Zero Waste with Guest Star Paige McNeely – Podcast #6

Today we talk about going Zero Waste, the Montreal plastic bag “ban” and various CSAs in the region with our guest Paige McNeely.

World Water Day: connecting us to nature and outlining the changes we need today


The world’s waters are in peril and I wrote this post to share my experiences of today in celebration of World Water Day. Today I had the amazing opportunity to attend World Water Day at my university. I even got a fancy name tag and everything. Overall, it was a great day of learning about the amazing water research my colleagues are doing and to share new innovative ideas on how to deal with the world’s water crisis.

The day began with The Water Song interpreted by UW’s Indigenous Students’ Society. This song represents the cultural importance of water to Indigenous communities in Canada. For Indigenous peoples, water is seen as a living thing, a spiritual entity that emits “life-giving” forces. With this, comes the duty and responsibility of its protection and respect by all. This song resonated with the crowd throughout the day, to remind everyone that water scarcity and pollution are not solely ecological and health issues but are merely small parts of the broader holistic perspective recognizing that everyone and everything on Earth are deeply and fundamentally connected and interrelated.

The Water Song fit extremely well into the theme of the day, The Answer is in Nature, A2_POSTER_WWD2018_EN-01which is all about utilizing natural solutions to help solve the world’s water crises. The Keynote speakers,  Tyler and Alex MifflinThey are the stars of their own TV show The Water Brothers, which looks at various environmental issues through the lens of water, aiming to increase the accessibility and understanding of these issues.

With 60 percent of the world’s lakes and 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, Canada is among the most water-abundant countries in the world. Such a fortune, comes immense responsibility that should be followed by examples of protection, preservation, conservation and care. However, Canada is one of the world’s biggest water wasters, consumers and polluters. This was described by Mifflin as The Myth of Abundance which is the idea that we have so much water, we do not need to worry about its quantity or quality, when actually the opposite is true.

In Canada, we may seem very far removed from the current water crisis in Cape Town, however the reality is that it could happen anywhere. Many human activities have disrupted the stability of the Earth’s water cycle to the point of creating a “preferred” water economy, wherein water use and consumption has little to do with natural cycles, but actually has a lot to do with the way humans have modified local ecosystems to meet demand for their desired activities. Water management in Capetown was based on the  more stable climatic conditions of the past, however, human induced climate change has fundamentally altered the water cycle to the point where Capetown’s water management systems simply do not work anymore.

This brings me to my main point, why should we, as Canadians, in the country with such abundant freshwater sources, focus on water issues?

Water is in everything we eat, drink, wear and consume. Our eating and consumption habits connect us to the water challenges all around the world. The water on Earth today has been on Earth for hundreds of millions of years. We share the the water on Earth with all other life forms on the planet now and in those in past and future generations. We are not “running out of water,” per se. With so many people and other living things on the planet, we are running out of ways to provide everyone with the water that they need to live and thrive.

“No water, no life. No blue, no green.” – Sylvia Earle


California is facing many issues with water scarcity due to periodic droughts related to climate change and the destabilized water cycle. Canadians have high dependence on California for winter produce, therefore, much of what goes on down there, affects us up here. To mitigate the water crisis, Californians were told that the best course of action was to take individual actions such as taking shorter showers and watering their grass less etc. These are all good things, that definitely have a positive impact on water conservation, however, the agricultural industry is actually responsible for 70 percent of freshwater consumption. It was those agricultural lobbyists that were encouraging other people to use less water so that they don’t have to.

The truth is that the water crisis is global issue that implicates everybody. To ensure availability and sustainable water management and sanitation for everyone on the planet, we have to think bigger than just taking a shorter shower. For instance, think about your own food choices, eating 10 hamburgers consumes the same amount of water as taking 365 showers. By eating less meat you are inherently are saving more water. We must take these individual actions, but we also must put pressure on governments to put adaptive and sustainable water conservation policies in place. These have capacity to make even bigger differences on even larger scales. When people raise their voices, that’s when changes are made. This is why the Mifflins are so passionate about using use their TV show and media presence to engage and educate people who care and have potential to work toward making the changes that are needed in the world.


The Plastic Tide Citizen Science Project

I’d like to bring a really important citizen science project to your attention today. As you may know, I am very passionate about plastics in the ocean and it is often a huge source of emotional stress when I begin to think about it.

That being said, I often feel like I should be doing more than I am doing to help save the planet because we are running out of time. Being in school and sitting at my desk in my small office everyday,  I find it hard to take the strong activist position that I would like to. So when I came across The Plastic Tide’s project, I got very excited because I finally feel like I am making a tiny impact and helping in some small way, which is extremely important.

The Plastic Tide has created an algorithm that works to identify plastics on coastlines with the goal of determining exactly how much plastics and other man-made debris are actually there. They are seeking people who will examine high-resolution photos of beaches and flag the plastic debris that appears in the photos. This will thus, teach the algorithm how to identify plastic debris, so that it can be used at a more broad scale. It is purely a citizen science effort, which is even more special, as it gives so many people, like me, the opportunity to participate in something they care deeply about, even if it is in just some small way.

Of course, it is not a project that works to solve systemic issues with the creation of plastic debris, however, the quantification aspect is something very important because I believe there is a lot of strength that can come from numbers.

I believe that projects like these are very important in raising awareness and encouraging participation of the people. If people can understand it, they can care about it and fight for the change that the world needs because ultimately, politicians do not enact the needed change, passionate people do.

If you wish to participate in the project, you can do so through their website (link above) or through Zooniverse (as I did). Zooniverse is a platform for all kinds of citizen science projects, so you can explore it and find other projects that mean something to you.

Blog Highlights… from then to now

The Incredible Sustainable Planet has recently reached its 2nd birthday, and already, I can see a huge evolution in not only my writing style, but also in the topics that I chose to publish articles about. My blog has matured from something I would do for fun on Sunday nights in the library, to something more serious, professional and relevant. There are some true gems on this blog that I want to resurface and will highlight them in this post. There are also some very strange posts that I just want to bury and hope will never be read again.

First on the list is Zero Waste Week at McGill. This was the first time I was exposed to the zero waste movement and I was so excited to take part in all the social events, but with my crazy busy schedule, I wasn’t able to. I still tried to do the challenge on my own, but failed miserably, because I just wasn’t prepared or thinking enough about it. Luckily, I’m taking a second go at it with this year’s New year’s resolution in my own way which will most likely be more successful. Following the zero waste theme, I wrote about Revolutionizing Disposable Utensils which was a project on Kickstarter about disposable utensils that you can eat once you’re done using them. This was such a great idea, as it could drastically reduce the number of plastic utensils that get used once and then are thrown away.

Next up, is Trading Convenience for Sustainability which is the article I wrote when I had two hydrologists as professors. They both introduced me to the immense impact of human water use on the planet and also led me to write Some Interesting Perspectives on Water Usage, which also talks about the hidden water use that comes in products that you wouldn’t normally think about as a heavy water user.

Bringing Back the Woolly Mammoth sounds a bit silly, but actually features some very important information about the human domination of the planet and about recent advancements in genetic cloning that can actually make de-extinction possible.

Did you ever wonder if store-bought eggs could hatch? Well I can answer that! Yes, it is possible for store bought eggs to hatch, was surprisingly, this blog’s 3rd most popular article!

Finally, the most popular article from the past two years has been The underlying truth to why Montreal’s plastic bag ban doesn’t actually ban plastic bags by a landslide. This article talks about how the by-law implemented to eliminate the distribution of plastic bags in retail stores in Montreal could potentially be the source of more plastic waste.

The past two years have been absolutely life-changing for me, completing my undergraduate degree at McGill and then moving hundreds of kilometers away to start my Master’s degree. Since then, I’ve met so many new inspirational people, traveled far and wide, learned so much, and had so many incredible experiences. During all of this, my blog has matured so much, it got a new name, its own domain, new members, new segments, and has really been able to portray my own personal journey and evolution. I hope to always continue writing and bringing important issues to the attention of my followers.

And of course, remember that we always love to get feedback from our readers, whether it is comments, questions, suggestions or contributions of any kind. Hope you enjoyed reminiscing the past years as much as I did.


Wrath of the Water Bottles – Podcast #2

In this podcast we talked about the impact of disposable water bottles on our planet. From shocking facts to various alternatives we dive into the bottled realm of water. We are not in any way sponsored by or affiliated with any of these companies discussed in this podcast. Enjoy!



National Geographic Kids;  David Wolfe; USA today

Pollution video:


Pay for the subway by recycling; Ecologic water bottles; 360 Paper water bottles; Edible water bottle/blob; Jayden Smith’s Company; Turning plastic water bottles into rope; Water bottle crafts

Cool Sustainable Inventions- Podcast #1

In this podcast we talked about some really cool products/inventions that promote sustainability. We are not in any way sponsored by or affiliated with any of these companies. These products are just some things that we’ve seen around the internet that caught our attention and that we believe deserve yours. Enjoy!

Here are the links to the products discussed in this podcast:

  1. The Drumi:
  2. Pineapple leather:
  3. Zero electricity air conditioner:
  4. Clean up the ocean:
  5. Edible drone that delivers humanitarian aid:
  6. Machine pulls drinking water out of the air:
  7. SALt Lamp:
  8. Sprout Pencil:

Drivers of Past and Present Biodiversity Changes in the Peruvian Andes

The Peruvian Andes are a biodiversity hotspot with 25 000 species of plants, 700 bird species, 450 mammal species and 2000 fish species. While most of these are in the Amazonian (East) side of the Andes, the West side has its fair share of this diversity, mainly in its vast montane forests. Of these species, 122 are threatened due to land use change, deforestation, melting glaciers and drought (local climate change). When exploring the biodiversity gradient of the Andes, it is important to understand the concept of species richness which is the total number of species in a particular total area. This paper will explore the general relationship of biodiversity and elevation, how landscape changes have shaped the biodiversity of the Marañón valley and Andean ecosystems at risk.

Considering that the West Peruvian Andes are generally a desert ecosystem, many of the species that reside there have evolved adaptations for water conservancy and extreme temperatures. Temperature poses direct physiological constraints on many organisms as well as indirect constraints through food and resource availability. Many plants cannot grow in extreme aridity, however the plants that do grow, have adapted to the lack of moisture through the development of a variety of mechanisms including succulence, wide spacing (to reduce competition for moisture), allelopathy, deciduous habits, thorns, and rapid life cycles. Insect abundances are also limited by water availability, as many need small pools of water to lay eggs or for larvae to grow.

Water availability and temperature are therefore the primary influences on species richness, as the physiologies of organisms are adapted to particular ranges of conditions and their food (plants and insects) are also constrained by water and temperature. The water and temperature gradients of the West Peruvian Andes can be observed in Figure 1. Peak in water availability (precipitation), as determined by McCain (2006) is at approximately 1500 -2000m, and in many cases, species richness also peaks at this elevation. Below is an example of how bat species richness in the Andes is influenced by the temperature and water availability gradients.

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Figure 3 Distribution of Mimosa species in the Maranon valley


Species diversity in the Marañón valley contains a very high level of endemic species richness, mainly in terms of plant species. In a study conducted by Särkinen et al. (2011), it was found to harbor nine endemic Mimosa species and about three more widespread species with their distribution shown below. This valley is also home to many endemic species of Inca-finches, scaled lizards, land snails, and harlequin frogs. Distribution of these species appears to be fragmented, with species occurring in isolated patches. When observing and comparing the phylogenetic trees of Andean Mimosa, as well as Coursetia, Poissonia, and Cyathostegia, the sequence divergence patterns and the presence of monophyly (each taxa containing all descendants of a single common ancestor in the narrowly restricted) in geographically isolated species suggests that these species have been isolated for a long time, but all originated from the same area. This is referred to as geographic speciation, in which physical isolation is the key component in splitting the single ancestor into two species. In addition, Särkinen et al. (2011) observed high local endemism, as well as high elevation habitats fostering narrowly restricted species. These results suggest that the species diversification over large time scales was largely driven by landscape features isolating populations, specifically the high Andean Cordilleras.

As mentioned above, although the Peruvian Andes are home to a vast number of species, many are endangered. In Peru, ~75% of endangered species are protected by one of many national and international agreements and treaties that Peru is involved with. The Marañón valley has been deemed a biodiversity hotspot of global conservation priority because of its high number of endemic fauna and flora, but its dry forests are still largely unprotected. These species are at risk mainly because of human-induced climate change.

Climatic studies of Peru and surrounding areas, have shown that general conditions are shifting toward being warmer and drier. Shifts in precipitation patterns and type of precipitation (solid, liquid or mist) could cause increased erosion and landslides in some places, and severe drought in others. These changes will likely affect the abiotic functions of ecosystems as well as ecosystems that span the steep slopes of the montane or cloud forests. Cloud forests are particularly vulnerable, because the structure and functioning of the ecosystems are dependent on the level of cloud bases, which is predicted to shift with climate change. Rising cloud bases could lead to decreased moisture in some areas. This has severe consequences on epiphyte species that have evolved epiphytic characteristics because of abundant moisture. These effects do not occur in isolation, as collapse of the base of the food chain (plants) tends to lead to trophic cascades.

In terms of aquatic ecosystems, rising temperatures and lower precipitation levels could result in diminished wetlands and lower dissolved oxygen levels. High temperatures will reduce the capacity of water bodies to dissolve oxygen, leading to increased mortality of many organisms with narrow temperature ranges organisms. As wetlands dry up, the habitat of many species is destroyed and they could even shift from carbon sinks to become potential carbon sources, further amplifying the effects of climate change.

Changes in the physical environment could also lead to contractions or expansions in species ranges in terms of area, and disappearance or migration of species. A recent study by von May et al. (2008) showed three frog species expanded their historical ranges to higher elevations because of recent de-glaciation, while three other species migrated to other areas. Species shifting ranges and relocating themselves will have many (unknown) effects on ecosystems structure and functioning. It also leads to the creation of many no-analog ecosystems, for which there are many uncertainties about whether or not functional roles of shifting species will be replaced by new species migrating into ecosystems.

Biodiversity of the Peruvian Andes has always been and will continue to be shaped by the climatic conditions (temperature and precipitation) and landscape features. Current climate change continue to put pressure on many ecosystems, particularly ecosystems that contain organisms with narrow temperature ranges and low resilience. Further climate changes could lead to changes in the landscape features and continuity, leading to isolation or even uniting of previously isolated species, highlighting the immense dynamism of these ecosystems.


Anderson, E. P., et al. (2011). Consequences of climate change for ecosystems and ecosystem services in the tropical Andes. SK Herzog, R. Martínez, PM Jørgensen y H. Tiessen (comps.), Climate Change and Biodiversity in the Tropical Andes. São José dos Campos y París: Instituto Interamericano para la Investigación del Cambio Global y Comité Científico sobre Problemas del Medio Ambiente.

Facts about Peru’s biodiversity and environment. (2016). Retrieved 29 April 2016, from

McCain, C. M. (January 01, 2007). Could temperature and water availability drive elevational species richness patterns? A global case study for bats. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 16, 1, 1-13.

Sarkinen, T. E., Simon, M. F., Hughes, C. E., Marcelo-Pena, J. L., Daza, Y. A., & Toby, P. R. (February 01, 2011). Underestimated endemic species diversity in the dry inter-Andean valley of the Río Marañón, northern Peru:   An example from Mimosa (Leguminosae, Mimosoideae). Taxon, 60, 1, 139-150.

von May, Rudolf, et al. “Current state of conservation knowledge on threatened amphibian species in Peru.” Tropical Conservation Science 1.4 (2008).


Budget Allocations Open up Agrifood Research opportunities at McGill

Included in the most recent provincial budget announcement is a very promising opportunity for research at McGill. The Quebec government has allocated $1 million per year for the next five years to create the McGill Agrifood Innovation Network (MAIN).

This network initiative will be led by the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in conjunction with Conseil de la transformation alimentaire du Québec (CTAQ) and Saint-Hyacinthe Food Research and Development Centre (CRDA), as well as other universities. The McGill University Business Engagement Centre (MUBEC) also contributed to getting this network in motion, as the opportunities for growth in agribusiness in Quebec are on the rise.

McGill has been known to be a strong research university. Pairing these strengths with agribusiness policies in government and industry could lead to great advancements in agribusiness as well as increasing research opportunities at McGill.

When producing food on an industrial scale, there is a tremendous amount of transportation and storage needed to get a given product from the producer to the consumer. Adding preservatives to food products is often essential to ensure that the product will not spoil and will still be safe to eat by the time it reaches the consumer. The food must also be suitable for consumption for a reasonable amount of time afterward (shelf-life). Preservatives act to prevent or slow the growth of any microbes or mould in the food, keeping it as fresh as possible for the longest amount of time.

Most commonly, synthetic chemical preservatives are used in many products and they tend to have complicated and long names: Sodium benzoate, calcium propionate, and sodium erythorbate. These names can confuse consumers when reading the food labels if they are not familiar with chemistry nomenclature. In the recent past, certain common preservatives have been questioned regarding potential links to cancer, notably butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA). It was officially banned from being added to processed foods sold in Canada once a significant amount of evidence supporting a possible link to cancer was discovered. “More specifically, BHA is considered as an epigenetic carcinogen because it causes cell proliferation via epigenetic events” states a 2012 review article from the Obstetrics and Gynecology International Journal looking at Epigenetics and Breast Cancers.

This case and similar ones are driving consumers toward having ‘clean’ labels, meaning that the products contain natural ingredients with familiar names such as grapefruit seed and rosemary extracts.

These natural preservatives are not always as effective or efficient as the more common chemical preservatives, but still have potential for development, and this is where MAIN comes in.

The main driver for the development of MAIN is the increasing consumer demand for (artificial) preservative-free and minimally-processed foods that still have reasonably long shelf-lives. The group working in MAIN will have this goal in mind and while working with natural ingredients to produce foods that meet those criteria and are economically feasible to produce on a larger scale.

The discovery or innovation of new natural preservatives is a rigorous and long process which undoubtedly requires a tremendous amount of research. This will open up many group research projects within the Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Faculty as well as interdisciplinary research projects for graduate students.