Rethinking Your Garbage

garbageDo you ever wonder what happens to your garbage after you throw it out? While we hope that the recyclable materials we painstakingly sorted out end up being recycled, the garbage usually ends up sitting in the landfill. Although the landfill may be a solution for our “throwaway” society, it isn’t quite a permanent one. Think about how the increasing population on the planet will directly increase the amount of garbage produced, and how land is a precious commodity. As the time increases, the amount of land available will decrease, and 2/3 of the Earth is covered by water anyway. With global warming, more land may become submersed. The ocean isn’t immune to garbage either, as much of it, especially plastic waste, ends up polluting the precious sea life and the water.

According to the Conference Board of Canada, Canada produced 777 kg per capita of municipal waste in 2008. In a study ranking the municipal waste generation of 17 countries, Canada ranked last, meaning that Canada produced the most garbage per person. What’s worse is that Canada’s municipal waste production has been increasing since 1990.  The Conference Board of Canada further states that Canada should learn from other countries such as Japan, the U.K., Sweden, Finland, and Denmark in order to improve their municipal waste management.

Sweden has found a solution in which less than 1 percent of household garbage (municipal solid waste) ends up in landfills, and 99% of the waste is recycled. This is a drastic improvement, since only 38 percent of Swedish household waste was recycled in 1975. How does Sweden do this? First, the Swedes take their recycling very seriously, and recycling stations are situated, “as a rule”, according to Swedish website, no more than 300 metres from any residential area. The garbage that can’t be recycled is incinerated for energy at their 32 specialized waste to energy incineration plants. In 2012, for instance, 2,270,000 tonnes of garbage was incinerated for energy. Sweden also imports 700,000 tonnes of waste from other countries, at a profit, and turns this foreign garbage into energy too.
“Waste to energy”  is the generation of energy, such as electricity and heat, from household garbage (municipal solid waste). Modern waste to energy incineration plants in OECD countries, including those in Sweden, must meet rigid emission guidelines pertaining to levels of toxic emissions such as those of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, heavy metals, and dioxins. The waste to energy plants utilize furnaces which are fed garbage. The garbage is burnt, producing heat which boils water and generates steam. The steam powers generator turbines that can then produce  electricity and heating. The electricity is distributed across the country. And just like that, in Sweden, 810,000 households are furnished with heating and 250,000 with electricity.

 While Swedish citizens overall don’t seem to be complaining about waste incineration, some people point out that the toxins leaked into the air can be unhealthy for the environment.  Even though emission levels of toxins are controlled for, modern incinerators can still emit small amounts of heavy metals, dioxins, particulates, and acid gas in the fly ash.  Lime scrubbers and electrostatic precipitators are put on smokestacks to filter the smoke and prevent acid rain, while fabric filters, reactors, and catalysts also significantly work on limiting the amounts of released pollutants. Aqueous ammonia can be used to control for the amount of nitrogen oxides, and carbon can help control for the amounts of mercury. Phosphoric acid can be administered to counterbalance the ash.

When it comes to greenhouse gases, methane gas is 21 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. Landfills in Canada generate a staggering 20% of  the nation’s total methane production. According to Environment Canada, about 27 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent are produced each year from Canada’s landfills, out of which 20 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent are released into the environment annually. About 7 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent are captured from landfills through a gas collection system, and combusted- this has the equivalent effect of taking 5.5 million cars off the road. Much of the carbon dioxide is not captured from landfills. There is also concern that landfill sites are filling up fast, and new sites are increasingly more difficult to find.

Canada needs to step up its waste to energy game. At present, the nation has only 7 waste to energy plants. They are located in Burnaby, BC; Quebec City, QC; Levis, QC; Iles de la Madelaine, QC; Brampton, Ont; Charlottetown, PEI; and Wainright, Alta. The waste to energy plant in Burnaby, BC, for instance, has been successfully operating since 1988. It produces a sufficient amount of electricity to power 16,000 households, earning Metro Vancouver about $6 million from the sale of electricity. About 8000 tonnes of metals are recovered each year, which earns the city $500,000 annually from the sale of recycled metal. More waste to energy plants should be built in Canada in order to divert the nation’s abhorrent trend of landfilling.

New waste to energy technologies are emerging which are even more exciting alternatives to landfills because these don’t require direct combustion, thus preventing fly ash and reducing the amount of bottom ash.  Conversion technologies involve the heating of municipal solid waste at superheated temperatures in an oxygen-controlled environment to deter combustion. Solid waste is converted to usable products such as synthesis gas, which is mainly made of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. This “syngas” can be burned in a boiler to generate electricity, or be processed into a fuel.  In a few years from now, more affordable technology could allow this syngas to be cleaned and purified of contaminants, allowing conversion technologies to become an efficient and cleaner alternative to combustion incineration. Newer technologies do not produce as much bottom ash, a toxic byproduct, as incinerated waste does. 40% of bottom ash produced by incinerating garbage is thrown into the landfill, and 60% of it is further processed to salvage metals. Conversion technologies can collect metals right away, and leave less byproduct to dump into the landfill.

When I think of landfills, I am often reminded of the scene in Idiocracy where the garbage in their landfill is piled up so ridiculously high that it collapses very dramatically. The image serves not only as a direct parable, but as a metaphor too. As the human population increases, so will the amount of garbage produced. Canada is generally known as a progressive country with a high standard of living. As a proud Canadian, I would love to see Canada find a good solution for the management of the population’s garbage.

Sierra Delarosa





The Difference “ER” Can Make in Vodka: Training to be a Critical Reader and Thinker

Crystal SkullBy:  Jonathan Toker, Ph.D.

Hyperbolic advertising was born in the pre-historic embers of economic civilization, right along with the world’s oldest profession, and has engaged in an ongoing arms-race with consumers’ credulity ever since.  The latest, and most disturbing trend is for advertisers to incorrectly use scientific-sounding words and phrases, capitalizing on the general public’s scientific illiteracy in order to sell more widgets. Learning to be a critical reader and thinker can help you navigate the muddy waters of product advertising, especially when it comes to scientific topics.

I encountered one such example in reading Costco’s June 2013 edition of the Costco Connection magazine[1], in the article entitled “Dis-still life: Dan Aykroyd and the Crystal Skull”. Not only does Crystal Head Vodka capitalize on consumers’ scientific ignorance and fear, but they invoke the woo woo mysticism of the thoroughly debunked crystal skull myth.

The article mentions why this vodka, bottled in an eye-catching glass skull, is different from others on the market:

“…three things are traditionally added to many of your commercial vodkas, and they are as follow: glycol, a straight coolant, which was used in World War II on the Griffin (sic) and Merlin engines of the Spitfire; citrus oil, which my local pest control operator uses as a bug exterminator and then they add straight, unrefined sugar, sometimes full of microbes, and you just don’t need more sugar molecules in your alcohol.”

The excerpt is from the company website[2]:

“The result was perfect vodka, with absolutely no additives. No glycol (an ingredient for engine anti-freeze); no citrus oil (used in its raw form as an insect exterminant
(sic)); and no raw sugar. Nothing was needed, because it was abundantly clear that finely produced vodka came by its smoothness and flavor naturally. So in the end, the only things required were a glass and a pure spirit of one’s own.”

Glycol: The Engine Coolant

I had to read the above paragraph three times to let it sink in. Engine antifreeze in my other-brand vodka? How could that be? And not just any antifreeze but the same stuff used in those WWII aircraft! I did a quick Google search…other than miss-spelling Griffin instead of the correct Griffon, it was true, ethylene glycol was used as a coolant in WWII. Actually, it’s still used, in basically every water-cooled vehicle in the world today. I re-read the paragraph again, dwelling on how all those microbes could exist on unrefined sugar being added to competitor brands- thinking perhaps Mr. Akyroyd could use a little chemistry and biology lesson. It had been a couple of years since he was a scientist on “Ghostbusters” and so he can be forgiven for forgetting the importance of the letters “er”. I’ll explain in a moment. But Crystal Head does not limit their claims to their website and Costco Connection.  A YouTube search for turns up several tedious videos of Mr. Aykroyd talking about the dangers of drinking other vodkas laced with additives including “glycol”, the engine coolant.

Listen to Dan Aykroyd say it in his own way:

It struck me that something was wrong. He didn’t mean glycol. All the Crystal Head Vodka literature I could find mentioned glycol. If you say something often enough, does it make it true? They almost certainly meant “glycerol”. Add an “ER” to glycol and you no longer have engine coolant, but rather glycerol, another name for glycerin, a viscous liquid that is on the GRAS list[3] (Generally Recognized As Safe) and safe to consume.  In fact, athletes might recognize glycerol as the nutritional supplement that made headlines a few years ago as a supplement to “hyper-hydrate” the body by storing extra water in cells. It caused stomach distress to athletes who took high dosages, but it is safe. And it is not aircraft coolant.

So what, then, is glycerol used for in some brands of vodka? It’s an “oily” ingredient that can be added in small amounts to give vodka a particular “mouth feel” as well as a slightly sweet taste[4]. Don’t fret. There’s no engine coolant in any vodka. There never has been and there never will be. I’m surprised the vodka industry has not cried foul yet. And by the way, there’s no trans fat in vodka either, no cholesterol, nor for that matter transmission fluid, motor oil, gasoline, fracked crude, DDT, mercury, polonium or that gooey black stuff from the aliens in Prometheus.  Although associating any of those with other brands would surely be as effective a scare tactic as saying they contain engine coolant. In case you were worried.

Citrus Oils: The Bug Exterminator

What about the “scary sounding” citrus oil? Well, if you want lemon-flavored vodka, you add natural lemon oil. Orange flavour? Add orange oil. Citrus oils can be extracted and isolated from the citrus rinds and while they contain a vast array of volatile substances that constitute the citrus aroma, limonene is the primary component and in diluted form, is safe to consume. In concentrated form, it can be used as a natural cleaning agent and as organic pest control. There is absolutely no danger using citrus oils to impart flavour to food products. You can do the same at home by grating the rind of an orange or lemon. You won’t want to drink pure citrus oil, but then again, you wouldn’t want to drink pure alcohol either.

Unrefined Sugars and Microbes

Typical starting ingredients for vodka are grain, enzymes, yeast and water. Sugars in the grain are fermented into alcohol by the yeast. The resulting mixture is distilled (usually several times) to purify and concentrate the alcohol, which is then watered down to the appropriate alcohol content of around 40% v/v (80 proof). Some brands may add additional sugar to enhance fermentation and modify the flavour profile. Distillation would kill and remove any microbes that may be present. Any added sugar to the final vodka would be added to create a distinct flavour for that particular brand. Most likely microbes would not survive in an alcoholic environment. The added “sugar molecules in your alcohol” is just another empty scare tactic or misinformed statement.

Purity vs. Lack of Purity

Website PurityThe very nature of the starting materials and production of each form of alcohol is what imparts unique flavors and characteristics of each product. People enjoy alcoholic drinks because they are “not pure”. For example, the variety and even origin of the wood used in casks to age wine imparts a distinct taste to the final product. To claim that one brand is more “pure” than another is misleading since each brand contains a vast array of small impurities in their products which afford it a distinct aroma, mouth-feel and taste. It is for this reason that tequila, distilled from agave, does not taste like Tennessee whiskey, distilled from grain mash, and why Pisco, distilled from grape skins, does not taste like rum, distilled from sugar cane.  All distilled spirits are made in essentially the same way, with some being aged, thereby assuming more ‘impurities’ from the wood casks and even the surrounding environment, as many brands of Scotch are fond of mentioning, and others being bottled immediately after distillation and dilution.  There is not much of a market for varieties of 190-proof Everclear, since its pure, distilled alcohol has no distinct taste or impurities to impart character. In a sense, the entire history of a dram of alcohol is carried to the final product in the form of minute impurities. These are not necessarily “bad” impurities, but rather define the product itself.

The Crystal Skull Legend

Let’s read how Crystal Head Vodka tells their version of the story:

“A controversial archaeological mystery, 13 crystal heads have been found in regions around the world, from the American southwest to Tibet. They’re dated between 5,000 and 35,000 years old, and were supposedly polished into shape from solid quartz chunks over a period of several hundred years. Although according to Hewlett Packard engineers, they bear no tool marks to tell us exactly how they were made.”

What does this have to do with vodka? The website goes on to explain:

“Perhaps because they share the raw material from which the original crystal heads were carved, they are thought to have similar spiritual qualities.”

A non-critical reader would likely accept the “controversial archaeological mystery” as fact. However, this attempt by the vodka company is just more marketing pseudo-science. Let’s compare with the facts regarding crystal skulls from more reputable sources. There is no “controversy” here, just science vs. myth.

Crystal Skull_British MuseumThe crystal skulls are human skull carvings made of quartz. None of the number of skulls that have been made available for scientific analyses has been authenticated as pre-Columbian in origin.[5] The results of these studies demonstrated that those examined were manufactured in the mid-19th Century or later, almost certainly in Europe during a time when interest in ancient culture was blossoming. Interestingly, despite some claims presented in an assortment of popularizing literature, legends of crystal skulls with mystical powers do not figure in genuine Mesoamerican or other Native American mythologies and spiritual accounts.[6] The British Museum skull was worked with hard abrasives such as corundum or diamond, whereas X-ray diffraction revealed traces of carborundum (SiC), a hard modern synthetic abrasive, on the Smithsonian skull. One popular skull, “Mitchell-Hedges” had SEM micrographs that revealed evidence that the crystal had been worked with a high speed, hard metal rotary tool coated with a hard abrasive such as diamond. Extensive research[7] on artifacts from Mexico and Central America showed that pre-contact artisans carved stone by abrading the surface with stone or wooden tools and in later pre-Columbian times, copper tools, in combination with a variety of abrasive sands or pulverized stone. These examinations led Walsh to the conclusion that the skull was probably carved in the 1930s, and was most likely based on the British Museum skull which had been exhibited fairly continuously from 1898.

A glass bottle in the shape of a skull? Great marketing. Nothing more. Why the need to fool customers into thinking there is any valid science behind the crystal skull legend?

Herkimer Crystals

The production of most vodka includes one or more filtration steps to remove impurities that are produced during fermentation and carried over during distillation. Control of these impurities can create distinctive characteristics of various vodka products. Activated charcoal is usually employed, a familiar and safe method used extensively in many industries. Microscopic holes and vast surface area of carbon particles can attract and retain a variety of chemicals. In addition to the use of activated charcoal, Crystal Head Vodka also claims to perform a final filtration through “Herkimer Diamonds,” which are in fact not diamonds at all but clear quartz stones.

From the company website:

“Crystal Head Vodka is filtered seven times. In its final stages, the liquid is filtered three times through 500-million year-old crystals known as Herkimer diamonds. These quartz crystals are found in very few places in the world, including Herkimer, New York and regions in Tibet and Afghanistan. They are the most valuable and clearest of all quartz and are highly sought for their Metaphysical properties. Perhaps because the Herkimer diamonds share the raw material from which the legendary crystal heads were carved, they are thought to have similar spiritual qualities.”

From a scientific standpoint, quartz crystals are largely inert and with their closed crystal structure, afford few holes for impurities to hide within. Nor are bits of quartz finding their way into the vodka. Moreover, Crystal Head fails to offer a mechanism by which these inert quartz crystals could affect the flavor or content of the vodka.  As detailed above, the claim that quartz can impart or remove any flavor or ‘essence’ is demonstrably false.  It can not be false and simultaneously true in some alternative, unmeasurable sense.  If an effect cannot be measured, then it does not exist.

Therefore rational review of this step would assure consumers that filtering through quartz is neither dangerous nor beneficial. If you are a believer in Wiccan or New Age belief systems, then the purported special powers these crystals offer may be of interest to you. Psychology plays a huge roll in our perception of flavor.

According the manufacturer, test tasters prefer the crystal-filtered version. Now, was that a blind or a double blind study?


Further clarification was sought on the issue of glycol from the manufacturer, and multiple emails initially remained unanswered. When a response was finally received, it contained conflicting passages including “There are different types of glycol.  Some are quite bad for you and some (in small quantities) are fairly harmless.  The type of glycol that some vodka producers use is in very low quantities and is harmless.  It will not harm you and it is permitted to be used in alcohol. Glycerine (sic) is also used in some European and eastern European vodkas however that additive is banned in the US.” This statement simply perpetuates the ongoing confusion and mis-information at the manufacturer between glycol and glycerol, and disregards the fact that glycerin is permitted as an additive in the US. They conclude with “Crystal Head is additive free.  No oils.  No chemicals, no sugars.” which would imply that neither alcohol, water nor the impurities that define the brand are “chemicals”, which is a patently false claim.

Whether or not Crystal Head Vodka is a good product is irrelevant, it is an example of misleading and misinformed advertising. The marketing and pseudo-science on which this product is based doesn’t pass the smell test. Be a critical thinker and reader, and don’t look for ghosts where none exist.

Jonathan Toker is a Canadian elite-level runner and triathlete. He received a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from The Scripps Research Institute in 2001, and raced in the professional ranks as a triathlete and runner for 5 years. Dr. Toker worked as a scientist in the biotech industry for 5 years prior to launching his unique SaltStick Electrolyte Capsule and Dispenser lineup. JT would like to thank Jonathan Stewart for his critical reading and review of this article.





[5] Sax, M; Walsh, J.M; Freestone, I.C; Rankin, A.H; Meeks, N.D. 2008. “The origin of two purportedly pre-Columbian Mexican crystal skulls”. Journal of Archaeological Science, October, pp.2751–2760. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2008.05.007

[6] Aldred, L. 2000. “Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality”. American Indian Quarterly, Summer, pp. 329–352. doi:10.1353/aiq.2000.0001.

[7] Walsh, J.M. 2010. “The Skull of Doom: Under the Microscope”. Archaeology Magazine. May 27. Retrieved June 8, 2013.


Weightless in a “Zero G” Environment?

Chris Hadfield

By: Michael Watson, LLB

With Commander Chris Hadfield returning home from the ISS this week, there has been a lot of talk about astronauts getting “used to gravity” all over again after being “weightless” in a “zero G” environment.  Astronomers and space scientists use these terms in a specific way, and not necessarily the way in which they are used in the popular press.

First – I almost hesitate to mention this because it’s pretty obvious, except that, well, one reads this all the time – it’s just plain wrong to say that there is no gravity in space.  Yes indeed there is gravity in space.  That’s what keeps objects – such as the Moon and spacecraft, for example –  in orbit around planet Earth, that keeps the planets in orbit around the Sun, and that keeps the Sun and other stars in orbit around the centre of our Milky Way galaxy.  If there were no gravitational force in space, all moving objects – such as the Moon, spacecraft, planets, comets, stars, etc. – would move in straight lines according to Newton’s first law of motion: “Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.”  But such objects don’t move in straight lines; they follow curved paths under the combined force of gravity exerted by other objects in their vicinity (Einstein preferred to describe massive bodies as causing a curvature of space, rather than as exerting a “force” that we call gravity, but that’s beyond my little pea brain to comprehend).

The force of gravity diminishes as the square of the distance from the centre of mass of the attracting body.  At the altitude of the ISS, about 410 km above Earth’s surface, the force exerted by Earth’s gravity is about 12% less than we experience here on the surface.  By comparison, at the top of Mt. Everest the force of gravity is about 0.3% less than at sea level, and at the distance of the Moon the gravitational force exerted by Earth – which keeps the Moon in orbit around Earth – is only 0.028% as strong as on Earth’s surface.

So yes, there certainly is gravity in space.  What people mean – or should mean – is that an orbiting body, such as a spacecraft or a person floating inside a spacecraft, feels weightless (i.e. is freely floating).  This is because the object or person is constantly being pulled – or “falling”, as we call it – toward the attracting body, such as Earth, at a rate that is exactly matched by the orbital speed of the body or person.  So “weightlessness” occurs when there is nothing preventing a body from freely moving toward an attracting body under the influence of its gravity.  By contrast, when we are standing on the surface of our home planet, it’s the surface itself that exerts a force on us and that prevents us from falling toward the centre of the planet under the influence of gravity.  The feeling of force on our bodies when we are standing on Earth’s surface is the sensation that we call “one G“.

Another example of weightlessness under the force of gravity was last year’s jump by Felix Baumgartner out of his capsule at the so-called “edge of space”.  When he jumped, what caused him to fall?  Well, it was Earth’s gravitational force.  But until the atmosphere through which he was being pulled became dense enough to cause measureable resistance, he felt weightless, even as gravity was accelerating him to greater speeds.  When someone jumps off a diving board into a pool, or off a chair onto a floor, the person briefly feels weightless, because s/he is freely falling under the force of gravity.

So when we say “one G“, what we mean is the feeling that we experience when we are standing on Earth’s surface, when gravity is exerting a force on us, but we are not moving because the surface of the planet is exerting an equal force against our bodies in the opposite direction.  When astronauts talk about “zero G“, they do NOT mean that there is no gravity acting on them.  What they mean is that they feel weightless because they are freely falling in orbit around Earth, under the influence of Earth’s gravity.

So “zero G” does not mean the absence of gravity!  It means the feeling of weightlessness that is the result of being pulled, or “falling” freely, because of gravity.

Here is a decent short article discussing this in slightly different words:

Rainbows: A Truly Spectacular Piece of Art

RainbowBy: Michael Watson, LLB

As we stepped out of the front door at 06.15 this morning, a few raindrops were starting to fall.  The entire sky was aglow with an orange-brown hue.  Turning to the west, we were startled by the dramatic sight of a bright, very colourful rainbow stretching over 100 degrees of sky.

We know that rainbows are caused by the reflection and refraction of light rays from the Sun through circular drops of water that are suspended in or falling through the atmosphere.  The required conditions are (i) early morning or late afternoon, so that the Sun is low in the sky – no more than about 30 degrees elevation above the horizon – (ii) an approaching or departing rainstorm, and (iii) a sharp demarcation between the storm and the sky conditions that precede or follow it, so that there is a clear path between the Sun and the water droplets in the air.

The photos show the invariable arrangement of the colours of the spectrum from green on the inside of the bow through red-yellow to violet on the outside.  The second close-up photo shows – unusually prominently – the fainter secondary bow, outside the primary bow.

Notice as well these things:

  1. The separation of the colours in the primary bow is quite sharp.  In many rainbows the colours are smudged together, with a gradual and indistinct gradation from green to violet.  This is caused by very small water droplets.  When the water droplets are large, the colours in the bow are much more sharply separated.  Because of the sharp colour division, we guessed that when the rainstorm hit on our drive to work, the raindrops would be quite large, and indeed they were – fat drops splattering onto the windshield.
  2. The sky is much brighter inside the bow than outside; this is always the case, but not usually so obviously.  In effect sunlight is “collected” from outside the bow and is concentrated into a band (the rainbow) that is exactly 42 degrees from the anti-solar point (the spot, below the horizon, that is 180 degrees away from the Sun).
The colours of the secondary bow are reversed from the primary bow, with violet on the inside and green on the outside.  This is because rays of light from the Sun undergo one additional reflection off the inside surface of water droplet before emerging into the observer’s eye.

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