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Why organic waste could be a gold mine

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Hello, fellow traveller. This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world(Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Organic waste is the (mushy) gift that keeps on giving
  • How cities can protect themselves from climate change
  • Which city has the biggest tree canopy?
  • Bitcoin vs. the environment

This scientist thinks organic garbage shouldn’t be wasted

Canadian biotech entrepreneur Luna Yu is researching novel uses for organic waste. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

In the 17th century, a German alchemist named Hennig Brand had a dream — of extracting gold from urine. (They were similar in colour, after all.) He didn’t succeed, but he did discover the element phosphorus.

Canadian biotechnology entrepreneur Luna Yu is on a similar quest. Her Toronto-based company, Genecis, aims to turn organic waste like apple cores, chicken bones and soiled tissues into valuable materials. I wrote about the company’s work to turn kitchen waste into plastics for food packaging. But its ultimate goal is even more profitable products, such as cosmetics.

Right now, Yu says, green-binnables aren’t reaching their full potential, “which is why organic waste is still getting sent to landfills.”

Canadian municipalities do try to squeeze a little extra value out of the waste before composting by using anaerobic digesters to extract biogas (i.e. gases produced by the breakdown of organic matter without oxygen), which can be burned to generate heat and electricity. Yu interned at a company that did that, and she realized that turning waste into biogas is an “uneconomic way of dealing with it.”

The trick is creating alternatives. Alchemists thought the key was a mythical tool called the philosopher’s stone, which could turn lead into gold. The modern-day equivalent is bacteria, both natural and genetically modified, that can transform simple molecules into more complex chemicals.

Different bacteria can make different chemicals in different ways. To have as many options of possible, Yu got friends to collect bacteria from all over the world. For example, they’d put some lake water in a little vial while on vacation in places like Guatemala and sneak the microbes back to Canada. Yu hopes to expand and improve what the bacteria can do by genetically modifying them (a concept known as synthetic biology).

Genesis’s first product will be premium compostable plastics called PHAs, which are used in things like medical devices. Yu says PHAs can generate seven times more revenue than biogas.

Next, they have their eye on ambroxides, which are pricey perfume ingredients that were originally found in the intestines of sperm whales but can now be made synthetically. Turning stinky green-bin waste into something that smells so amazing you’d wear it on a date – now, that would be real alchemy.

Emily Chung


Climate change and cities: What are the major risks?

Big cities like Calgary need to find ways to mitigate flooding, among other effects of climate change. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

The effects of climate change — from torrential rains to massive forest fires — are not just obvious in southeast Asia or the southern U.S. They’re being felt in Canadian cities. Nicole Mortillaro asked Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, what cities can do to reduce the risk of extensive damage.

BF: Relative to the most costly form of extreme weather risk within cities – which is basement flooding — as a top priority cities should implement programs that focus on home flood risk assessment. These programs would consist of properly trained people meeting with homeowners at their door, and over the course of a 10-minute conversation, provide the homeowner with basic guidance on 10 steps the homeowner could take around the outside of their property, and within the basement, that would lower their risk of basement flooding.

Relative to problems associated with freezing rain – which for example has proven to be repeatedly problematic in New Brunswick in recent years – within cities, tree-trimming programs should be deployed to prevent ice-laden branches from falling on hydro lines. In most cases within cities, it is not the ice on the lines that proves problematic, but rather ice-encrusted branches that fall onto electric wires.

Relative to forest fires affecting homes and communities in forested regions, there is one answer — large-scale deployment of the FireSmart program. The FireSmart program – which was originally developed in Alberta, and has since benefited from the expertise of all provinces and territories — focuses on pre-emptive measures to limit the probability of a fire entering a town or city, and subsequently lowering the chances that homes will burn when in proximity to fire.

Examples of the FireSmart program in action include establishing a fire-break around a town (e.g., by removing vegetation around the periphery of a town), and at the level of the house, installing fireproof shingles, siding and porches. Also, shrubs should not be planted, and wood should not be stored, within several metres of a house.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


The Big Picture: The cities with the most tree cover

Trees: what’s not to love? They suck up carbon and beautify the outdoors. Bottom line: We need more of them. The World Economic Forum collaborated with MIT’s Senseable Lab to create Treepedia, which shows which major cities provide the most tree coverage of the ground when viewed from above. As you’ll see below, the Top 10 include two in Canada. (Toronto is 14th.)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • The U.S. midterm elections are next week and few candidates for office have put the environment front and centre. This piece argues that rather than try to convince politicians to care, the point should be to galvanize more environmentalists to vote.

  • General Motors is pushing the Trump administration to institute a 50-state plan to speed up electric vehicle (EV) adoption. How? By extending federal tax credits for EV purchases and mandating 25 per cent of the fleets of the big car companies are electric or hybrid vehicles.

  • We try to keep this newsletter positive, but there’s no way to sugarcoat a new study from the World Wildlife Fund, which says 60 per cent of vertebrates have been wiped out since 1970.

How bad is bitcoin for the environment?

The allure of bitcoin has been darkened somewhat by its carbon footprint. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Bitcoin has been a subject of fascination in recent years as an alternative currency and an investment opportunity — as well as a growing strain on the planet’s resources.

The cryptocurrency is based on blockchain, a complicated computing process that maintains a ledger of transactions. Creating new bitcoins (through a process known as “mining”) requires a lot of server power, which in turn requires a lot of electricity. In an interview with our colleagues at CBC Radio’s Spark last year, an economist in Holland pointed out that authenticating a single bitcoin transaction takes as much electricity as running a washing machine 200 times. Yowza.

And bitcoin is only becoming more popular.

A new study by the journal Nature Climate Change said that bitcoin alone could produce enough carbon emissions to push global warming above 2 C in less than three decades.

This has alarmed environmentalists (while giving bitcoin skeptics another reason to hate it). But some analysts have said the analysis is flawed — and that bitcoin may not in fact roast the planet.

The study points out, for example, that much of the bitcoin being mined relies on coal power in Asia. But as the news site Axios writes, the study’s projections “assume that the fuel types used to generate electricity will remain the same as they are today.” And that is unlikely to be the case.

For one thing, more operators of bitcoin farms could be prodded to move to less carbon-intensive regions. While coal and natural gas are still major sources of energy in many countries, rapid growth in renewables such as wind and solar worldwide suggests that if bitcoin continues to be a going concern, its carbon footprint is likely to become a less significant issue.

Andre Mayer


Stay in touch!

Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future

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Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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