An aseptic life

When I was young, the stories of so-called bubble boys were considered to be tragedies, living without contact with the outside world because contact with the germs could kill them. These days, living as a bubble boy is a lifestyle choice for some.

The plastics industry recently released a study (PDF) under the alarming headline “Reusable grocery bags may pose public health risk.” Yikes. But just a second here, this doesn’t really pass the smell test.

Just a few short weeks ago, the plastics industry was extolling the virtues of plastic bags: they’re the most environmentally friendly choice, so practical and extensively recycled that they form the very foundation of Western civilization. Hell, they even recommend  that we all “Say YES to reus[ing]” plastic bags! That Big Plastic has suddenly changed its tune from “we’re so good” to “they’re so bad” is telling, and is a real sign of desperation. I’m glad to see that the plastics industry is stooping to this kind of FUD in a last attempt to scare people into using disposable bags.

Just how FUDdy is the plastics industry’s shrieking on this matter? Well, their study claims an “elevated bacterial count of 1,800 colony-forming units (CFU)” on a 16 square inch sample of a reusable bag. Sounds bad. But what does that really mean in context? Well, for starters, the study compares the bacteria level on reusable bags to the safe level in drinking water. That’s pretty pointless seeing as bags (reusable or not) are not drinking water. But let’s play along anyway.

In particular, the study claims that the level of 1,800 CFU is “three times the level of 500 CFU considered safe per millilitre of drinking water.” That is factually true, but one millilitre is not a lot of water: it’s about a fifth of a teaspoon. So a single teaspoon of drinking water can have as many as 2,500 CFU and still be considered safe. A whole cup of water? More than 117,000 CFU and it’s still safe. So to put a different interpretation on their own study, a cup of safe, filtered, potable water may contain sixty-five times the bacteria count found on their scariest, dirtiest reusable bag. Rinsing that bag off would stand a good chance of making it dirtier. Maybe drinking that reusable bag wouldn’t be so bad after all.

The rest of their comparisons are equally suspect: mould on the surface of the bag is compared to mould per cubic metre of air; coliforms on the bag (5) are compared to the recommended level in a millilitre of drinking water (0) instead of the safe level in Ontario (5 per 100 ml from a well). And so on, and so on.

It’s difficult to take anything in the paper seriously, and it’s too bad that none of the mainstream media outlets that reported on the paper really took the author or the industry to task. Most of them chose instead to merely rewrite the press release’s lurid headline and repeat the claims without providing any context. Everyone involved here ought to be ashamed: the plastics industry for commissioning the paper, the researcher for putting his name to this disgraceful and alarmist tripe, and the reporters for not raising a critical eyebrow. Adapt or die, all of you.

For what it’s worth, I’ve been using the same two reusable bags at the grocery store and farmers’ market for about 6 years now. They’ve never been washed. Are they covered in bacteria? Almost certainly. But so is everything else in the world. Unless you’re lucky enough to be a bubble boy.

Ootes defies warning, taunts Happy Fun Bin

Case Ootes newsletter Spring 2008

Case Ootes, just barely Ward 29 councillor for another two and a half years, sends out these wonderful newsletters to his constituents every so often. Earlier this month, the lead story in his Spring 2008 newsletter was about the new garbage and recycling bins that are being rolled out across the city. In four passionless paragraphs, Ootes waxed bureaucratic about the recently-arrived blue bins and the process residents would use to select their new garbage bins. “By now,” it concluded with no hint of rancour, “you likely have had your new recycling container delivered to your home.” Indeed, we were among the last in the ward to get the new recycling bin, and we’d had it for close to six weeks before receiving the newsletter.

About two weeks after the Ward 29 Report bounced into our mailbox, we received a further Special Bulletin, in which Ootes went on the rampage against the very bins he’d just helpfully informed us about:

Last June, in a 26–18 vote, Mayor David Miller and like-minded Councillors voted in favour of the program. I foresaw many problems with the new garbage and recycling bins; that was one of the reasons I VOTED IN THE NEGATIVE. Also, homeowners should not have to pay an extra fee (between $39–$190 / year) on top of property taxes, for garbage collection. The city’s cost to purchase the recycling and garbage bins is a staggering $57 million! This is a shameful waste of taxpayers’ money. (All emphasis in original document.)

The bulletin goes on to level the usual FUD against X (where X is anything that’s different from what people have done or used in the past), claiming that because X isn’t appropriate for a small number of (usually vocal) people, the entire project must be scrapped so that we can do things the old way. It’s funny how this criticism didn’t make it into his newsletter, especially if Councillor Ootes has been as staunchly opposed to the bins for the last year as he claims to have been.

I think it’s completely fair to criticize the new bins over their real or perceived shortcomings, but I think it’s pretty lame for a councillor to pander to his constituents like this. For what it’s worth, I have no problem with the bins, but understand that they can cause problems for some people on some properties. As for whether the big blue bin is ugly, it’s certainly no worse than the lineup of small blue bins that we kept at the front of the house. And the lid is a welcome improvement.

For garbage, we elected to go with the smallest bin. We currently produce only about one shopping bag full of garbage every two weeks, and I only put a single can of garbage out once every four to six weeks. Having a small bin will encourage us to continue to reduce even that amount of garbage.

And now I’m going to go run both newsletter and bulletin through the shredder and line Fletcher‘s litter box with the result.

Liberal values

Behold the inspiring first sentence from Toronto-Danforth Liberal candidate Joyce Rowlands’s page on the Ontario Liberal web site:

Foremost, I’m running because I’m a Liberal and I support Liberal values.

Well, I’m convinced. Where do I sign up? Actually, wait a second. What exactly are Liberal values again? Rowlands concludes:

I’m asking for your vote so Ontario can keep moving forward, and not return to the harsh days of Conservative rule. Let’s not jeopardize the Ontario Child Benefit. And let’s not invite turmoil back into our schools.

Oh right, Liberal values are FUD.

Okay, maybe it’s not fair to judge a candidate based on a short bio posted on the party web site. But that’s not going to stop me from doing it. When the basis of your candidacy is, “I’m not the bogeyman,” it’s time for me to keep flipping through the candidate list.

She’s pro-Portlands Energy Centre, which alone is probably enough to sink her hopes in the southern half of the riding. Interestingly, she was selected to the Portlands Energy Centre’s dysfunctional Community Liason Committee as an “unaffiliated resident” in January 2007, less than five months before winning the Liberal nomination for Toronto-Danforth. She seems pretty affiliated now.