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Q&A: Lessons from living (almost) plastic-free for a month

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Viola Pruss went (almost) plastic-free for one month, her experiment part of CBC Atlantic’s Waves of Change series.

Pruss wanted to see how achievable a plastic-free lifestyle was and what she could learn about her own plastic use from cutting it out of her life.

Here’s what she had to say.

Q: How did you define single-use plastics for your challenge?

Viola Pruss: For most people it’s just straws or plastic bags … certain packaging. [For this challenge] I expanded it to items that you might use for a little bit longer but you still only use once, like the toothbrush for example. 

Pruss’s bathroom drawers before and after she removed all the plastic items she ditched for the month. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

What was the craziest thing you discovered had plastic in it?

VP: The craziest one from all of them was tea bags. I read in an article in The Guardian that a lot of tea bags are made with plastic to keep their shape, which I thought was insane. I looked at my own tea bags, which one of them once fell into the dishwashing machine and after the dishwashing was done it was still in that perfect little shape.

So I was starting to wonder how many of our Canadian tea bags are also made with plastic in them, and just for the silly purpose of having them look pretty? You hear all these reports of not putting plastic in the microwave, so I’m thinking, “I’m pouring hot water on this plastic tea bag, what happens with that?”

Baking soda and water for homemade toothpaste doesn’t taste great, according to Pruss. (Mike Heenan/CBC)
 
You kept your plastic toothbrush. What other things were you tempted to keep?

VP: I kept the toothbrush, I was very tempted to keep the toothpaste. Because the alternative of using the baking soda, it’s so acidic it kinda starts hurting your gums if you’re not used to it. You do get used to the taste eventually.

CBC New Brunswick radio producer Viola tried cutting single-use plastic from her life for one month. Here’s how it went. 3:53

Did you ever mess up?

VP: Yeah, I did. It’s easy when you’re at home and you’re focused on, “I can’t use these things.” It’s when I went out. Once I went to Tim Hortons for lunch and I made sure to say, “I am eating this here.” But I didn’t think about my drink. The other time I went to the movies and I had an all-inclusive ticket that we were using where you get popcorn and it wasn’t until the end of the movie when I went to throw the bag away that I realized. 

This was Pruss’s fridge before she cleared out all the plastic-packaged items. (Angela Bosse/CBC)

How hard it is to cut plastic out of your life?

VP: If you do it like me, it’s pretty difficult. I couldn’t even fully succeed. There’s so much more to think of. Food-wise is easiest because there are so many options and cleaning supplies is fairly easy if you’re willing to make the switch. It’s not cheap. I think there’s a lot of people who couldn’t even financially support this lifestyle because you do spend more on getting the alternatives, especially if you don’t want to make everything yourself.

This is Pruss’s almost empty refrigerator after she cleared out everything packaged in plastic. (Angela Bosse/CBC)

You also need time. Even making a good bread or if you somehow find milk [in non-plastic containers] and make your own yogurt, all of those things take time.

Then there’s all of the things you can no longer use. But then there’s also all the things that you need to use — if you need to fix something on your house, if you need to fix something on your car, you go to a store — where are you going to get all these items that don’t come in plastic packaging? You realize just how much is out there that’s packaged in plastic and for some of these things there’s just no way around them. 

Out of all the plastic-packaged food items she had to give up, milk was what Pruss missed the most. (Angela Bosse/CBC)

Can you save money living plastic-free in the long run?

VP: I think you would on some items … you can, in general, in life save a lot by switching to certain products, like an electric razor. 

What are some of the craziest plastic-free solutions you found during your research? 

VP: The craziest one was the twig instead of a toothbrush. If you don’t want to use a regular toothbrush and you don’t want to use a bamboo toothbrush because those come in plastic packaging, the alternatives I found was using a cloth or a twig. I don’t know maybe it’s a psychological thing, but I tried the cloth and it just didn’t really feel right.

For produce without plastic stickers, Pruss hit up her local farmers’ market and used fruits and veggies from a farm box program. (Angela Bosse/CBC)

What are some plastic-free changes you actually liked?

VP: I did love discovering the bulk store and also going through the supermarket with a different mindset. Because usually you go in and you pick up one thing that you’ve been buying and you know the product but this kind of forced me to look around and really discover all the items that are available and try some different ones … even making your own cleaning supplies.

I think it’s nice to do the research and learn about what alternatives are out there and sometimes where you can save a little bit of money by making something that’s really easy to make. 

Spices and pantry staples, like flour and yeast to make bread, were easy enough for Pruss to find at bulk stores. (Angela Bosse/CBC)

What was your biggest takeaway from this project?

VP: I don’t think the responsibility for changing the way we deal with plastic should just be with the consumer alone. I think we are the ones that can push for the change but I don’t think we should be the ones carrying all the guilt. We live in a world that’s very plastic dependent … I think then it becomes more of a question of is there an alternative we can use instead [of plastic]? Because it’s sterile, it does keep bacteria out really well so there’s benefits to having it, there’s a reason it was invented. I think we need to look at that and find alternatives. 


Waves of Change is a CBC series exploring the single-use plastic we’re discarding. You can be part of the community discussion by joining our Facebook group or email us: wavesofchange@cbc.ca.

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Trudeau Government Should Turn to Sustainable Floor Heating In Its New Deal

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A consortium has been chosen by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) to manage the $1.1-billion overhaul of five heating and cooling plants in the National Capital Region. However, this decision has been met with a lot of disapproval by the country’s largest federal public service union.

Early June, the department announced that Innovate Energy has been awarded the 30-year contract “to design, retrofit, maintain and operate the plants,”winning the bid over a rival group that included SNC-Lavalin.

Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna, said the federal government was “leading by example” in its bid to drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions across the country. McKenna noted that by supporting this project, they’re utilizing heating and cooling infrastructure to promote a more environmentally friendly option.

“We’re very proud that our government is working with partners like Innovate Energy to modernize this critical infrastructure,” she said during the announcement at one of the facilities that will be upgraded, the Cliff Heating and Cooling Plant in downtown Ottawa.

The plants would be known as the district energy system and would heat 80 buildings in the area with steam. It is also expected to cool 67 of these buildings with chilled water through more than 14 kilometres of underground pipes.

Under the Energy Services Acquisition Program, PSPC will be tasked with modernizing the outdated technology in the plants to lower emissions and supportgrowth in the eco-friendly technology sector.

During the first stage of the overhaul, the system would be converted from steam to low temperature hot water and then switched from steam to electric chillers—with the estimated completion date being 2025. PSPC notes that the project will reduce current emissions by 63 per cent, the equivalent of removing 14,000 non-eco-friendly cars off the road.

Afterwards, the natural gas powering the plant will then be replaced by carbon-neutral fuel sources, which according to estimated will reduce emissions by a further 28 per cent. The renovation project is bound to save the government an estimated fee of more than $750 million in heating and cooling costs in the next 40 years.

Furthermore, the implementation of radiant floor heating in Ottawa by the federal government would be an additional step in driving its agenda for a more eco-friendly state.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers website, radiant floor heating has a lot of benefits and advantages over alternate heat systems and can cut heating costs by 25 to 50 per cent.

“It is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because no energy is lost through ducts,” the website states.

Radiant floor heating provides an equal amount of heat throughout a building, including areas that are difficult to heat, such as rooms with vaulted ceilings, garages or bathrooms. Consideringit warms people and objects directly—controlling the direct heat loss of the occupant—radiant floor heating provides comfort at lower thermostat settings.

“Radiators and other forms of ‘point’ heating circulate heat inefficiently and hence need to run for longer periods to obtain comfort levels,” reports the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNet).

Radiant heating is a clean and healthy option—a perfect choice for those with severe allergies—as it doesn’t rely on circulating air, meaning there are no potentially irritating particles blowing around the room. Additionally, it is more energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing with wall radiators or floor registers and virtually noiseless when in operation.

“They draw cold air across the floor and send warm air up to the ceiling, where it then falls, heating the room from the top down, creating drafts and circulating dust and allergens.”

It is important for the leadership in Ottawa to equally drive the adoption of radiant floor heating as doing this would lead to increased usage in residential buildings—and even government-owned buildings.

However, in October, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), a representative body of employees of the plants,began a campaign target at the government against their decision to use a public-private partnership (P3) for the retrofitting project, citing concerns about costs and safety.

According to the union, outside employees won’t be bound to the same health and safety standards of government workers and that typically P3 projects cost a lot more than traditional public financing deals.

The union demands that the government scraps the proposed project and meet PSAC members and experts to brainstorm on a new way forward that would ensure federal employees continue to operate and maintain the plants.

However, parliamentary secretary to public services and procurement minister, Steve MacKinnon said that the union officials have consulted him but that after conducting an analysis, the P3 option was still the best for the job.

“We didn’t have (to) sacrifice on safety or health — we didn’t have to sacrifice on job security,” he said.

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Steps to becoming a Data Scientist

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Data science has become one of the most in-demand career paths in this century, according to Business Insider. With the amount of information being circulated online, it has created a huge demand for storing, interpreting and implementing big data for different purposes—hence the need for a data scientist.

Today, there too much information flying around for regular people to process efficiently and use. Therefore, it has become the responsibility of data scientists to collect, organize and analyze this data. Doing this helps various people, organizations, enterprise businesses and governments to manage, store and interpret this data for different purposes.

Though data scientists come from different educational backgrounds, a majority of them need to have a technical educational background. To pursue a career in data science, computer-related majors, graduations and post graduations in maths and statistics are quite useful.

Therefore, the steps to becoming a data scientist are quite straightforward.  After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in an IT related field—such as computer science, maths or physics—you can also further your education by obtaining a master’s degree in a data science or any other related field of study. With the necessary educational background, you can now search for a job and obtain the required experience in whichever filed you choose to invest your acquired skills.

Here are the necessary steps to be taken to become a data scientist.

Step 1: Obtain the necessary educational requirements

As earlier noted, different educational paths can still lead to a career in data science. However, it is impossible to begin a career in data science without obtaining a collegiate degree—as a four-year bachelor’s degree is really important. However, according to a report by Business Insider, over 73% of data scientist in existence today have a graduate degree and about 38% of them hold a Ph.D. Therefore, to rise above the crowd and get a high-end position in the field of data science, it is important to have a Master’s degree or a Ph.D.—and with various online data science masters program, obtaining one is quite easy.

Some institutions provide data science programs with courses that will equip students to analyze complex sets of data. These courses also involve a host of technical information about computers, statistics, data analysis techniques and many more. Completing these programs equips you with the necessary skills to function adequately as a data scientist.

Additionally, there are some technical—and computer-based degrees—that can aid you begin a career in data science. Some of them include studies in, Computer Science, Statistics, Social Science, Physics, Economics, Mathematics and Applied Math. These degrees will imbibe some important skills related to data science in you—namely, coding, experimenting, managing large amounts of data, solving quantitative problems and many others.

Step 2: Choose an area of specialization

There rarely exists an organization, agency or business today that doesn’t require the expertise of a data scientist. Hence, it is important that after acquiring the necessary education to start a career as a data scientist, you need to choose an area of specialization in the field you wish to work in.

Some of the specializations that exist in data science today include automotive, marketing, business, defence, sales, negotiation, insurance and many others.

Step 3: Kick start your career as a data scientist

After acquiring the necessary skills to become a data scientist, it is important to get a job in the filed and company of your choice where you can acquire some experience.

Many organizations offer valuable training to their data scientists and these pieces of training are typically centred around the specific internal systems and programs of an organization. Partaking in this training allows you learn some high-level analytical skills that were not taught during your various school programs—especially since data science is a constantly evolving field.

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Artificial intelligence pioneers win tech’s ‘Nobel Prize’

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Computers have become so smart during the past 20 years that people don’t think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or seeing their friends automatically tagged in Facebook pictures.

But making those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality required hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun. The trio tapped into their own brainpower to make it possible for machines to learn like humans, a breakthrough now commonly known as “artificial intelligence,” or AI.

Their insights and persistence were rewarded Wednesday with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize. It comes with a $1 million prize funded by Google, a company where AI has become part of its DNA.

The award marks the latest recognition of the instrumental role that artificial intelligence will likely play in redefining the relationship between humanity and technology in the decades ahead.

Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society,” said Cherri Pancake, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, the group behind the Turing Award.

Although they have known each other for than 30 years, Bengio, Hinton and LeCun have mostly worked separately on technology known as neural networks. These are the electronic engines that power tasks such as facial and speech recognition, areas where computers have made enormous strides over the past decade. Such neural networks also are a critical component of robotic systems that are automating a wide range of other human activity, including driving.

Their belief in the power of neural networks was once mocked by their peers, Hinton said. No more. He now works at Google as a vice president and senior fellow while LeCun is chief AI scientist at Facebook. Bengio remains immersed in academia as a University of Montreal professor in addition to serving as scientific director at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Quebec.

“For a long time, people thought what the three of us were doing was nonsense,” Hinton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They thought we were very misguided and what we were doing was a very surprising thing for apparently intelligent people to waste their time on. My message to young researchers is, don’t be put off if everyone tells you what are doing is silly.” Now, some people are worried that the results of the researchers’ efforts might spiral out of control.

While the AI revolution is raising hopes that computers will make most people’s lives more convenient and enjoyable, it’s also stoking fears that humanity eventually will be living at the mercy of machines.

Bengio, Hinton and LeCun share some of those concerns especially the doomsday scenarios that envision AI technology developed into weapons systems that wipe out humanity.

But they are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI empowering computers to deliver more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for instance, or detecting health risks, such as cancer and heart attacks, far earlier than human doctors.

“One thing is very clear, the techniques that we developed can be used for an enormous amount of good affecting hundreds of millions of people,” Hinton said.

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