False Creek: still not swimmable

Pretty, polluted False Creek

Blame the coliform count for that.  It is higher than last year at the same time, which is not too unusual (there is always variability).

What may be unusual is that the Vancouver Sun decided to make it front page news.  I applaud that, as it helps with public education and does put pressure on our elected leaders.  But it’s not news: the fecal indicators come largely from combined sewer overflows, as it has for decades.  Writes Susan Lazaruk:

“The reason for contamination can vary widely,” said health authority spokesman Matt Kieltyka in an email. “Rain is often a factor contributing to beach water pollution,” because heavy rain overwhelms sewers and forces water into waterways.
“The lack of tidal flush in certain areas, increased human and animal activity and hot weather, which can speed up bacterial growth, are also possible causes,” he said.
False Creek is home to several marinas and moored visiting boats, that sometimes pump raw sewage into the creek.

Not that many people swim in False Creek, granted.  But this is an issue for kayakers, dragon-boaters, paddle-boarders, surf-sailors, and anyone who risks tipping into the water out of an excess of enthusiasm.  And it is also an issue for marine mammals who may be vulnerable to human diseases.

The depressing part is that we’ve had this issue for decades.  But it is encouraging to see that there may finally be less complacency about it.



UBC’s mushroom toilet

Mushrooms make mycelium, a fibrous material – or rather, fungi are made up mostly of underground mycelium, and only when they reproduce do they produce mushrooms, the fleshy (and sometimes edible) part of the organism.

Dried mycelium can be used to make bricks, which are solid enough but biodegrade readily under the right conditions.  A UBC team took advantage of this fact to create MYCOmmunity, the first disposable, biodegradable toilet. According to Kevin Griffin in the Vancouver Sun,

Laurence Crouzet, one of the architecture students, said “The plan is to tackle sanitation in refugee camp while providing a very green sustainable alternative – the mycelium is fully compostable,” she said.  The MYCOommunity Toilet turns human waste in compost. When the mycelium tank is full, which would take about 30 days for a household of five or six people, it’s buried and becomes fertilizer.

The design was the Overall Winner of the Biodesign Challenge at the 2018 Biodesign Summit, which took place on June 21 and 22 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. The article doesn’t specify, but it looks like the urine is handled separately – an added bonus.  Kudos!


Water 4.0 – what’s that? Look at Aarhus.

A pretty street in Aarhus

How do you prevent raw sewage from overflowing into creeks and bays when there’s a deluge out there?  This is becoming a pressing concern as climate change makes it clear that what used to be called “storm of the century” is becoming, well, just another huge storm.

Water 4.0 means being smart about water management, using a lot of real-time sensors and control systems to route sewage or store it as needed to avoid overflows.

For instance, look at Aarhus.  The second-largest Danish city, supposedly the world’s happiest one, has many urban lakes, canals, creeks, and a long seashore.  Its sewage is treated by three wastewater treatment plants, and is conveyed there by combined sewers.  Some of these sewers are much larger than needed for normal flow and so offer potential to store excess storm runoff; there are flap valves that control how much water is stored in these larger pipes.

The Water 4.0 system is an automated real-time data acquisition and control.  What that means is this: a central computer is connected to weather stations and knows how much rain is actually falling, and can tell if an overflow is likely to happen; the computer also knows how much sewage is already stored in the system, and can fiddle with the control valves to maximize the storage as needed.   It can learn from its own ability to predict floods and overflows, and corrects accordingly; it even warns the public if and where an overflow is about to happen (so that swimmers get out).

Sounds complicated, and it is.  But since its implementation the system has saved the city 32 billion Euros compared to traditional control approaches.  Yeah, that’s smart.

Shouldn’t Metro Vancouver consider something like this?

The invention of toilet paper

Who invented toilet paper? It is an American invention, but no, this time it wasn’t Edison.

In 1857, in New York, a character named Joseph Gayetty created squares of paper made of rough manila hemp, treated with aloe to soften it, originally intended for hemorrhoids sufferers.

His ads had a definite style: “[news]paper contains arsenic, oil of vitriol, chloride of lime, potash, soda ash, white clay, ultramarine or oxalic acid…which, if used to any extent, will communicate poison, and that fatally…[this is] medicated paper for the water closet,…the greatest necessity of the age”.

Cartoonist Wertz has Gayetty say “I personally guarantee this product will end your “Rears and Sorebutt” days!”, in a reference to an old joke about wiping with Sears and Roebuck catalogue pages.  Wertz’s delightful book about New York is where I first learned of Gayetty. 

Joseph C Gayetty

But a bit of research shows that I’m not the only one intrigued by the topic.  In 2012 Richard Smyth published Bum Fodder: an absorbing history of toilet paper.  It’s billed as “the ultimate loo book” and looks to be remarkably well researched.  I mean, where do you look up stuff like this?

Poland plans to stop input of P in the Baltic

I just came across a newsclip entitled “Opening the nutrient recovery floodgates in Poland“, courtesy of the magazine WaterWorld (you can watch it here, as well as lots of other cool content).

A quick summary: P (as in phosphorus) in wastewater is a problem; it is a fertilizer, and in small seas like the Baltic P causes the growth of often-toxic algal blooms (eliminating this is considered a top priority by the Baltic Sea Action Plan).  This new initiative, at a sewage plant in Poland, extracts phosphorus from wastewater, precipitating it to form small particles of struvite. Struvite is a phosphorus fertilizer that can be applied where it belongs (on farm fields).

Struvite has an added advantage: it dissolves very slowly, so that the first rain won’t wash it away back into the sea.

Module from the Ostara process at Stickney (courtesy WaterWorld)

The technology to do this comes from a company called Ostara.  Ostara provides operational systems for seventeen plants worldwide (including the giant Stickney plant in Chicago), not counting the one in Poland just announced.

The surprise: it is a made-in-BC technology, and the company’s head office is on Pender Street in Vancouver.  As it happens, Metro Vancouver has something in common with Poland: it dumps nutrient-rich treated sewage right into a small enclosed sea, the Salish Sea in our case.

C’mon, Metro.  Do the right thing…

Koalas and their interesting intestinal flora

Aside from being unbearably cute, koalas are basically weird.  Like the equally cute and iconic pandas, they seem to be stuck in an evolutionary dead-end.  If you’re dependent on just one kind of food (eucalyptus), how do you adapt when conditions change?

And conditions are hard on koalas.  They are quite vulnerable to epidemics – chlamydia, to be specific.  Researchers had put great hope in a newly developed vaccine.  Meanwhile, veterinarians are using antibiotics to treat the disease (often fatal in koalas). But there is an unforeseen complication: the medicine seems to destroy the koala’s intestinal flora, killing them in the process.

If you were ever looking for an example of how essential gut bacteria are, look no further.  Bob Roehr explains the findings of the research team of Katherine Dahlhausen:

[Chlamydia] is transmitted during sex and, more commonly, through pap: a faecal product that females use to wean their joeys.

The team found that antibiotics had little effect on most of the friendly bacteria, but one species was often wiped out: Lonepinella koalarum. This species is crucial because it breaks down harmful tannins, allowing the koalas to digest the tough eucalyptus leaves that make up most of their diet.

Without L. koalarum to detox the tannin, the koalas starve to death.

No known antibiotic kills chlamydia and leaves the friendly bacteria alone. We could feed koalas a probiotic diet to restore L. koalarum, but research on this is in its infancy. “Faecal transplants may be the best method for offsetting the detrimental effects of antibiotics,” says Dahlhausen.

Co-digestion in Stratford

The Stratford courthouse

Stratford, Ontario, may be best known for its Shakespeare festival, but it’s no slouch when it comes to technology.  It recently found a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, produce energy, and save on garbage tipping fees in one single operation.

The basic idea is co-digestion of food wastes.  Stratford, like most cities, has a wastewater treatment system that produces sludge, and the sludge is treated by anaerobic digestion, a process that produces biogas.  Until recently, this biogas was just flared off.  At the same time, the city was paying high fees to get its garbage hauled away.

But rotting food waste will produce biogas, too.  Why not combine the two, sewage sludge and food waste?

The co-digestion system

A great idea, but the devil is in the details, and many cities (hello Metro Vancouver) are reluctant to try it, and with good reason: food breaks down differently from sewage sludge, and just dumping food waste into an anaerobic digestor designed for sewage sludge may not work.

The solution that Stratford adopted is to add a pre-digestion step.  The food waste is first broken down by grinders, then heated, a process that breaks down the material called biological hydrolysis.  The combination of both wastes means that more biogas is produced, which then justifies the cost of an upgrader, which is a system that cleans up the biogas and turns it into the equivalent of pure natural gas.

Renewable energy, and money, from poop!  Shouldn’t everyone copy that?

Details can be found here and here.