. And I promise you, making those changes is a lot easier than you might think. With the power of Earth Hour still front of mind, let’s uncover easy ways to save energy not just for one hour, but every hour. Here are five ways to start:

1. Become energy aware

To begin, it’s important to understand how you’re using energy in your day-to-day routine and where you can begin to make changes.

A great place to start is with your utilities, hydro and gas companies commonly provide information on your monthly energy use. Usually this information is made available through an online customer profile or on your bill. If you want to learn more, reach out to your utility for help on accessing this information.

You can also choose to do a personal audit of your usage. Instead of coasting on auto-pilot take the time to notice how and when you use energy throughout the day. From how many lights you turn on when you wake up in the morning, to whether you let the TV lull you to sleep, it all counts, and being aware of these actions is the first step to making a change.

Here’s a tip for my fellow renters, If you don’t have access to your utility bills reach out to your landlord for information on monthly energy use!

2. Get rid of the phantoms

Although you may have never seen them, you have energy ghosts living in your home. Phantom power is the energy consumed by home electronics when they’re ‘off’ or in standby mode. Many household electronics continue to consume energy if they are kept plugged in to an outlet. It’s estimated that 10 per cent of a household’s electricity consumption can be attributed to phantom power. That’s a lot of energy. Luckily, when it comes to these ghosts you don’t have to call the Ghostbusters.

To begin think about what small electronics and appliances you can unplug after use, like, toasters, coffee machines, phone chargers, computer chargers, kettles and electric toothbrushes. You can then look to the larger phantom power consumers such as your entertainment centre. Televisions, PVRs and gaming consoles are fans of the phantom. Instead of having to unplug your TV every day (which would be highly inconvenient) consider purchasing a smart power bar. These power bars allow you to set a schedule, so you can set your entertainment centre to be off when you’re away and ready for use when you’ve returned home.

3. Don’t forget about lighting

We’ve all been reminded time and time again of the energy-efficiency benefits of LED bulbs (and they’re all true!), and the good news is the world of LEDs continues to grow. There are now a wide variety of bulb colours and brightness available to help you find the right shade or ambiance for your home.

But don’t forget that there is more that you can do to save energy when it comes to lighting. Go beyond the bulbs by purchasing ENERGY STAR-certified light fixtures or by installing dimmers instead of switches.

4. Purchase a smart thermostat for your home

A smart thermostat is an easy way to not only tune in to how your home is using energy, but to minimize its use as well. Smart thermostats monitor the heating and cooling patterns of a home and provide reports on your usage through the thermostat’s mobile app.

Smart thermostats also come with a whole whack of cool features. They allow you to set a heating or cooling schedule to help you save when you’re away and stay comfortable when you’re in. The app also enables you to access the temperature of your home from anywhere, at anytime. If you’re interested, check out popular smart thermostat brands like Ecobee and Nest.

5. Look for new opportunities to make a difference

There are plenty of ways to save energy at home, and usually saving energy comes with added benefits such as increased home comfort. If you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into how you could reduce energy and your carbon footprint, consider taking part in the six week series offered by Carbon Conversations TO. Having just completed the series myself, I now have a much better understanding of the big and small changes I can make in my own life to make a difference. Learn more by visiting




Mehdi Motakefpour

Hello there,

I am Mehdi Motakefpour, the new Energy Project Manager. It has been more than two months now that I’ve joined UHN Energy & Environment team. Our team is one of the behind the scene crew that strives to optimize energy use within UHN facilities and minimize the environmental footprint while providing a healthy, safe, comfortable and sustainable environment for the patients and staff. Continue reading

Actually, don’t skip the dishes

plastic bottless.pngIf you don’t know already, you should learn that microplastics are becoming part of our food systems right down to all our soils and growing media. Our addiction to take-out containers means we are unable to avoid consuming plastic microfibres even when Continue reading

Travel, Recycle, Save Lives

Do you love adventure travel? I mean real travel, the kind that gets you muddy and off the beaten path in the developing world. Well, then you should consider Not Just Tourists. This organization collects medical supplies from UHN and other partners, packs them into suitcases, and sends them with travelers (such as yourself) to remote clinics in need. The organization is 100% volunteer based and has been Continue reading