Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for January, 2008

The Plague of Bottled Water

Monday, January 28th, 2008

A hundred and sixty-five miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, Sable Island was once a graveyard of shipping. Today it is, among other things, a unique environmental monitoring platform, where universities and government agencies measure weather, the magnetic field of the earth, and the quality and composition of the air and water. Among the pollutants the researchers encounter are pesticides banned since the 1960s but still circulating in the air, contaminants used only in China – and thousands of plastic water bottles.

Plastic water bottles?

Yep. If you want to do something for the environment, and also prove you are not a gullible mutton-head, then stop drinking bottled water – now.

In 1976, the average American drank less than two gallons of bottled water a year. Today, that figure is 30 gallons, and sales are growing at more than 10% a year – faster than any other beverage. Bottled-water companies spend hundreds of millions a year on advertising – and Americans now spend $15 billion a year on bottled water. No doubt the figures would be comparable in Canada.

But bottled water is a scam, a triumph of brilliant marketing and knavish politics. The bottled-water industry routinely implies that the water from your taps, supplied by a municipal water authority, is not clean enough to drink. It further implies that bottled water is drawn from pristine natural sources, and is naturally cleaner and purer than tap water.

In fact, about 40% of bottled water actually is tap water. The biggest-selling brands are Aquafina, which is owned by Pepsi, and Dasani, which is owned by Coke. As Pepsi was forced to admit last summer, both brands are just filtered tap water — with an outrageous mark-up.

In Tucson, reports the Arizona Daily Star, Aquafina costs $1.39 per half-litre bottle. The contents come from the Tucson municipal water system, which provides 6.4 gallons for a penny. The Aquafina consumer is paying roughly 7000 times more for the same water.

Furthermore, many bottled-water companies are actually less rigorous in testing for purity and quality than are the municipal systems. One process used to enhance tap water is ozonation, which has a byproduct called bromate, a suspected carcinogen. In 2004, when Coca Cola launched Dasani in the United Kingdom, the company was embarrassed to discover that about half a million bottles were contaminated with excess bromate.

In other words, the quality of the water was better before it was “purified.” The company withdrew the tainted water – and also withdrew from the UK bottled-water market.

The environmental impact of the bottled-water rip-off is stunning. The US produces 29 billion water bottles every year, using the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil. The bottles are designed for one-time use, and shouldn’t be re-used, because contaminants from the low-grade plastic may leach into the contents. Environmental groups estimate that only about 14% of the bottles are recycled. More than 80% of them end up in landfills, or in places like the beaches of Sable Island.

Once bottled, the product is shipped enormous distances to market, nearly 25% of it travelling far enough to cross a national border before being sold. The Pacific Institute estimates that the energy used for pumping, processing, transportation, and refrigeration represents another 50 million-plus barrels of oil equivalent—enough to run 3 million cars for a year.

The political implications are equally obnoxious. Private water promotion is a steady drumbeat of insinuation that public water supplies are inferior and dangerous, and that private supplies are safe and secure. Just like public schools versus private ones, or public transport versus private cars, or public health care versus private health care.

Happily, municipalities are taking offence. Last June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors noted that their 1100 cities spend $43 billion a year to provide clean drinking water to citizens – and yet city officials often purchased bottled water for city employees. Led by San Francisco, Salt Lake City and Minneapolis, the group called for an impartial investigation into the environmental effects of bottled water. San Francisco subsequently ordered a complete ban on bottled-water purchases from public funds, as did the state of Illinois. Los Angeles has had such a ban for a decade.

“There’s a sucker born every minute,” said circus magnate P. T. Barnum. And what the suckers are sucking on today are beautifully-labelled plastic bottles of water, adorned by blue mountain peaks with white glacier caps.

When gasoline prices rise much above a dollar a litre, consumers vigorously object – but they cheerfully pay three or four times that much for tap water in designer bottles. Barnum would have loved it.

– 30 –

A Green and Floating House

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

Our little ketch Magnus motored into the marina at Southport, North Carolina, at the end of a long day coming north on the IntraCoastal Waterway. The wind was gusty, the current was strong, and the docking process was tricky.

With Magnus tied up, I hopped out to help Sunshine, a beautiful Valiant 40 cutter which had followed us all the way from the pontoon bridge near South Carolina’s Calabash River. Joe and Lynne, Sunshine’s crew, brought the big boat in smoothly and tidily, like the accomplished cruisers they were.

“Will you want power?” asked the dockmaster. Joe laughed.

“We haven’t been plugged into shore power for six months,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll need it tonight.”

Joe later told me that Sunshine had achieved what Magnus only dreamed about: an electrical regime in which solar panels and a wind generator provided almost all the energy for the boat’s carefully-designed electrical system. Joe and Lynne had all the normal conveniences – computer, lights, heat, refrigeration, stereo, TV – and all those devices were powered by renewable sources.

Now, nearly two years later, I sit in my house and think about the impending energy crunches, and the whole issue of sustainable living. It occurs to me that cruising sailors are among the few people who wouldn’t be greatly inconvenienced by a sudden shortage of fossil fuels.

Cruisers deal with energy in two ways. First, they minimize demand. They don’t leave things running. When they’re done watching TV, they turn the set off. They turn on the lights only when they need to see. They don’t use electricity to make heat. Their stoves are fuelled by alcohol, propane or kerosene, and they don’t use devices like electric hair dryers.

Second, they maximize storage. Most long-term cruising boats have three or four husky batteries, or even more. The batteries are often divided into separate banks – one battery dedicated to starting the engine, for instance, and four more to provide “house” power. When the sun is blazing down on the solar panels, or the trade winds are briskly spinning the rotors of the wind generators, or the ship’s passage through the water is whirling the vanes of an underwater generator, the batteries are storing the bountiful energy away for later use, when the winds aren’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.

Our boat didn’t have renewable energy sources, but it did have a hefty bank of batteries, big enough to supply all our needs for at least two days without recharging. We recharged them from the engine’s alternator, from a small gas generator, or by plugging in at a dock.

We did have three neat little fan-driven air vents with built-in solar cells and batteries, which ran all day and all night on sunlight. We didn’t operate a car; when we needed land transportation, we took a taxi or rented a car for a day or two. We carried 50 gallons of water, and it took us the best part of a week to consume it. And we didn’t spread any sewage. We had a composting toilet called an Air Head ( ) which produced a pailful of compost every couple of months.

We didn’t have air conditioning, though we did have a little furnace that burned perhaps a litre of diesel a week in regular use. We had a diesel engine in the mother ship, and a gasoline-powered outboard on the dinghy. But we also had sails and oars, and we used them.

We weren’t eco-heroes. Our boat, its sails, its ropes, its instruments and cooking utensils were all made of non-renewable resources, and a lot of energy was used in creating all that stuff. And we were in a warm climate. Still, our consumption of resources was far smaller than it is today, when we’re heating a full-sized house, flushing out sewage, buying coal-derived electricity and driving a car in the middle of a Canadian winter. Those are the things that make Nova Scotians some of the world’s greediest consumers, with an ecological footprint which represents the productivity of 8.1 hectares per person, when the earth can sustainably provide only 1.8.

On the boat, our footprint must have been a small fraction of what it is now – and we lived very well afloat. We ate our favourite foods, drank decent wine, enjoyed music and literature, had an active social life. We didn’t feel deprived. In fact, we felt wealthy.

When people quail at the idea that we’ll have to reduce our footprints dramatically to preserve the planet in any human-friendly form, I think about life on the boat. We can easily reduce our footprints without going back to living in caves. It doesn’t require an unbearable shift in our lifestyles. It does require a substantial shift in our minds.

– 30 –

The Return of the Dirigibles

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

On March 4, 1957, the US Navy blimp Snow Bird took its departure from South Weymouth, Massachusetts. Travelling at 35 knots, burning seven gallons of fuel an hour, it crossed the ocean to Europe, then travelled south to Africa.

Over Morocco, six days out, Commander Jack Hunt asked his technical officer, John Fitzpatrick, whether the airship could make it back across the Atlantic. Fitzpatrick did his calculations and said Yes. The Snow Bird flew to the Lesser Antilles and continued up the island chains of the Caribbean to Florida. It was heading up the US east coast when it was ordered to land at Key West.

The Snow Bird had visited four continents, using less fuel than an airliner uses just taxiing from the terminal to the runway. It had coped with heavy winds, snow, ice, tropical storms, thick fog and scorching sun. When it landed, the ship had covered 9448 miles and remained continuously aloft for 11 days – the longest unrefuelled flight ever made, both in terms of time and distance.

I think the Snow Bird represents the future of air travel. Like the electric car, it’s an historic technology with a new and urgent relevance.

George Monbiot, the British pundit and author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, recently pointed out that if we are truly going to hold the rise in global temperatures below the crucial threshold of 2º, we will actually have to decarbonize the entire world economy. He thinks we can do it.

“By switching the whole economy over to the use of electricity,” he writes, “and by deploying the latest thinking on regional supergrids, grid balancing and energy storage, you could run almost the entire energy system on renewable power. The major exception is flying.” We cannot expect “battery-powered jetliners.”

No, but we can still fly. Remember Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the developer of the huge rigid airships which became known as zeppelins. In 1909 the Count began passenger air services within Germany. Between the two world wars, his company pioneered international air travel with great success, running a scheduled service from Lakehurst, New Jersey to Friedrichshafen, Germany.

The zeppelins reached Europe in two and a half days, at 75 miles an hour. They floated along in almost complete silence, at altitudes low enough for passengers to watch animals, houses and ships. In nine years of service, one airship – the Graf Zeppelin – 17,000 hours in the air, carried 13,000 passengers, and flew more than a million miles, including a circumnavigation of the world with stops only in Tokyo and New Jersey.

The zeppelins were almost immune to interruption by the weather. They boasted lounges, dining rooms and staterooms. The Hindenburg a grand piano. They were so stable that a milk bottle balanced upside down in Germany once arrived undisturbed in New Jersey.

The zeppelins had only one fatal accident, but that event killed the whole industry. On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg fire while mooring at Lakehurst. The hydrogen inside her skin burned the ship to white ashes in 34 seconds. Thirty-six people died, including 13 passengers, the only passengers ever to die in an airship. Sixty-seven people survived, but reporters and cameramen turned the flaming Hindenburginto an iconic image of disaster. No zeppelin ever carried passengers again.

Ironically, the Hindenburgwas designed not for hydrogen, but for helium – which actually snuffs fires rather than feeding them. The only country that had helium, however, was the United States. During World War I, the German zeppelins had terrorized the English, lurking in the clouds and bombing market towns. Not surprisingly, the US refused to sell helium to Nazi Germany.

And thus the airships died, at the height of their success.

I learned their story largely from John McPhee’s wonderful 1973 book The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, an account of an attempt to create a hybrid airship using aerodynamics as well as helium to achieve lift. That project faded away, but the larger story continues. Several companies are producing and developing airships, and with today’s materials, they can be far larger and far lighter. A model built by a high-school teacher in Utah ( is so light and transparent that it looks like a ghost cigar in the sky.

Airships represent transportation without airports, roads, railroads, tunnels, bridges, harbours. They are road-less trucks and buses that can operate anywhere – in the Third World, in the Arctic, over seas and swamps and deserts. Small airships are already used for communications, surveillance, rescue, photography and eco-tours. Big ones could carry commuters, bulk freight, saw-logs, prefabricated houses and bridges. They could be warehouses in the sky, platforms for enormous arrays of solar collectors. Powered by sunlight, they would represent something approaching sustainable air travel.

Bye-bye Boeing? Okay. But that doesn’t mean we can’t fly.

– 30 –

The Truly New Cars

Monday, January 7th, 2008

If our family’s 16-year-old Subaru resigned from duty today, I would go shopping for a gasoline/electric hybrid. There are plenty of models available today, mainly from Toyota, Honda, GM and Ford.

But I’d really like the old Subie to hang on long enough for me to replace it with a next-generation vehicle: a Tesla, say , or a Honda FCX Clarity or maybe a Chevrolet Volt. Or a tiny, all-electric Subaru R1e. These vehicles may not be familiar, but cars like them are coming soon to a carport near you – and, from an environmental viewpoint, the sooner the better.

The Tesla ( ) is a gorgeous roadster fuelled entirely by electricity. It goes from zero to 100 KPH in less than four seconds and gets the equivalent of 135 miles per gallon. Designed as a high-end sports car that’s really fun to drive, it’s named for Nikola Tesla, the inventor of the electric induction motor and of alternating-current power transmission. You can buy a Tesla now – this year’s production is sold, but you can order a 2009 – provided that you live in the lower 48 US states, and are willing to pony up $98,000 for the base model.

Hmm. Maybe not a Tesla. What about the attractive Honda FCX Clarity sedan? () This one uses a fuel cell to transform hydrogen into electricity, which drives the car. The only emission is clean water, which drips out the tailpipe. Honda claims the car is ready for production, but it is currently being leased on a trial basis to a handful of households in Southern California – the only place in North America where hydrogen refuelling is fairly readily available. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has announced plans to create a “hydrogen highway” with hundreds of hydrogen stations spread across the state.

The availability of hydrogen will also govern the appeal of BMW’s Hydrogen 7, a modified stock sedan which Jay Leno recently took for a 10-day test drive. () Unlike a hybrid or a fuel-cell car, the Hydrogen 7 has a normal internal combustion engine which burns hydrogen instead of gasoline. It drives just like a regular BMW 7, and its only emission is also water.

The Chevy Volt () is completely different. A sporty two-door, the Volt uses lithium-ion batteries to propel it up to 65 km a day. Almost 80% of Canadian commuters travel less than that distance daily, and the batteries can be recharged simply by plugging the car into a household outlet overnight. For longer trips, a small generator kicks in – and the generator can be powered by gasoline, biodiesel, ethanol, or even hydrogen fuel cells.

The Volt is a “concept vehicle,” not likely to appear in the showroom any time soon. But General Motors, its manufacturer, already has gasoline/electric hybrid versions of several models, and will soon be testing a fleet of 100 fuel-cell SUVs. Alas, those will only be available in New York, Washington and Los Angeles. So we won’t be getting one of those, either.

And now Popular Mechanics reports on a new generation of diesel vehicles in Europe, where more than half of all passenger cars are diesel-powered. Volkswagen’s Polo – only available in Europe, alas – can get up to 75 miles per gallon while producing even fewer emissions than Toyota’s celebrated hybrid Prius. The secret of such performance is new low-sulphur diesel fuel, combined with advanced exhaust-scrubbing systems.

All the major carmakers say they’ll be producing new clean-diesel vehicles within a couple of years, but most of them are likely to be light trucks and big cars, not fuel-misers like the Polo. One exception will be Volkswagen’s diesel Jetta, a car I look forward to seeing.

I like diesels not only because they’re simple, economical and efficient, but also because they can readily be modified to run on a variety of fuels, including some truly sustainable ones. Indeed, Rudolf Diesel originally designed his engine to run on vegetable oil. The Constant Reader may remember my friend Jamil Shariff, who drove from Montreal to Vancouver in a diesel Volkswagen fuelled by McDonald’s french fry oil.

All of which substantiates Jay Leno’s remark that the environmental problem is not so much the car as the fuel. An electric car running on batteries charged by the wind – or by a diesel generator burning methane derived from sewage – is something approaching a sustainable car.

And, as Tesla’s marketing materials note, electricity is “the universal currency of energy,” which can be generated “from coal, solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear sources — or a combination of all of them.”

It’s hard to believe that the next generation of automobiles could be fast, quiet, economical and clean. But wouldn’t that be lovely?

– 30 –