Tomorrow’s Fish and Chips

It’s said that today’s news wraps tomorrow’s fish and chips. In a sense, it’s the British version of the saying that a Persian king commissioned from his philosophers, when seeking an adage that would be suitable for any occasion: “This, too, shall pass.” Perhaps it’s a comfort to disgraced politicians, and the like.

Fish and chips in newspaper

Mmm… inky.

It hasn’t actually been permitted to have old newspapers in contact with food for years now, but still the saying persists. There are even printed paper cones and cartons that are made to look as if they’re old newspapers, which is a curious historical throwback.

Something like a hundred thousand tonnes of newsprint are used daily, and few papers are considered to have much use once a day or two has passed. For one newspaper the useful life was even shorter, and it provides a cautionary tale on the merits of distribution planning.

It was early 1965, and Mr Lionel Burleigh was hard at work creating a new weekly paper. The Commonwealth Sentinel was to be “Britain’s most fearless newspaper”… yet it closed after just one issue had been printed. Burleigh wrote the stories, sold advertising space, and had fifty thousand copies printed. No doubt it was a busy week for him. He met the printing deadline… but forgot to arrange any form of distribution.

In the absence of any instructions, the printer delivered everything to the hotel where Burleigh was staying, blocking the street. Precisely one copy of the newspaper was sold, to a curious passer-by.

If that copy still existed, it would be quite a collector’s item.


Business Models, Fizzy Drinks, and the Supply Chain

When you consider all the different forms of commercial activity, there are a huge variety of business models – variations on the theme of who does what, for whom, when, and what they get in return.

You might dig a mineral out of the ground, and send it to somebody who values it. That’s a business model that has existed since the Stone Age, but it’s still a valid strategy today. Alternatively, you might perform a transformative activity that increases the value of an item, like curing a hide or soldering components onto a circuit board. You might do something less tangible, such as cleaning premises or selling insurance. You simply provide a product, a service, or some combination of the two, and you get paid for it – which could be in hard cash, or some other form of exchange.

There is no ‘right answer’ in selecting a business model, and sometimes there are opposites that both work. For example, there are all-you-can-eat buffets, and there are normal restaurants where what you pay depends upon what you choose to eat. Both types of business survive, despite having chosen very different ways to be paid for what they do.

All-you-can-eat buffet

Homer Simpson: misbehaving at the all-you-can-eat buffet

In restaurants, we expect to find the finest foods on the à la carte menu, while an all-you-can-eat buffet offers somewhat lower quality. Conversely, in mobile communications, the premium offering is the unlimited calls and data package: the equivalent of an all-you-can-eat deal is the top of the line product.

Business models are sometimes the opposite of what you might expect at first glance. For example, the business model of most television broadcasters isn’t to deliver television programmes to people: that’s not what they get paid for. They get paid for delivering audiences to advertisers. (That’s a sobering thought: you aren’t the customer… you’re the product. The same is true for the time you spend using free services such as Facebook, or Google.)

When designing or analysing a business model, it’s important to stick to the basics: who does what, for whom, when, and what do they get in return? Anything else is window-dressing.

Let’s use soft drinks vending as an example. If you want to offer a chilled, sparkling drink to thirsty people, without all the infrastructure of actually building a café and staffing it… you design a vending machine. It’s coin-operated, and it dispenses bottles or cans, right?

Well… maybe. But not if you’re a Soviet-era Russian. The capitalist solution to meet the need for fizzy drink vending was to establish facilities where you would mix water, a syrup concentrate and the carbon dioxide that gives it fizz, and package everything up in a bottle or an aluminium can, and then ship the products out, and place them inside refrigerated machines… but if the planned economy of your country is geared towards other purposes (such as funding the construction of an astonishingly large military) you simply can’t afford this solution. The alternative is to establish a machine that mixes syrup, cold water and carbon dioxide in situ, with no packaging required. So far so good… not unlike the mixer hosepipes that bar staff use to dispense soft drinks in many pubs. But here’s the kicker: the Soviet solution used a communal glass.

Soviet era Vending Machine

Soviet era Vending Machine (Hlynsky, 1989)

In the egalitarian paradise of the 1980s USSR, everyone shared. When you’d finished your drink (gulped it down quite quickly if there was a queue, presumably) you would put the glass back into the machine, upside down, and it would be rinsed out with cold water, ready for the next comrade.

In addition to the question of disease, there was another problem: people would absentmindedly wander off with the glass, rendering the machine useless until it was replaced; a later modification saw them chained to the machine.

Nowadays, we look upon the vending machine with a communal glass with a degree of amusement, or horror… but it illustrates an important point about the supply chain, and the business model: if your plan is to provide fizzy drinks in exchange for money, without the intervention of a human server, it’s a mistake to automatically assume that this involves bottles or cans, and that no alternatives exist. There’s more aluminium used to make drinks cans than airliners. Is that a good use of materials? Is it necessary? Do we really need to stock a machine with a finite number of drinks cans, or might we equip it with a water pipe, dispensers for flavoured syrups, and a tank of food-grade carbon dioxide? Add a nested stack of disposable cups (in bioplastic or paper) and you might have a far more capable machine offering drinks at lower cost and/or with a greater profit margin… as long as buyers want the drink for immediate consumption.

It’s not such a silly idea, is it?

We can learn a lot from the fizzy drinks industry. It’s a highly profitable business, and its executives are among the best. In 1983, Apple’s Steve Jobs famously recruited John Sculley, formerly the youngest-ever president at Pepsi. This was his pitch:

“Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

Then again, in a 1987 interview, John Sculley predicted that the Soviet Union would land a man on Mars within the next 20 years. By then the Soviet Union and its system of government had only four years left, finally grinding to a halt in 1991.

Perhaps there are some things you can’t learn from the fizzy drinks industry.

Embodied Material

In the 1955 film ‘The Dam Busters’ aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis explains that to make a ton of steel, the Nazis require a hundred tons of water. Thus the dams of the Ruhr valley become the target of a new weapon, the iconic bouncing bomb.

Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave as Gibson and Wallis: the Dam Busters

Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave as Guy Gibson and Barnes Wallis: the Dam Busters

Nowadays, targeting a dam would be a war crime, but for us it’s a memorable way to introduce the concept of embodied material: things that are used up in order to create something, even though they don’t feature in the end product. This issue renders highly inaccurate any attempt to measure the environmental impact of a product by simply dismantling it and identifying the material of each component part.

Which brings us, of course, to the cucumber.

When you buy a cucumber, you’re also paying for about 140 litres of water… or somebody is. Now, a cucumber is mostly water, it’s true… but even if a typical 400g cucumber was 100% water, that still leaves approximately 139.6 litres of water that you don’t see. What happened to it? Quite a bit of it leaked away or evaporated before it ever reached the root system of the cucumber plant. Transpiration – the loss of moisture from the leaves, stems, or flowers – accounts for much of the rest, and a little of it was turned into carbohydrates by photosynthesis…


The cucumber (Cucumis Sativus)

This website provides information on the ‘water footprint’ of a range of products, and the implications are startling. Water consumption is expressed in litres per kilogram of end product. For cucumbers (and pumpkins) it’s 350 litres per kilogram.

When we’re in the supermarket, and we select a cucumber that was grown in, say, Turkey (the third largest producer, at a little over 1.7 million tonnes of the things per year), we might do well to remember that 350:1 ratio. In exchange for some small fraction of the purchase price of a 400g cucumber, the typical grower needed almost a seventh of a tonne of water.

When you consider the geography of our planet, water doesn’t seem all that scarce – and it isn’t – but only 2.5% of the world’s water is fresh. The oceans account for virtually all of the rest, and they are too salty for growing crops. Of the 2.5% of water that is fresh, a massive 68.7% is locked up in the ice caps, or in glaciers elsewhere. 30.1% more is beneath the ground, and requires boreholes or wells (which themselves aren’t free from problems, long-term). That leaves just 1.2% of the world’s fresh water actually available on the surface… but 69% of that water is tied up in permafrost. (All figures from the US Geological Survey.)

Basically, the amount of water available for immediate use by humans and animals is tiny – and it isn’t evenly distributed. Last time I looked, fresh water wasn’t all that abundant in Turkey. Extraction of groundwater in order to grow crops might seem to be a bargain; simply borrowing it from the substantial 30.1% of all fresh water that resides under ground… but the resulting lowering of the water table can render present-day wells useless, and cause subsidence or seawater intrusion.

There is really only one piece of good news to be found in the study of embodied water, and that’s if you’re a drinker: beer and wine are relatively ‘inexpensive’, so you can feel that you’re doing your bit for the planet every time you choose to have a glass, instead of reaching for a burger, or a bar of chocolate.

Embodied water graph

Water embodied in some common commodities.

And if you really want to be ‘green’… there’s always cabbage.

Shades of Green

Some years ago, in teaching a sustainable manufacturing module, we asked everyone in the room to identify themselves as belonging to one of three groups; the deep greens, the pale greens, or the sceptics.

By way of definition, the deep greens are people who use an assessment of environmental harm as the major driving force behind the choices they make. The pale greens consider environmental harm among a number of other factors when making a choice, and the sceptics don’t consider the environment at all. They are so-called because they don’t believe that the choices they make influence climate change, etc.

(The language of ‘deep greens’ and ‘pale greens’ hasn’t really caught on, but it’s sometimes seen in the literature; for example in this report.)

With the exception of a couple of outliers, virtually everyone in the room was a pale green. Perhaps that’s unsurprising: it’s comfortable in the middle-ground. Also, students tend to be highly sensitive towards political correctness. Or maybe – just maybe – it means that our future is a little bit brighter, because those up-and-coming young people care about the environment far more than previous generations.

Unless they grow cynical and ‘pragmatic’ as they get older, and start to make compromises, of course. But if they don’t… industry is going to have to clean up its act, in order to serve them.

From a business point of view, deep greens don’t matter, because they don’t buy things. Deep greens have far less of a hold over corporations because ‘make do and mend’ doesn’t show up on their balance sheet, and never has. These consumers are baffling to big business, literally because they don’t consume… or not much. The pale greens, though: they’re on the rise. They don’t just want low-carbon products and services; they want ethical sourcing, and the reassurance that they’re doing the right thing.

The sceptics, big business already has a firm grip on. These people eagerly absorb all the blessings that an industrialised society can bestow, perhaps even to the point of getting into debt. (If this quiz about your green lifestyle is right, that’s one significant factor.)

The sceptics (in our class, we elected to call them the greys, since each of the other factions was a colour…) don’t offer a route to growth, since they’re already consuming everything they can. Plus they might make up a smaller proportion of society in the future… so unless the greys manage to increase their spending power tremendously, only the pale greens are going to matter.

Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson: petrolhead, and grey royalty

Market forces, driving a shift towards a ‘green’ future. Of course there’s no guarantee that pale greens make their purchasing decisions on the basis of good science: they could be hoodwinked. (Some more recent posts discuss this, including the one about ‘greenwash’, and the evaluation of the Toyota Prius.) Still, these are interesting times.

Supply chains are going to come under increasing scrutiny. A customer-facing business might sell a ‘nice’ product that is safe, long-lasting and exhibits low energy consumption… but that ‘nice’ product might still have ‘nasty’ suppliers. An apparently ‘nice’ product might feature strip-mined minerals, illegally logged timber, precious stones that funded a civil war, or the products of child labour…

In the age of the Internet it doesn’t take long for a scandal to circle the globe. Manufacturers have grudgingly accepted that they need to make their own operations as clean and energy-efficient as possible; now they need to demand the same of all their suppliers – and their suppliers’ suppliers. Twenty-first century supplier qualification is getting a lot more complicated.

Whatever Happened to MFI?

There’s a short case study that we use on the supply chain strategy module, based upon a piece that appeared in Logistics Manager back in December 2007. You can read it on their website

Page from the magazine

Logistics Manager, December 2007

The article describes MFI’s selection of a 750,000 sq ft warehouse at Thorne, near Doncaster. The classic ‘centre of gravity’ location for a warehouse (ie the Midlands) was considered, and evaluated with the assistance of LCP consulting, but ultimately Thorne was selected, with the intention of making use of the Humber ports.

That’s not a bad idea – although hardly revolutionary. Immingham is a fine, deep sea port, and already the largest in the UK by tonnage (mostly oil and coal). To land goods there and then move them to Thorne would probably be a lot easier than coming ashore at Dover, and having to navigate the road network of the crowded southeast. Even if Immingham poses problems for some reason, Felixtowe (Britain’s largest container port) remains an option.

UK map

Approximate locations of Thorne, Immingham, Felixtowe and Dover.

So: Thorne, near Doncaster isn’t a bad choice… but there’s something you probably won’t pick up on a first read-through of the MFI article – especially if you’re studying the original print version, where it’s buried in a sidebar that provides a biography of the interviewee, Chris Pavlosky; chief operating officer of MFI:

“Chris Pavlosky was born and brought up in the village of Thorne in South Yorkshire and worked at Markham Main Colliery after leaving school…”

It appears, then, that Thorne doesn’t just offer a point on the map that happens to fit a set of financial and logistic criteria: it’s also a homecoming for the chief operating officer. Did Pavlosky make a decision with his heart, rather than his head, perhaps, or does local knowledge confer an advantage? We’ll never know, because the new MFI warehouse never got a chance to shine. What few people knew in December 2007 was that the ‘Credit Crunch’ was already underway, and what we in the West describe as the “Global Financial Crisis” (my Malaysian students remind me that their economy continued to grow strongly) was just around the corner. 2008 was a time when people in Britain saw their investments decline in value, they feared for their jobs, and they struggled to get mortgages… so they tended not to move house, and not to spend money on their homes. They weren’t in the market for fitted kitchens and bedroom furniture, in other words.

You could just put this down to bad luck, therefore… but that’s not quite right. The MFI brand had been with us for a long time – since 1964 – but its pedigree was also a part of the problem: virtually every household had already bought some MFI furniture, some of it proving not to be as durable as might have been hoped. Jokes about poor quality were commonplace. For example, a partnership with supermarket chain Asda in 1985 prompted this one…

“Have you heard that Asda and MFI are forming a partnership?”
“Yeah; I bought a chicken this morning, and its leg fell off!”

During my studies, I worked for a different furniture manufacturer as a machine tool programmer, and my boss always maintained that MFI meant “made for idiots.” Now, I don’t know: this dismissal of the company as offering products of poor quality might have become inaccurate by 2007; the article claims that MFI were sourcing components of higher quality… but I can’t help feeling that perhaps the damage was already done. Few, in the 21st century, would have proudly boasted that their kitchen was created by MFI.

Swedish retailer IKEA had operated in the UK since 1987, and was steadily making inroads into the market. That’s not to say that everything they sold was marvellous, but there was a bit less chipboard and a bit more hardwood. Customers who had previously been disappointed with an MFI purchase were prepared to give the newcomers a chance. The Swedish shops were exotic, and quirky. IKEA products had silly names; and they sold hotdogs by the exit. (We can talk about IKEA’s part in the horsemeat scandal of 2013 in a future article, if anybody’s interested…)

To be honest, there are jokes about IKEA as well (of which this is my favourite) but IKEA humour is generally centred upon the difficulty of assembly, rather than the quality of the product itself.

I can’t help wondering if what MFI really needed to do was rebrand. They’d had a golden opportunity to do so when in October 2006 the parent company had sold off the loss-making MFI retail business, and changed its own name to Galiform plc. If the MFI retail brand had been done away with at the same time, perhaps the new product ranges described in the Logistics Manager article might have been more readily considered by the public.

Instead of building quality into the product in the eyes of the customer, they focused on “building quality into the supply chain”, as the article says. They committed an astonishing amount of money to leasing, fitting out and stocking a large warehouse. They pursued a technical solution to address the problem of incomplete deliveries; nothing revolutionary, but it was necessary. They reduced the number of SKUs as well. Fair enough… but it’s nothing that the customer cares about. The customer assumes that when their order is processed, they can expect on-time in full delivery. Previously, a full delivery might have been a minor miracle, but simply doing what you promised to do doesn’t delight the customer: it merely satisfies.

Were they solving the wrong problem, perhaps? The article leaves me with the feeling that Chris Pavlosky and his interviewer, Mallory Davis, enthuse about the supply network without really considering the risk that the company is exposed to. Am I the only person who read this and thought the supply network was constructed the way you might build a model railway: with flourishes and interesting features, rather than to serve the more conventional function of getting things from A to B at the lowest cost? Where is the strategic alignment? Are we once again thinking with our hearts, rather than our heads, perhaps?

In a sense, we’ll never know: along came the Credit Crunch and MFI was wiped out. They closed just one year later, on December 19th 2008. Students on our supply chain programme have suggested there are some significant non-sequiturs within the text of the Logistics Manager article, though. Do you see clues that there was trouble ahead?

A supply chain for the space age

It’s forty-five years since Apollo 11 lifted off, en-route to the moon. We all know about the two men who landed in the Sea of Tranquility a few days later (and some can even name the third, who remained in lunar orbit…) but obviously these few people were just the tip of a very large iceberg. Many thousands of people worked to develop and supply all the components, support systems and consumables that made a trip to the moon possible.

One astronaut, when asked what he thought about in the final moments before a launch, replied that he thought about how every component in his spacecraft was built by the lowest bidder…

That’s a little bit unfair, since (as we all do in procurement decisions) NASA will have disregarded any low bids that they thought were unrealistic, or exposed the project to unacceptable risks. Going to the moon was not in any sense cheap. Only the need to ‘fight’ the Cold War made such a venture possible, so quickly. Virtually everything had to be developed from scratch, and as with most supply networks, everything had to be ready or a mission could not happen. On a technical level, the vast complexity of a Saturn V rocket meant that even if components had 99.9% reliability, a thousand things could be expected to go wrong…

Delays with the first manned Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) meant that it was shipped to the launch site while work was still being performed upon it. Even then, engineering issues meant that it wasn’t ready for the planned launch date. The result was a complete change of mission plans; instead of testing the LEM in low Earth orbit, Apollo 8 flew without a LEM, to orbit the moon instead. In this, NASA showed how innovative and agile they could be, despite the massive complexity of the enterprise. Without that change of plans, the late John F Kennedy’s goal of a moon landing before the end of the 1960s would have been virtually impossible.

It’s a strange sort of supply chain that puts a man (or two) on the moon: money is more-or-less no object (although political arguments about spending on the ‘Moondoggle’ would ultimately lead to the cancellation of Apollo 18, 19 and 20). Attitudes to risk were somewhat different to our present-day mindset as well. Perhaps the NASA staff had been to see the 1951 film ‘When Worlds Collide’, in which humanity can only survive by flying to a new planet. The personnel who labour to construct that spacecraft are guided by the following motivational slogan:

“Waste anything but time: time is our most valuable material.”

When Worlds Collide movie poster

When Worlds Collide

The deaths of three astronauts during a ground-based test in Apollo 1 forced NASA to re-examine its attitude to risk, but little could be done about the level of uncertainty involved in developing all the new things, and new sciences necessary for a return trip to the moon. Above all, the space race was exactly that: a race… but what do you do after you’ve won a race?

You stop running. And that’s more-or-less what happened. Budgets were cut, and the lunar age came to an end. The surplus Saturn V components were used for Skylab missions (early space stations) but the supply chain that had put man on the moon ceased to function.

Modern-day space exploration is somewhat different. It’s not a race, and it’s done on tight budgets. Emerging technology offers intriguing possibilities; while the vast bulk of a chemical rocket is nothing but propellant, ion thrusters (solar powered electric drive systems) offer the possibility of far more efficient missions… but how can you take advantage of these cheaper vehicles, given their low acceleration? Expediting becomes impossible, but ion drives would be great for pre-positioning supplies in orbit, or on other planetary bodies. Apollo 12 demonstrated that it’s possible to locate and land within walking distance of another spacecraft (the 1967 Surveyor 3 probe), so it becomes possible to imagine a new science of slow-but-sure logistics and strategic planning, as an enabler of the next steps in spaceflight.

In this 2006 article on, David Simchi-Levi provides an interesting supply chain view of the future of space exploration, likening the Apollo missions to a ‘push’ supply chain… while missions to resupply the International Space Station are more like a ‘pull’ – as is the hypothetical pre-positioning of supplies for future exploration.

The Theory of Waste Prevention

Virtually everybody would accept the idea that causing waste is a bad idea. When we waste resources, it costs us money. Even if the resource in question is cheap and plentiful where you live, it won’t always be cheap, if you waste it. The post on ‘Recycling: the Elephant in the Room’ got some attention, so I thought I’d follow up with some of the formal theory behind the views expressed there. Being ‘green’ isn’t just something for ‘tree-huggers’ – it can make good, hard-headed business sense as well.

Government initiatives attempt to address the problem of waste (for example, Directive 2008/98/EC) and they generally set out the principle of a waste prevention hierarchy. I wouldn’t recommend reading the full document unless this is the subject of your thesis or something – it’s very dry – but we can summarise. If you learn nothing else about the Waste Framework Directive, remember the idea that it’s setting out a series of stages at which the harm caused by a product or service can be reduced. It’s illustrated in a variety of ways, often with pyramids, inverted pyramids, cones, bar charts… all with the same basic principle:

The Waste Framework Directive has done nothing to halt the proliferation of visual aids, it seems.

The Waste Framework Directive has done nothing to halt the proliferation of visual aids, it seems.

I’m part of the problem here, having created my own graphic to illustrate the hierarchy…

waste prevention hierarchy

The waste prevention hierarchy

Basically, what we have here is an eight-step model showing opportunities to limit environmental damage. Some authors show it as a five- or six-step model, but I’ve tried to be as detailed as possible. (And if you can think of more stages, please let me know, via the comments…)

1. Prevention of Waste: First off, we have the chance of preventing waste outright. This might mean avoiding over-production, or making a process more reliable, such that its yield improves. It might mean not packaging your product; some things don’t need it. If your customers don’t value something… find out, and stop doing it.


Some products are packaged enough already.

2. Minimisation of Waste:
If you can’t prevent waste, can you minimise it? For example, a retailer might demand that your product is packaged for a number of reasons, or conditions within the supply chain might make it necessary (for more on the eight purposes of packaging, see this post) but can you use less of it? Can you make the box smaller, or use a lighter gauge of cardboard? This tends to reduce wastage.

Original iPod mini packaging

For this ‘mini’ product, Apple used an awfully large box…

3. Reuse of the Product:
For some products there are good reasons not to consider reuse (such as hypodermic syringes, where the health benefit of a disposable outweighs the environmental harm of the single use product)… but elsewhere a product can be of use to other people, or in other roles – if it’s appropriately designed. Consider the Danish success with drinks containers, since Carlsberg introduced the world’s first refillable plastic bottle (in polyethylene napthalate) in 1999; a tremendous improvement in resource efficiency.

4. Reuse of Components: This is another good, common-sense strategy that has been the norm in some industries for decades. When a product as a whole is no longer viable, salvage what parts you can from it, and make them serve again. The talk I did with Dr Joe provides an example of one strategy here; that of remanufacturing.

5. Material Recovery: Good old recycling just makes it into the top five… which isn’t all that great, to be honest. If you’re clever, or if you come from a country with very low labour costs, you can pick materials out of the waste stream, and reuse them. Of course, some materials are more recyclable than others (for example, you can’t melt down a thermosetting polymer for reuse) and some materials are likely to degrade from one use to the next.

Note that material recovery might actually involve an organic process rather than a technical one; composting of vegetable wastes is a valid strategy.

6. Energy Recovery: If recycling isn’t possible for technical or economic reasons, combustion might remain an option. For example, if you have no economically viable way to recover material from a waste stream of mixed plastics, or if you have oil contamination, you might send the whole lot into a power station, and at least get some energy back. This is not without problems, as hazardous dioxins are released if the conditions in the furnace aren’t right… but it’s probably better than leaving end-of-life materials blowing around on the street, or bobbing around on the sea.

Advocates claim that energy recovery is a valuable strategy, and to some extent this is true: weight for weight, burning polystyrene releases twice as much heat as coal… but that doesn’t make it a ‘green’ solution. With an appropriately managed waste stream, that polymer might have been made into something more useful, instead of momentarily feeding our appetite for electricity.

7. Landfill: This is the worst possible outcome shown on most folks’ pollution prevention hierarchies, and with good reason… but it actually encompasses a set of different outcomes. First off, there’s combustion without energy recovery… burning the waste simply to reduce its bulk. That saves space during transportation and/or in the landfill, and may be encouraged for reasons of sterilisation, or to destroy confidential information… but potentially toxic fumes and residues make this a controversial strategy at best.

Then there’s good old landfill – just push the product into a hole in the ground, and hope that contaminants can’t leech out from the waste and into local watercourses. If your product is particularly toxic, it might be sealed up in containers, and stored far below ground.

Star Wars trash compactor scene

Wait… what? They’ve got spaceships, lasers, antigravity, robots and the Force… and the best they can do with their trash is to squeeze it into cubes and dump them?

For some contaminated waste, a ‘land farm’ may be an option: this involves using natural bacterial action to break down a hazardous substance over time. Basically, you plough the substance into the topsoil, turning it over from time to time to aerate the soil, and let the microbes digest the contaminated soil, sediment or sludge,. Not a nice kind of farm… but it is a present-day strategy for dealing with waste.

8. Uncollected waste: Worst of all, but seldom seen on the pollution prevention hierarchy is the idea that waste never actually gets collected. Instead it simply piles up in poor districts, or it gets pushed into a nearby body of water, or it just blows away. I think we need to include this on the hierarchy, because unless we acknowledge that it is happening, we’ll never tackle the problem. In other words, the worst possible outcome is a little worse than most people think.

When a worn-out ship is scrapped, the thousands of tonnes of steel in its hull are worth reclaiming: the vessel is typically run ashore at high tide on a beach in a developing country, and an army of workers cuts it up for scrap. That’s fine for materials with value such as copper, iron and steel… but what happens to the plastics, the waste engine oil, or the asbestos? It isn’t just the low wage costs that cause ship dismantling to happen in developing countries; it’s the lack of oversight. Much of the waste that has no value goes back into the ocean – and it’s our ocean, too.

Hulk of a half-scrapped ship

Long time no sea: this vessel has all but disappeared… but where did the toxic materials go?