Fresh Sheets

A portfolio of writing by Tamara Neely.

Sorting Calgary’s recyclable goods March 26, 2011

Filed under: Environment,lifestyle — Tamara Neely @ 05:04

It was a bizarre switch in 2009 to start throwing all of our recycling together in one bin.

Recyclable materials are dumped on the sorting floor of the City of Calgary's material recycling facility (MRF).

After all, many of us once believed that in order for the City of Calgary to recycle, materials had to be separated into plastics, paper, metal and glass.

And after all of this packaging is trucked to the material recovery facility (MRF), the trip a yogurt container takes from your home sink to being made into a lawn chair is actually a fascinating one.

The motivation to recycle comes from the city’s goal to drastically reduce the amount of waste heading to landfills to 20 per cent by 2020. In 2003, when that goal was presented to council, 80 per cent of the waste generated across the city was going to landfill. And a recent study has revealed that last year, waste going to landfill was down to 61 per cent.

To reach the 20 per cent goal by 2020, businesses, schools and construction developments will have to change some of their ways. That group accounts for two-thirds of waste generated in Calgary, and there are no statistics on how much they’re currently recycling.

As the city staff and council contemplate how to divert more garbage from Calgary’s dumps, robotics plug away to prepare our recyclable goods for global markets.


A 30-square-metre building in southeast Calgary, the MRF has a massive system of conveyor belts with spinning discs, air jets, magnets and robotic cameras. Staff at either end of the conveyor system are responsible for quality control, but otherwise the recycling goods are separated by a miraculous feat of physics, engineering and computer programming.

Once the piles of materials on the conveyor belt pass a human checkpoint, robotics take over by distinguishing the physical properties of paper, glass, plastic and metal.

A series of rotating discs allows paper to float over top and carry on, while containers and cans and other such objects fall through open spaces.

Several cameras along the conveyor belt register items passing underneath and trigger air jets to blow the different objects down their respective off-chutes.

These optical sorters are so smart that not only do they recognize the difference between a soup can and a toilet paper roll, but they also classify different types of plastics, from type one through to seven.

Next along the line, a large magnet pulls metal food cans out of the system — except for aluminum cans, which are immune to magnets.

The geniuses behind the robotic system worked with the physical properties of non-ferrous metals such as aluminum to create a different method of separating them. Legg says they use computer-driven equipment to change the magnetic field and create what’s called an “eddy current,” which punts aluminum cans off of the conveyor belt and down their own chute.

At the end of the line, staff find very little that is in the wrong place.

“It works really well,” said Legg. “It’s a neat process, I must say.”

In 2008, the year before the city launched its curbside pickup program for recycled goods, some 41,000 tons of recycled goods was sold to market. Last year, that number had increased to 70,000 tons.

And, for the most part, Calgarians understand which materials can be recycled. “Eight to 10 per cent of the stuff that comes into the MRF are unacceptable items,” says Parnell Legg, a waste diversion specialist for the city. “It’s stuff like household hazardous waste, scrap metal like frying pans and wire hangers.”


Dave Griffiths, Calgary’s director of waste and recycling services, says the large chunk of organic waste has prompted the city to consider a pilot composting pickup program next year.

The city is also turning its attention to the 158,000 apartments, townhouses and condominiums — 35 per cent of all homes — that don’t receive recycling pickup service from the city.

Also on the city’s radar are the two biggest garbage-makers: of the 650,000 tons of waste produced in 2010, one-third came from the industrial, commercial and institutional sector and another one-third came from the construction and demolition sector. The city recently started a recycling pilot program to divert asphalt shingles, drywall and non-treated wood from the dump.

“When you build an average North American home — and this is true in Calgary — that will generate five tons of waste,” says Griffiths. “When people move in, they won’t contribute that much waste for six years.”

Although Calgary is introducing new recycling programs, it certainly has a lot of catching up to do with other Canadian cities. Edmonton, for example, boasts a current diversion rate of 60 per cent with the goal of reaching 90 per cent by the time Calgary assesses its composting pilot program.


Published March 17, 2011 in Fast Forward Weekly.


Entrepreneurs catering to growing ex-pat population

Filed under: lifestyle — Tamara Neely @ 03:08

There is a growing population of United Kingdom expatriates in Okotoks yearning for a taste of home, be it a bag of Bassett’s Jelly Babies or a package of Jammie Dogers.

Fortunately for them several businesses in the foothills are catering to this niche market. Businesses such as Sandul’s Pharmacy in Black Diamond and the newly launched know there are no substitutes for such things as Spotted Dick sponge cake or Worchester flavoured crisps. Similar foods found in Canada simply don’t taste the same leaving the Brits longing for their own version.

“Heinz Baked Beans taste completely different in Canada than in England,” said Tracy Hardy, who left England two years ago to move to Okotoks, “and Cadbury Dairy Milk, the one in England is sweeter.”

Hardy launched the home-based internet shopping website this fall to satisfy the growing expatriate community’s pangs for snacks from the United Kingdom (UK).

“I know there are a lot of us because when you go to the supermarket, every other voice you hear is English,” said Hardy. “I don’t know why we all came here, but we’re either in Okotoks or Cochrane.”

Hardy’s business is a newcomer on what has been a booming business catering to the UK crowd.

Sandul’s Pharmacy in Black Diamond has an aisle dedicated to British goods; Your Dollar Store With More in Okotoks carries British candies; and the Safeway in Okotoks carries Marmite – a brown, yeast-based spread eaten with bread.

Mike Harrison, who has lived in Okotoks through three decades but is originally from Cockney London, said the fact you can buy Marmite at Safeway adds to Okotoks’ charms. As a matter of fact, if he couldn’t get Marmite here, he’d have to move, he said.

“I’m addicted,” he said. “A year or so ago Safeway decided they weren’t going to carry it anymore and there was almost a riot. They were inundated with complaints from Brits.”

People either love Marmite or hate it, Harrison said. For those who love it, discovering a source of Marmite can be life-changing.

Rose Sandul has witnessed that kind of joy.

She has seen expatriates find treats they used to have when they were children, sitting on the Sandul’s Pharmacy shelves in Black Diamond.

When they find such things as Twiglets, which are wheat-based chips with a yeast-extract flavour similar to Marmite, they are overjoyed and often quickly call their friends to tell them about what treasure they have found.

“People are so excited, they get on their cell phones and phone friends and relatives and say, ‘Did you know you can get this here?’” said Sandul. “It’s a really neat feeling and we get to see them month after month as they come to pick up some more.”

Sandul was born in Ireland and moved to Canada at age eight, so she knows first hand what it’s like to yearn for treats from the UK.

But not every treat.

“People like Twiglets and they taste terrible,” said Sandul. “Twiglets have a Marmite taste to them, so people either love them or hate them.

“And pickled walnuts, I’ve opened a jar myself – they look like little brains. I wouldn’t eat them.”

Other treats will satisfy the Brits’ hankerings and appeal to Canadian palates, too. Treats such as Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate bar, which tastes significantly different than the version made in Canada.

“I think they put a lot more sugar and a lot more cream in – I think that’s why it tastes so good,” said Sandul.

English expatriate Dean Hudson has noticed the difference and it is a powerful difference. So much so he has spent “a fortune” on having friends and family bring chocolate and other goodies over to Canada when they come to visit.

“My dad comes over here twice per year for three weeks at a time and he leaves his clothes here and fills his suitcase with Galaxy Double Deckers and Cadbury’s Milk Buttons,” said Hudson.

With local businesses catering to his fancy, and family members following the Hudsons to Okotoks, the UK doesn’t hold much of a draw anymore.

“I won’t be going back again,” said Hudson. “There’s nothing there for me, apart from the chocolate. And the soccer.”


Published December 15, 2010 in the Okotoks Western Wheel.


Seniors need lovin’ too

Filed under: health,love,seniors,sex — Tamara Neely @ 03:00
Tags: , , ,

Senior citizens want the rest of us to know that the desire to smooch, cuddle and have sex never ends — and we should quit being squeamish about old-timers getting some loving.

George Hopkins, 81, performs with Seniors A GOGO. photo by Tamara Neely

If everyone can relax about it, then residents of seniors’ lodges won’t feel ashamed for having sleepovers down the hall and they won’t feel ashamed about asking their doctors for an HIV test.

A widespread squeamishness when it comes to talking about sex among oldsters may be to blame for a deadly situation.

“New HIV infections in the over 50 age group were 6.5 per cent in 1995 and 13.5 per cent in 2005,” says Nicole Hergert, community development manager for the Calgary Sexual Health Centre. “So we can infer that the HIV rates have doubled in 10 years.”

Hergert says those figures, which are from the Public Health Agency of Canada, point to the need for the old and young to get comfortable talking about sex.

“The numbers we have for HIV rates are an indicator about our comfort rate about talking about sexuality,” says Hergert. “It’s complex, but in part, if we’re not comfortable talking about sex and sexuality then we’re not comfortable talking to people about how to prevent sexually transmitted infections — and then we see an increase in STIs.”

“It’s all well and good if someone 50 and over is comfortable talking about sex, but if they try to go to their doctor and their doctor is not comfortable talking about it, then they’re no better off.”

Enter a seniors theatre troupe that is trying to change the way everyone thinks about sex among the old-timers.

Until December 9, the Seniors a GOGO are performing frank and funny monologues about their own personal experiences to try and crack open the subject of sex among the 60-to-100-plus age group. The troupe was created by the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, the Seniors Action Group and The Foundation Lab to address seniors’ sexuality, and it shows how to prevent sexually transmitted infections.

George Hopkins, an 81-year-old performer with Seniors a GOGO, says sex wasn’t talked about when he was growing up. He learned about it on the farm.

But now Hopkins has opened up about sex. He talks to audiences about such things as trying to open condom packages, discovering lube and how the animals’ sex lives compared to his own.

“The turkeys and the chickens didn’t impress me much as sexual performers, but the cows, horses and pigs — they knew what it was all about and it was a joy to behold,” Hopkins told an audience at the public library in Shawnessy on November 19. “When I look back, I’m amazed my wife has been with me for 57 years. I didn’t have the manhood of the stallion, the lasting quality of the boar or the reloading ability of the bull, but I can honestly say I had more fun than all of them.”

Through laughs and tender moments, Hopkins and the other Seniors a GOGO performers convey the message that we need to recognize that sexuality is part of being human and that physical affection brings joy to life at any age.

The troupe also wants the under-60 crowd to consider that if we can start being supportive of the sexto-, septua- and octogenarians (and older) having sex, then by the time we find ourselves in seniors’ lodges maybe we’ll be able to have shame-free sex in our golden years, too.

“How you react now paves the way for the future,” Amalia Tauber, an 84-year-old member of Seniors a GOGO, pointed out to the audience. “With any luck, you, too, will grow old and have a rich and full life with intimate relationships.”

The Calgary Sexual Health Centre is working with nurses, social workers and care providers, including seniors lodge supervisors, to address concerns about seniors’ sexuality.

Policies surrounding supporting seniors’ sexual expression vary among the assisted living lodges. Hergert says the public care provider Carewest is among the most progressive with its policies on supporting sexuality.

Marlene Collins, the chronic care director with Carewest, says that they view sexuality as a normal part of living — and that includes sleepovers among lodge residents.

“Our role is to offer non-judgmental, supportive care to residents,” she says. “There will be provision of private time and space for intimacy and sexual expression.”

However, Collins, Hergert and the Seniors a GOGO members all said that different staff members in different lodges across the city, private and public, have varying comfort levels with sexuality.

How a staff member feels about physical affection among seniors can mean the difference between putting the bed rails up to help a set of cuddlers be safe or having a gut reaction of scorn, prompting one of the cuddlers to head back to his or her own room.

For gay and lesbian seniors, the prospect of trying to express love in a seniors’ lodge is a bigger obstacle. Public displays of affection among homosexuals are not yet common outside of a lodge, let alone inside a lodge.

Del, a 60-year-old troupe member who has asked that her last name not be published, says as a lesbian she is on a mission to stay out of a seniors lodge.

“My greatest fear is to be in a place like that and have a man make an advance on me — and to be cared for by people who don’t understand (my sexuality),” she says. “So I’m staying healthy so I don’t have to go in there.”


Published December 9, 2010 in the Fast Forward Weekly.