Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Stop Recycling, Go Nuclear, and Plant Trees

Hundreds of thousands of protesters were out in full force across the country last Friday on a so-called Global Climate Strike demanding action now to save planet Earth. However it isn't planet Earth that's in danger, it's us. Things were a lot hotter long before we arrived on the scene; remember the dinosaurs? As much as everyone would like things to change there's no quick and easy fix, particularly if nobody is really prepared to change the way they live. So, rather than ask people to give up their disposable containers, their junk food, or their cars, why not try a completely different approach and simply stop recycling, go nuclear and plant a few trees.

Coventa Waste-To-Energy Facility
Our hopelessly misguided attempts to recycle not only wastes clean water washing out refuse nobody really wants anymore (including China) most of it ends up in a landfill somewhere anyway. In fact we are often trucking it for hundreds of miles to some rural community so it's out of sight and mind. Instead we should be incinerating all this garbage in state of the art facilities that convert waste to energy like they do in Sweden, which is much further ahead of us on the environmental awareness curve. We have one of these waste to energy facilities, the Coventa plant in Burnaby, which was used for disposing of the waste we tried to fob off on the Philippines but unfortunately for political reasons Vancouver won't use it. We should have a lot more of them and we should supply 3rd World countries with these facilities for free so they could stop dumping everything into the ocean and get themselves some electricity in the process.

Bruce Power Nuclear Generating Station
In spite of the enormous amounts of garbage we produce in our wasteful society, waste to energy facilities would only provide a very small percentage of the energy we need to run our homes and businesses, particularly if we all start switching to electric cars that need charging at night. There is really only one solution for pollution free energy and that is to go nuclear. Canada is already a world leader in this technology with its CANDU reactors and we have the world's largest nuclear energy facility at the Bruce Power Nuclear Generating Station in Ontario on the shore of Lake Huron. Not only does the CANDU technology allow for the almost endless recycling of fuel it can also process nuclear waste from dismantled nuclear weapons. We have sold our technology to many other countries and we should build more of these nuclear power plants in our own country to replace coal fired plants.

There have also been recent breakthroughs in much smaller nuclear power technology that could be used for powering communities in the far north and other areas not connected to the grid. Referred to as Small Modular Reactors one SMR, being developed and tested by the Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp of Seattle and Canada's Global First Power, is small enough to fit inside a standard shipping container. It has now entered the 3rd stage of a 4 stage process being run by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories to develop a 5MW reactor which would produce enough electricity to power 3,000 homes. Safer and less complex than traditional nuclear reactors these SMRs also use new technology like molten salt as a coolant. Canada is once again poised to take the lead in nuclear technology but this will require political support to really move things forward.
Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp SMR
And if you really wanted to feel good and do something all on your own what could be better than planting a tree? The benefits of trees are many but principally they absorb carbon dioxide, provide us with oxygen, and prevent soil erosion. They live for a long time and they are easy to manage so why not get behind a national annual tree planting day like they have in many other places around the world and make it a goal to plant at least one tree for every person in the country. Nothing could be easier and we could do it immediately.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Sweet Home Vancouver

Tent City At Oppenheimer Park
Tent cities have been appearing in public parks all over the Lower Mainland and places on Vancouver Island this year as the homeless try to bring some sort of normalcy to their lives with at least a roof over their head. An eyesore to the rest of the community, dangerous and unsanitary for those living there, and they leave the parks off limits to anyone else. But where can they go? For these folks the sky high rents in the rest of the City and the overpriced high rise condos are something in another galaxy.

As bleak as the tent cities are in Vancouver it couldn't be much better living in what passes for housing on some of the First Nations reserves. Poorly insulated, mouldy, and squalid, they wouldn't even pass 3rd world construction standards and on top of that they have to stand up to extreme weather conditions. Add in overcrowding, because there is a backlog of housing construction on up to 40% of the 3,100 reserves in this country, and you have another version of homelessness that is in many ways far worse than the tent cities.

Strange how the mining and oil & gas industry has no problem with housing whenever they want to house workers at a particular site no matter how remote it may be. They bring in pre-fab housing for hundreds of employees that is designed to withstand the elements and set it up in no time without any help from the government. But in spite of a $200 million per year budget for First Nations housing nothing gets done.

For Northern communities that are only accessible by ocean these pre-fab complexes could be assembled in fall and winter and loaded onto ships for delivery when the ice melts in late spring and early summer. Another example is using converted shipping containers. Having a number of these dropped off would then provide year round employment to the local community while they did the interior conversion work.

Tents aren't even that much fun when you're camping never mind trying to function as a home. Addressing the homeless situation in this country is not a matter of technology but simply being practical and taking advantage of solutions that already exist. Setting up a work style camp for the tent city dwellers is an obvious solution. Even in Vancouver it should be possible for everyone to have something they call home sweet home.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Dirty Water

What is our problem in this country when it comes to water? We have the 20% of the world's freshwater supply, the world's longest coastline and only a tiny fraction of the world's population but we can't provide safe water for our people to drink or swim in. Once again in the middle of summer a number of the main beaches in Vancouver have been closed due to a high E. coli count but worst of all nobody seems to know why or where it came from.

Of course this pales in comparison with what's going on in the First Nations reserves where 400 of the 618 bands have been under a water advisory in the past 5 years. Unlike the rest of the country where drinking water is a Provincial responsibility, clean and safe drinking water for First Nations people is a Federal responsibility and one that has been shockingly ignored for more years than most people can remember. Plans and budgets appear and disappear and in the meantime these people have to endure something not a single person anywhere else in the country would ever have to put up with.

Even worse than boil water advisories is the actual poisoning of the water where for the past 50 years the people in Grassy Narrows have been trying to get some resolution to the mercury poisoning caused by a nearby pulp & paper mill. Another First Nations community in Attawapiskat this year had to declare a state of emergency when it discovered its drinking water contained high levels of chemical contamination caused by the chlorination process that was supposed to purify the water. This has been the 6th time a state of emergency has been declared in the past 10 years in this community because of water supply issues including in 2013 when the sewage system backed up and forced the evacuation of the schools and hospital.

This spring the perpetually leaky sewage lagoon of the North Caribou Lake First Nation burst and sent its contents towards the creek that feeds the water supply for the community but until the media got involved the government was not prepared to pay for any emergency repairs. But that's nothing compared to the 950,000 litres/day leaking from Iqaluit into Frobisher Bay, which in turn is nothing compared to the 82 million litres/day Victoria pumps into the ocean or the 205 billion litres of untreated sewage and untreated waste water the country as a whole pumps into the rivers and oceans each year. And given B.C.'s population, as compared to Nova Scotia, clearly we are the worst offenders.

If it wasn't for people like Mr. Floatie bringing awareness of the raw sewage issue in Victoria it's doubtful anything would ever have been done but thankfully now a $765 million dollar treatment plant is being built. The Federal government has committed 3 billion dollars to address the First Nations water issues and in Vancouver a major upgrade of the the storm sewer system is being fast tracked. How we ever got to such a sad state of denial is another question but at least we are starting to deal with our dirty water.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Return To Sender

50 years after landing on the Moon there is once again a race to return. Why it has taken this long is open to debate but it would appear the stars have finally aligned with a combination of private industry know-how, government funding, and a renewed interest in space travel. As beautiful as our planet Earth is, it will ultimately die, and we need to develop the technology that will enable us to move on.

In the 1960's the program to get to the Moon was called Apollo but this time around it has been named Artemis. Artemis was the sister of Apollo in Greek mythology and was also the goddess of the Moon. While the project has now officially launched it will still take until 2024 before the first woman and next man land on the Moon following a 3 stage process.

Orion spacecraft

Orion Spacecraft

The first stage is an uncrewed flight to the Moon and back with the Lockheed Martin built Orion spacecraft and, as its testing continues to progress successfully, Artemis 1 is scheduled to take place starting July 2020. Once that has been completed the 2nd Artemis flight will take place with a full crew in 2022. After Artemis 2 the various components of the Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway will be put in place in preparation for Artemis 3 in 2024.

The key to the Artemis program is putting a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway into position over the moon that will act as a base station similar to the International Space Station orbiting Earth and using many of the same components such as the docking system and the Canadarm. The LOP-Gateway will provide a place for astronauts to live and serve as a staging point for manned exploration of the Moon. Ultimately it will also act as a base for going to Mars.

Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway

Getting from the LOP-Gateway to the surface of the Moon and back will be using a lunar lander and ascent stage built by Blue Origin (owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame). Future missions envision setting up a lunar outpost for various scientific experiments and doing on-site resource utilization and mining. Not only is this practical, if it can supply things like water, oxygen and rocket fuel, it could also be extremely profitable.

Lunar lander & ascent stage

The surface of the Moon has been discovered to be covered with a dust-like material called regolith which in turn contains water, oxygen, various heavy metals, and Helium-3. Helium-3 is a non-radioactive isotope of Helium and has the potential to be used as fuel in fusion reactors to produce vast amounts of energy without radiation. Helium-3 is estimated to be worth $5 billion a tonne and there are an estimated one million tonnes of it on the Moon. Only 500 tonnes of Helium-3 could supply all of Earth's energy for a year. Getting some of it back to Earth would be a nice return to the sender.

Artist rendering of a mining base on the Moon

Sunday, June 2, 2019

A Fed Bum Is A Dead Bum Don't Feed The Bums

There is a persistent urban menace in Vancouver and other cities that just won't go away and that of course is the drug addled, homeless, riff-raff that camp out on streets, commercial doorways, and in parks, openly drinking, taking drugs, and panhandling. Filthy, unashamed, and disturbing to most people passing by, they defy all social norms and any attempts to move them along. Without access to washrooms they urinate and defecate in public, they scatter their trash everywhere and, in their deranged state, they are usually yelling among themselves or intimidating pedestrians with their disturbing behavior.

Neither the Provincial or Municipal governments seem capable of enacting legislation to outlaw vagrancy, loitering, or panhandling never mind dealing with homelessness or addiction. Even though it is painfully obvious that most of these people need to be forcibly put in treatment centres for their own good, various human rights and advocacy groups seem to have more sway than the voices of residents who are forced to confront the problem on a daily basis. And every year the problem keeps getting worse.

Adding to the problem of course is the well-intentioned, but counter-productive, actions of sympathetic and gullible citizens who donate food and money to these people and leave out recyclable bottles for them to cash in. All this does is contribute to even more panhandling, dumpster diving, and begging as the word gets out that certain intersections or streets make for an easy mark. Rather than getting them to seek treatment, giving them money simply allows them to perpetuate their way of life.

These street people have become just like the habituated bears who live on the margins of suburbia near the forest line. Living on the margins of the city the street bums are a dangerous nuisance and the public needs to think of them the same way they think of bears and not leave anything out for them. Signs everywhere point to the fact a fed bear is a dead bear and, until our lawmakers come up with a proper solution, we should be thinking that a fed bum is ultimately a dead bum.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

I'm Burning For You

Cuvier's beaked whale in the Philippines
One of the most disturbing pictures/stories lately was the one about the dead Cuvier's beaked whale that washed up on a Philippines shoreline with more than 88 lbs. of plastic in its stomach. A few months earlier a sperm whale had washed up on an Indonesian beach with thousands of pieces of string and 12 lbs. of plastic in its stomach and then a month later a pregnant sperm whale washed up on an Italian beach with more than 48 lbs. of plastic in its stomach.

Sperm whale in Italy
Sperm whale in Indonesia
Every year more and more whales, dolphins, and other sea creatures are dying from ingesting plastic and other foreign substances that have made their way into the ocean. And, while the countries of Southeast Asia may be the world's worst plastic polluters in the ocean, North Americans can hardly claim to be squeaky clean. Our disposable, over packaged, lifestyle produces more than 25 billion styrofoam coffee cups alone each year, with Starbucks responsible for more than 4 billion of them. In Canada we also go through 3 billion plastic bags every year.

But it isn't Starbuck's fault we don't want to sit down and enjoy our coffee in a civilized fashion and drink out of a ceramic cup that can be washed, like we used to do in a restaurant or coffee shop, or at least have it served in a reusable travel mug if we have to be on the go. Starbucks offers both options but, for some twisted reason, we seem to prefer the one that adds to the landfill. And it's the municipal landfill that really exposes our hypocrisy and complete disregard for the environment.

Vancouver Landfill
Among OECD member countries, Canada ranks among the highest in municipal waste generated per capita at over 1,500 lbs. per person each year. Out of all that garbage less than 30% is recycled and we only recycle 10% of all the plastic we produce. Even the paper and plastic we did try to recycle by selling it to China has been halted with the ban on foreign trash China has implemented because recycled materials didn't meet the strict new regulations on contamination levels.

Plastic waiting to be delivered to China
Because China was taking in most of the world's garbage this ban has meant garbage is now piling up everywhere or being illegally diverted to other developing nations to deal with, neither of which is an effective long term strategy. The garbage is not just paper and plastics but also used electronic components and batteries (e-waste) which is toxic due to the lead, mercury, and cadmium it contains. Not only is e-waste a hazard to the people trying to salvage various components, it eventually seeps into the groundwater affecting both land and sea animals.

E-waste in Africa
But there's a solution to all this unwanted garbage and that's the EfW (Energy From Waste) technology that has been developed and used with spectacular results in a number of European countries, particularly Sweden.  Basically garbage is dumped into a high temperature furnace where it is burned to produce steam that is converted to electricity. The small amount of ash that remains can be recycled in road construction or put in the landfill, a fraction of what would have been dumped there otherwise.

Unlike a regular incinerator that spews ash and pollution into the atmosphere, this technology captures and filters all potential emissions so there is nothing harmful that enters the environment. In addition to producing energy the plant also recovers metals and aluminium that remain. And, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for every ton of municipal solid waste processed at an EfW facility one ton of greenhouse gas emissions are avoided so, this is also helping solve the global warming issue.

It's a renewable energy solution that solves some of our biggest problems and is so effective that Sweden is now importing garbage from other countries to fuel its EfW plants, making it the world's leader in municipal waste recovery. But, while countries like Sweden lead the way with new approaches to municipal waste, we continue trying to sort garbage that nobody wants and then truck it all over the country trying to persuade small towns and First Nations communities to let us dump it in their lap. We actually have one of these EfW facilities in Burnaby but Vancouver won't use it saying it discourages recycling, but does that really matter?

Covanta's EfW Facility in Burnaby
Fortunately Burnaby, New Westminster, and the North Shore think differently and every year 285,000 tons of municipal waste is converted into 170,000 MWh of electricity (enough to power 16,000 homes) and 9,000 tons of recycled metal is also recovered. Still, this is only 25% of metro Vancouver's waste and, if we had more of these plants throughout the Province, we could make up for a significant amount of hydro electricity. It's time to stop throwing our plastic and other trash into landfills and burn it instead, it's a lot better for the environment and the whales.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Coastal Mountain High

While the number one topic of conversation in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland varies between the weather and real estate, or more specifically rising housing costs and property values, it sometimes takes a gentle reminder to make us realize we live in paradise. Nestled on the edge of the ocean and surrounded by mountains the scenery is stunning, it's never too hot or too cold, there's no humidity, no bugs or poisonous creatures, and we have plenty of fresh water. Our only real problem is the rest of the world has now discovered us and the city has become too popular for its own good.

Transit expansion is proceeding at a snail's pace while meanwhile the roads and bridges are completely grid-locked from dawn to dusk. Unaffordable, high density buildings are replacing single family homes and nobody can afford to buy anything suitable for raising a family. Weekend getaways are almost impossible with massive ferry and border line-ups, the parks, beaches, and bike paths are over-crowded, as are the recreation facilities and other local attractions, and everything else has been booked up long in advance.

Lower mainland view from Mt. Seymour
Section of the Baden Powell trail

The only solution is to get off the regular weekday routine and take some time off during the week to head for the hills. They're open year round and, while everyone is grinding it out in the workplace, the mountains are practically empty. All you need is a good pair of boots and some waterproof clothing to go hiking or snowshoeing and best of all, it's free.

As much as I love to take advantage of living next to the ocean and going for my daily swim I have to admit that I'm also increasingly falling in love with the hundreds of miles of trails that exist within our local mountains. Within minutes anyone can be at the nearest trail head and enjoying the beauty and serenity of the forest not to mention getting some healthy exercise in the process. And the views of course are amazing, a coastal mountain high.

1st Peak on Mt. Seymour

View of Howe Sound from the Chief