Happy new year!

Ok, technically it's tomorrow, so maybe I should say: see you in the new year!

Rotten milk

I ran across an archaeological discovery where cheese-making was confirmed 7,000 years ago.

I'm sure most people know that cheese is an old-fashioned, pre-refrigeration way of preserving milk. It's a pretty interesting preservation method, because it involves a specific kind of bacterial growth—and bacterial growth is usually what's involved in things going bad. I started to wonder: how did people figure out that if you let milk rot in just the right conditions, it doesn't actually rot but turns into cheese?

Which bacteria grow depends a lot on the conditions. With specific nutrients and temperatures, certain bacteria will come to dominate. Sort of like with my home bioreactor, I kept the conditions right for the bacteria I wanted to dominate.

To my surprise, this one turned out to be quite easy, and not as much of a stretch the way chocolate was.

Continuing education

You know how last week I said I'd post something short and easy? Well this is it.

Two places to get general continuing education, which I have been enjoying for some time now:

The Khan Academy, free bite-size videos, usually in the 10-minute range, and exercises to practice what you learn, all free. It's heavily weighted toward math as that's how the whole thing started, but with quite a few other subjects as well. The site also has badges you can win if you like that sort of thing, and you can track your progress through the videos and exercises. You don't have to start at the beginning; I jumped into calculus and linear algebra because I wanted to refresh both of those. (The majority of the math I do at work doesn't use either of those, so I was way out of practice.)

The Teaching Company, multi-lecture courses on a wide variety of subjects. The courses look very expensive, but if you find one you want, just wait for it to go on sale. Everything goes on massive discounted sale at some point during the year, and a lot of the stuff I've looked at goes on sale in the under $40 range for audio-only download. (They also do video download, and CD/DVD shipping for audio/video respectively, as an option for the majority of courses. Those tend to be more expensive.) For 12 hours of audio lectures given by a noted expert in the field, I think it's a pretty good price. (But if you want math, go to Khan Academy. You can't beat both free and fantastically clear explanations.)

I hope some of you find those resources useful.

Greenwashing and CBC: some final thoughts

Well, that ten-post greenwashing series was a bit more work than I had anticipated, but interesting. I learned a lot, so I think that makes it worthwhile. After all, that is the point of this site!

I noticed some common threads running through nearly every item on the Marketplace list, which I've also seen and heard elsewhere. The main one is a fundamental misunderstanding of chemistry. I've lost count of how many times I've heard people in other context using "chemicals" as a blanket term for something bad. It's as if they don't realize that water is a chemical, vitamin C is a chemical, every micro- and macro-nutrient in food are chemicals, everything made of matter—beneficial, harmful, or neutral—is made of chemicals.

And they probably truly don't realize it.

Being a chemical engineer I've been so immersed in chemistry I sometimes forget that after about grade ten general science class, chemistry of any kind becomes optional. A lot of people, probably most people, don't take chemistry and don't have anything more to do with chemistry after that—sometimes to the point of not knowing the difference between an atom and a molecule.

Unfortunately, this seems to lead to a fundamental misunderstanding of what is natural and what is healthy—and what is environmentally friendly. In turn, that makes it really challenging to make informed decisions on those subjects.

At this point, I should probably reiterate my disclaimer from the first post, lest somebody claim a conflict of interest in my interest here. I have no connection with any of the companies or products listed in this series. I don't work in household products at all, in fact. I spend my days doing industrial scale environmental cleanup type work—mostly prevention lately, but I have done remediation as well. I'll also add that if some new, quality research comes to light that contradicts any of my conclusions in the previous ten posts, I'll update the relevant post accordingly as soon as I learn about it.

I'm actually more disappointed in Marketplace than I am in most people who don't understand these things, for two reasons. First, Marketplace probably has the budget to find a good expert to help them and their viewers understand this stuff—and if they don't know where to look, then they should go ask their colleague Bob McDonald: that guy has a team that can find experts in fields you didn't even know existed, and he's really good at explaining things. Second and more importantly, Marketplace have a good reputation for exposing actual problems. I had expected a higher level of accuracy from them, as well as a lower level of gullibility.

Greenwashing and CBC #1: Dawn Antibacterial Hand Soap

Continuing from last week with #1 on the CBC Marketplace "Lousy Labels" greenwashing list is Dawn Antibacterial Hand Soap dishwashing liquid.

As I mentioned last week, Marketplace is a 22 minute show and they did a 10-product countdown, giving them approximately 2 minutes per product, so they had to leave a lot of information out. And hey, I don't have the format restrictions, so here's a bunch more information than they could possibly fit in.

So, product claims. It's a Dawn product, which means it's marketed as a grease-cutting dish soap that's gentle on your skin. This particular Dawn product is the only one on their website which is specifically marketed as antibacterial. It has a picture of ducks and says "Dawn helps save wildlife" on the label, also the only one shown on the website with this labelling. Their Saving Wildlife page lists two US organizations for marine animal rescue, one for marine mammals and one for seabirds, which they donate money to. They also donate dish soap to wash the birds soaked in oil. (Interestingly, the US version of the website doesn't show the ducky label, even though the organizations they support are based in the US.)

Marketplace claims that Proctor & Gamble (owners of the Dawn brand) are making a big deal out of helping wildlife while at the same time putting the ingredient triclosan in their soaps, which Environment Canada has declared toxic to aquatic wildlife, and which (unnamed) environmental groups have called for to be banned. The expert also says that it washes down the drain to the wildlife and builds up in their systems.