Archive for the ‘Enviro’ Category

London’s Olympic Shame

As most of the world would know by now, the XLVIII Olympic Games are being hosted in London, England in July 2012.  Indeed, the Games begin in only 100 days.  While I normally enjoy watching coverage of many events, I will be watching with a more sceptical eye this year.  Indeed, if I could be there in person, I would certainly want to participate in some protests.

This comes rather suddenly to me as I learned today that Dow Chemical Company (Dow Chemical) has been selected as a major sponsor of the games, touted to be the most sustainable games to date.  Indeed, BP has been selected as the Games’ sustainability sponsor.  Each of these seems not a little outrageous to me, given the disaster at the Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) plant at Bhopal, India and BP’s drilling disaster Gulf of Mexico at the Deepwater Horizon platform.

The metal for the 2012 Olympic medals is being provided by Rio Tinto, a giant British mining company.  I was previously unaware of this company and the issues surrounding it, but a quick Google search reveals a flurry of activity ranging from air pollution to human rights abuse to gold and uranium mining, and much more.

In response to these sponsorships, and the dark shadow they cast on the “sustainable” Games, three groups have joined forces to create Greenwash Gold 2012.  The London Mining Network, the Bhopal Medical Appeal, and the UK Tar Sands Network are all deeply concerned about the message sent by the London 2012 Games regarding the green or “sustainable” nature of Dow, BP, and Rio Tinto.  So what’s the big deal?  I will provide brief summaries below, but you can check out Greenwash Gold 2012 for more information and to cast your vote for the Greenwash Gold Medal.  They also have produced short animations depicting (an interpretation of) the atrocities committed by each company.

Dow Chemical

Dow Chemical Taints the 2012 Olympics in London

With its sponsorship, Dow Chemical taints the 2012 Olympics in London. Click the image to go and read the article at The Ecologist, and sign the petition to stop their Olympic partnership.

In 1984, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) operated a pesticide manufacturing facility in Bhopal, India, producing a chemical called carbaryl (Sevin™).  Production of carbaryl pesticide involved the intermediary chemical methyl isocyanate (MIC).  A significant factor in locating the facility in India was that regulation in the United States were deemed “too restrictive.”

An extremely toxic chemical, MIC (CH3NCO) is slightly soluble in, but reacts strongly with, water.  Indeed, with excess water, MIC has a half-life of approximately nine minutes, and releases approximately 1.36 kJ of heat energy per gram of MIC (that’s a lot).(1)  When this heat is not moved quickly away, the MIC can quickly come to a boil.  And when the storage vessel is in poor repair, it can explode.  This is essentially what happened at Bhopal.  Thousands were killed, and they were the lucky ones.  Tens- to hundreds-of-thousands of survivors suffer from painful physical conditions, including various cancers, skin conditions, respiratory problems, and  more.(2)

Despite claims to the contrary, UCC did little to help the victims of the disaster.  In 2001, Dow Chemical merged with UCC, but refused to accept any responsibility for the Bhopal disaster.  This in spite of the fact that, while UCC remains a “separate business to Dow”, Dow “owns 100% of its shares, elects its board, and UCC’s current CEO is even a senior Dow official.”(3)

And now Dow is happily trying to “green its image” by participating as a major sponsor of the London 2012 Olympic Games.  Can you say Greenwash?

BP

After the events of April – October 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, I think I would be hard-pressed to find someone unaware of at least one of BP’s environmental atrocities.  It is laughable indeed to have them as the Sustainability Sponsor of the Games.

On April 20, 2010, BP’s Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, leading to the largest environmental disaster in United States history.  In order to deal with the financial burden this caused, BP liquidated much of its Canadian holdings.  However, it is still very active in the controversial development of the Alberta Oil Sands.  BP and other resource companies don’t seem to understand that, while there is a lot of oil tied up in those deposits, we need it to last.  And we need time to develop technologies and methods of understanding and remediating these developments.

Adding insult to injury, BP is actively exploring for economical oil reserves in the Arctic.  While spills are equally destructive no matter their location, the Gulf of Mexico is far more accessible to those working to clean it up.  A spill in the Arctic would likely be a disaster beyond our comprehension.  Imagine polar bears wandering around, coated black from sticky oil, licking and consuming this oil in an effort to stay clean.  No doubt any attempt to clean up an Arctic spill will be hampered both by simple geography (climate conditions, terrain, etc) and by wildlife.

So of course they would take the opportunity to sponsor the Olympics as a “sustainability” sponsor in an effort to clean up their severely tarnished name.  Don’t let them get away with it!

Rio Tinto

For Rio Tinto I am going to have to defer to the massive knowledge of the Internet.  You can start by reading at Greenwash Gold 2012.

Another Great Blog!

I just have to write to let all of you know, in case you  don’t already, about MNN: the Mother Nature Network.  I personally just discovered the site today thanks to the writing of Chris Turner (@theturner on Twitter).  He provides a skillful skewering of a recent Globe and Mail article on the danger and horror of taking small children along for a bike ride.  Take note: this guy knows his shit!

Marketing of Electric Vehicles

Okay, I admit it.  Electric vehicles present an enticing field, and are worth every penny of research and development funding.  There is, however, at least one thing that really bothers me, specifically the marketing of these vehicles.  I am willing to accept that advertisers are in the business of deception, intentionally pulling the wool over consumers’ eyes (I don’t have to like it, though).  When I see a commercial that effectively encourages people to push their heads in the sand, though, I have a big problem.

While there have been a couple of ad campaigns over the past couple years that have prompted me to think in this way, the most recent one takes “ridiculous” to a new level.  Actually it’s rather clever, and if it wasn’t for the reveal as a car ad I would be rather impressed.  This particular ad shows people using every-day electronic and electrical tools and devices, but has them all powered by gasoline (read: fossil fuels).  That’s right.  Gas-powered alarm clocks, toasters, cell phones, dental drills.  Then we see a gentleman fuelling his hybrid vehicle, while a fully-electric vehicle quietly drives off.  (I’m not as interested by the brands here as I am in the implications, but the hybrid shown is a Chevy Volt, and the electric car is a Nissan LEAF.  Chevrolet is understandably unimpressed by this spot.)

The spot (you can watch it here) seems to imply that, by owning and driving a 100% electric vehicle, you are not participating in the carbon economy, at least as far as your vehicle is concerned.  Of course, this could not be further from the truth.  Every aspect of the vehicles existence and life-span is touched by the dusty, oily finger of carbon.  Design, development, manufacture (collectively: production); transport and delivery; fuel; maintenance and repair; and disposal.  This will be the case until we have an economy and infrastructure that is not based on fossil fuels.  Of course, people don’t like to be reminded of these matters.  Especially the people with the power.

How do you fuel an electric car?

A simple schematic of a coal-fired power plant. (GEOS 24705, University of Chicago)

It seems to me that people have in their heads that electricity is free and readily available, created by some magical creature.  While it is often readily available, it is by no means free.  Nor is it necessarily “clean.”  Therefore, people don’t really think of electric power as a fuel.

So how do we get this electric fuel?  In North America, electricity is generated primarily by burning coal.  Coal is carbon, and produces a fair amount of energy on burning.  Of course, coal contains other ingredients such as sulphur and nitrogen, so burning one kilogram of coal yields around 700 kcal (2.9 MJ) rather than the 12,000 kcal (50.2 MJ) of pure carbon.  The nitrogen is often released as gas or as NO2, while sulphur transforms to SO2 (an acid rain gas).

Yes, there is electricity generated at hydro dams (more in BC and Central Canada than in Alberta) and nuclear reactors (Central Canada), but all of those facilities and infrastructure was built using coal and fossil fuels.  The same goes for solar power, but that is a whole other story.  The point is that the majority of electricity available in North America is generated by coal combustion.

Disingenuous…

As I said before, my main problem with this particular ad is the implication that electric vehicles are at least partly removed from the carbon economy.  This sort of disingenuous messaging is dangerous.  People already tend to take electric power for granted.  I am guilty of this as well.  However, this particular message has the effect of perpetuating this habit.  Indeed, it is possible that electric vehicles in general could have that effect, since the energy source is far removed from the fuelling point.  Of course, it seems the auto industry relies on disingenuous advertising, and on people conveniently “forgetting” certain important facts, to sell its wares.

Healthy Yards

In an online discussion held in a course at SAIT for the Environmental Technology program (ENVS470 – Advanced Environmental Considerations) someone asked if we’d all got our free rain barrels from the City of Calgary yet.  “The City does not give rain barrels away,” I retorted.  “They cost up to $80 outside the sale in May.”  Turns out I was wrong about that.  “You have to sign up for the Healthy Yards program,” I was told.  So I looked in to it, and signed up right away.

I expected to have to wait until 2012 to get my equipment, as the student said she had signed up too late last year to get hers, so she gets it this year.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I got an email informing me that I’d been accepted to the program for this year and would get my equipment soon.  This all happened in mid-May.  I now have got my rain barrel and composter, and am eager to get everything going.

Now some background.  The City of Calgary Healthy Yards program is a two-year commitment on the part of the participant, with some very simple requirements that are very easy to comply with.  While it is free to participate, there is a limit of 200 participants per year – hence the waiting list described above.  As mentioned, participants receive a complementary rain barrel and composter, as well as a DVD with videos demonstrating and explaining how to use this equipment and

  • how to use a mulching mower,
  • how to select and plant water-wise alternatives for Calgary’s unique climate, and
  • responsible pest management.

The basic requirements of the program are (if I’ve missed something, please let me know!)

  • use the provided equipment,
  • practice grass-cycling,
  • use a push-mower, or at most a 4-stroke gas mower,
  • limit or eliminate pesticide and artificial fertilizer use.

These are all pretty simple.  The Healthy Yards Orientation will provide you with more information about how to compost, how to use your rain barrel, how to grass-cycle, and much more.

One part of growing a healthy garden is to have the right soil.  Soil is described, at least in part, by its texture, and one of the easiest ways to determine this is to use the jar test.  Soil textures are often described by terms such as “clay,” “clay loam,” “sandy clay loam,” and so on.  The Healthy Yards program encourages participants to determine their own soil texture using the jar test.  It is not difficult – in fact, it is probably the easiest (and cheapest) way to do it.  Native soils in Calgary are generally clayey and require amendments such as peat, compost, vermiculite, et cetera, to become more workable.  Unfortunately, the process of developing a good, healthy, organic soil base can take several years of careful attention.

The funny thing is that I learned all about the jar test, as well as a couple other soil classification methods such as sieve analysis, in the laboratory component of my course in Sampling and Analysis at SAIT.  The basic idea with the jar test (Procedure: Jar test for determining soil type) is to collect a representative soil sample from your garden, place it in a jar (such as a mayonnaise jar), fill to about 3/4 with water, add some borax or non-foaming dishwasher detergent, seal the jar, shake vigorously for about 10-15 minutes, and then let the jar sit for 2-4 days.  The different components of the soil will separate at different rates based on particle diameter and density (Stokes’ law), so that coarser materials will settle first and clayey particles will settle on the surface.  By measuring the thickness of each layer (differentiate them by colour) and comparing it with the thickness of the entire soil column you can determine the percentage composition of sand, silt, and clay.  Then refer to the soil texture triangle to classify it.  (Apparently the Canadian system uses only clay and sand proportions to classify.  The link provided goes to the more familiar US version.)

Anyway, the point is that the Healthy Yards program is cool, easy, and inexpensive.  There is no reason you shouldn’t get going with it yourself!

A Sea of Yellow?

Common Dandelion

The common dandelion.

Last August (2010) I wrote about the removal of the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) from the Alberta Weed Control Act as a noxious weed.  Well, it appears this is still quite a contentious issue (indeed, I doubt that it ever will cease to be), generating a lot of commentary across the board.  To call it a debate may be misguided – it appears to me as more of a fight as people become more and more impassioned.  Former Calgary City Councillor Ric McIver appeared on CBC Radio’s The Current this morning in an attempt to argue, apparently, for the use of toxic and harmful pesticides to control dandelion populations.  Have a listen to the piece and see what you think.  It is not only Ric McIver appearing, but also Simon Wilkins, coordinator of integrated pest management for the City of Calgary.  In my (humble) opinion, Mr Wilkins provides the more sensible, logical, and rational argument.

Just to be clear, the removal of dandelions from the Alberta Weed Control Act does not mean that municipalities cannot elevate the plant to “noxious” status themselves (via bylaws) and thereby control them.  While this is not likely to happen, all it really means is that the City cannot issue citations for dandelion “infestations” unless they reach 15 cm in height or greater.  Further, in my previous article I mentioned that the City of Calgary failed to pass a (cosmetic) pesticide ban in December 2009.  This means that there is also nothing keeping residents from spraying poison all over their lawns in an effort to control a simple, harmless little plant.  (Note that this poison may be transferred to pets and children when they play in the grass.  In the case of dogs and cats, particularly, which often practice self-grooming, this can have decidedly unpleasant consequences.)

Non-Chemical ControlPesticide-Free Zone

It should be noted that there are a variety of dandelion control methods that do not involve the spraying of poison.

Of course, there is always the basic method of pulling them up as they appear.  This can be good exercise, but is tiring, time-consuming, and often frustrating.  A better and more effective way is to keep a healthy lawn.  This can be done, at least in part, by following these suggestions from the City of Calgary’s Healthy Yards Lawn Care Guide:

  • mow your lawn to 7.6 cm (three inches) in length
    • keep mower blades sharp to produce clean cuts and promote better grass health
    • the three-inch length provides shade to roots, protecting them from heat and helping to prevent weed seeds from germinating
    • too-short grass is susceptible to weed and pest problems, takes longer to recover from drought periods, has shallower root systems, and does not hold moisture as well (thereby costing more time and money)
  • limiting water to one inch per week (get a rain gauge or use an inverted frisbee as a guide)
    • keep track of rain received over the week
    • avoid watering in the evening
    • avoid fixed watering schedules to help keep grass hardier in times of drought
    • manual watering with a hand-held hose and shut-off nozzle is the most water-efficient method
    • avoid misting sprinklers or those that spray high into the air, such as the oscillating variety
  • aerating your lawn
    • improves rooting
    • increases migration of water, nutrients, and oxygen through soil
    • encourages activity of micro-organisms in soil
    • aerate in at least two different directions to ensure good coverage
    • leave soil plugs or cores on the lawn to be re-integrated
  • dethatch and power-rake your lawn
    • removing thatch allows air, water, and nutrients to migrate into the soil easier
    • if you are not experienced in power dethatching, hire a professional
    • give some extra water in the days after dethatching
  • topdressing
    • a great way to level the lawn, or build it up to the desired level
    • fills holes or low spots
    • encourages growth and may add nutrients (depending on type of topdressing used)
    • allow grass to grow through by not watering for a couple days after topdressing
    • don’t topdress if rain is in the forecast, as it makes a big mess and does not rub in well

There are a variety of other methods that can be found by simply using Google.  Weeds thrive by out-competing the non-native grasses we have been brainwashed into using.  Keeping a healthy, luscious lawn can help to turn the tides in the other direction.

Happy gardening!

Rising Gas Prices Anger Consumers

Living in the heart of oil country, people are often baffled when prices go up at the gas pumps, and I count myself in that demographic.  However, with all the complaining people do, they seem to believe it is up to Big Oil to fix the “problem” (after all, they’re just after more money right, so why not gouge the consumer?) rather than taking personal action.  No, I’m not talking about protesting, fire-bombing X Co’s corporate headquarters, or some (other) form of domestic terrorism.  Rather I am talking about behaviour modification.  I know this is a difficult concept, so I will repeat it: behaviour modification.

WTF!?

I know, I know.  Behaviour modification can be difficult (though it doesn’t need to be), and besides, that “other guy” is a lot worse – why should you change when he won’t?  Well first off, your pocket-book will thank you.  The steam/smoke emitted from your debit/credit card could be greatly reduced.  Of course, this all depends on what you drive (assuming you drive at all), how often, and how far on average.  If you don’t drive at all then you’re already laughing (please drop me a note and let me know some limited details about yourself, why and how long you have been car-less, and how you’re getting by).  If you do currently drive, you should know that there are options.  I will discuss some of them below.

Drive Less

This is perhaps the most obvious option to many people.  Not everyone is able to do this, such as those who drive for a living (taxi drivers, couriers, law enforcement, etc), but if you can it is an easy way to start cutting your ties with the corner gas station.

Now, I can already hear some of you complaining “If I can’t drive, I’ll just be stuck at home all the time.”  I call bullshit on that, one of the laziest excuses out there.  There are a variety of options available, not least of which the appendages attached to your hips (unless you don’t have legs, in which case you probably have a wheel chair and use your arms or some other method to get around).  Benefits of walking include general fitness, socializing with neighbours, reducing local crime rates, and much more.

Of course, it may not be feasible to walk to work, in which case there are other options.

Public Transit

Seen by some as a blessing and by others as a curse, public transit (PT) is certainly a viable option.  Some cite germs or “wierdos” as reasons not to use PT, and others may cite cost.  However, those citing cost as a factor usually do not drive or have never driven.  Fact is, using PT can save you a significant amount over buying fuel for your car/truck.  It is also possible to meet some… interesting… people (both good and bad, I admit).  Finally, you may get some extra reading, work, surfing, or whatever in while riding the train or bus.  Or… you can try to get some sleep.  Just don’t sleep past your stop (I’ve done that before and it was horrible).

Cycling

This is another option that can promote personal health and fitness.  Cycling is very easy, a lot of fun, and generally an excellent mode of transport.  Granted the initial investment in equipment can be expensive, but compared to driving, it pays itself off in spades in a relatively short time.

Indeed, because of accessibility and speed, cycling is one of the best and most effective ways to explore an area.  While many pathways in Calgary don’t really go anywhere (that is, there are no specified destinations), they do often pass through beautiful areas.  Riding to work is an effective way to stay fit – some even continue through the winter months!  If you’re not comfortable riding in winter conditions, I would advise riding in spring/summer and using PT through the winter.

Relocate

For some people, it may be feasible to move to a location closer to where you work.  If this is the case, you should be able to easily walk or cycle to work.  If you’re careful about your new location you should even be able to walk/ride to the local grocer!  What a great way to save money, get exercise, perhaps even have a bit of quality family time.

Be Creative & Innovative

As mentioned above, there are numerous ways to reduce your reliance on your car/truck.  While moving is rarely a fun or even enjoyable experience, relocation can have some wonderful outcomes.  Moving in to a transit-oriented development (TOD) can have the benefit of living near the workplace, the grocer, and many other services.  The same can be said of many other walkable communities such as Calgary’s Kensington or Inglewood.

Yet another option is car sharing.  More and more communities have car sharing programs available for residents.  With car sharing programs you are still paying for fuel, but only what you put into the vehicle.  And you only use the vehicle when you really need it.

Downsize

Now, of course, there will always be people who are unwilling or unable to get rid of their vehicle(s).  One way to get around this, then, is to downsize.  Just buy a smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle.  If combined with the application of one or more methods discussed above, this can have a significant impact on your personal chequebook and lifestyle.  In reality, it is only such behaviour changes that reduce fuel consumption, which in turn can help lower prices at the pumps.

In a way, this operates as a carbon tax of sorts, encouraging people to buy smaller cars requiring less fuel.  But if you really hate the idea of a carbon tax, it’s probably best not to think in those terms.

Calgary River Pathway Cleanup 2011

Today I took part in my first ever Calgary River Pathway Cleanup.  While I live closer to Crowfoot Station than either the Bow or Elbow Rivers, I’ve wanted to participate for years but always just miss it, or forgot to sign up.  This time around I found a sign while walking along the pathway in Inglewood and signed up on the spot (smart phones are great!).  Of course, I say “I” like it was just me, but I roped two friends into it as well.  Turns out the Inglewood cleanup crew is one of the largest groups that participates in the cleanup.

My friends and I worked with a group cleaning along the shoreline from the Cushing Bridge south to the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary.  Within the first few steps onto the rip-rap by the stormwater outfall  under the bridge I found a syringe for a needle.  Happily that was the only one I saw, and I think one of only a very few found.  Other items of note include a dead mouse, two Bic lighters, and a condom.  My garbage bag was not very full by the time we finished, though it was getting heavier.  A lot of styrofoam pieces were found along the river bank, as well as several pieces of waterlogged fibreglass insulation.

One nice thing was the barbeque social at the community hall afterwards.  Spolumbo’s Fine Foods, M&M Meat Shops, and Wild Rose Brewery all contributed food and beverages for the event.  At least a dozen other community businesses contributed door prizes (which included $100 gift cards for Star Building Materials, Starbucks gift bags, a boogie board for the kids, and much more).

The weather turned out to be absolutely fantastic, considering that it was originally forcast to snow.  I just wish that I’d taken some pictures to post.  (And no, I’m not a stooge for business.  I just think that it’s so awesome that they contributed for such an awesome event that they deserve the potential of some traffic from me.)