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The straight poop on disposable diapers, from cloth alternatives to a recyclable future





Waves of Change is a CBC series exploring the single-use plastic we’re discarding, and why we need to clean up our act. You can be part of the community discussion by joining our Facebook group.    

The memory of a maternity ward nurse showing me how to wrap a tiny diaper around my newborn daughter seems almost laughable to me now. It seemed such an intimidating task.

Fast forward two years, and I feel as though I have gone through those motions thousands of times.

In fact, I have. If one baby averages five diaper changes a day, that’s 1,825 changes a year, and 4,563 changes by the time they reach 2½ years old and are (fingers crossed) in the throes of toilet training.

Joe Schwarcz has compared disposable and reusable diapers as part of his research at McGill University. (Submitted by Joe Schwarcz)

Multiply 1,825 changes each year by all the babies and toddlers out there, and the result is a soggy, stinky mountain of diapers.

“The volume is fantastic,” says Joe Schwarcz, a professor of chemistry and director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society.

“We’re disposing something like 30 to 40 billion diapers every year into landfills in North America. That’s a huge amount of diapers.”

It’s also a huge problem for a society coming to terms with its single-use plastic dependency.

The bad news? Babies haven’t stopped pooping. The good news? Adults haven’t stopped innovating.

The diaper breakdown

Disposable diapers have come a long way since they were first invented in the late 1940s, and the modern-day product is “actually quite an interesting and complex concoction,” said Schwarcz.

Its outer layer is typically a plastic — polypropylene or polyethylene — while its inner layers often contain an absorbent fibre derived from wood pulp. But the real star of the show, according to Schwarcz, is what’s mixed in with that fibre: a polymer called sodium polyacrylate, “which just has an amazing ability to absorb moisture.”

Because of a lack of oxygen, even the fibrous parts of these disposables stand little chance of biodegrading in a landfill. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Exact formulations of these plastics and polymers are tightly guarded trade secrets in a competitive and lucrative industry, but they share a common fate: once disposables are sent to the landfill, they stay there.

“In theory, there are biodegradable parts [of diapers],” said Schwarcz. “But the fact is that biodegradation takes place only under perfect conditions, not in a landfill.” 

Building a better diaper

To the diaper industry’s credit, companies have worked to reduce the amount of non-perishable material they use.

One study — conducted by Procter & Gamble, the makers of Pampers, but verified by what they called “external experts” — stated that the company’s average American diaper in 2010 weighed 45 per cent less than its 1992 version.

But that same study found innovation slowed from 2007 onward, saying “it is hard to make a small diaper smaller.” 

For all their efforts to reduce their products’ environmental footprints, the Pampers study and others concluded the majority of a disposable’s environmental footprint comes from its creation rather than its landfill afterlife, as is commonly believed.

“Used diaper waste causes caregivers concern because they see much of it,” stated the Pampers study.

Disposables ‘a kick in the teeth’

That’s a concern Heather Osmond can relate to.

The cost savings initially attracted the Corner Brook, N.L., mom and her husband to try cloth diapering their son Nolan, after using disposables when he was born and realizing the legacy that would leave behind.

Nolan Osmond wore nothing but cloth diapers from the time he was about 10 weeks to age 3½. (Submitted by Heather Osmond)

“My child’s diapers would literally be here longer than my great-great-grandchildren,” said Osmond. “It was almost a kick in the teeth to realize how long our garbage was going to be sitting around.”

Osmond threw herself into reusables, using them exclusively until Nolan was fully toilet trained at around 3½ years old.

“His diapers that started at the very, very beginning with him being 10 weeks old lasted him right up until potty training. That was amazing,” she said.

Cloth pros and cons

Osmond diverted thousands of diapers from landfill.

Elsewhere in Canada there efforts to promote reusables: several Quebec municipalities now offer cloth diaper subsidies, aiming to win over more parents.

But that doesn’t mean cloth is the clear environmental winner overall in the diaper debate.

Cotton, the most popular source material for cloth diapers, requires immense amounts of water and chemicals to produce. Schwarcz estimated cotton soaks up 25 per cent of the world’s insecticide use despite being grown on just three per cent of its arable land.

Then there is the laundry issue. It can take a lot to get a cloth diaper clean — hot water cycles, sometimes in duplicate for the heaviest soiled loads — not to mention the amount of time the absorbent pads require in a dryer.

How caregivers clean their cloth diapers can make the difference to its environmental impact. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

One exhaustive study by the British government considered all those concerns and concluded that disposables diapers (or nappies, in British parlance) beat out cloth by a hair.

But that conclusion comes with a big asterisk.

“It is consumers’ behaviour after purchase that determines most of the impacts from reusable nappies,” the study stated, adding cloth can trump disposables if they are washed in water temperature at 60 C or less, are air dried and are used on a second child.

Schwarcz said by laundering mindfully, cloth beats disposable, “but it’s not a landslide victory.”

“If I were to put all of this together, my answer would be to use the cloth at home and disposables when travelling.”

Compost and recycling

But there is another way, one Schwarcz sees as better suited to the hygienic standards required in daycare centres and nursing homes: recycling disposables.

The industry is in its infancy in Canada, but the City of Toronto has been turning parts of disposable diapers into compost since 2002.

Dirty disposables are collected curbside with other organic waste and brought to a processing facility, where all the organics are put into “basically a giant washing machine,” said Nadine Kerr, a manager with the city’s solid waste management services.

That washing machine separates plastics from organics; the plastics float to the top and are raked off then sent to landfill, while the organic materials — including baby poop — are sent on to anaerobic digesters, which create compost.

Torontonians compost 12,000 diapers and sanitary products each year through the city’s green bin service. (Getty Images)

Eacy year, the city’s facilities — which Kerr confirmed “definitely” smell inside — process 12,000 tonnes of baby and adult diapers, along with used menstrual products.

“The idea was to get as much diverted from landfill as we could,” said Kerr.

Toronto may be doing more with disposables than most other Canadian municipalities — although check out these Calgary dads offering a similar service — but some overseas innovators are taking it a notch further.

Private companies in the U.K., like Knowaste and NappiCycle, now recycle all parts of disposables, even the plastics. 

“Certainly it’s doable,” said Schwarcz. “The question is whether or not it is economically feasible.”

But as Canadian demographics continue to skew older, Schwarcz said that economic question may soon become moot.

“There is a driving force for this because, of course the, population is increasing, especially the older population — and they use a lot of these incontinence products,” he said.

“The best thing would be if these recycling facilities become commonplace.”

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla





Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm





Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover





KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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