Q Is lighting a fire all that bad for the environment? What about those eco-friendly logs?
A The thermometer has finally dipped below zero, and any home with a fireplace is suddenly a hot commodity again. But before you throw another log on, let's not forget that the planet is still melting, and burning wood is actually a greenhouse gas polluter.
That's right, kids, residential fires kick out carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other smog-forming pollutants that aren't just dirtying the outdoors but choking up your indoor air quality, too. Strangely, though, Natural Resources Canada says, and I quote, "Because trees recycle carbon dioxide, wood burning doesn't contribute to climate change." Talk about a backhanded way of justifying the clearing of our forests!
Yes, trees suck up carbon dioxide as they grow, but, for one, plantations tend to store less carbon than natural forests. And even if log-burning is carbon-dioxide-neutral, it's still to blame for 10 per cent of all the carbon monoxide (an important greenhouse gas precursor) pumped into Canadian air. It's also behind 15 per cent of the smog-inducing volatile organic compounds in the air and a whopping 25 per cent of lung-irritating particulate matter, according to Environment Canada.
In smaller northern towns, keeping the home fires burning actually creates a cloud of brown haze (you know, like the kind you see over Toronto on a hot summer day). And all this stuff isn't just bad for the environment; it can also inflame health problems like asthma, angina and bronchitis. Plenty of nasty carcinogens waft into the air to boot, like benzene, formaldehyde and dangerous dioxins. (And don't sneer, natural gas fireplace owners inefficient gas models pump out plenty of carbon monoxide of their own).
Kind of takes the romance out of that roaring fire, doesn't it? But don't worry, you can still cozy up by those crackling flames if you do things right. For one, even plain old wood can be less polluting if you make sure it's been "seasoned" right (dried in the sun) and cut to a specific length (see www.woodheat.org for specifics).
But the best way to dampen those emissions is to invest in an advanced-combustion free-standing wood stove or fireplace. These babies actually burn up to 90 per cent cleaner than older models and use one-third the wood. Look for those that are certified to be low-emission producers by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) or ULC (Underwrit-ers Laboratories of Canada).
Pellet stoves, using wood pellets as fuel, are a hot option. Pellets can be made of compressed sawdust, agricultural waste or switchgrass. Thing is, these puppies are expensive (several thousand dollars), and there happens to be a nationwide shortage of pellets right now. If you lived on a farm you could just throw in some corn husks or switchgrass, but that's a little problematic for city slickers. For more info on pellet stoves, check out www.naturalheat.ca.
If you can't afford to buy a new fireplace or stove, what's your greenest bet? Well, lots of designer logs out there are being marketed as earth-friendly to one degree or another. According to a joint EPA/Environ-ment Canada study, they all produce way less particulate matter than traditional cordwood. The presence of harmful polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons is also much lower, but that doesn't make all logs green. Starter Loggs, for instance, are branded as non-toxic, but they consist of sawdust and petroleum-based wax. Same goes for Duraflame and Conros products.
EcoLogs out of Quebec, on the other hand, use nothing but leftover chem-free sawdust from the flooring biz and come certified by Environment Canada's Environmental Choice Program (available at Canadian Tire and some Loblaws).
Another good option is Java-Logs, made of recycled coffee grounds, wood and vegetable by-products (at many hardware and grocery stores). They emit 85 per cent less carbon monoxide than firewood and 14 per cent less carbon dioxide. But fake logs should never be used in wood stoves. For those, pick up sustainably harvested FSC-certified logs at Whole Foods or Kitchen Table.
If you're shopping for a gas fireplace, make sure to get one with an annual efficiency rating of about 70 per cent. Happy roasting!
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