Canadian Institute for Business and the Environment
Fisherville, Ontario, Canada
Tel. 416 410-0432, Fax: 416 362-5231
Vol. 15, No. 9, December 10, 2010
Honoured Reader Edition
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Last issue, when we announced that this issue would be about nothing, we probably left some readers somewhat confused. But we are delivering, with several articles about the environmental importance of doing nothing, and one about the mathematical significance of nought.

However, not wanting to be seen as entirely Scrooge-like, we open this issue with a list of ten suggestions for environmentally better gifts. GL developed this list and has seen nothing like it anywhere else. If you are doing some last minute Christmas shopping we commend it to you as a list of gift ideas that can help reduce the environmental footprint of the season. Consistent with our theme, we also present a list of ten popular Christmas gifts that we recommend you avoid because their environmental cost / recipient benefit ratio is, in our opinion, way too high. As always, we welcome your comments and will publish a selection of those received.

A recent International Joint Commission report is very "unoptimistic" about achieving virtual elimination of persistent toxic substances in the Great Lakes Basin. We report on this governmental body's views on the challenges to achieving virtually zero. Farmers have been enthusiastic about use of what they consider agricultural waste to provide biomass for energy. A recent study suggests that this may not work - another zero for those who like to see the world as providing unlimited resources. In Manitoba, a somewhat related study is looking at how to reduce nutrient loading to Lake Winnipeg. The partners here include the government, an ngo, and the private sector.

One green chemistry leader is suggesting that the greenest solvent may be no solvent. One of his scientific colleagues has written a song about green chemistry - in the spirit of the season we bring you some of the words. We are often asked to describe 'green chemistry'. We will provide more in future issues of GL, but Queen's University has opened a centre for green chemistry and has provided us with an excuse to provide some of the explanation. Another approach to green chemistry and green products is the E factor. The closer the E factor of a product is to zero the better the environmental performance. Our article in this issue explains.

Our book review in this issue is of (what else) The Value of Nothing: How to reshape market society and redefine democracy. Oil sands' tailings ponds in northern Alberta have been attracting a lot of attention recently and GL brings you its own take on the issue. In a future issue we will be analyzing the reports of the federal and Alberta panels that have been set up, but in the meantime we look at Syncrude, Schindler, and the Alberta Legislature. Virtual elimination does not seem to be high on the Company's tailings pond agenda. Interface flooring has been a leader in corporate sustainability for many years. Now the Company's Mission Zero sets a new pace that may be difficult even for Interface. Zero waste is a fantastic goal but is it achievable?

CMHC, the federal housing agency, recently gave out awards for affordable housing. We were pleasantly surprised to see that the award selection included environmental criteria. We bring you the details. We also get questions from time to time about the relative merits of paper and electronic communications. A team of researchers at the University of Bristol (where one of GL's editor’s nieces is studying) has provided some of the answers. So far it looks like electronic beats paper in terms of lower environmental footprint.

Lots of information about climate change has come out around the annual conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, this year held in Cancun. Next issue we will bring you some of that which we see as important including the report from Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Scott Vaughan. Meanwhile, enjoy this issue and send us your comments. In this issue, in continuation of our issue by issue awards for who is good, and not so good, for the environment, we nominate CMHC for the 'good environment' prize and remote car starters for the black hat award. Have a good holiday season, whatever your holiday may be.

As we approach gift season GL's editors thought we might share some suggestions for low environmental impact Christmas gifts. Not surprisingly, these are mostly gifts that involve services rather than durable goods - a switch which we see as key to increasing sustainability. So, without further ado (another low impact thing, as far as we can tell),and in no particular order :

Beyond our 10 more sustainable gift suggestions we also recommend the gift of service. If it is someone who lives alone, offer to visit their home, bring and make a meal and join with them in eating together on four, six or twelve occasions during the year or if you are driving, fill up the car and offer a ride to the grocery store. If it is a couple or family, offer to bring a meal or help them with the household chores. If it is a child, offer to play games with them or help them with puzzles or school work on a specific number of occasions and for a specified length of time in the coming year. If you have skills that the recipient would find valuable, offer to teach them, help them exercise, maintain their home, or even babysit for a number of occasions during the year. Give them a number of coupons for the activity you have chosen that they can redeem with you so that you and they will know that the obligation is real and will be delivered. Helping each other has to be one of the cornerstones of a more sustainable 21st Century society.

Above all, enjoy the holiday season and help your friends and family enjoy the holiday season and the year ahead.

Colin Isaacs


The City of Calgary's Rethink Water campaign called "Do Nothing to Save Water" could be a model for other non-actions which help to protect the environment. Those who take The Do Nothing to Save Water Pledge commit to not watering the lawn when
GL thinks more "do nothing" should apply to mowing so that lawn areas not actively used e.g. for play or company picnics could be retired as natural areas for urban and rural biodiversity while saving fuel. Advice about maintenance of a wooden fence recently suggested that leaving the natural wood makes the fence last longer and look better than applying a stain or other finish which wears, needs to be regularly reapplied, and may release toxic chemicals. In forests, doing nothing about cutting down dead trees leaves cavities and nest habitat for birds.

Businesses, government and individuals could "do nothing" in so many ways. Many businesses have adopted various approaches which encompass the idea e.g. zero waste or lean and green manufacturing, Author Michael Pollan, who writes about food, suggests that event organizers should not serve any food or drinks because of the saved environmental effects and because people tend to eat too much without any further assistance.

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The concept of zero is said to have been invented around 500 AD by Hindu mathematicians who also gave the world the ten-base (0-9) system. The binary system (0-1) became the foundation for today's computers where 0 represents the off switch and 1 the on. It took another 300-400 years for the first verified use of the concept of 0 along with the math to use it e.g. how to add, subtract, and multiply with 0. This advance was apparently made by Islamic mathematicians although there is a big quarrel on various web sites about who should get credit - not unexpectedly the writers call "much ado about nothing." The Romans didn't use zero. It wasn't until the 1200-1300s that zero became known in Europe. Although zero is about nothing, it is something. It is a number but one with some characteristics not shared by the other numbers, for example, dividing by zero is a no-no.

Who decides when something is something or nothing and who pays for the "nothing" which turns out to be something is crucial to the environment. When Kevin O'Leary, rich guy from the Dragon's Den show which ironically is run by the publically funded CBC, says "Greed is good and I love money", he is merely voicing what many accept as the basic tenant of the free market. We can count money but it is much more difficult to allocate the non-monetary costs to nature, humans and their societies. Climate change, health damage, pollution, species loss, soil and natural resources depletion, exploitation of labour, and the poor, and waste are essentially in many models counted as nothing. This 'nothing' also has a huge monetary cost currently and in the future but that cost isn't allocated to the O'Learys or the companies they run.


What seems like a long time ago, at a time perhaps of more optimism about action on the environment, the Little Zeros campaign was launched to achieve zero discharge of persistent toxics into the Great Lakes basin. Great Lakes United provided the communications network Little Zeros Watch for the citizen groups who were asked to focus "on eliminating sources of persistent organic pollutants in their local communities - one zero at a time". An article in the International Joint Commission newsletter of the time by GLU's Scott Sederstrom described eliminating persistent toxic releases to the Great Lakes from hospitals and health care institutions as one of the eight Little Zeros campaigns. Releases from the health care industry include incineration of medical waste with emissions of dioxins, partly from polyvinyl chloride in medical waste. Hospitals are also sources of mercury due to batteries, fluorescent and high intensity mercury vapour lamps, thermometers, specialty papers and films and pharmaceuticals.

What has happened to the Little Zeros campaign today we know not, but we do know that many healthcare institutions in the Great Lakes basin are taking the environment much more seriously, though, as always, we are sure the industry would agree that more remains to be done.

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The International Joint Commission was formed to assist the two countries in their cooperation to manage the Great Lakes and other waters wisely and to protect them for today's citizens and future generations. The 1978 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement replace the 1972 with an ecosystem approach with a broad range of pollution reduction programs. The Agreement called for the virtual elimination of the input of persistent toxic substances following a zero discharge philosophy.

A 2010 IJC report on groundwater is very unoptimistic about the chances of making progress on the virtual elimination strategy. Just the groundwater contaminated by the 4,500 known hazardous waste sites around the Great Lakes basin would carry an average price of $27 million per site on average for a total of $US112.5 billion needing multiple decades of effort. Recommendations include:
State of the Great Lakes

It is not only past pollution which is affecting the Great Lakes but virtual elimination is not a reality for current emissions. The State of the Great Lakes report published in 2009 based on the State of the Lakes Ecosystme Conference SOLEC held in Niagara Falls, Ontario in October 2008 discussed the indicators of the Great Lakes. In terms of contamination, the releases of specified bioaccumulative chemicals have declined significantly over the past decades but in some areas the decline is slowing and new contaminants are increasing. For the most part, contamination doesn't limit reproduction of fish, birds and mammals. However, while the concentrations of contaminants in open water is low, some local ares including bays and Areas of Concern have higher concentrations The report states "The lakes continue to be a receptor of contaminants from many different sources such as municipal and industrial wastewater, air pollution, contaminated sediments, runoff, and groundwater."

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Maintaining soil carbon is essential for ensuring soil structure, binding nutritients, providing energy for growth of plants and organisms in the soil and to prevent wind and water erosion. Elizabeth Schouten, a third year agricultureal economics student at the University of Guelph, writes about the research on how much biomass can be removed from farm land. She wrote in the Fall issue of the magazine of the research partnership between Ontario's Ministry of Agriculture and the University. Professors Bill Deen, Reen Van Acker and Alfons Weersink are researching how much crop residue needs to be returned to the soil and how much can be removed for use as biomass to produce electricity and heat generation. So far, the estimate is that 2.5 to 4 tonnes of residue needs to be returned. Crop rotations which use cover crops or more complex rotations which include corn, soybean, wheat and red clover could build up biomass levels. A typical corn-soybean rotation doesn't produce enough to allow removal of any significant amount of biomass each year although removal less often might be an option in some areas. Another article in the magazine explores other sources of biomass including annuals such as sorghum and millet as well as perennials such as switchgrass, miscanthus, big blue stem and reed canary grass. These have pros and cons in terms of cost to plant, yields, perennials which take time to grow but can be harvested more than once while annuals provide income in the same year.

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In November, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger announced funding of $150,000 to support a pilot project to prevent pollutants entering Lake Winnipeg in partnership with the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the University of Manitoba. Lake Winnipeg is the tenth largest freshwater lake in the world and nutrient loading is exceeding its ecological capacity.

Grass from 200 hectares of the marsh will be cut and the biomass burned to replace coal. reducing greenhouse gas emissions.The grass stores pollutants which would have eventually polluted the marsh or Lake Winnipeg. It should also be possible to recover phosphorus and nitrogen which pollute the lake but which are otherwise valuable fertilizers.

The announcement was made as part of the Premier's keynote speech at the IISD's Lake Winnipeg Basin Summit. which focussed on "creating and taking advantage of opportunities for Manitoba’s economy, while reducing the nutrient loading within the Lake Winnipeg Basin." One of the co-facilitators was John Fjeldsted, executive director of the Manitoba Environmental Industries Association, who sees it as important to include Manitoba businesses in such bioeconomy solutions.

Like the bans on the cosmetic use of pesticides first introduced by a few cities in Canada, Manitoba's ban on phosphorous in dishwashing detergent led to further intiatives elsewhere. The federal government followed Manitoba's lead to ban high levels of phosphorous levels in household dishwash detergents effective July 1, 2010.

Province of Manitoba. Netley-libau Marsh Pilot Project to Study Methods of Keeping Pollutants out of Lake Winnipeg. News Releases. Winnipeg, Manitoba: November 30, 2010.

International Institute for Sustainable Development IISD. Water Innovation Centre. Lake Winnipeg Basin Summit. Winnipeg, Manitoba: November 2010.

Province of Manitoba. Manitoba Taking Strong Action to Protect Water by Reducing Phosphorus in Consumer Products: Melnick: Phosphorus Ban in Dishwashing Detergent Goes into Effect on Canada Day. May 28, 2010.

Canada Gazette > Part II: Official Regulations. 2009-06-24 CANADIAN ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION ACT, 1999. Regulations Amending the Phosphorus Concentration Regulations. June 11, 2009.


For many industrial and laboratory applications including pharmaceuticals, chemicals are used for many purposes not necessarily ending up as an element in the final product. These processes use solutions including solvents which often contain toxics e.g. volatile organic compounds. Green chemistry approaches seek to replace these solvents e.g. with water or develop alternate reaction processes not requiring the catalysts. If catalysts are required, green chemistry practitioners are seeking to recover or recycle the catalysts which otherwise end up as toxic waste. In October 2010, the Green Solvents for Synthesis conference was held in Bavaria. Germany. The opening lecture was by Philip Jessop of Queen's University (Kingston, Ontario) talking about green solvents. He spoke of three types of green solvents: Replacement green solvents, Really green solvents, and Revolutionary green solvents, but suggested that there aren't enough replacement green solvents to meet the needs. Although some green solvents have been assessed most green solvents haven't been. Philip Jessop is the Canada Research Chair of Green Chemistry.

During the evening, Walter Leitner from Germany led a song called Always Use Green Chemistry Tools (1) which has several stanzas including:
If the process seems absurd
And “waste” is the final word
Green Chemistry will show a better way!
Just save energy and steps
Of course, catalysis can help
And your profits will shoot up to the sky!
And Always use the Green Chemistry tools
– whistle –
They make science fun and scientists cool
– whistle –

(1) Music: guitar by Walter Leitner Lyrics: Walter Leitner and Steve Howdle

Dr. Jessop has been awarded the 2010 Queen's Prizes for Excellence in Research. This is the highest honour given by Queen's University to recognize the research excellence of its faculty. His group of research associates and graduates students named the Jessop Group are researching how to minimize waste e.g. Switchable Chemistry seeks to separate and recover oil from waste plastic bottles and recycle polystyrene foam plastic. Jessop is also the Technical Director of GreenCentre Canada (see separate article).

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In August 2010, the facility for GreenCentre Canada was officially opened. in Kingston, Ontario. The Executive Director is Dr. Rui Resendes, a chemist who has worked in business include Bayer MaterialScience. Philip Jessop (see article on green solvents) is Technical Director. Funding is from governments of Ontario and Canada as well as industry sponsors. Currently the eight industrial sponsors are:
The facility focuses on Green Chemistry which is making chemical products and processes that eliminate or reduce damage to the environment while reducing waste and energy. The team is assessing discoveries from universities and industry with some technologies ready to license to industry.

Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry

Among the twelve principles of Green Chemistry are:
1. It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it is formed.
5. The use of auxiliary substances (e.g. solvents, separation agents, etc) should be made unnecessary whenever possible and innocuous when used.

6. Energy requirements should be recognized for their environmental and economic impact and should be minimized.

7. A raw material feedstock should be renewable rather than depleting wherever technically and economically practical.

Source: Paul Anastas and John Warner, Green Chemistry Theory and Practice

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Roger Sheldon was Professor of Biocatalysis and Organic Chemistry at the Delft University of Technology (The Netherlands). when he retired in 2007. He had developed the measure called E factor as one way to account for environmental acceptability of chemical processes. The E factor is the mass ratio of waste to desired product ie E = kg. waste/kg. of product. Counted in this measure are reagents, solvent losses, all process aids and although it is often difficult to account for, in principle, fuel. Not counted is water. Some production methods have soaring E factors, for example pharmaceuticals often have an E factor of greater than 100 while bulk chemicals have less than 5. The higher the E factor the greater the waste and in theory, the greater the potential for negative environmental impact.

The Royal Society of Chemistry awarded Roger Sheldon the 2010 Green Chemistry Award. as "one of the founding fathers of green chemistry and in particular for his work on the development of clean, catalytic technologies for waste minimization and elimination of toxic/hazardous materials in chemicals manufacture."

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In the Value of Nothing, author Raj Patel philosophizes about "how we inflate the cost of things we can (and often should) live without, while assigning absolutely no value to the resources we all need to survive." [from back cover] He accuses corporate interests of privatizing profits and socializing risks (ie transferring social and environmental costs to the public.

One of the topics he discusses is opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is an important concept in economics. The Economist explains it as "the true cost of something you give up to get it."

Patel says that the concept has implications for the environment and society citing Larry Summers. now director of President's Obama 's National Economic Council, once Patel says wrote while at the World Bank that, "Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of dirty industries to the LDC [Less Developed Countries}." The idea is that poor people value environmental harm less than rich people.

Dumping waste is Africa is common. In Somalia, hazardous waste is disposed of at a cost of $2.50 a barrel while in Europe, disposing of that same barrel would cost $1,000. In 2005, the tsunami brought barrels of toxic waste from offshore Somalia to the coast causing chronic illness and radiation sickness.

Patel charges that the common economic language ignores the fact that different people have different opportunity costs. There is no single opportunity cost for all. Patel says, "Economics is about choices. But it's never said who gets to make them. By choosing to value the world through markets, we choose the principle of "The more money you have, the more you can get." The opportunity cost of the company ridding itself of toxic waste is different from that of a Somalia woman whose entire family is affected by toxic disposal. She values her children just as highly as any rich person in America or Germany but because she is poor, she is not taken into account in the calculations of cost and benefits.

Patel provides some example of more involvement of people in defining which opportunity costs provide the most important benefits for their costs. For example, Port Alegre Brazil has citizen forums to decide priorities for community funds and which groups get government money. The opportunity cost of the city is debated. Since the 1990s, close to 100% of the population has been connected to water and over 80% to sewage. Three times as many children attend school The process is more transparent, more efficient, has redistributive power and direct democracy. Rules and limits help to protect future generations from today's decisions. This approach isn't perfect because of the potential for democratic tyranny but just as any other system, work can be done to improve but  it reflects the potential for better definition of opportunity cost, says the author.

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Sun Oil Company later to become Suncor was the first oil sands operation in northeastern Alberta in 1967. Syncrude opened in 1978 and by April 1998 had produced the billionth barrel, five years ahead of time. Writing in a corporate report in 1993, Eric P. Newel, then President and CEO compared the scale of the innovation to extract oil from sand to powered flight, the polio vaccine and television: "Things that challenge our assumptions about what is and what is not possible." He also said, "It is also a story of technology, triumph over the elements - and teamwork." The brochure goes on to say that Syncrude "learned how to protect, preserve and restore the environment we would come in contact with during the construction and operational phases of the project. Back then it was an innovative way to look at things. Preventing environmental problems - rather than trying to cure them after the fact", so the report continues.

Perhaps what is not said about what is in the tailings pond is also important:
"fine tailings - a 'muddy water' residue from the bitumen extraction process consisting of about 85 percent water and 15 percent fine clay particles." and in its 1995 report "Fine tailings - a colloidal (gel-like) material resulting from the processing of clay fines contained within the oil sand processed by Syncrude, consisting essentially of clay fines and water." In its 1995 the annual report says the company is engaged in local community partnerships "that are seeing wood bison returning to their traditional range, ducks and wildlife enjoying healthy, new habitats and local residents confident in their health and safety." Every year the reports state that Syncrude is finding solutions to reducing the tailings ponds.

Syncrude: 2008/2009 Annual Report

In the 2008/2009 report the definition of tailings has changed to: "Tailings are composed of a mixture of water, sand, clay, fine solids, residual hydrocarbon and salts—all of which are naturally found in oil sands deposits. Tailings are stored in mined-out areas and large above-ground containment structures commonly referred to as settling basins or tailings ponds."

Elimination is not top of the agenda. As the report says, "The public understands that tailing ponds are a necessary component in the processing of the oil sands." The report does suggest new technologies for managing mature fine tailings including one of the conditions of its approval, centrifuging by 2012. Remediation using microbes and less bitumen in the tailings ponds through a secondary recovery system are options considered. The reclamation of the West Mine is said to be the first commercial-scale demonstration of water capping, which is water put on top of the tailings residue to form a "fresh" water lake.

Today four companies operate in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region in Alberta: Suncor Energy Inc., Syncrude Canada Ltd., Shell Canada Ltd. (Shell), and Canadian Natural Resources Limited.

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Leakage of tailings fluid into groundwater, migratory birds landing and dying on oil slicks in the ponds, large areas in a boreal area turned from habitat into wasteland and air pollution are just some of criticisms which lead activists to call for an end to "dirty oil."

Even opportunities show that the tailing ponds are more than just fine. One study in 2005 by University of Alberta researchers indicated "the heavy minerals contained in the froth treatment tailings produced by Syncrude Canada Ltd and Suncor Energy Inc represent about 6% of the world’s production of TiO2 and about 9% of the world’s production of ZrO2." Samples indicates that the amount of bitumen residual in the tailings ranged from 4% to 23%. Recovering these would add value and reduce pollution.

A review of reclamation options for oil sands tailings by BGC Engineering Inc. for the Oil Sands Research and Information Network at the University of Alberta says tt can take centuries for the very fine material in tailings to settle. Most reclamation is done by increasing the solid content of the tailings e.g. adding sand, leftover soil from the open pit mining. Reclamation options may depend on technology used. Issues include
In December 2009, David Schindler and other researchers wrote in a science paper that the oil sands including tailings ponds are responsible for increases in air pollution through polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAC). This air pollution settles on snow and when the snow melt is washed into the Athabasca River and its tributaries damaging fish. Schindler says Canada's Fisheries Act has zero tolerance for release of contaminants which kill fish and the Act should be enforced. (1)

Schindler also has criticizes the role of the industry-funded Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP) responsible for monitoring pollution. RAMP has concluded that oil sands have minimal effects on health and the environment due to pollution of nearby aquatic ecosytems. Schindler says RAMP lacks scientific oversight, doesn't make data publically available and doesn't make its methods transparent. Schindler wrote in a recent issue of Nature about the “scarcity of peer-review science” in regard to the protection of the Mackenzie River watershed of which the Athabasca River is a part saying that “the fox has been left in charge of the henhouse.”
The Fall 2010 report of Canada's Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development says that Environment Canada has only one long-term water quality monitoring station in the area and that is in Wood Buffalo National Park. It was set up to monitor for pulp and paper effects not oil sands. There are no baseline measures or long term data tracking to evaluate what the oil sands are doing to water quality and to aquatic ecosystem health. The first commercial oil sands operation began in 1967. Neither provincial nor industry data is available to add to Environment Canada's database of long term data.

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Office of the Auditor-General of Canada. Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. OAG Chapter 2—Monitoring Water Resources.  CESD Fall 2010 Report. Ottawa, Ontario, December 7, 2010.
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On Earth Day April 22, 2010, Alberta Premier Stelmach asked that oilsand companies take steps to reduce the size of the tailings ponds or if need be, the province would get tough. He suggested the goal was to eliminate wet tailings ponds "within a few years" but would give no defined target.


The following day, the Energy Resources Conservation Board issued approvals for more tailings ponds including Syncrude and more approvals followed after that for the rest of the year. Conditions are said to be stricter than previously due to Directive 74.

When the ERCB set out Directive 74 in 2009 it set out new requirements for the regulation of tailings operations for the oils sands and said this "is the first component of a larger initiative to regulate tailings management." ERCB definition of tailings: "A by-product of the bitumen extraction process composed of water, sand, fines, and residual bitumen." Companies can use a suite of technologies to meet the directive. Companies in previous applications committed to converting fluid tailings to deposits ready for reclamation but have failed to meet targets set out in their applications so tailings ponds have grown in number and size. Decisions by the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board and joint panels of the EUB and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency have long term objectives including:
Two joint panel decision reports issued in early July 2004 directed EUB staff to address tailings management issues through the establishment of industry-wide performance criteria

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In the Alberta Hansard on October 27, 2010, Rachel Notley, NDP Environment Critic, asked the Environment Minister, "Yesterday we learned about another serious environmental tragedy in the Wood Buffalo region. The impact on migratory birds is only one of the many threats that toxic tailings lakes pose, yet this government has already allowed them to cover a hundred and seventy square kilometres, and they’re growing as I speak. To the Minister of Environment: why won’t this government take real action to force companies to stop the growth of tailings lakes and eliminate them as soon as possible?"

Environment Minister Rob Renner replied, "I would suggest that the hon. member should have a look at the facts. The facts are that we are taking real action, and the evidence is in the retirement of Suncor’s tailings pond.  Directive 074 clearly enunciates the responsibility of industry to implement technology that is going to severely restrict the growth of tailings ponds in the medium term and reduce the overall tailings pond legacy in the longer term."

Notley responded, "Given that, at best, the ERCB directive 074 will see toxic lakes grow well beyond 1 trillion litres of toxic waste and that they will be with us for at least another 50 years – that’s in the directive – and given that the ERCB has waived its weak-kneed measures 7 out of 9 times in the last year and a half, why won’t the Minister of Environment admit the truth, that his current half-hearted measures will never get rid of these toxic lakes?"

Renner replied, "I won’t admit it because it’s not true. The fact of the matter is that the ERCB has not, as this member characterizes, waived the directive. What they have done is allowed for additional time to implement. Let’s be absolutely clear to all members of this House and to all Albertans that it is a complete commitment on the part of the government and on the part of the ERCB to implement directive 074. It will happen."

From GL's reading of it, the directive does phase in more requirements to convert wet fines to dry and push towards earlier reclamation but by requiring a percentage of fines to be dried compared to the total does not lead to the elimination of tailings ponds. It may not even lead to a reduction if the oil sands productions expands. The minister did acknowledge that Directive 74 wasn't the "be all and the end all" of government action but didn't mention what further action might be. Alberta suffering from the recession is very interested in increasing the competitiveness of the oil sands.

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Often speaking as one of the leaders in sustainability, Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface Inc., manufacturer of modular carpet, has set a corporate agenda called Mission Zero. The focus is on seven goals:

1. Eliminate Waste: Eliminating all forms of waste in every area of business;
2. Benign Emissions: Eliminating toxic substances from products, vehicles and facilities;
3. Renewable Electricity: Operating facilities with renewable electricity sources – solar, wind, landfill gas, biomass, geothermal, tidal and low impact/small scale hydroelectric or non-petroleum-based hydrogen;
4. Closing the Loop: Redesigning processes and products to close the technical loop using recovered and bio-based materials;
5. Resource-Efficient Transportation: Transporting people and products efficiently to reduce waste and emissions;
6. Sensitizing Stakeholders: Creating a culture that integrates sustainability principles and improves people’s lives and livelihoods;
7. Redesign Commerce: Creating a new business model that demonstrates and supports the value of sustainability-based commerce
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This issue we shared some ideas on holiday gifts with a lower environmental footprint. But overall the end of year holidays are pretty bad for the environment with far too many unneeded gifts being exchanged. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were not really setting a good model though at least the two last are renewable and may have medicinal benefits. GL does not want to be labelled as a Scrooge, which is why we presented a list of environmentally reasonable gift ideas before this, our list of ten items that we recommend not be bought as holiday gifts.

1. Perfume and scents

The huge floor area dedicated to perfumes and scented cosmetics in department and drug stores is indicative of an absurd obsession with making ourselves smell nice. But that odour of perfume means that volatile organic compounds, a precursor of smog, are being released into the air. Quite a lot of people react quite badly to perfumes so many offices, educational institutions and hospitals have moved to ban perfumed people from the premises. GL sees perfumes and scented cosmetics as inappropriate and unnecessary pollutants and urges our readers not to buy them as gifts.

2. Remote car starters

Come on, fellow Canadians, you are not that wimpy! Cars are bad enough but remote car starters are the epitomy of the driver who has no concern for the environment, even though most users of remote car starters probably do not realize the damage they are doing. Idling cold engines produce more air pollution than any other phase of the driving cycle. Starting you car to warm the interior is as inefficient use of petroleum fuels as you can get. GL strongly recommends against remote car starters for Christmas or at any other time.

3. Tins of biscuits, cookies, candies, or cakes

We have no idea where the idea that cookies, candies or cakes contained in a tin are more luxurious than those wrapped in a coated paper or boxboard package came from, but it is not good for the environment. There would not be so much so bad about the tin if it were recycled at the end of its life, though even then it would have a greater environmental impact than the cardboard box, but the fact is that few recycling programs will accept empty cookie or candy tins. We suggest handmade cookies or candies in a bag or a commercially packaged box or bag of cookies or candies in place of the traditional tin.

4. Ceramics, unless known to be wanted and useful

Ceramics, such a clay mugs, ornaments, or even ceramic cooking pots, are manufactured by heating clays to very high temperatures in kilns that are heated with fossil fuels or electricity. As a result they have a huge amount of what is called 'embedded energy', the energy required to manufacture a product. The kicker comes because they are not recyclable and are likely never to be recyclable. If the product is a cooking pot that is wanted by the recipient and which will be used then it may be environmentally reasonable because the ceramic is very durable and will have a long life, but if the recipient has no use for it and does not know someone who would use it to whom it could be regifted then a ceramic gift is unlikely to be an environmentally responsible gift.

5. Home biodiesel kits

There are quite a few home biodiesel kits on the market and one of them may seem a good idea for the farmer or smallholder who can produce their own vegetable oils or for the frequent fryer who has much used vegetable oil to spare. However, we have yet to see a home kit than can produce biodiesel that meets the ASTM D6751 standard. This standard means that use of the biodiesel will not harm the engine or produce excessive emissions. A biodiesel product that does not meet this standard is likely to produce excessive air pollutants when burned in the engine and it may cause problems for the engine. Some of the kits also use highly flammable and volatile solvents and/or a great deal of liquid waste materials. GL's view is that production of biodiesel is something best left to the professionals.

6. CDs or DVDs

Assuming the person to whom you are thinking of giving a gift of audio, video, or software entertainment already has equipment capable of receiving a download, GL recommends gifting such things in purely electronic form rather than as a CD or DVD disc. CDs can be recycled but we have yet to see any recycling collection programs for used CDs in Canada, though you can mail them to one of a small number of recycling facilities in the US. But, even with recycling, the energy associated with an electronic download is far less than the energy associated with a material disc so we recommend the electronic version as preferable to the plastic version. If you must give a hard copy, download the file and put it on a memory stick. At least the memory stick may be more reusable than the CD.

7. Liquid fuel powered toys such as ATVs and personal watercraft

GL is increasingly becoming concerned about the burning of fossil fuels, especially gasoline and diesel, for entertainment activities. Whether it is automobile racing, all terrain vehicles, monkey bikes, snowmobiles, or personal watercraft, GL recognizes that powered vehicles may have legitimate uses in accessing remote areas but when these things are used only for entertainment then they are creating air pollution and contributing to climate change in a way that can only be described as a waste of resources. They are also often used in ways which have significant adverse impacts on wildlife, threatened species of plants and animals, and water quality. GL recommends human powered mobile entertainment equipment, such as bicycles, scooters, skates, and skis, as much more environmentally responsible mobility devices.

8. Candles

Candles seem to have great appeal and some are even sold as environment friendly air purifiers or sources of light. GL has seen much evidence of indoor air pollution and fire risk from wax candles and oil lights and no evidence at all that they can purify air. The yellow part of a candle flame is glowing particles of carbon and other materials. As those particles rise out of the flame they cool and can contribute quite significantly to indoor air pollution and the resulting health risks to those with respiratory problems. Some are claiming that beeswax or soy candles produce less air pollution. So they may but why add any air pollution to your indoor space. Electric light adds no indoor air pollution and adds far less pollution per lumen of light than any candle: GL recommends electric light (and flashlights but only if powered by rechargeable batteries) as environmentally preferable to candles or oil lights under any circumstances. [If you wish to give a gift of light, consider a donation to Light Up the World: see GL's editor is a director of this charitable international development organization.]

9. Another stuffed toy.

GL is not so Scroogy as to be against stuffed toys but North American sales of stuffed toys have skyrocketed to no good environmental purpose at all. It seems that most children have a favourite stuffed toy, or maybe two or three, but when a child has more than five or six stuffed toys then, in our opinion, it is wasteful to give more. Stuffed toys for teens and adults also seem to have little environmental merit. One of the gifts from our environmentally preferred products list would seem to make much more sense.

10. Anything unwanted

Regifting may be the term of the decade but it is really indicative of a product that does not have a proper home. Manufacture of that product had an adverse impact on the environment and in some cases use of the product will have a further adverse environmental impact. Passing it from person to person until it finds a home with someone who wants it may be better than the first recipient throwing it away but it is still an inefficient process and the final recipient may still not be an enthusiast for the product. Far better to find out what it is that the people to whom you give gifts can really use and to give them something from that list. If that is not possible, refer to the this issue of Gallon Environment Letter for our list of suggested low environmental impact gifts.

10a. Too Many

Reusables are great but distributing them in quantities that are too large means they quit being reused. As a speaker, GL’s editor often gets speakers gifts including windup flashlights, windup radios, mugs, water bottles without BPA and other stuff that has environmental features and usually presented in reusable bags. On one level, it is great that people are thinking about the environment. On the other hand, it feels a lot like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice who conjured up one broom to carry his water bucket for him and ended up with far too many brooms. 


Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) announced nine winners of its 2010 affordable housing awards in Ottawa on November 16, 2010. This will be the last such awards. CMHC is Canada's national housing agency. The winning projects were:

Doug Story Apartments - Vancouver, BC
Glacier Duplexes at Rainbow - Whistler, BC
Harmony Housing Project - Abbotsford, BC
Harold Green Building - Toronto, ON
Independence Place - Summerside, PE
Independent Supported Housing Initiative - Halifax, NS
McKenzie Heights - Pembroke, ON
Résidence Parc Jarry - Montréal, QC
Stadacona Plaza - Winnipeg, MB

Each project has a description which includes societal, environmental and economic features. Examples include

Paid subscribers see link to original documents and references here.


Electronic communications might seem to be something that uses no energy and hence has no environmental impact but of course such is not true. A recent paper from researchers at the University of Bristol in the UK has attempted to quantify the energy burden that computer-based communications will impose on the planet. The good news is that the planet's energy systems apparently can carry the load, though some serious efforts to reduce 'digital waste' - information downloaded but not actually used - will be necessary..

The researchers have found that current energy demand for bandwidth is four watt-hours (Wh) per MB. To put that in context, a typical Canadian house without electric heating uses 30,000 watt-hours of electricity per day. The researchers estimate that typical global per person demand for bandwidth by 2030 will be 3200 MB a day. The power required to support this activity is estimated to be 1,175 gigawatts. Again for context, current worldwide installed generating capacity is about 4,000 gigawatts, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The authors of the study state that a factor 60-performance improvement (60 times performance improvement) is needed if infrastructure energy is to be provided by one per cent of renewable energy capacity in 2030, but historical trends suggest that this will be reached around 2021.

GL thought it would be interesting to compare the energy used to manufacture a sheet of office paper with the energy required to browse the web. According to US EPA data, a ton of office paper requires roughly 40 million Btus (British Thermal Units - a very non-decimal unit of energy) to manufacture and deliver to retailers. A ton of office paper is roughly 200,000 sheets so one sheet of paper contains 'embedded energy' of 200 Btus. Four watt-hours of electricity is 13.66 Btus so if you are getting more than the equivalent of 14.6 sheets of paper of information you need and use each hour from your internet bandwidth then internet is an environmentally better choice for communication than paper from an energy perspective.

As noted by the authors of the University of Bristol paper, which was delivered from the UK to a conference in the US by remote connection, none of these calculations includes the energy required to manufacture the devices, either the desktop computers or the equipment that makes up the network. More work is needed to look at these aspects.

[Note: this article was prepared from an abstract of the Bristol University research as the full paper was not available at the time this issue of GL went to electronic press. We will update if necessary when we get the full paper.]

Paid subscribers see link to original documents and references here.
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