Eco-revolutionize your cottage

It's time to ditch those environmental bad habits

By Leslie GarrettLeslie Garrett


Photo by Suzie Tremmel


We cottagers are generally tree-hugging types. After all, we’ve chosen to spend our holidays at a place that boasts nature as its main selling point. Nobody buys a cottage because it’s close to a school or shopping mall.

Yet our very presence can threaten the nature we love, which is why it makes sense to adopt some green resolutions, or “revolutions” as my eight-year-old calls them, to ensure our own future at the lake.

Pump your dump

Rob Davis, owner of EcoEthic, who has spent a good portion of his life sticking his head into the places our poop goes, would like all cottagers to put this resolution at the top of their list: Have your septic system pumped out properly every three years.

While a lot of us tend to ignore that advice until we smell something funky, Davis notes that regular pump-outs keep the tanks from filling up with sludge (bottom solids) and scum (top solids), and keeps all solids from making their way to the leaching bed where, he ominously notes, “major pollution and financial doom may ensue.”

Bye-bye bubbles

Though it’s hard to imagine that a teensy bit of soap or shampoo—especially the “biodegradable” versions—can wreak much havoc, Gillian Deacon, author of There’s Lead in Your Lipstick: Toxins In Our Everyday Body Care and How to Avoid Them, says that “petrochemicals, such as the phthalates used to create scent or the surfactants used to create lather, remain in the water long after the trail of white bubbles has disappeared.” These chemical contaminants become concentrated in the internal organs of fish, and persist up the food chain.

What’s more, she says, “as the chemicals break down in the water, they create even more hazardous by-products, such as dioxins,” which are carcinogenic to humans and animals and are blamed by scientists for the near extinction of certain species of birds and mammals. “Others,” she says, “degrade into alkylphenol ethoxylate surfactants, which interfere with normal hormone function and may confuse sexual development.”

Even biodegradable soaps and shampoos are a no-no, says Deacon. “A proper functional chemical balance exists in nature between plants, animals, and the waterstream they share. When we tamper with that balance by adding unnatural ingredients, the system doesn’t work as well.”

Kill the phantom

Consider this: All those appliances with the sinister red or green eye (microwaves, DVD players, and more, especially the older ones we often take to our cottages) are drawing power, even when they’re turned off!

It’s called “phantom power” and 10 per cent of the average energy bill goes to paying for it. The simple solution, especially at the cottage, which is left empty much of the time, is to either unplug appliances before you leave or plug these vampires into a power bar. By flipping the switch on the power bar, you truly turn these appliances off.

And, speaking of appliances, Adria Vasil, author of the Ecoholic books (which includes the upcoming Ecoholic Body), urges us to get rid of the Jurassic-era refrigerator at the lake, noting that newer, more energy-efficient appliances use as much as 80 per cent less energy.

Banish those bamboozlers!

While most cottagers head to the lake to seek out silence, a few indulge in leaf blowers, chainsaws, or radios (you know who you are!). Noise may just seem like a nuisance, but it can have a deeper effect on the body.

According to George Prochnik, author of In Pursuit of Silence, excess noise accelerates heart rate, increases vasoconstriction, and elevates blood pressure. Eliminate any noise that isn’t necessary—and let the loons rule the waves.

Tap into man- (and woman- and child-) power

It’s hard to truly slow down when our lives are conducted at breakneck speed. Yet, not only does slowing down conserve fossil-fuel energy, it restores our own, which is a big part of why we have cottages.

Consider paddling to a neighbour’s for the dockside beer, rather than relying on the powerboat. Resolve to walk bike, or stay put, rather than driving into town. Bev Clark, a Bracebridge resident and senior aquatic biologist with Hutchinson Environmental Sciences, suggests people visit their cottage less frequently but stay for longer, thereby reducing the number of trips from the city.

More time at the lake? Now there’s a “revolution” we cottagers can fully embrace.

For more green tips, check out Leslie Garrett’s book The Virtuous Consumer, available in the Cottage Life Store.



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Feb. 8, 2012

12:14 pm

In response to Gup's question about effectiveness of septic additives....... This is a very important topic as there are so many "additives" on the market. Look for a 3rd party certified product which contains many strains of bacteria such as EcoEthic Septic System Treatment which bears Environment Canada's EcoLogo for the past 11 years and is highly effective at breaking down paper fiber, fats, oils & greases. Very important to avoid using chlorinated products, anti-bacterial soaps and detergents, solvents, and non-biodegradable laundry products as they negatively affect microbial action.


Feb. 8, 2012

11:22 am

Regarding choices of "soaps", I agree with Leslie about looking for a 3rd party certification as a good method to determine if claims are true or not. Unfortunately certification programs are expensive to participate in so many smaller producers choose not to do so. Another way to determine biodegradability and non-toxicity is to look for an OECD statement and number such as "non toxic as per OECD 310E" or other. As I mention in the septic seminars at the Cottage Life Show and at many lake association AGM's "everything is biodegradable, even the old car in the yard will biodegrade eventually and arsenic is natural ! " What is important is how long it takes, how much oxygen it uses to degrade and what does in degrade into. Some chemicals become worse when the biodegrade as they change or combine with other chemicals. To avoid digging up your septic lids every few years I suggest installing access risers on your septic tank. The lids cover the original openings, are flush with the surrounding soil cover and are easy to find. Risers also have the added feature of preventing surface water from getting into your septic tank via the concrete lids, which are often chipped at the corners from being removed.

Leslie Garrett

Jan. 31, 2012

1:01 pm

Indeed this is only the beginning. There's plenty more we can do that is not only better for our cottage environment but better for our peace of mind...and wallet. Many of the "eco" changes we undertake cost less. Such as the old adage, "use it up, wear it out, make do or do without" that served our grandparents so well. In response to which soaps should you use: the best answer is to stick to soaps (not for use IN the lake but at the cottage) that don't contain ingredients you don't recognize. It's hard to go wrong with Dr. Bronner's soaps. Kiss My Face Olive Oil soap is also good. I love a hemp soap that comes from a small company in British Columbia -- called Kama Soaps. I'm able to get them from a store near my own cottage. Regarding detergents, it's hard to determine which of the long list of ingredients are nasty so look for eco-claims that are backed up by certification (EcoLogo is a good one). Nature's Clean, Ecos (both Canadian) as well as Seventh Generation and many other are easily found on store shelves. I'm hoping Rob Davis will weigh in on the septic questions (that's HIS raison d'être, definitely not mine!). Leslie Garrett


Jan. 31, 2012

7:15 am

As is mentioned in the newest entry, there is no solution or statement to say what kind of soaps are acceptable in your system. The best I could come up with is, that I bought a front loader washer, which is supposed to use less water and therefore less soap to do the laundry. In my septic tank, I periodically put Sept to Bac down the toilet at the recommended intervals as stated on the package. Do these types of chemicals actually have any positive result in breaking down solids introduced to the tank via the toilet? You mention sludge accumulatesl and therefore the tank should be pumped every 3 years. Do you know of an easy way of getting at the lids on the septic tank, other than digging it out every time?


Jan. 25, 2012

10:08 am

We use organic soaps etc at the cottage--is that OK? The info above is interesting, but it doesn't suggest any alternatives. Help?


Jan. 18, 2012

7:53 pm

Good tips... But it's only the beginning. There are so many other good Eco-habits to adapt at the cottage. No more batteries(use rechargables) No more disposable anything,(stop using throwaway razors, utensils, etc) Reduce EVEN MORE the amount of garbage you produce I love the Ecoholic books, I highly recommend them! And further to the "biodegradable" products. Many consumers are led to believe that these products are safe for the lakes and rivers because they "biodegrade". As it may be true that the ingredients biodegrade into millions of particles - those millions of particles are STILL there! To explain it to friends who wonder why we don't use soaps in our sauna I ask them is they would drink a glass of water after a chunk of that soap biodegrades in it! ;)


Jan. 18, 2012

8:55 am

I have always been an advocate of "less is more" at the Cottage. Going into town for fun, or supplies, seems counter-productive to the reason for being at the Cottage. In this 24/7 world, we all (including me), seem to lack the propensity for pre-planning. The luxury of town being only a 5 minute car ride away, pales in comparison to when my Grand-parents first started going to the Cottage. A quarter mile walk, with all the gear and supplies, after they parked the car, where the road ended. If they did'nt have it, they did without...or only made one trip.

Cottage Cook

Jan. 17, 2012

2:07 pm

We have our septic system pumped every 4 years. We do it leap years, and it is easy to remember when it is due. If we have a leap day, we get together and schedule a date for late May/easly June for everyone. and then we have a large group get together that weekend and there is lots of help for digging if anyone needs it. ~Inez

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