Category Archives: Business and industry

Amusing Monday: Bill Gates talks toilets again

Microsoft founder Bill Gates remains obsessed with human waste — in a good way, of course. His goal is to improve sanitation throughout the world and thereby reduce suffering from disease.

Poop is a subject that never goes out of style with comedians, and Ronny Chieng of “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” is right on top of the subject. In a conversation with Bill Gates, shown in the first video, Chieng demands to know why Gates has been carrying around a jar of human feces.

“Toilets are something that we take for granted,” Gates responds, “but billions of people don’t have them.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a major campaign to get engineers and other smart people to design a small-scale treatment device that generates energy while producing useable water. It’s called the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.

Ronnie Chieng is asking some good questions, but I’m not sure why he needs to blurt out a bunch of four-letter words, when five-letter words like “waste” and “feces” work quite well.

“We’ve put several hundred million into this to show it can be done,” Bill says.

“Several hundred million dollars?” Ronnie responds. “Oh my god, is Bill Gates literally flushing his fortune down the toilet?”

Those who have been following Bill Gates’ efforts for a few years won’t be surprised at his desire to improve sanitation in places around the world where flush toilets are just a pipe dream.

Last month, Gates carried a jar of human feces onto the stage with him in Beijing where he addressed an audience at the Reinvented Toilet Expo.

“This small amount of feces could contain as many as 200 trillion rotavirus cells, 20 billion shigella bacteria and 100,000 parasitic worm eggs,” Gates said, as quoted by National Public Radio. His prepared speech can be found on the website of the Gates Foundation, along with a press release.

About 20 exhibitors were able to show off their inventions, including household toilets capable of internally processing small amounts of waste as well as commercial-sized treatment plants that turn waste into drinking water, electricity and ash.

Sedron Technologies, based in Sedro Woolley, is working at both ends of the spectrum. On the larger scale, its Janicki Omni Processor dries out solid waste and uses it as fuel. On the smaller scale, its new Firelight Toilet was just unveiled at the recent expo and explained in a news story by reporter Julia-Grace Sanders of the Skagit Valley Herald.

Gates discusses what he calls “clever toilet” technologies in the second and third videos on this page. In addition to NPR, the Expo was covered by Popular Science and The Hindu, which localizes the story for its audience in India where sanitation is a monstrous issue.

As I said, Bill Gates has been obsessed with this issue for quite awhile. In 2015, I featured a video about the “ultimate taste test” using sewage effluent. The tasters were Gates and Jimmy Fallon of “The Tonight Show.” See Water Ways, Feb. 9, 2015.

State Sen. Christine Rolfes sees ongoing need to tackle climate change

Climate change will likely emerge as one of the top five issues facing the Washington Legislature next year, predicts state Sen. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge Island, a key leader in the state Senate.

Sen. Christine Rolfes

The issue is not going away, she told me, despite (or perhaps I because of) voter rejection of a billion-dollar climate change initiative on last week’s ballot.

“If you are in elective office and you are aware of threats to the climate and the future of the state, there is a moral imperative to do something,” she said, “even though this particular proposal didn’t pass.”

Still on the table are a multitude of ideas for clean power, cleaner transportation and greater energy efficiency, she explained as we sat down to coffee on Monday at a Bainbridge Island establishment.

The overwhelming vote against Initiative 1631 was not a vote against taking action on climate change, according to Sen. Rolfes. It was a message that voters want to take action in a different way. As chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, with its special focus on budget issues, she will play a key role in the passage of any climate-change measures. See Kitsap Sun, Jan. 6, 2018.

Some people are always going to vote against taxes, she noted, but the swing votes were from people concerned about the huge amounts of money involved, the so-called “loopholes” regarding who would pay the tax, or the uncertainties over how the money would be spent.

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Media minds need new ways to inform people about climate change

The headline on Margaret Sullivan’s column captures the urgency of the moment: “The planet is on a fast path to destruction. The media must cover this like it’s the only story that matters.”

Margaret writes about media issues for the Washington Post. In her column, she worries that the public is missing the story of the century, even as both print and television news outlets dutifully mention the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

How much coverage the average person is able to see and understand is another issue. When the IPCC report came out, the network TV stations dedicated a few minutes to the report but not as much time as they spent covering Kanye West’s visit to the White House, according to Brian Stelter of CNN.

The IPCC’s 33-page “summary for policymakers” (PDF 1.3 mb) is dry reading. It lays out the facts but does not use alarming language to stir people to action. While reading it, I could envision how it might put many people to sleep. Still, I urge everyone to struggle through the document and understand the dire consequences that will come from the failure to act.

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Legal settlement could help protect salmon eggs incubating in gravel

Washington Department of Ecology has agreed to take steps to protect wild salmon eggs incubating in gravel by developing entirely new water-quality standards to control fine sediment going into streams.

The new standards, yet to be developed, could ultimately limit silty runoff coming from logging operations, housing construction and other operations that can affect water quality. The idea is maintain adequate oxygen to salmon eggs, thus increasing the rate of survival as well as the health of the young fish.

The legal agreement with Ecology grew out of a lawsuit brought by Northwest Environmental Advocates against the federal Environmental Protection Agency. NWEA claimed that the EPA had failed to consult with natural resource agencies while reviewing changes in state water-quality standards, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

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Efforts continue to retrieve orca Lolita, despite legal setback

Although the Endangered Species Act may encourage extraordinary efforts to save Puget Sound’s killer whales from extinction, it cannot be used to bring home the last Puget Sound orca still in captivity, a court has ruled.

A 51-year-old killer whale named Lolita, otherwise called Tokitae, has been living in Miami Seaquarium since shortly after her capture in 1970. Her clan — the Southern Resident killer whales — were listed as endangered in 2005, but the federal listing specifically excluded captive killer whales.

In 2013, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) successfully petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to have Lolita included among the endangered whales. But the endangered listing has done nothing to help those who hoped Lolita’s owners would be forced to allow a transition of the whale back into Puget Sound.

This week, the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reiterated its earlier finding that Lolita has not been injured or harassed to the point that her captivity at the Miami Seaquarium violates the federal Endangered Species Act, or ESA.

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New film celebrates the history of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and I was pleased to see that producer/director Shane Anderson and Pacific Rivers are allowing the documentary “Run Wild Run Free” to be shown online for three days before the film goes back into limited showings.

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Amusing Monday: Finding new ways to ride a bike across the water

When a man rides a bicycle across the River Thames in London, people stop and stare — and that’s exactly what 35-year-old Dhruv Boruah wants them to do, as he picks up trash floating on the river.

His message is about plastic pollution. He wants people to know that when plastic gets into the environment, it tends to stay there, breaking into tiny pieces that contaminate the food web.

“I like to be on the water for the adventure,” he said in an interview this month in the London Evening Standard, “and the bike is so unique that it’s a good conversation starter to talk to people and raise awareness about the dangers of plastics, micro-plastics and toxic chemicals to stop these ending up in the ocean.”

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Map of sea level predictions can assist waterfront owners

A sophisticated analysis of sea-level rise in Puget Sound and along the Washington Coast offers shoreline residents and land-use planners a new map-based tool to assess potential flood hazards for the coming years.

Click on map to access online interactive map
Map: Washington Coastal Hazards Resilience Network

Sea-level rise depends on two factors: how fast the oceans rise and the rate of vertical land shifts. Uplift, such as what occurs along the Washington Coast, slows the rate of sea-level rise relative to waterfront property. Subsidence, which occurs in Central Puget Sound, results in elevated tides sooner than in stable or uplifting areas. One map on this page shows the measured uplift and subsidence and another shows the uncertainty in that measurement.

Ian Miller, a coastal hazards specialist at Washington Sea Grant, has worked on studies that describe sea-level rise in Island County and on the Olympic Peninsula. The new report, titled “Projected Sea Level Rise for Washington State” (PDF 10.4 mb) goes well beyond what he and his colleagues have done before. It takes a more detailed look at where the land is uplifting and subsiding, according to Miller, the lead author on the new report that involves work by scientists at Sea Grant and the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.

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Spring Chinook return to the Skokomish River to start a new salmon run

Spring Chinook salmon are being reared at a new hatchery on the North Fork of the Skokomish River. The hatchery is owned and operated by Tacoma Public Utilities. // Photo: Tacoma Public Utilities

For the first time in decades, an early run of Chinook salmon has returned to the Skokomish River in southern Hood Canal.

These bright, torpedo-shaped hatchery fish are the first of what is expected to become an ongoing run of spring Chinook as part of a major salmon-restoration effort related to the Cushman Hydro Project. Eventually, the salmon run could provide fishing opportunities for humans and orcas.

“it is pretty exciting,” said Dave Herrera, fish and wildlife policy adviser for the Skokomish Tribe. “Our objective has always been to restore the salmon populations that were once here.”

Andrew Ollenburg, Cushman fish facilities manager for Tacoma Public Utilities, reported that 19 spring Chinook — 15 females and four males — have been captured at the base of the lower Cushman Dam on the North Fork of the Skokomish River. As of this week, biologists estimated that 50 or 60 spring Chinook were in the river farther below the dam — and more are coming.

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Amusing Monday: Tying gentrification to climate change with humor

“The North Pole,” a seven-part online political comedy, provides some amusing social connections between climate change and the gentrification of aging neighborhoods.

Set in North Oakland, Calif., the story revolves around close friends who have grown up in the area and find themselves struggling against landlords, corporate greed and ultimately their own social consciences. The setting could just as easily have been Seattle or any other city in which low-income housing is being displaced by condos and cute corner malls.

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