You can do better, Gary

I should title this as an open letter to all manufacturers and retailers of paper yard-waste bags, but I’m going to pick on Gary, the Canadian Tire Guy, because he’s the face of their ‘Tested for life in Canada’ commercials.

Well, I live in Canada, Gary. In fact, I live in Calgary, Alberta where the city has finally done the right thing and implemented a full scale organic waste disposal program. The green bins decorating every alley and laneway are a generous size and more than adequate for the collection of normal household organic waste. However, the bins fall short in the spring and autumn when yard clean ups generate enough biomass to fill them 5 or 10 times over. The city has a plan for that – large paper yard waste bags. Excess yard waste goes in the paper bags and can be set out for collection in accordance with the scheduled weekly organic pick up. They even included a 5-pack of the bags in their ‘starter kit’ that came with the bins.

Five bags. I used up my allotment in the first week when I pruned my trees. After that I was on my own; scouring local stores for more bags. I garden a lot, so I’ve tried out a few different brands over the course of the summer. My least favourite came from Canadian Tire, but to be honest, none of them were all that great.

For the sake of those who do not know me personally, just some quick background. I work professionally for a landscaping and yard maintenance company and, trust me, I’ve filled more than a few paper bags with yard waste.

Responsible composting is better than using plastic bags and since most yards don’t generate more weeds than can fit in the green bins every week, I wasn’t too fussed about using the paper bags in the summer. Come autumn, I am part of a crew that shows up with blowers and leaf vacuums to clean up our client yards. We also have access to tarps, trucks and trailers to haul everything away to the City’s organic waste dump for disposal. That’s not the garden clean up I’m talking about.

When I work in my own garden I don’t have access to all that equipment. At home I still do fall clean up like everyone else – rake, bag, repeat. And just like most home gardeners in Calgary, I have limited time to get the job done on the few nice autumn weekends before the snow flies, so it’s not very practical to spread out the work over several garbage pick-up cycles. Therefore I’m beholden to using commercially produced paper yard-waste bags, including those sold by Canadian Tire. I’m not sure what kind of giddy-up grannies or frenetic fourth graders tested Canadian Tire branded paper bags and gave them a better than 4 out of 5 star rating,  but I am not convinced. I would shop elsewhere for better ones but I’ve discovered that all the different brands I tried this summer have the same fundamental flaws.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of using paper yard-waste bags, here’s the skinny.  The bags are difficult to use. I’m not the tallest person around, but frankly anyone with arms shorter than those of an Orangutan couldn’t reach down to the bottom of the bags to open them up properly. I pretty much have to slip the bag over my head and torso to get it unfolded to the point where it will stay open on its own. After I’ve fought my way out of the paper bag, I’m ready to go – sort of –  except the height and the rectangular bottom of the bag makes it unstable, so I have to prop it up against a fence, and even then the creases of the double ply kraft paper are pretty pernicious, so the stupid thing wants to collapse in on itself when I turn my back.

Why did I turn my back? Well, to pick up a big old armload of leaves or a pile of expired plants of course! Wasn’t that the point?  Which brings me to the next issue. So far all the bags I’ve used are awkward to fill. The opening of the bag (assuming it hasn’t folded in on itself like an accordion) is smaller than an armload of leaves. There’s no way that armload I want to dump into the bag will go in cleanly, especially if there’s a couple of twigs or plant stalks sticking out at random angles.

If I’m lucky, half the armload will go in before the bag folds up on itself or tips over. If I’m unlucky, the bag will tear down one side as the half armload goes in. I have to pick my poison. Full armloads means twice as much raking and if I resort to half armloads I will do twice as much bending down. Either way it is more work than normal and I’m suddenly nostalgic for the days of stuffing everything into plastic bags and feeling guilty about the negative impact on the environment.

Speaking of stuffing the bags. Don’t. If the paper bags don’t rip during load up, they will definitely rip or bust open if I try to tamp down the load of leaves too much. I say ‘tamp’ because the shape of the bags makes it impossible to stomp them down like in the good old days of over-stuffing a plastic bag securely stretched over the rim of a garbage can.

Finally, the system of ‘crimping down’ the top of each paper bag to close it is something I have yet to master. Even if I do manage it, I’m left with the task of figuring out the best way to carry the bag to the back alley for pick up without having it tear. And hopefully it doesn’t snow or rain before pick up day because the bags can’t handle much weather before they lose structural integrity. I suppose that is the point; they are biodegradable, but having them disintegrate and dump their contents prematurely is a bit discouraging and it pisses off the neighbours who live down wind.

I’m all for being environmentally responsible. This is not a rant against Calgary’s Organic Waste Disposal system, but the program is only as good as its weakest link and even the smallest irritation can discourage people from participating in it properly. I’ve seen some gadgets out there that supposedly help with wrangling paper yard-waste bags, but that’s not my point either.

What I’m saying, Gary, is that nothing good can come of inferior paper yard-waste bags. If you’ve stuck with me so far, thanks. Here is the pay off in the form of a couple of quick off-the-cuff suggestions for improving their functionality and restoring credibility to the ‘Tested for Life in Canada’ advertising Schtick.

First of all, a thicker paper is better. During the summer I used some bags purchased at Rona that were thicker and sturdier. It made a difference. However, even the Rona bags would be improved if they had better proportions, by which I mean shorter and wider. It wouldn’t have to be a drastic change either; maybe have your guys make the bags 15% shorter for easier unfolding and trade that off by making the base 15% wider for stability and easy loading. I’m not sure about the math, but I think the volume of the bags would stay the same and the amount of paper for manufacturing would too. I have no insights into the business of designing paper products but it seems to me that it is worth running the experiment, or a least giving consumers a choice. Disposable coffee cups and plastic bags come in every shape and size, so why not paper yard-waste bags?

So here’s the challenge, Gary (and Walmart and Rona and all the rest of you). Build me a better paper yard-waste bag! Make it a shorter, wider, sturdier bag – I’m thinking more Grande than Venti – something that will accommodate an arm load of leaves without collapsing or tipping or ripping. Test the heck out of it with some real gardeners like me and see what happens. Keep the old bags for those who like the status quo and offer a choice for those who don’t. It could be the start of something big – or something shorter and wider and more functional.


I know it’s been ages since I last posted on my blog, so if I have any followers left out there; thanks for listening, thanks for reading, and thanks for forwarding this post to Canadian Tire if you dare.


Cruel Mistress Spring

I greet the warmth of spring with mixed blessings. Lengthening days speak of promise as winter melts away and temperatures rise to give me hope of birds and blooms. Can summer be far behind? But spring warmth is an illusion. Too quickly this fickle season rears its ugly head with a new kind of chill – one far crueler than winter’s cold – because it feels like betrayal.

At sunset the temperature dips. The melt water flowing in gutters and ditches and across sidewalks by day becomes an ice rink. An old woman slips, a broken hip, and we are visiting Grandma in the hospital.

The cruel mistress of spring holds as much promise of death as it does re-birth because new life cannot rise unless something has died to give it space. I take the inventory of winter kill, not in winter, but in spring. Despite the hope of spring’s renewal, I cannot help but mourn the things that did not – that could not – survive.

It is a function of age no doubt, that I mark each spring as one season closer to my own demise. I tread carefully across icy spring, like the old woman I never imagined I would become and assure myself that the cruel mistress will not take me this year.

When Everything Stops

There are those moments in life when everything stops. Occasions when a community, a city, even a country, come to a halt and we all turn to look at that one thing that stops us in our tracks. We are spectators to disaster and we hold our collective breath as catastrophic events drag our attention away from the scattered activities of our busy lives and focus it on one thing for some period of time. Minutes, hours, a day. 

June 21, 2013 was just such a day in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. On the calendar it marked the first day of summer, but it did not feel like summer. It was cool and wet, and record rains falls combined with spring run-off from the mountains to the west to push every river in the region up to, and above the limits of their banks. Not just Calgary was affected, many areas to the north, west and south also declared local states of emergency. 

Emergency alerts, non-stop news coverage, evacuations and dramatic rescues would contradict my premise that life came to a standstill. Obviously not everyone and everything stopped. Countless people worked harder than ever. First responders, civic employees and aid agency volunteers began putting in long shifts with no end in sight until the rain let up and the water receded.  

But above the flood plain, many of us were stopped in our tracks. No school, no work, stay home, keep safe, don’t put any extra strain on the city’s infrastructure, just hunker down and watch. And for a day we did just that. 

This morning when the sun came up and we finally exhaled the breath we did not realize we were holding. The rains have stopped and the waters are receding. Now we can inhale and count our blessings even as the long haul job of getting things back to normal begins.

Few Calgary residents are completely unaffected by the disaster. Most of us know someone directly impacted by this flood, someone who will need our help as the water clears away. The job of cleaning up the mess will call many people to action soon enough, but for that one day it really did feel like everything stopped.

Artist’s Choice

This landscape was done by one of the artists who only began painting two years ago.

This landscape was done by an artist who only began painting two years ago.

Recently I wrote about the challenges faced by people with reduced mobility in my post. “A Simple Outing.”  In that blog I also mentioned that I facilitated an art group at the same care center. I thought I would expand upon that theme because the artists I work with every week are a true inspiration.

Artist’s Choice has been running for over two years, and there are dozens of paintings that have come out of the program. The painting you see is just one example of the work produced by an artist I have the privilege to help.

A regular group of participants shows up every Thursday afternoon. They look forward to Artist’s Choice and miss it when it is not included on the activity calendar. There is a wide range of experience in the art group, and no shortage of passion.

Every session starts with a lot of ‘setting up’ for people with reduced mobility or special needs. The artists work with Acrylic paint on canvas boards and there are enough materials to supply anyone who wants to attend. My role is to help with project layout, mix paint colours, and give pointers on technique if necessary. Everyone is welcome, and last March the program moved to a larger space with better natural light to accommodate more participants.

Discovering new talent often begins with someone coming into the weekly art session just ‘to look around’ along with claims that they are ‘no good at art’ or ‘don’t know how to paint’. That is fine, people are free to come and chat, or admire the art work of fellow residents.

But I love a good challenge, so if someone—anyone—is willing to try their hand at putting paint on canvas I jump on the opportunity to get them started. It does not matter if they want to paint a landscape, a still life, or something abstract.  I am a big believer in empowerment and want to make sure that everyone gets a chance to express their creativity and unleash their inner artist. And then the magic happens.

I am so proud of the artists I get to work with; they overcome huge obstacles to create beauty and the results are amazing.

Worm Compost Bin Bonus

Red Wigglers,
Eat my garbage,
During the long winter.

Apple cores,
Wilted brown lettuce,
Goes into the Vermiposter

Amended by
Rich worm castings,
Will rejuvenate house plants.

Strange thing
Is this growing,
Beside my sturdy Bougainvillea?

From tomatoes,
Are not composted,
But nourished to grow.

that grows
supported and tall,
My worm bin bonus.

A Simple Outing

Aspen Woods.~Minkee Robinson. Oil painting on Canvas

Aspen Woods.~Minkee Robinson. Oil painting on Canvas

I volunteer for a local care center here in Calgary. Volunteering adds an extra dimension to life. My regular gig for the past two years has been facilitating an art group once a week. The painting you see is one of mine. I help the resident artists to sketch layouts for their paintings on canvas, mix paints and clean up afterwards. It is a hectic afternoon, but as with most volunteering, the rewards always outweigh the effort. And it is a nice diversion from writing.

Once in a while a general call goes out for volunteers to assist with other events. Off-site activities are a big draw and need extra helpers to push wheelchairs, so I’ll sign up for those if I’m available. Last summer I helped with trips to Global Fest (international fireworks competition) and to the Strathmore Rodeo. In the fall I signed up to help with a “simple outing” described as a country drive and picnic. Compared to fireworks and rodeos, a picnic lunch did not sound all that exciting, but to the residents going out that day it was a big deal.

Our plan was to drive to the KFC in Deer Run, grab some take-out and go have our picnic at nearby Fish Creek Park. The weather was nice and the fall colours were beautiful. It sounded easy.

The participants* were already waiting in the front lobby when I arrived a half hour early. I hurried downstairs to the volunteer lounge, signed in, grabbed my name tag and headed back up to the lobby. Being early gave me a chance to chat with residents before the wheelchair accessible bus arrived. The recreational therapist made sure everyone had what they needed before we loaded up.

Most able-bodied people, (especially those who do not have friends or family with a disability) take something like going out for a drive for granted. It is relatively easy for most families to pack a lunch or hit the nearest drive thru, and head out to the park for a picnic. An outing from a care facility is not the same as packing up the family for a Sunday drive, unless your family includes five people in wheelchairs. I give my head a shake when I remember how I used to complain about the hassle of packing up a diaper bag or a stroller to go somewhere with a couple of young children in tow. Little did I know.

The load up alone took over 20 minutes as each resident was lifted into the bus using a ramp and their wheelchair secured with multiple belts hooked to wall and floor anchors. The bus was too big to go through a drive thru, so it was just as well that this particular KFC did not have that option. But without an outdoor menu board, it was hard for some of the people to choose what meal they wanted. Even some who knew what they wanted had trouble communicating it due to their disabilities.

The Recreational Aide and I ran back and forth between bus and restaurant a few times before the food orders were decided and ready to go. We grabbed extra napkins. The distinct aroma of KFC taunted us on the way to the park and everyone was eager to eat.

We should have done our homework and planned ahead a little better. Wheelchair accessibility and a convenient picnic area are hard to come by on a warm Friday afternoon before a long weekend. The handi-bus driver spotted some tables in the woods at the far end of the parking lot and away from the crowds. Out there we were far from wheelchair friendly territory. The gravel pathways and dirt track required a lot of pushing and manoeuvring to get everyone settled into place but we finally set out the food and drinks.

We forgot to bring drinking straws, thank goodness for the extra napkins.

After lunch was cleaned up, the trip back to the bus was easier because we knew the safest route across the gravel and we had cleared away most of the dead fall sticks and other debris on our way in. Even so, M___ , in her brand new motorized wheelchair was understandably nervous about getting stuck or damaging her chair.

Nothing is easy or straightforward when it comes to organizing and executing off-site activities for people with limited mobility. You can never assume that any location is truly accessible, with adequate ramps, wide doors and paved surfaces for wheelchairs and walkers. The time involved in securely transporting people confined to wheelchairs, gaining access to restaurants, and finding elevators is always a factor.

Since our adventure in Fish Creek last fall, I’ve been on another outing, this one to the Devonian Gardens in downtown Calgary. Recent renovations to the gardens should have ensured complete accessibility, and in most ways it did, but for various reasons, that outing was just as challenging as going on the picnic, especially when it came to securing elevators and finding space for a large handi-bus to load and unload.

Patience is the key when it comes to dealing with disabilities. I’ve learned a lot of patience. As a volunteer I also realize that the logistics of ensuring the health and safety of people living in a care facility are truly daunting. My greatest respect goes out to the staff and therapists who do their job every day.

This is not a call for everyone to go out and volunteer at a senior’s home or care facility. Do as your heart leads you, but the next time able-bodied you is standing at an elevator with a couple of Venti Lattes in hand (instead of taking the escalator or, heaven forbid, the stairs), step back, hold the door and let the wheelchairs in first please. And never take for granted the freedom you have to go out to a picnic in the park or on a Sunday drive.

*I do not give the name of the care center or residents for reasons of confidentiality.