Science·What on Earth?

COVID-19 lockdown is already affecting some greenhouse gas emissions

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at how coronavirus quarantines are affecting air quality and the upside of bidets.

Also: The movement to electrify school buses is growing

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! 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:

  • Coronavirus quarantines are having an effect on air quality
  • With toilet paper selling out, is it time to consider the bidet?
  • Charging ahead: The movement to electrify school buses is growing 

The Big Picture: Nitrogen dioxide emissions in Italy

Countries around the world have imposed drastic measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. China put a sizable part of its massive population on lockdown, and Italy — the hardest-hit country outside China — did the same with its approximately 60 million citizens.

While stopping the spread of the disease is obviously Job #1, scientists have discovered some environmental effects of curtailing business as usual.

Using satellite imagery, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), which is overseen by the European Commission, captures daily analyses of air pollutants and has discerned changes as a result of COVID-19-related measures across the world.

The images below of northern Italy were taken on Jan. 31 (left) and March 15 (right) and show a significant drop in concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, which is generated from things like traffic, energy generation and home heating. The CAMS said "it is possible to confirm a gradual reduction trend of about 10 per cent per week over the last four to five weeks."

(Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service/European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts)

Reader feedback

After we posted a story about in-pipe turbines that generate hydroelectricity in Halifax's municipal water system a couple of weeks ago, we got a note from Berkeley Scott of TOTO Canada West. She said a similar technology is used in her company's toilets, urinals and faucets in many public washrooms. 

The system is called EcoPower, and the turbine turns when water flows into the toilet during flushing. That generates power that's stored by a capacitor, which is then used to power the automatic flush and faucet sensors, the solenoid valve that controls the flush and a sensor that determines how big a flush is needed. 

Not only does that save energy, Scott said, but having a system that generates its own power also means the system doesn't have to be plugged into the grid. You can watch a video of how TOTO's EcoPower works here.

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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

With toilet paper selling out, is it time to consider the bidet?


Concern about the effects of COVID-19 has led a fair number of people to stockpile toilet paper. While a leading Canadian toilet paper manufacturer says any shortages of its products will be short-lived, some people say that wiping our nether-regions with paper is a bit passé anyway, for reasons related to hygiene and the environment. 

Bidets and other bathroom fixtures for cleaning with water are common in Europe and Asia, yet haven't cracked the mainstream market in Canada.

But there are signs of increased interest. Miki Agrawal of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Tushy, which makes toilet seat attachments that work like a bidet, said her company has seen exponential growth year-over-year since Tushy was founded in 2015. 

Agrawal said less than 10 per cent of Tushy's sales come from Canada, but she is working to secure a warehouse on this side of the border and expand into the market. 

One proponent is Josie St. Amour, who lives in Montreal. "I couldn't live without it," said St. Amour, who bought a Tushy product two years ago after being introduced to bidets on a trip to Europe. "I'm surprised that nobody uses them on our side of the world."

Bidet devices come in many forms. In Europe, the bidet might be a porcelain bowl installed next to a toilet. In Japan, the bidet-toilet combination might have multiple washing and drying settings (and even the choice of music for added privacy). 

On the other end of the spectrum is the simple hand-held hose or the systems that attach to a toilet seat. All draw clean water from the same pipe as the faucet. 

Despite the apparent practicality of bidets, many Canadians wrinkle their nose at the idea of giving up toilet paper in favour of a jet stream of water.

"I think it is just that 'yuck' factor," said David Hardisty, assistant professor of marketing and behavioural science at the University of British Columbia's Sauder school of business. "People are generally grossed out about ... anything related to going to the bathroom."

Perhaps not surprisingly, people elsewhere in the world think trying to remove feces from one's body without water is equally disgusting.

"My Italian friend is grossed out that North Americans use paper," said Hardisty, echoing his friend's words. " 'Really?! You just smear paper around on your butt and then you just go walking around like that?' "

Hardisty hopes Canadians do warm to the bidet, at least for the sake of the environment. While single-use plastics are becoming socially blacklisted, there's been comparatively little discussion about the impacts of toilet paper, which can contain up to 40 per cent virgin fibre pulp from Canada's boreal forest. 

According to a 2019 report from the non-profit Natural Resources Defence Council, the average American uses 141 rolls of toilet paper annually. In France, believed to be the birthplace of the bidet, people use half as much. (The report didn't have statistics for Canada.) 

Omar Zitoun, who lives in London, Ont., but grew up in Egypt and the Middle East,  has always had a bidet in his home. His message is simple: "People spend crazy amounts of money on toilet paper."

Karen McColl

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Charging ahead: The movement to electrify school buses is growing

(Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

After a parents group called For Our Kids advocated for more environmentally responsible transit, British Columbia's Education Ministry announced it is planning to spend $13 million to buy up to 15 electric school buses for 2020-2021. 

In a statement released March 9, Education Minister Rob Fleming said that "tackling climate change is critically important for all of us, and our school system can play a part in helping cut carbon pollution."

Matt Price, co-ordinator of For Our Kids, believes "during the climate crisis, no new diesel buses should be bought at all." 

Among other efforts to reduce carbon pollution in Canada, there has been a growing movement to electrify school buses. Quebec and Ontario have been using them in some regions for a couple of years. In February, P.E.I. Premier Dennis King announced his province will commit to "full electrification" of its school bus fleets "over the next few years." 

The Government of Canada has acknowledged the downsides of school buses that run on diesel fuel. Not only are they carbon-emitting, but they also contribute to poor air quality around schools and in the buses themselves. This can be especially harmful for children, who can be more sensitive to the effects of air pollutants.

Canada is actually home to a number of electric bus manufacturers, including BlueBird and Lion Electric (both Quebec), New Flyer (Winnipeg) and GreenPower Bus Company (B.C.). BlueBird's battery-powered buses, for example, have a range of up to 120 kilometres — typical for electric school buses — after being charged for 4 1/2 hours. Because they don't have internal-combustion engines, they are less expensive to maintain.

According to a 2018 study by the Salt Spring Community Energy Group, switching the fleet of 12 school buses on B.C.'s Salt Spring Island to electric, for example, would save the district about $50,000 annually in fuel and maintenance costs — or more than $4,100 per bus.

That said, a typical electric school bus currently costs more than double a diesel one. For example, Lion Electric sells traditional school buses for $110,000 and electric ones in the range of $260,000-$400,000. There are also installation costs for charging stations, which could run more than $100,000 for a dozen buses.

Although Canada appears to be adapting to electric buses, most of these homegrown vehicles are currently being sold to the U.S. — especially in Virginia and California. The California Energy Commision has earmarked more than $94 million US to transition to electric buses across the state through the School Bus Replacement Program. 

While pleased about B.C.'s recent announcement, Matt Price of For Our Kids said that this is just the beginning. He said his organization will "ramp up the B.C. electric school bus campaign until there's no more diesel."

Farah Chandani

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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