Supplying Pumpkins…

It’s that time of year again, when goblins cavort in secluded dells, and children call at your house for a consignment of sweets. At least, that’s the way it works in North America and much of Europe; I really don’t know what to expect here in Southern Africa, where my work has brought me.

At home, my son will be out on a trick-or-treat mission, obtaining sweets from the neighbours. The universal sign of tolerance for small children making such visitations is of course the carved jack-o’-lantern, left by the doorstep with a candle burning inside… but where do our pumpkins come from? They’re originally a North American vegetable, and their incorporation in festivities of a distinctly American character suggests that they might be imports.

In fact, pumpkins can and do grow just about anywhere. The supermarket price of £5 or more for any decent-sized specimen is a little bit excessive, as my recent visit to a farm near Pickering, North Yorkshire revealed. The things were just sitting there, out in the field… in their hundreds.

field of pumpkins

My background is in manufacturing, and I’m not used to saleable products just popping up out of the ground. In my world, you cast, cut, grind, drill, weld, measure, polish or whatever… production is hard work. You don’t just go out into a field and pick up the finished goods.

Pumpkins were carefully loaded into the bucket of a JCB, driven about two hundred metres… and delivered to the farm shop. If you want to talk about ‘food miles’, this is about as low as they come.

JCB telehandler and pumpkins

Choosing your pumpkin: serious business

Are they still ‘food miles’ if you don’t use the pumpkin as food? I’d say yes, because an awful lot of the food that we buy in the UK ends up as waste anyway. It’s a shame in this case because there really is nothing quite as nice as a bowl of pumpkin soup on an autumn day. Tomorrow, when the supermarkets are selling their remaining stock off for a fraction of the original price, that’s the time to make soup.

A very fine specimen indeed, my pumpkin was just £2. Apparently, there had been a bumper crop this year, although BBC radio reported that not very far away in Lincolnshire, 40% of pumpkins were rotting in the fields, due to wet weather. This is the difficulty that growers face: the products might require much less intervention than manufactured goods, but farmers have far less control over conditions – as evidenced by the UK today having its hottest Halloween since records began. That random element has got to be a problem when your products have to mature exactly on time to reach the shops shortly before October 31st… or else the value of the crop will fall to almost nothing.

sheep eating a pumpkin

On the positive side, they might not be worth much as animal feed, but they certainly are popular!

Happy halloween!  grinning pumpkin

Malawi Shows a Way Forward in Adaptation to Climate Change

Once in a while, I encounter the opinion that concern for the environment is a “full stomach phenomenon”: that only people who have enough to eat can afford to care about the natural world, and In some instances it’s true. For example, I’ve seen evidence of people illegally using mosquito nets for fishing: if you’re hungry, it’s a way to obtain a meal… but the use of such a fine mesh means that you’re taking not just the mature fish, but everything. In effect, you’re borrowing against the future food supply, and that never ends well.

At some point, I’ll have to do a post about ecologist Garret Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. The idea of sustainability as a “full stomach phenomenon” really is a tragedy, because the people most at risk from environmental degradation due to pollution, over-fishing, climate change and the like… are inevitably the poor.

An article that appeared recently in the Face of Malawi was very encouraging: not describing some top-down initiative from policymakers, but progress achieved through the Farm Radio Trust. (I’ve written before about the importance of radio for isolated communities…) Radio listener clubs were established, such that family farmers could be informed about climate change, mitigation strategies and the use of compost manure. Radio station staff were trained on climate-smart agriculture, and throughout the radio series, feedback was sought from listeners, in the form of SMS messages and participation in opinion polls. An integrated solution involving outreach workers, broadcast radio and the communities themselves has resulted in a considerable uptake of improved farming practices, shaped by the people who know the local situation best. This is the way it has to be, if initiatives are to be sustained in the long-term.

The premise of the article is that an anticipated human population of nine billion by 2050 will require that food production increases by 70%. Without action of the kind described, even maintaining existing levels of production will be difficult, due to ongoing environmental degradation, but the Face of Malawi article describes an affordable and above all practical way to integrate ten millennia of accumulated agricultural knowledge, a century of radio, and somewhat less than a decade of cellphones in the remoter parts of Malawi – with considerable effect.

The Farm Radio Trust is involved in a whole range of initiatives, such as ‘Integrated Soil Fertility Management’, and ‘Radio for Farmer Value Chain Development’, the latter seeking to enhance farmers’ understanding of the value chain in which they operate, particularly for groundnuts, such that improved communication will make the whole more effective. I’d expect to see a greater share of the value-add for growers, in the future.

Clever stuff.

Fish and Ships

The supply chain for fish could be a lot greener. I’m not going to go into the politics of quotas, territorial waters or anything like that; simply looking at what happens after the fish are caught is complicated enough. The rate at which fish spoils is alarming, so they have to be gutted and packed in ice flake as quickly as possible. As soon as the fish come ashore, they’re boxed up and sent to a fish market. It’s the boxes that are of interest here.

At best, you’ll see fish boxes being backhauled, empty, while elsewhere you find disposable polystyrene boxes lying abandoned at the back of a fishmonger’s or restaurant. Can’t we do better?

For years, this has been the choice: reusable or disposable fish boxes. As with all reusable packaging, there’s the danger that it doesn’t get returned and reused, and the investment in packaging is wasted. If you’re doing regular business with the same people, a reusable solution is the obvious choice; if you don’t know your customer, a disposable fish box is going to be needed.

The manufacturers of expanded polystyrene fish boxes will tell you that theirs is the ideal solution. It’s lightweight, a great insulator and “mostly air” so it saves materials. So what if it only gets used once: if burned for energy recovery polystyrene is twice as effective (by weight) as coal. So what’s not to love?

expanded polystyrene fish box

End-of-life expanded polystyrene fish box

It’s weak. Boxes made from expanded polystyrene need to be thick-walled, and that’s a bind because it means you can’t nest them together. You don’t get many expanded polystyrene fish boxes on a truck… and that makes them expensive: not to manufacture but to deliver. Then you fill your polystyrene box with fish and crushed ice, and send it on its way. Once it reaches its destination, you’re left with a fishy-smelling and none-too hygienic polystyrene mess. Flies love them – and of course, the waste is light enough to blow all over the place, and it floats on water. Waste polystyrene is not at all pretty, and when you consider that the UK fishing industry gets through 14,000 tonnes of the stuff per year, the light weight is no longer a virtue: it indicates an awfully large volume of waste. When I noticed that the mountain of waste polystyrene at Grimsby fish docks was visible on Google Earth, I decided that something had to be done.

So what do you do?

The normal industry solution is to invest in a machine that crushes expanded polystyrene fish boxes (with or without the application of heat: the hot version achieves better compaction) and then send the material for “recycling”. This is disingenuous as the fishy smell normally relegates fish boxes to the energy recovery route (it gets incinerated). Still its calorific value is high, so waste-to-power seems like a win… but I wanted to try a new material for fish boxes.


If you’re going to all the trouble of keeping your fish and ice flakes cool anyway… why not keep the fish box cool as well, and create a container that literally melts away when you’re done with it?

Except that ice isn’t strong enough. Give a box made of ice a little bump, and it will shatter into a million pieces… right?

Not necessarily.

Not if you’ve heard of Geoffrey Pyke.

Geoffrey Pyke, 1893–1948

Geoffrey Pyke, 1893–1948

Pyke was a loon. Let’s be clear about this: when you think about the archetypal mad inventor… you’re thinking of Pyke. The man was dangerously unconventional… and that was his job. During the Second World War he was charged with coming up with crazy things that the enemy wouldn’t anticipate (and some of them were very crazy indeed, but that’s another story).

The ‘big story’, where Geoffrey Pyke is concerned, was his proposal to win the Battle of the Atlantic with a new kind of ship.

Unsinkable, and made of ice. Codename Habbakuk: a vast ‘bergship’ that would sit in the Atlantic, acting as a base for aircraft that would attack enemy U-boats, all the while shrugging off their puny torpedoes. That the construction of his bergship (and more importantly, its built-in refrigeration units) would have required more materials than a whole fleet of conventional aircraft carriers doesn’t appear to have deterred Pyke one little bit.


A blueprint for Habbakuk, the aircraft carrier made entirely from ice.

There was method in Pyke’s madness… just about. It wasn’t to be made from ordinary ice, but from a kind that was so strong it could absorb bullets – and Pyke knew just how to make it. Back in the 1930s Herman Mark and Walter Holenstein of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn had described how ice could be made much stronger if the water was mixed with cotton wool fibres before freezing. In fact, all kinds of fibres worked, and produced a material at least three times as strong as concrete. Despite the Brooklyn connection, to this day the material carries the name of its most enthusiastic advocate, as Pykrete. Add something fibrous to water; say wood pulp of the kind used in paper-making (about 14% by weight is as much as you can squeeze in) and let the whole lot freeze. Not only do the fibres act like rebar does in concrete (vastly improving its tensile strength) but when melting exposes the fibres, this outer layer acts as an insulator, slowing any further melting.

For Geoffrey Pyke, this meant that cheap and plentiful materials found in Canada could be used to create the biggest ship that the world had ever seen. There are stories (possibly exaggerated, or made up entirely) that a block of Pykrete was demonstrated most satisfactorily in Winston Churchill’s bathtub, while in another demonstration a revolver was discharged at a bucket of water ice, and a bucket of Pykrete. The ice shattered; the Pykrete caused a ricochet and an American officer was hit in the leg.

The bergship idea was taken seriously, for a while. Ultimately, improvements in the rage of aircraft, and the realisation that building Pyke’s invention would strip an awful lot of Canada of its trees meant that the project came to and end… but not before a remarkably successful technology demonstrator was constructed in secret, and sailed on Lake Patricia in Canada, one hot summer.

After coming up with a few more incredibly off-the-wall inventions, none of them adopted, Geoffrey Pyke committed suicide in 1948. From time to time, somebody proposes that Pkyrete should be used to construct seasonal features in ski resorts, or Antarctic base facilities… but nobody ever actually did anything much with Pykrete. You might have seen when ‘Mythbusters’ demonstrated the viability of a Pykrete boat, made from water and newspapers (with judicious use of a CO2 fire extinguisher for freezing when it started to delaminate). You might have seen when ‘Bang Goes the Theory’ did something similar a few years later… but nobody has ever done anything particularly significant with Pykrete.

The BBC consulted me, when they attempted to recreate Pyke’s idea on ‘Bang Goes the Theory’...

The BBC consulted me when they attempted to recreate Pyke’s idea on ‘Bang Goes the Theory’. (Photo: Solent News & Photo Agency)

I wasn’t in the shipbuilding business, but I was interested in shipping fish. My fish boxes would be heavier than the polystyrene kind, but I reasoned that this would be OK as they would only be making a one-way trip, having been made on-site where the fish were landed and processed. (Who wants to transport a truckload of empty polystyrene boxes to each fish dock, anyway?) Once the fish box had been finished with, it could be left to disappear in its own time, being 86% fresh water. The 14% pulp was biodegradable by definition, and if present in quantity it could be rotted down for use as a soil improver, or pressed into fuel pellets.

During my programme of experiments I discovered some interesting things. You don’t actually need a big, wet mass of sawdust or wood pulp: a ‘sandwich’ of corrugated card with a more absorbent layer of paper on either side will create a material that’s as strong as plywood, once wetted and frozen. I found that a broken or melted Pkyrete sample would ‘self heal’ if returned to the freezer. A collection of fibres that were merely damp were almost as good as a much more saturated mixture in terms of impact resistance, although the thermal mass of the saturated material was better. One of the big problems was ‘freezer burn’: water leaving the Pykrete by sublimation, and condensing elsewhere within the freezer. This is what eventually ruins food that isn’t stored in an airtight container, and an exposed Pykrete sample was seen to lose a lot of its strength over the course of six weeks or so.

Pykrete versus hammer

This lightweight sample, made from damp strips of cardboard, was strong enough to withstand repeated hammer blows.

I had some fun recreating the ‘Mountbatten Experiment’: shooting at samples of water ice and various recipes for Pykrete. I can confirm that Pykrete resists impacts splendidly.

And yes, I had some fun recreating the ‘Mountbatten Experiment’: shooting at samples of water ice and various recipes for Pykrete.

Water ice shatters at the first strike. Not a bad shot, if I say so myself…

Pykrete target

Pykrete simply doesn’t shatter the way water ice does. This sample has absorbed several bullets.

I knew the Pykrete fish box wouldn’t be perfect for all applications. It’s out of the running for transport of fish by air, for example, since meltwater is not permitted with airfreight (dry ice is employed in such applications). Even so, I thought somebody would appreciate the idea of being able to make their own single-use fish boxes.

I designed a ‘flat pack fish box’ made from my papery plywood substitute, plus a means of sputtering a Pykrete mixture onto a cold, collapsible former that meant one could cast a Pykrete fish box in minutes.

Pykrete fish box

Conceptual design for a fish box, cast in Pykrete.

Pykrete fish box

Design for a flatpack Pykrete box: just assemble, spray with water, and leave in the cold store.

The fishing industry hated the idea of a reinforced ice fish box. Nobody I spoke to would touch it. Were they wedded to their recent investment in machines that crushed up end-of-life polystyrene boxes? Maybe. Were there food hygiene rules that I didn’t know about? That seemed unlikely, given the perfunctory (in some cases non-existent) washing practices that I saw employed with reusable fish boxes. I began to suspect that those in the cold chain for fish don’t actually refrigerate it as well as we might hope. If the product isn’t kept reliably and consistently below zero throughout its time in the supply network, that would be a powerful argument against trusting to a fish box that might turn to mush due to poor refrigeration. (Was this the reason that a frozen fish box was a non-starter? I think… maybe.)

life cycle diagrams

I still think I was on to something, though.

The biggest nail in the coffin of the Pykrete fish box came when I lost control of the intellectual property. An administrator who was creating web pages for all our research projects decided that she needed some text on the project, and dipped into an internal report to obtain it. When you’re going after a patent (or several) the one thing that is guaranteed to destroy your chances is disclosure: a previous revelation of the features or methods that you were seeking to protect.

With the publishing of several key ideas on innovative features for Pykrete fish box manufacture on-demand, there was no possibility of any commercial return on the project, so it came to an end.

And the administrator who leaked my secrets? I think she’s still in the freezer.

Tobacco – the new biofuel?

There’s an interesting little piece in South African Airlines’ in-flight magazine this month, describing how the airline is partnering with Boeing and a company called SkyNRG to make a renewable jet fuel from the Tobacco plant. ‘Put this in your pipe – and fly it!’ they say, claiming a potential 50–80% reduction in carbon footprint.

(We need to talk about the role of stratospheric water vapour in climate change, sometime, but meanwhile…)

The use of tobacco is an interesting way to sidestep a common criticism of biofuels; that they aren’t ethical because the biofuel replaces a food crop. Smoking is unfashionable now, and demand for tobacco is falling: so you find a hybrid tobacco plant, selected for yielding a high quantity of oil-rich seeds, and growers can continue to use their existing knowledge, practices and machinery. It’s a pretty neat idea.

A better one is the creation of biofuel from an algae that grows on sewage (Virgin and Air New Zealand were both involved in that as far back as 2008) but it’s not half bad.

I read this while on board an Airbus A330-200, flying from London to Johannesburg; a journey of something over 9,000 kilometres. Time for some rough calculations… with a maximum range of 13,400km, the A330 holds up to 139,100 litres of fuel, so on the long-haul flight described, allowing for some deviations for weather, other traffic, holding patterns and so on, let’s say we get through 100,000 litres of fuel.

How many tobacco seeds do you have to press to get a litre of oil? And how much of that oil can be fractioned into jet fuel? That is the big question, here.

In their paper, ‘Comparison of techniques for the extraction of tobacco seed oil’, Stanisavljevic et al (2009) report that in tobacco up to 40% of the total seed mass is oil. The best technique for oil extraction was cold pressing, delivering 93% of the oil content. The by-product ‘cake’ is useful for cattle-feed (don’t worry, the nicotine isn’t present in the seeds). Some research (including Giannelos et al, 2002) has shown that tobacco seed oil can be used as a diesel substitute – not a bad use for it as the oil is high in cholesterol.

Having viewed the websites of enthusiasts who grow their own tobacco, I can report the following: a plant can have many flowers, and when these reach maturity they produce seed pods. The reported number varies, but around a eighty on a single plant appears to be common. Each seed pod contains a mass of seeds; hundreds or even thousands of the things… but each is smaller than a grain of sand.

Tobacco seed pod

This is the bit we’re after… although it’s possible the remainder of the biomass will also be of some use.

Now, if you’re really interested you can download and read ‘Transgenic Tobacco Overexpressing Brassica juncea HMG-CoA Synthase 1 Shows Increased Plant Growth, Pod Size and Seed Yield: e98264’ by Liao et al (2014). Alternatively, you could wait for the movie to come out, but I think you’ll be waiting a long time.

Liao et al (2014) compares five strains of tobacco, and the most promising for our purposes appears to yield around 1,250 seeds per pod. Its average dry weight for a hundred seeds is also among the best… at just under 0.01g.

Let’s assume that SkyNRG’s tobacco hybrid is as oil-rich as it can possibly be. You can probably squeeze 19,750 tobacco plants into each hectare of land at your disposal. Let’s assume all plants survive. Each produces eighty pods. Each pod conforms to the highest yield seen by Liao et al (2014), and we use the most efficient cold pressing technique for extraction.

The number of seeds harvested is impressive, at almost two billion. That’s almost 188 kilos of tiny seeds… from which we get 61.7 litres of oil.

Exactly what fraction of that oil is suitable for use in a gas turbine, I don’t know, although jet engines aren’t particularly fussy, so let’s be generous and say it can all be used. To generate the 100,000 litres used up in a one-way trip between London and Johannesburg is going to require 1,620 hectares’ production – in other words a land area of 16.2 square kilometres… which doesn’t seem much when considered against the massive 1,221,037 km2 land area of South Africa. We have to remember, though, that the Airbus A330 in our study doesn’t just fly once a year; more likely hundreds of times a year. Perhaps you can get two tobacco crops from each plot of land, per year… but even so, the numbers for land use are adding up.

Furthermore, we have to keep in mind that agriculture doesn’t happen ‘for free’; there’s people to pay and to feed, machinery to run and water to find, all the while (it is to be hoped) preserving the spectacular biodiversity of the nation.

Is this anything more than a puff piece for South African Airlines, establishing their environmental credentials and perhaps making the passengers feel a little bit better about their carbon footprint? I think… maybe. It’s just about viable (although commercial success would require the economic use of the rest of the plant), and it is certainly worth conducting experiments of this kind. Most oilseed crops yield something like one metric tonne per hectare, which makes my estimate for tobacco’s contribution look absolutely puny at 61.7 litres… but it makes use of existing expertise in the growing community, and suggests a way to achieve continuity at a time when demand for tobacco is falling. That’s got to count for something.

tobacco plants

If SkyNRG are right, we’ll be seeing a lot more of this…

Of greater interest, and perhaps showing a more mainstream future for biofuels, was a conference paper that I saw presented in Malawi: the work of Mr Evans Kacelenga on the blending of locally-produced methanol in Malawi’s petrol supply (and the reasons why it’s not happening at the government’s 20% target) showed that the exploitation of biofuels is complicated: it’s a problem of politics, economics and logistics, just as much as it’s a technical challenge.



Giannelos, P.N., Zannikos, F., Stournas, S. and Lois, E. (2002) ‘Tobacco seed oil as an alternative diesel fuel: physical and chemical properties’, Industrial Crops and Products, Vol. 16, Iss. 1, pp. 1–9

Liao, P., Wang, H., Wang, M., Hsiao, A., Bach, T.J. & Chye, M. (2014) ‘Transgenic Tobacco Overexpressing Brassica juncea HMG-CoA Synthase 1 Shows Increased Plant Growth, Pod Size and Seed Yield’, PLoS One, Vol. 9, no. 5

Stanisavljevic, I.T., Velickovic, D.T., Todorovic, Z.B., Lazic, M.L. and Veljkovic, V.B. (2009) ‘Comparison of techniques for the extraction of tobacco seed oil’, European Journal of Lipid Science and Technology 2009, 111, pp. 513–518

Paradise Lost: a cautionary tale

If you’ve never heard of the Republic of Nauru, don’t worry: you’re not alone. The smallest republic in the world has fewer than 9,400 citizens. Globally, there’s just one state with a smaller population, and that’s the Vatican City.

If you choose to visit Nauru (about 200 tourists make the journey each year) you’ll find yourself on an island so small that you can walk all around it in the course of a day. By the vast scale of the Pacific it’s a flyspeck, notable only for its geographical remoteness. A virtually featureless ocean stretches 970km northeast to the Marshall Islands; 1260km southwest to the Solomons and beyond that, just under 5000km to Australia. Checking it out with Google Earth, the only points of interest I found in the vicinity… were shipwrecks.

Still, as an island with no disease, no mosquitoes, a benign tropical rainforest climate, a fresh water lagoon, birds to hunt, fish to catch and fruit to eat, Nauru was everything we look for in a tropical island paradise. It was settled by Micronesian and Polynesian people some 3,000 years ago. Before that, the only inhabitants had been seabirds.

Lots and lots of seabirds. For millions of years.

Along with Banaba in Kiribati and Makatea in French Polynesia, Nauru had extraordinarily rich phosphate rock deposits, originating as bird droppings in ancient times. This was discovered just as the 20th century began.

The more developed nations of the world had an insatiable appetite for phosphates, to be used in fertilisers. Throughout the 20th century (other than a few years of Japanese occupation during WWII) just about the only reason to go to Nauru was for the phosphates.

Nauru spent much of the 20th century as a trusteeship administered jointly by Australia, New Zealand and the UK, first on behalf of the League of Nations and then the United Nations. Independence came in 1968… at which point Nauru faced its greatest challenge: not poverty, but the opposite. Mining operations brought in a staggering A$100-120 million per year… for a small island nation with a population the size of a modern English village. For a time, in the 1970s and 80s, the residents of Nauru had the highest per-capita income in the world. Luxuries were imported, and Nauruan people acquired a taste for Western food… with the health consequences you might expect, including an epidemic of diabetes.

It was recognised that the phosphate deposits wouldn’t last forever, and that some of the income must be invested to secure a long-term future for the islanders. A number of government projects were initiated, and Nauru took its place on the world stage. Most notably, they built the 52-floor Nauru House office block in Melbourne, but they acquired real estate all over the world.

It didn’t work out. On some of their international investments the Nauruans were robbed blind, and there are also questions about corruption within the tiny nation’s government, as this documentary shows. Billions of dollars that should have secured a future for the islanders have disappeared, but while the money was flowing in, few noticed that it was leaking away at an alarming rate.

Even the richest mine in the world must be exhausted eventually. Since independence, some 43 million tonnes of phosphate rock had been shipped out, and as the 21st century began, the former rainforest interior of the island had been replaced by open-cast mining. The locals call it ‘Topside’, a bizarre moonscape of limestone pillars, left behind once the valuable phosphates had been hauled away. Something like eighty percent of the tiny island is nothing but played-out mine workings that also serve as a rubbish dump.

‘Topside’, Nauru.

‘Topside’, Nauru: former rainforest. (Photo: ‘jazzdinant’)

And for what?

I’ve heard that one of the major landowners bought himself a Lamborghini. That seems a little excessive, but perhaps an island that has just one set of traffic lights is sports car heaven? Albeit with only two choices of route for your twenty-minute drive: clockwise or anticlockwise.

Probably the most obvious symptom of the Republic’s haemorrhaging money was Air Nauru: at its peak, they operated seven aircraft (some sources say nine), with routes to Hong Kong, Taipei, Honolulu, Auckland, Sydney and elsewhere… often with a load factor of just 20%. In the 1990s its operations were occasionally suspended due to airworthiness and safety concerns, or insolvency. Piece by piece, the fleet was disposed of until just a single aircraft remained: then that one was seized by creditors seeking repayment after defaults on foreign loans. For Nauru, the fairytale of rags-to-riches had just about come to an end. The overseas investments were sold off, and the government of the day sought new ways to raise money.

There followed a turbulent time in which the government on Nauru tried just about everything… but what can you sell when you’re thousands of kilometres from everybody else? Nauru set up a completely unregulated offshore banking industry, and it’s said to have facilitated all kinds of money-laundering, including the squirreling away of perhaps $70bn that should have gone to Russia when the USSR broke up. Terrorist suspects started turning up with Nauruan passports, too. It’s not so much that the former tropical paradise became a clearing-house for international evil: it was really just desperation. Nauru played Taiwan off against the People’s Republic of China by first recognising one and then the other, in its capacity as a member of the United Nations – securing millions of dollars in aid from each. It was quick to recognise the Georgian breakaway Abkhazia, and received aid from Russia in return… and so on. Then in 2001, Nauru found a new way to trade on its isolation, permitting Australia to construct two detention centres for refugees, in order to keep them out of Australia – part of Aussie Prime Minister John Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’. Substantial aid payments were received in return. Unlike every other community I’ve ever heard of, the Nauruans were very welcoming towards the new arrivals. Perhaps they recognise something of their own situation in the plight of migrants and refugees.

It’s a terrible thing to contemplate, that one of the wealthiest peoples on Earth can become wholly dependent upon foreign aid. Nauru has no farming or forestry industry, and no pastureland. Despite phosphates leaking into the sea, fishing still delivers some good seafood, but virtually everything else must be imported. This leaves the formerly wealthy Nauruans in a very tenuous position where goods are very expensive (since everything must cross those thousands of kilometres of open sea) and unemployment stands at around 90%. (Something like 95% of those in jobs work for the government.)

Even without the problem of bankruptcy, Nauru would be in a desperately precarious position, facing up to not one but two environmental catastrophes: the toxic ruin of the interior of their own island, and rising sea levels that threaten the coastline.

Calamity is nothing new to Nauru. 1878, a tribal war broke out, fuelled by imported firearms and strong drink. Astoundingly, on such a small island (just 21 km2), the conflict went on for ten years, ending only when Germany annexed the island, incorporating it as part of the Marshall Islands Protectorate. Then the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20 killed between sixteen and eighteen percent of the population (reports vary). Every October 26th the Nauruans celebrate Angam day, remembering when in 1932 the 1,500th citizen was born, this being felt to be a bare minimum for the survival of the community.

The island was shelled by the Germans in December 1940, and invaded by the Japanese in August 1942. The Japanese deported 1,200 Nauruans to labour elsewhere within their territory, and only 737 survived to return home. Not until 1949 did the island’s population reach 1,500 again.

Nauru has always been close to ceasing to exist, but that the greatest threat to its survival should come from wealth, rather than privation, ought to be a lesson to us all. My own country bears vivid scars from wealth creation and extractive industry, but Britain is large. It had the advantage of centuries of parliament, and a much greater pool of people from which to draw policymakers – and an effective opposition. Our progress towards industrialisation occurred not in a pyrotechnic burst, but a centuries-long smoulder. I’ve never had the option of buying a Lamborghini, but neither has anybody sold my country out from under me.

The height of these limestone deposits gives some ideas of the extent of mining on Nauru.

The height of these limestone deposits gives some idea of the extent of mining on Nauru. (Photo: ‘jazzdinant’)

In miniature, Nauru demonstrates the same issues that humanity faces everywhere else. On such a small island, the effects are easier to see, but we are all dealing with the consequences of industrialisation. There’s just one difference: we only get one Earth, but the people of Nauru might get another island. Australia has offered to re-settle the people of Nauru (and, presumably, any detainees it may have at that time) on one of the islands of the Great Barrier Reef. That’s preferable to death on the ruined island… but it’s a stark prospect: a sovereign nation ceasing to exist, abandoned by its people.

The first Westerner to sight Nauru was the British captain of a whaler, John Fearn, in 1798.

He named it Pleasant Island.

When Bioplastic Goes Bad

Time to try another recipe for bioplastic. I’m still hoping to find a simple, affordable material that can be made from waste ingredients (so we don’t use oil for trivial products) that rots away when no longer required… and that could be manufactured in a cottage industry.

The third recipe for bioplastic that I tried was “microwave bioplastic”, which is typically made from cornstarch (1 tbsp), water (1 tbsp) and vegetable oil (two drops). Bioplastic doesn’t come much simpler than this, nor much quicker. A microwave oven is used to heat the mixture for twenty seconds or so, and then you knead the result, and mould it into shape… and you’re done.

I made a small ball of the material, and set it aside to dry. Once again, it appears we’re looking at a thermosetting process here: the bioplastic doesn’t simply harden as it cools. It took about a day to set, and the ball split apart as it dried. The fragments were hard, like a ceramic, making the first time I’ve been able to report a material with the kind of strength that would be sought in many plastic products… but my sample had distorted beyond any kind of usefulness.

Microwave bioplastic ball

Microwave bioplastic: surprisingly hard… but hopelessly distorted during drying.

“Don’t let it dry too quickly,” is the advice from the Internet bioplastic community. The problem of splitting in microwave bioplastic is well known. I kept the next sample under wraps, with just a few air holes. After a week…

Microwave bioplastic cup, decomposing

Something is rotten in the state of bioplastic

My bioplastic, deliberately kept moist to prevent splitting apart, had begun to rot even before it had dried. I removed the plastic covering and left the festering thing to compost itself… and it promptly split apart.

Microwave bioplastic, broken apart

Not all things that are furry are cute.

Verdict: this isn’t the bioplastic we’re looking for.

It’s said that bad doctors get to bury their mistakes, while bad architects can only recommend that you plant a row of trees. Bad bioplastic engineers have the best of all possible worlds: the evidence of their mistakes removes itself – and surprisingly quickly.

Greener Warehouses… greener still

I wrote recently that if you keep looking for efficiencies, you’ll keep finding them, and that certainly appears to be true. No sooner had I published my piece on sustainable warehousing than new ideas started turning up. Some were a result of correspondence with Professor Dave Jessop; other tips come from Inbound Logistics Magazine (see here and here), from a World Bank project report on warehousing for the food supply, and from a number of other sources.

Here we go again, with another ten ways to ‘green’ your warehouse operations…

11. Insulate

I mentioned making sure that doors and windows fit well, but there’s a lot more to retaining heat. Fit appropriate insulation, the professor advises, and automatic door-closing mechanisms too; “Create clear procedures for opening and closing loading dock doors” says Inbound Logistics Magazine. In a cold climate, you’re going to save a small fortune – and that means you’re reducing your contribution to climate change, too.

12. Noise is Pollution, Too

Compared to something like climate change, noise pollution might seem like a momentary nuisance, but noise pollution can cause stress, sleep disturbances, high blood pressure, hearing loss and other problems. It also has negative effects on wildlife.

In order to avoid being a bad neighbour, equipment can be selected for its lower noise output, and machinery such as generators or fans can be fitted with enclosures, vibration isolators or other silencers. The hours of operation for specific pieces of equipment might also be curtailed. Longer-term, businesses might choose to locate noisy equipment as far as possible from communities.

Measuring the noise level

Noise pollution: are you a good neighbour?

Another significant contributor to noise comes from transportation, which brings us to…

13. Traffic Routing

You may be able to choose routes or schedules to reduce the impact of warehouse operations on the local community. Your vehicles may pose a problem in terms of their contribution to traffic congestion, influence on air quality, or noise. If peak travel times can be avoided, so much the better.

14. Right First Time is Greener

We’ve all done it; you make a mistake, and you have to work twice as hard to make good. It’s commendable that you don’t let your customer down, of course, but expediting usually isn’t sustainable. Whenever you have to fast-track an order because of a problem, that typically involves extra vehicle movements, partial loads, and perhaps the use of carbon-intensive transport modes such as airfreight.

Inbound Logistics Magazine warns that a low-inventory strategy might be the cause of increased reliance on less efficient transport modes. ‘Lean’ is all very well, but if low stock levels frequently leave you racing to make good, it’s likely your ‘green’ performance will suffer.

15. Build in Health and Safety

It goes without saying that accidents are neither profitable, nor conducive to on-time delivery. Like any working environment, you will need to ensure health through appropriate lighting, a clean eating area, good drinking water, clean restrooms, fair shift patterns, pest control, emergency egress, fire detection and suppression equipment, etc. – but you will also face a number of challenges and responsibilities that are unique to warehousing, such as complying with any requirements caused by the storage of hazardous materials. An excellent guide for health and safety in warehousing and storage operations comes from the Health and Safety Executive. (A free download is available.)

16. Efficient Layout and Routing

If your warehouse uses electric forklifts, you already own that rarest of things: the ‘Zero Emissions Vehicle’. Of course, it’s only zero emissions at the point of use… the electric power comes with a carbon footprint. Still, if it’s charged at night and used during the day, it contributes to load balancing for the power company, and they’ll probably be selling you cheap electricity as a result. No usage comes entirely free of environmental consequences, however, so it makes sense to eliminate surplus movements in picking and putaway. “Use product slotting optimization programs to reduce the distances equipment has to travel within your facility,” says Internal Logistics Magazine, “then watch your energy bills decline accordingly.”

The electric forklift. It’s like driving a Nissan Leaf... with spikes at the front.

The electric forklift. It’s basically like driving a Nissan ‘Leaf’, only with spikes at the front.

Rather than just using software to optimise picking and putaway, you might want to redesign the layout of the warehouse itself, in effect to make the system better rather than just trying to drive it better. If you have the opportunity to construct your own warehouse, with appropriate equipment, you might manage a better mix of access space and storage space, and be able to store just as much stock while heating, lighting and securing a smaller overall volume.

17. Climate Change Risk Mitigation

Be aware that your operations may be disrupted by extreme weather events – and that these are becoming more common as a result of climate change. Don’t build or rent a warehouse on a flood plain, or you might come to regret it. If assuming that floods and the like will happen doesn’t sound like a terribly ‘green’ way to do business, just think about all the environmental harm you’d cause by writing off a warehouse full of stock.

The landscaping of your grounds can reduce the impact of flooding; expanses of tarmac or concrete, and even lawns, largely fail to absorb rainfall, which means that your stormwater runoff might contribute to a flood. Gravel borders, soakaways and similar features allow rainfall to recharge groundwater supplies, which is infinitely preferable to letting it become runoff.

18. Tidy Up!

“Allocating an hour or two per week, or even per month, to cleaning the warehouse can lead to amazing improvements in your efficiency. You never know what missing or misplaced orders you might find,” says Lee House, Vice President at IBIS, Inc. Not only will an orderly warehouse improve on-time delivery performance without the need for costly expediting, but discovering previously ‘lost’ items means they won’t need to be re-ordered, and it frees up space for more conventional usage. An orderly warehouse should also be a healthier, safer working environment.

Indiana Jones taught us just how easy it can be to lose stuff in a big warehouse. (Lucasfilm)

Back in 1981, Indiana Jones showed us just how easy it can be to lose stuff in a big warehouse. (Lucasfilm)

19. Don’t Try to be Too Clever

Invest with care. Prof Jessop cautions that systems should not be used if they are “too clever, smart and expensive”, although automation can be pursued where it is cost-effective. There is a smorgasbord of different warehouse automation solutions available, at different levels of complexity and cost, from pick to light systems right up to automated retrieval… but they should be selected with care. Obviously, an over-specified solution will be needlessly expensive, and will likely consume more resources in its construction and operation.

20. Remember Reverse Logistics

From time to time, you’re going to get products back, for a variety of reasons. One reason is the dreaded ‘buyer’s remorse’. Alternatively, you might be offering customers a trade-in deal, or a product might come back because the customer found it to be faulty. If you don’t have a good strategy for passing on these products, they’re going to start cluttering up your warehouse, yet many must be thought of as a “batch of one” and it isn’t always easy to send them back ‘upstream’, against the normal flow of material. Some products will come back with damaged packaging, inadequate documentation, damage, missing parts or other problems (I’ve written before about the difficulties caused by the unknown state of returned products) and it’s hard to see these products as an asset, yet they could be. You might be able to restore them to as-new condition, or develop a secondary market for them. Failing that, you could at least give them away. Otherwise, you’re going to end up paying to send them to landfill, and everybody loses.

Final thought

I’m not kidding myself; no doubt there will be more things that you can do to make your warehouse operations sustainable… but my “starter for ten” already has twenty points, and people are going to keep on finding efficiencies.

Add some more experiences or ideas of your own in the comments, perhaps?