Citizen environmental investigators imminent

Personal air quality monitoring devices will soon be on the market and may already be here. For industries that emit air contaminants this means that the quite common reductions in government monitoring will soon be replaced, likely at much larger scale, by social monitoring. Local residents and ordinary citizens may soon be patrolling the boundaries of your plant, reporting in real time to other citizens, social media, and the regular media on air emissions which appear to come from your plant.

One such citizen air quality monitoring device is called Netatmo Weather Station, sells for $179, and connects to an IPhone or Ipad for storage, analysis, and transmission of data to web sites and email addresses.  In addition to temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity the Netatmo also claims to measure carbon dioxide concentration and air quality.

It will not take much of a leap in monitoring technology for devices like the Netatmo to add monitoring of particulates, volatile organics, and toxic air contaminants. As that technology becomes available it is very likely that citizens will use it to level charges of pollution against local industries which they see as having a negative impact on the neighbourhood. It is not too early for emitting industries to plan their response: GallonDaily suggests increased transparency with respect to air emissions, improved community liaison, and real reductions in emissions.

GallonDaily has done no evaluation of the Netatmo and has no knowledge of its reliability or of the air quality parameters that are measured. It is mentioned here only to illustrate the type of personal air quality monitor that we expect to come to market in the coming months.

More about the Netatmo Personal Weather Station at

Ending receipts and reducing paper use

According to the New York Times, some major retailers in the US are eliminating paper receipts, small pieces of paper that have been estimated to consume 9.6 million trees a year. Instead of a paper receipt, the customer will receive an electronic receipt by email.

This idea seems long overdue. GallonDaily is often amazed by the number of retailers, especially smaller stores, which ask each customer whether they want a receipt and, in many cases receiving a reply in the negative, crumple the just printed receipt and toss it in the trash. At the very least, it would seem more responsible, both for the environment and for their bottom line, to ask the question before printing the receipt and then hitting a button on the register to print a receipt only if the customers chooses the receipt option. Though BPA-free options are available, thermally-printed receipts are still a significant source of the toxic substance bisphenol-A.

A number of companies are vying for the email receipt business. Among them, Merchant Customer Exchange ( has been formed recently by a group of US retailers. Maybe retailers will understand better than some other companies that consumer acceptance of e-receipts will depend in significant part on who gets to see the data and what they use it for.  There also needs to be a standard format so that customers can file their receipts and perhaps use them as a useful source of information about their purchases.

The NY Times take on this topic is at

and the online US journal has a thoughtful article at

Starch industry life cycle assessment is a useful model

The European Starch Industry Association has recently published a life cycle assessment of starch products, making it one of the first industry sectors in the agri-food industry to publish an LCA study covering a range of products.

Some of the findings are interesting:

  • the growing of the crops for starch product (wheat, corn and potatoes) has the largest contribution to the environmental footprint of the final product.
  • use of starch in long life cycle industrial products can have a significant net positive  carbon footprint (ie. over the product lifecycle, more carbon is sequestered than is used).
  • water depletion is a significant environmental factor in production of starch, mostly in the crop phase.

The environmental profiles in the report include both native starch and glucose-fructose syrups. The report is also useful because it includes a fairly understandable description of the application of LCA techniques to processed products derived from agriculture.

This work by the starch industry may encourage other food sectors to undertake LCA studies and to use the results to reduce the environmental impact of the food system.

A copy of the summary report is available at,%20Eco-profile%20of%20starch%20products%20-%20summary%20report.pdf

A press release summarizing the report is at

Saving buildings may be greener than building new

We are so accustomed to the idea that one should buy a new refrigerator or a new car in order to achieve improved energy efficiency that many of us probably think that the same applies to buildings. Not so, according to a report published earlier this year by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the US. The Trust’s Preservation Green Lab, in partnership with several other organizations with expertise in green building and lifecycle analysis, came to the conclusion that the reuse of existing buildings almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction.

The report claims that it can take between 10 and 80 years for a new, energy-efficient building to overcome, through more efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts that were created during the construction process. However, care must be taken in the selection of construction materials in order to minimize environmental impacts; the benefits of reuse can be reduced or negated based on the type and quantity of materials selected for a reuse project.

The report presents quite detailed findings supporting its conclusions and offering suggestions on environmental impacts by lifecycle stage so that, whether one is building new or renovating an existing building, one can see some of the steps in which more environmental sound choices can lead to a greener building.

Given that the report so clearly provides support to the Trust’s mandate it may take a few more such reports before the advice that greener buildings are restored existing buildings is widely accepted. However, the report is highly recommended to those interested in saving older buildings or in achieving the greenest possible building. It is available at


More study needed on effects of nanoparticles on food

While research on the food system effects of nanomaterials is still in early stages, the use of manufactured nanomaterials (MNMs) is increasing in all kinds of products. To quote the US authors of a new study on soybean susceptibility to manufactured nanomaterials, “these findings forewarn of agriculturally associated human and environmental risks from the accelerating use of MNMs.” The study has been  published ahead of print in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The scientists studied the effects of the high production nanomaterials cerium oxide, used in ceramics, in photosensitive glass, as a catalyst, to polish glass and stones, and in the walls of self-cleaning ovens as a catalyst during the high-temperature cleaning process, and zinc oxide, used in solar cells and sunscreens.

The results found that zinc from nano-ZnO is taken up and distributed throughout edible plant tissues and that nano-CeO2 caused plant growth and yield to diminish. Nitrogen fixation—a major ecosystem service of leguminous crops—was shut down at high nano-CeO2 concentrations.

Most likely pathway for transport of cesium oxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles to the food chain is believed to be through the spreading of sewage sludge on agricultural land. A recent study has raised a concern that zinc oxide nano-particles may cause cancer.

The full research paper is available at


More CO2 and higher temperatures may not help productivity of food plants

Carbon dioxide is an essential nutrient for plants. It has been surmised that increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may increase plant productivity and hence the amount of food they provide.  Research from China published recently in the peer-reviewed PLOS One of the Public Library of Science in the US suggests that this will not occur.

The research was carried out with strawberry plants. June-bearing strawberries are an important food crop in many countries. Higher average temperatures are known to reduce yields. Elevated carbon dioxide concentrations alone improve fruit yield and quality but reduce total antioxidants in strawberry fruit.

However, the research shows that elevated carbon dioxide together with elevated temperature reduces fruit yield. Application of nitrogen fertilizer, an essential nutrient for plants, at elevated temperatures further decreases fruit production.

Parallel reports are coming in of similar behaviour in other food crops. While much more research will follow, it appears already that it would be wrong to think that higher carbon dioxide levels will lead to higher production from food crops.

The strawberry study is available at

Recycling of CD and DVD disks in Japan

We have said for some time that recycling is about creativity and economic development. Reducing waste going to landfill and incineration can create jobs and cut down on reduce use.

Japanese computer manufacturer Fujitsu Limited is demonstrating this with a unique program to turn end of life CDs and DVDs into parts of cases for new notebook computers.

Fujitsu says that its initial program, involving just one part of the computer case, will use about 10 tons of CDs and DVDs. The process tests the disks to ensure that they do not contain any contaminants before recycling them into the new parts. Fujitsu chose CDs and DVDs, rather than other used plastic products, because their formulation and properties are very consistent from one batch to another and they are easily recognized.

A fairly extensive description of the recycling program and process is given at

A bring your own coffee mug that makes sense

Occasionally we come upon a product that our world (read ‘we”) actually needs. One of these things is a reusable coffee cup that we can take to meetings without excessive bulging of our briefcase or  jacket pocket. A Canadian sustainability consultant, who now lives and works in California, seems to have developed such a product – a 16 ounce coffee cup that shrinks to a hockey puck size without leaking coffee between the collapsible rings when it is full.

Today’s news story violates our rule of not promoting initiatives until they actually exist but this coffee cup, being promoted on the social financing site Indiegogo, appears to be close enough to reality that the risk that it will not work seems low. Indiegogo, like Kickstarter, is a web site on which inventors and others sell products in advance of committing to manufacture. By pre-selling the inventors reduce or eliminate the need for loans to finance their start-up company or production line and at the same time they are testing the level of interest in their product. The technique, a variant on social networking, is called ‘crowd funding’. Bear in mind that there is a risk that the product will never appear.

Zip cup is not cheap for a plastic cup, especially with shipping to Canada included, but if it works then it will at long last be a portable travel cup that GallonDaily’s editor, and you, can take to meetings day in and day out. We have placed an order. You can too, at

An unexpected pathway for heavy metal toxicity

Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal found in many agricultural soils. Until now there has been little concern about excessive levels of cadmium getting into the food we eat. A recent paper from scientists at Zhejiang University in China, published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, may change that thinking.

Farmers in many countries, including Canada, plant legumes such as clover in with their food crops. The legumes fix nitrogen from the air, reducing or eliminating the need for nitrogen fertilizer, and help solubilize phosphorous, another plant nutrient. The newly published research shows that the legumes also help the plants take up cadmium from the soil and that an increased concentration of cadmium can be found in the edible part of the plant.

Increased levels of cadmium attributable to the interplanting with legumes were found in both corn and tomatoes as well as in leafy foodstuffs such as cabbage. The amount of the increase in cadmium concentration varied with the legume chosen for interplanting. Tomatoes interplanted with clover exceeded the maximum permissible concentration standard for cadmium of the National Standard Agency in China. Canada does not have a limit for cadmium in tomatoes as it is not considered a likely contaminant. A joint FAO/WHO expert committee has estimated a provisional tolerable weekly intake of cadmium for an adult human to be from 0.4 to 0.5 mg. The Chinese study has found double this amount of cadmium in one kilogram of tomatoes grown in interplanting with legumes. Similar amounts of cadmium have also been found in cabbage and pakchoi. In the edible part of corn the amount of cadmium approached 0.14mg/kg, three times the provisional tolerable weekly intake for an adult..

The authors of the study state that the “results do not support growing legumes in soils with elevated Cd levels even though these Cd levels are near to or below the pollution threshold as the co-cultivated legumes will biologically increase the Cd level in the adjacent crop. This new revelation suggests that the future design of cropping systems involving legumes should be carefully considered to avoid food contamination by Cd although legumes and crops vary in responding to a specific legume -crop system.”

In parts of Canada industrial sewage sludge is used as a low-cost replacement for fertilizer on many agricultural fields. The results of this study suggest that governments should review the possibility that intercropping food crops with legumes  on land that has been spread with sewage sludge containing elevated levels of cadmium may be further increasing cadmium levels in the human food chain. No doubt this study will soon prompt researchers to look at the levels of cadmium in food products purchased from Canadian supermarkets.

The complete study is available at

A Health Canada discussion of the toxicity of cadmium is available at

Gates Foundation sponsors toilet innovation

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is sponsoring a major initiative on sanitation technology (toilets) for developing countries and perhaps ultimately for developed countries as well.  This week a Reinvent the Toilet fair was held in Seattle to showcase some of the new designs that inventors have come up with.

GallonDaily commends the Foundation for its work in this field for a number of reasons that may have equally valuable relevance to other product categories:

  • who knew, or at least had thought about the fact, that most of the world needs an environmentally improved toilet?
  • who had considered that our current ‘Thomas Crapper’ toilets, even with a six litre flush, use vast amounts of water that does not exist in many parts of the developing world?
  • who had thought about the fact that even pit toilets contaminate ground water and spread disease when used in densely populated cities, towns, and villages?
  • why were we not considering that human waste can be used to generate electricity and hence provide community residents with light and communications that are otherwise not readily available to them.

No doubt there are all kinds of other products that we should be greening but about which we are not yet thinking.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made addressing the sanitation issue one of its top priorities. Grants have been given for:

  • A toilet that produces biological charcoal,  minerals, and clean water.
  • Turning the toilet into an electricity generator for local use.
  • A urine-diverting toilet that recovers clean water on site.
  • A community bathroom block that mineralizes human waste and recovers clean water, nutrients, and energy.
  • A community scale biochar production plant fed by human waste.
  • A toilet that uses mechanical dehydration and smoldering of feces to recover resources and energy. (This is the one technology proposal from Canada (University of Toronto) that is being funded.)
  • A solar-powered toilet that generates hydrogen and electricity for local use.
  • A pneumatic flushing urine-diversion dehydration toilet.

Details of these ‘upstream technology’ (toilet) reinvention projects are at

A full description of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation work on water, sanitation and hygiene is at