Hopping Mad: “riding the rails” in the 21st century

For a few weeks, I’ve been doing some research (just desk research…) on the subject of freight hopping: something I’d never heard of until I received a video recommendation from YouTube. This is a crime, pastime or way of life (opinions vary) with a long history and a great deal of present-day relevance.

Join me, as we ride with Jim (‘Stobe the Hobo’), Mark (‘Hobo Shoestring’), Dave (‘Brave Dave’), Owen (‘RanOutOnARail’) and others.

Freight hopping is where you conceal yourself aboard a railway wagon that’s meant for cargo, either boarding it while stationary or hauling yourself aboard as it rumbles past… and hope that it’s going somewhere useful. You might be surprised to learn that this isn’t just a plot device in action movies, but something that really happens… a lot. You might not fancy your chances of climbing aboard a train that’s a mile long and three times as tall as you (four times as tall, if you’re Tom Cruise…) but there is a subculture for whom this isn’t a desperate act, but just another day at the office. It’s not something that’s going to take off in the UK – our trains are too short and our security generally too tight – but in the wide open spaces of North America it has proved impossible to stamp out.

Yes, I’ve found a mode of transport even cheaper and more uncomfortable than Ryanair. Please don’t tell Michael O’Leary because he’ll only get ideas… but if it’s good enough for Jack London and Ernest Hemmingway, who knows?

The supply network is more complex than most of us can imagine. Perhaps your daily bread comes from the corner convenience store, but the flour probably comes from the endless wheat fields of Canada. The process by which it reaches us is ponderous, grimy, under-appreciated and essential. There’s so much that we never get to see… but some people do. They’re breaking the law, they’re risking life and limb and they probably smell none too good when they’ve been living rough for a week or more – yet many people envy those who ride this way.

In fact, why are trains in general so fascinating, for so many people? I asked Google and got a lot of different answers. The power; the speed; a yearning for adventure; nostalgia; the mystery of a profession with its own skillset and language; childhood memories.

Child playing with toy trains

Railway enthusiasts start young! [Image: pexels.com]

I thought that Ann Litz, who describes herself as an “obsolete librarian” (and who, I should clarify, has no known connection with freight hopping) put it best:

Trains are fascinating because freight trains are an increasingly rare sight in the truck-oriented United States, and because every kid-at-heart knows the ritual:

A half-mile away a whistle shrieks. Red lights begin to flash. The barrier gates bedecked with white wooden strips like ribbons drift down.

How many locomotives are there at the front? Two? It’s gonna be a long train!

Quick, put your hand in the air and yank it down again. The engineer will blow the horn for you.

Coal cars, black tankers full of oil or corn syrup, cattle cars, box cars that might or might not be harboring mysterious stowaways. Meaningless graffiti from hundreds of miles away.

Flatcars with huge rolls of steel like toilet paper for giant robots.

More coal cars. Who uses that much coal?

You can kind of see the end now. The locomotive whistle sounds again, from very far away.

Sometimes there’s a caboose, and sometimes there’s a guy riding the outside of the caboose. Wave. Maybe he’ll wave back.

Up to a point, that romanticism makes a lot of sense, and there are railway enthusiasts of all ages. “Railfans”, if you’re in North America… but to choose to sneak aboard a freight train and ride it to places unknown? That requires more than mere enthusiasm, I suspect.

Freight hopping has probably been around almost as long as the railway itself, but it’s become much more visible in the age of social media – and technology hasn’t merely served to record the act, but also to facilitate it. Modern-day hobos use a radio scanner to listen in on communications while a train is being shunted together; they use Google Maps on a smartphone to study the security arrangements at goods yards, to track their progress while in transit and to choose where to disembark; some use crowdfunding services such as Patreon or GoFundMe, receiving sponsorship in return for documenting their travels.

To the travelling men of the Great Depression – the people that you can probably picture best if you think of a John Steinbeck novel – the life of a professional hobo in the 21st century would be completely incomprehensible. This really struck me when I saw ‘Brave Dave’ charging a couple of ’phones with a solar panel as he exchanged messages with friends, talking to camera and reporting his progress as he went. Compared to the experience of earlier generations, you might as well be zipping around in a flying saucer.

This business of crowdfunding raises a moral question: if you donate a few dollars to one of the professional hobos, are you doing a good deed such as funding their next meal… or are you encouraging them to keep on risking their lives, for your entertainment? Perhaps that question should have a simple answer… but freight hopping videos are compelling!

Brave Dave’s feature-length film in four parts details a journey across the vastness of Canada – and it’s better than most of the things they put on television nowadays. Videos made by Stobe are invariably funny and the piano accompaniment (his own) is first-rate. With ‘RanOutOnARail’ you get some excellent camera-work and railfans get to see things from a new angle, while the videos from Shoestring’s marathon career as a hobo are basically a love letter to the railway – and his short-lived blog was great, too. (I suspect he knows more about the operation and deterioration of the North American rail network than many of the people who work on it.)

Some railway staff clearly turn a blind eye to freight hopping, and even “the Bull” – the railway police – seem to vary in the degree to which they enforce the law. Some freight hoppers tell tales of having been made welcome by railway staff – given food, information and money… while on another leg of their journey they’ve been busted and spent two weeks or more in jail. The risk and the apparent randomness of this seems merely to add spice to their adventures. In at least one film, ’Stobe’ appeals to viewers that they shouldn’t leave any evidence of their presence, when freight hopping. He says this having boarded the unoccupied cab of a locomotive at the rear of a train; a distributed power unit or DPU. If you’re going to trespass on the railway, I suppose you might as well ride in style and comfort! Still, who among us would have imagined that an engine’s cab isn’t normally locked? It’s clear that you can learn a lot about the rail network from people who should never have been there at all.

These aren’t the people who we lump together and call the homeless. To use a line that I liked from Fisher Monroe’s Hitchhiking Blog, they’re not on the streets; they’re on the road. The rails, in fact: those parallel lines that meet at infinity, stretching further than the eye can see and always promising new experiences and greener pastures.

In the early eighties, Ted Conover wrote ‘Rolling Nowhere’ – perhaps the definitive book on freight hopping, detailing some of his adventures. Then he revisited the subject for Outside magazine in 2014, after his son asked to be shown the ropes. Wrestling with the anxieties he had never felt with other travelling companions, Conover nonetheless managed to deliver the requested adventure. In doing so, he achieved a longitudinal study that shows how America’s unofficial transport network is changing. Boxcars and autoracks are more secure than hitherto; relatively few of the flatcars that carry intermodal containers have a recessed ‘well’ in which a rider can stay concealed. Many modern railcars have no real floor, obliging the hobo to stay awake. To make use of such a car is called “riding suicide” – for obvious reasons.

Riding Suicide: travelling in a rail car that doesn’t have a complete floor

Riding Suicide: NOT recommended!

‘Grainers’ are generally a better prospect: the tank that holds the grain is angled so that it can be drained from a single point. The steel structure of the wagon typically has large holes where a couple of riders can hide from sight and shelter from the worst of the weather. It’ll be filthy, of course; scorching hot in summer and freezing cold in winter; noisy enough to cause hearing loss and the jolts and vibrations are very uncomfortable, too. You may be robbed or assaulted by another hobo, and in years gone by you could have expected a beating from railroad employees as well.

A freight hopper is seen inside the structure of a ‘grainer’

Savvy freight hoppers occupy spaces within the structure of a ‘grainer’. [Image from here]

Basically, there are a hundred reasons why you shouldn’t ride the rails.

Probably the only reason why freight hopping is still possible today is underinvestment in the railway network. Train crew sizes have been cut and the staff that remain have enough to worry about. Equipment hasn’t been updated: the infrared cameras and other sensors that could easily detect an illicit rider are few and far between. Fences don’t get mended and radio communications still aren’t encrypted. Meanwhile, freight volumes are growing and freight hopping is set to continue.

Deaths among railway trespassers are on the rise, too. According to the Federal Railroad Administration in the USA, 888 people died due to train-related incidents in 2017. Some of those cases involve unrelated issues such as vehicles on crossings being struck by trains – but an astonishing 575 people were categorised as killed while trespassing. Even if we discount cases where the coroner recorded a verdict of deliberate suicide, we’re still looking at a death a day. The constant background noise level of death on the American rail network is simply staggering. (The published figures make no distinction between those walking on the tracks and those who were freight hopping.)

The autumn of 2017 was a bad one for some of the freight hoppers that I have introduced, above.

Our token British freight hopper, ’Brave Dave’ flew to Canada – only to find himself the subject of an outstanding arrest warrant, written out by CP Rail Police in Saskatchewan as a result of his earlier adventure. He’s barred from entry into Canada and the USA for ten years.

‘Shoestring’ disappeared for a time, causing considerable concern among those who subscribe to his YouTube channel. (It’s nice to think that the fate of a self-described ‘hobo’ matters to so many people – something that would have been unlikely before the Internet era.) When Shoestring reappeared it was with the news that he’d suffered a serious accident, costing him two fingers from his left hand and requiring a stay in hospital. Leaving a moving train is dangerous, even to a highly experienced rider.

‘Stobe the Hobo’ died that same autumn. His body was found on the tracks near Baltimore and the circumstances of his death are unclear, although the injuries reported are consistent with his being caught on a train and dragged. He was thirty-three years old.

The big loads are still moving from city to city, though… and you can bet your bottom dollar that where there’s a freight train being put together, there’s a person (or more than one) camped out under a bridge, waiting until it’s dark enough to slip aboard.

And you know what? I understand the temptation.

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Turtle Environment Science

Tilly the Turtle swims through the air, atop a column of waste plastic. She’s on display outside the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull, where she featured in the British Science Festival and then the Hull Science Festival.

Tilly the turtle, seen from below, with branded plastic bottles showing.

At 3.5m tall, this Trash A’Tuin is an impressive sight… even if it is technically a rubbish sculpture.

This giant chelonid was made from waste plastic collected on-campus and at two recent festivals. Tilly reminds us just how much waste we generate, day-to-day… and challenges us to make a commitment to reduce our personal plastic footprint. Her appearance on the campus in September was timely, coinciding with the publication of a paper (Wilcox et al, 2018) that establishes a link between the ingestion of plastic debris and the likelihood of death in sea turtles. Young turtles drift with the ocean currents, just like the waste which they haven’t learned to distinguish from the jellyfish they they would otherwise be eating.

Personally, I’m in favour of anything that eats jellyfish… as long as I don’t have to.

Information panels about Tilly

Tilly will have been seen by thousands of science festival visitors, attending over a hundred talks, debates and interactive demonstrations… many of them with a ‘green’ theme.

Concerns about our addiction to single-use plastics continue to grow, and the people exhibiting Tilly encourage us all to make a ‘#plasticpledge’. At the time of the Science Festival some of my students were celebrating the completion of their research projects, and it’s been my pleasure to supervise four pieces of sustainability-themed research.

Michal examined the plastic bottle recycling schemes that are in place in five European countries, setting out how the UK might implement a solution based upon the best practices seen among our neighbours; Dominic looked at the potential for Big Data Analytics, Blockchain and the Internet of Things to deliver sustainable outcomes against the Triple Bottom Line; Khalil researched Fast-Moving Consumer Goods and their potential to cause environmental harm, seeking to produce a knowledge map for a sustainable recovery; Hasanat evaluated the life cycle analysis practices of the leading automotive manufacturers – and found them wanting. Each found evidence of problems; of waste and missed opportunities, but they also proposed solutions – and now they’ve entered the workforce, perhaps to continue the search for a sustainable future.

To my hard-working dissertation students: a heartfelt ‘thank you’.

Ecobricks

I’m Bricking It

“If the ocean dies, so do we” says Margaret Atwood, a novelist who has long been an environmental activist as well. In this, she’s not wrong.

Phytoplankton are microscopic, single-celled organisms that inhabit the sunlit layer of the sea, absorbing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Few people realise that organisms in our oceans provide almost as much oxygen as we get from trees.

Trouble is, humanity is busily changing the seas, just as we have done the land.

The sea is easy to overlook when considering the parts of the natural world that are threatened by human activity. Things that are thrown in either sink from sight or are borne away by tides and wind. Liquid wastes are diluted in a way that seems most convenient – if thinking only in the short term. In reality, the sea has been already seriously damaged.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation warns us that by 2050 the plastic in our seas will outweigh the fish. Plastics are great materials with applications such as non-toxic toys, durable fittings on buildings and lightweight automotive components – but we also use plastics in many applications where their durability is a drawback. It’s entirely possible that some of the plastic items you throw away today will still be kicking around long after you’re dead and gone.

Single-use plastics come in for a lot of criticism, therefore, and while many of us try to do the right thing by sorting our waste, national recycling efforts are commonly centred upon clean, empty drink bottles: the easy job.

Few recycling centres can do anything much with plastic films, so the shrink-wrap protecting cucumbers, the individual wrappers on sweets and the peel-back tops on yoghurt pots are all just litter. These are lightweight, crinkly little oddments of plastic that blow around the place and have little real value to recyclers, so they are at an increased risk of ending up in the sea. For a long time I thought this was just the way things had to be: after all, what system could possibly cope with this assortment of plastics in small quantities?

Then I learned about making Ecobricks – taking a used plastic bottle and packing it full of waste plastic, squashed down with a stick. The practice appears to have begun in Guatemala around 2004, where the resulting ‘bricks’ were used in construction. It’s an approach that has spread – or perhaps been thought up simultaneously – throughout the developing world. In the form of an Ecobrick, plastic waste is locked away – at least for a while. If it’s built into a structure such that sunlight doesn’t reach it, it’ll be sequestered for decades… which has got to be better than letting it pollute the natural world.

Making an Ecobrick

Making an Ecobrick. I recommend using a wooden spoon to compress the contents as it’s easier to hold than a stick.

I started making Ecobricks for no particular reason other than to experiment. I knew that they wouldn’t be of much use in the UK because you’d never get a mortgage or home insurance on a building made from waste plastic. ‘Earthships’ – sustainable buildings made from recycled and natural materials – have never really caught on in the UK: there’s one in Fife and another in Brighton, but neither is residential in nature so it seems highly unlikely that anybody will ever use one of my Ecobricks in construction.

So why did I persevere, to the point where I’ve now made about ten Ecobricks? Because I discovered two remarkable things…

Firstly, a British household gets through a lot more plastic film than you probably think: those negligible quantities of crinkly plastic really add up and it’s easy to fill about two litres’ worth of Ecobricks a week. When you see all that plastic – and discover just how much it weighs – it’s not so easy to go on consigning it to landfill. Not that landfill works for plastics anyway: they photodegrade into smaller fragments and blow away, ending up in the soil or in the sea… which means our food chain.

Secondly, when you make Ecobricks you notice an immediate reduction in the total volume of waste that you produce. Taking out the trash is something you do a lot less often – and you never run out of bin space before collection is due. Clearly, when left uncompressed, all that plastic is taking up a lot of space.

You might say that I’m not helping matters because I’m taking a recyclable item (a plastic bottle) and filling it with waste that renders it non-recyclable.

Well, maybe… but there’s a good deal of difference between “recyclable” and “actually going to be recycled” – and since China closed its doors on waste imports, recycling rates have fallen. A shortage of single-use plastic bottles is not the limiting factor, so I think we can spare some.

The most absurd thing about all this is that waste plastics actually have value, and the technology to do something profitable with them already exists. Thermal depolymerisation isn’t choosy about feedstocks: waste such as mixed plastics, used tyres, sewage sludge and even abattoir leftovers can be converted into light oils, gases, steam and solid waste. This last is nicely sterilised, which significantly increases the usefulness of the process since even medical waste can be converted. There is money to be made from this.

Typical outputs from thermal depolymerisation, by feedstock

Typical outputs from thermal depolymerisation, by feedstock

As industrial processes go, this isn’t hard to do: water is added if the material is dry, and then everything is heated to 250°C in a pressure vessel. When the pressure is released rapidly the water evaporates and can be captured for reuse. Other outputs from the process include methane (typically used to fuel the heating of the next batch, although some is sold as biogas) and other hydrocarbons that can be separated by fractional distillation, yielding (among other things) a low-sulphur replacement for diesel fuel.

Or you can just pile everything in the ground and forget about it… although a landfill site isn’t always the final resting place of plastic waste; with under-investment and mismanagement it’s all too likely to end up being washed into the sea.

What I like about both Ecobricks and thermal depolymerisation is that they’re sufficiently low-tech that they can be employed anywhere – and in combination they offer the possibility of affordable energy and waste management. In a world where more than ninety percent of the plastic waste in the world’s oceans comes from just ten river systems in poorer countries, that’s got to be significant – but we all have a part to play.

Floating refuse in the Ganges

Sacred river: the Ganges

I’m going to keep on making Ecobricks, although my standards have slipped a bit now that I’m certain they won’t actually be used as building materials. (With compression resistance no longer an issue, I have decided to permit bubble wrap and expanded polystyrene in my Ecobricks. Also, if my bottles are a little less than 100% filled, it doesn’t matter.) While they’ll never be built into a wall, my “lazy Ecobricks” still offer a neat and tidy fuel source, if only I can find somebody to take them. Haig et al (2013) provides a valuable primer for those looking to understand how plastic waste can be processed into fuel, demonstrating that the solution is within our grasp if only local authorities will invest to turn a present-day liability into an asset.

So, how can they be persuaded? I’m thinking… civil disobedience. Back in 1971 a largely unknown group called Friends of the Earth achieved a publicity coup when they carried out a ‘bottle dump’ at the London offices of Schweppes, who had recently announced their intention of phasing out returnable, deposit-bearing bottles. (In those days, glass bottles.) Reuse has dwindled to almost nothing, but campaigning by groups such as FoE eventually got us bottle banks in 1977, and can banks in 1982.

Friends of the Earth protests, 1971

Friends of the Earth protests, 1971 [images: FoE]

Might a similar protest start us on the road to sorting out the plastic films problem? Not laying the materials at the feet of the manufacturers, but at the doorstep of local authorities that haven’t put in place a proper recycling solution. If they have a depolymerisation solution in place, having a few hundred thousand bottles of clean, well-packed waste delivered to council premises will be a gift… but if they’re still just piling up waste plastic, their failure will soon become highly visible.

It’s time for the Ecobrick. Everywhere.

 

 

Reference:

Haig, S., Morrish, L., Morton, R., Onwuamaegbu, U., Speller, P., and Wilkinson, S. (2013) Plastics to oil products: Final report. Available online: http://www.zerowastescotland.org.uk/sites/default/files/Plastics%20to%20Oil%20Report.pdf (accessed 24/08/18)

Toy gorilla with bananas

Bananas for Bioplastic

We’ve heard recently that the ocean gyres where waste plastic is accumulating are larger than we thought, and plastic particles are now showing up in just about everything. Some believe that by 2050 there could be more plastic in the sea than fish. We’re getting in a bit of a pickle, here.

Corpse of an albatross chick, showing plastic stomach contents

Albatross chicks are starving to death, their stomachs filled with plastic waste. This is just one consequence of our love affair with plastics.

The UK can no longer avoid addressing its waste problems by exporting material to China: the government of the People’s Republic has brought in a ban, and already material is backing up in UK waste facilities. If 500,000 tonnes of waste plastic can no longer be sent ‘away’, what will happen to it?

In the short term, local authorities are going to find that disposal becomes very expensive. The UK waste industry simply doesn’t have the capacity to process the waste that will no longer go to China – and probably won’t have for several years.

In January, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced a plan to eliminate the UK’s plastic waste by 2042, but can we really spare a quarter of a century before we go closed-loop and/or plastic free? You’d be forgiven for thinking that a quarter of a century suggests a parliament cynically kicking the can on down the road instead of getting to grips with the problem. Where is the roadmap for eliminating plastic waste? How will it be done? What might be the first piece of the puzzle has been revealed today, with the news that we can expect a deposit scheme for drinks bottles.

The European Union also has a strategy for plastics but it’s absolutely brand new – adopted on January 16th, 2018. It’s better than the goal for the UK in that it sets a closer target (2030) but thus far their documents appear to be very informative in detailing the problems, but far less specific in setting out solutions.

Personally, I think that one key element of a future in which we aren’t drowning in our own plastic waste is for bioplastic to become the norm – not just for big corporations with secret recipes in shiny steel vats, but for ordinary small businesses.

Where is the open-source recipe for a bio-based plastic that allows small businesses to replace their petroleum-based plastic products with something made from food waste, or agricultural byproducts?

By way of conducting a straw poll, I opened Apple’s ‘Maps’ application, centred on my home town, and used the ‘search’ function. The nearest business with ‘bioplastic’ in its name… was in Rome. I tried ‘biopolymer’ instead… and found a business in Montabaur, Germany. ‘Biobased?’ … three businesses in the Netherlands. In my neighbourhood it appears that the bioplastic revolution is going to be a long time coming.

I’ve been searching for something that would enable a grassroots bioplastic industry since 2014. Admittedly, it’s only an occasional hobby and not a research project as such, but I’ll try any homebrew bioplastic recipe I can find.

My latest web search revealed one that I’d never heard of before, made from banana peel. Needless to say, I added the ingredients to my weekly shopping.

The recipe comes to us courtesy of Achille Ferrante, and a Youtube video that you can see here. To summarise, you blend some banana peel, mix with water and boil for five minutes. You drain off the excess water, and then combine with vinegar, cinnamon, thyme and honey. A second application of heat brings about polymerisation, after which you squeeze the mixture into flat sheets and then dry it.

I undertook the procurement phase from memory, and bought parsley instead of thyme. (I blame Simon and Garfunkel.) Fortunately, we had some thyme in the house already, so I was able to proceed with the experiment. (The thyme is there as an anitfungal agent, something that I think is a highly desirable component: it’s not fun when bioplastic goes bad on you.)

First off, I ate three bananas. No hardship there! Some commenters in the online banana bioplastic community (a niche group if ever there was one) have suggested that the bananas should still be green, as the skins contain more starch at that point. That may be so, but I wasn’t prepared to eat under-ripe fruit. I reckon you could lob some cornflour into the mix if you really thought that more starch was needed, anyway.

Next, I cut up the banana skins, throwing away the ‘woody’ bits at the ends. The rest was blitzed in a blender. The next step in the instructions was to add water, but I found it simpler to put the water straight in the blender, as it made the banana mulch blend more readily. Given that the end result is meant to be a ‘fibrous bioplastic’ I chose not to blitz the banana peels into a complete ‘smoothie’, reasoning that some of its strength would likely come from embedded fibres.

Banana peel in a blender

The banana mulch tended to cling to the sides of the blender, defeating my efforts, so I added the water early.

Banana peel and water, being simmered

The smell of banana peel smoothie as it simmers is surprisingly good.

The mixture was then simmered on the stove for about five minutes, and could be seen to thicken. When the time was up I strained it, and pressed out as much water as possible. This left a thick paste, which I weighed.

Following the instructions, for each forty grams of banana peel paste I added 20ml of vinegar, a teaspoon of thyme, a teaspoon of cinnamon and a teaspoon of honey. Everything goes in a saucepan and is mixed together over a medium heat.

Honey, cinnamon and thyme, ready for mixing

One of the disappointments about banana peel bioplastic is that it requires quite a lot of ‘real food’ in addition to the waste material.

What I like about banana bioplastic is that it’s all ‘food’. You don’t have to worry about getting hold of a cheap saucepan or baking tray for your experiments, because you’re not using anything toxic. (Remember the milk plastic from my early experiments? To harden that properly you need formaldehyde…)

What I absolutely loved about making banana bioplastic was the smells in the kitchen: bananas, cinnamon, thyme and honey… what’s not to love? (Oh: the vinegar, maybe.) The problem with all this is that unlike a normal kitchen activity you don’t get anything to eat at the end. It may be a good idea to make the bioplastic in parallel with a regular baking activity – not least because then you’d get a hot oven for “free”, reducing the energy invested in the project.

The mixture is heated again, and stirred.

Delicious smells during the final heating phase. Wishing I was making cookies instead of bioplastic…

One obvious problem is that there’s an awful lot of ‘food’ in this bioplastic. Sure, I don’t eat banana skins, but herbs, spices and honey all cost money. Bioplastic made in this way demands a debate very similar to the one about biofuels that are grown in place of food crops: the industry would be difficult to justify on a hungry planet. (Even banana skins have food value as they are fed to pigs in some places.)

There’s also a lot of energy used in the processes I followed, but I won’t worry too much about that on the grounds that we’re doing this for science, and not in volume production. No doubt some efficiencies could be found if this were being made into an industrial process.

For science!

Next comes the bit that always makes my heart sink a little: drying time.

You see, where I come from, plastics don’t need to dry: thermoplastics liquefy when you apply heat, and they solidify obligingly when the temperature falls below their melting point. Air drying is not required. Until we can work out a way to substitute plants for petrochemicals without requiring alterations to manufacturing processes, we haven’t really succeeded.

But this is a stovetop bioplastic, so I had to follow the instructions and dry it.

Banana bioplastic on baking parchment.

Squish your bioplastic between some baking parchment, and place in the oven at 50°C for… about an eternity, as far as I can tell.

As instructed I put the mixture in the oven at 50°C, for 45 minutes. It was still just a warm, wet mess at this point, so I gave it another half hour. When it still wasn’t dry I switched to fan oven mode, reasoning that this ought to take away the moisture faster. The alleged bioplastic was barely stronger than cookie dough at this point, and my efforts to turn it over produced some breakage. I reshaped some of my test pieces from broken oddments this point, to see how workable it was. I found it to be sticky, but it was possible to shape the material.

Eventually I tired of waiting for the mixture to dry and increased the oven temperature to 100°C (not using the fan function). After half an hour the flat sections were noticeably drier, and had taken on a leathery feel. I turned them over and gave them another twenty minutes, then switched off the oven and left them in overnight.

In the morning, the thin sections were completely dry, but the larger pieces I had shaped were still a bit sticky. That’ll be the honey, I suppose. This would appear to be one of those “thin film” bioplastics, therefore.

I’m pleased to report that the flat samples really are plastic in nature, with flexibility and a surprising amount of resilience. Their fibrous nature seems to come overwhelmingly from the thyme, which can be seen throughout the material, rather like that old woodchip textured wallpaper we used to have in the seventies. In future I might try chopping the thyme up so that it doesn’t introduce so much roughness. Some bioplastic hackers suggest that thyme oil might be better, although this would introduce more moisture, so I think you’d need to experiment to get this right.

I was skeptical about this material: I suspected that I would simply find a mass of fibres, baked into a matrix with the honey acting as a ‘glue’ but I was wrong: the sheet of banana material really does behave like plastic. 

When bent, it flops around, showing a surprising amount of flexibility. That honey really has served as a plasticiser. It’s not what I’d call a durable material, but I’d say it’s more durable than I expected. (You won’t be sewing yourself a pair of bioplastic moccasins with this stuff.) Analogy for the purposes of conveying its engineering properties: it’s about as strong as fruit leather. (Funny, that…)

Bioplastic sample being rolled tightly.

Surprisingly tough, flexible bioplastic. Now, what are we going to do with it?

One highly desirable property is that it smells great! The cinnamon banishes any hint of the vinegar smell that we experienced with the milk plastic.

I don’t know what you’d actually do with this bioplastic, though, and that’s a worry. You could make biodegradable planting pots that turn to compost, maybe… but you can make those out of compressed peat, or even waste paper. That’s got to be better than faffing about with honey, cinnamon and all that cookery. Also, I think you’d need to raise your pest control game if you’re planning on leaving yummy cinnamon bioplastic in your garden…

This is a bioplastic solution still looking for a problem, then. It’s great stuff and I really enjoyed the experiment. I think we can learn a lot by copying the process shown in Achille Ferrante’s video… but we’re not going to start making genuinely useful home-brew toys or gadgets from it.

Readers may have better ideas for applications?

On the day that I made bioplastic, I put at least three plastic bottles in the recycling bin. After a single use, I’m giving away far better materials than I’m able to make from plant matter. Stable, strong, colour-fast petrochemical plastics that (for now) cost very little. Bioplastic still has a long way to go if it’s ever going make inroads into our plastics habit.


Update for October 24th 2018… some seven months later: the banana bioplastic that I made is still about as tough and flexible as before. That’s quite an achievement given how conventional plastics become more brittle over time, as their plasticisers evaporate away. (I haven’t been leaving the stuff in sunlight, though.) There hasn’t been any noticeable shrinkage, and none of the mould growth that has destroyed the products of my other experiments. This one deserves further study – as long as it’s thin sheets of leathery plastic that you are looking for!

Stretcher Case

I was out walking with my son recently, and I pointed out where a row of iron stumps could be seen, protruding from the limestone capping on a low wall outside a civic building. As anyone who grew up in the UK knows, our built environment bears these scars from the early 1940s, when Britain found itself under siege and struggling to re-arm against the Nazis. Park railings and the gates of historic buildings were cut down and hauled away as part of the war effort.

Workmen remove railings from a park in the early 1940s

Then and now: removal of railings from public spaces

Giving up their railings proved to have a positive effect on the morale of the nation: it offered visible proof that something was being done, and virtually everyone was happy to join in. Vast quantities of iron were collected – but the evidence for it being used is somewhat scantier. Chemically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with reclaimed cast iron: it can be melted down and made into things like bomb casings… but the historical record that includes photographs and newsreel footage of people cheerfully giving up their railings isn’t matched by anything showing said railings arriving at the foundries in places such as Port Talbot or Sheffield.

Removing the railings at Buckingham Palace

Even Buckingham Palace joined in the recycling effort…

So where did the iron go? It’s hard to be certain: a few people have suggested that the government was caught out by the sheer quantity of material collected. They couldn’t use it all, but they appreciated the morale-boosting effect of the project and allowed it to continue. Were our park railings quietly dumped at sea? Some think so. As I researched this article, each anecdote that I followed up seemed only to reference another, with no hard evidence resulting: let’s just say that the dumping hypothesis is widely believed, among those who have expressed an interest. (The aluminium pots and pans that were also collected at this time do appear to have been made into Spitfires, however.)

Did the railing recycling scheme fail because supply exceeded demand? Perhaps so, but I didn’t want to complicate the issue for my six year-old. We just looked at the row of stumps sticking up out of the wall, and imagined the railings made into tanks and bombs – just as Lord Beaverbrook, Minister for Supply, must have intended.

There is another, still more complicated twist that I won’t bother the lad with, either – and for this nugget of knowledge we must thank what must be one of London’s most ‘niche’ interest groups, the Stretcher Railing Society (“For the promotion, protection and preservation of London’s ARP Stretcher Railings”).

A civil defence organisation set up in 1937,  Air Raid Precautions (ARP) prepared for the worst. This was at a time when it was believed that the bomber would always get through. In consequence over 600,000 stretchers were manufactured, to cope with the vast number of casualties that were expected.

These weren’t very comfortable stretchers: just a tubular framework covered with a metal mesh. Their utilitarian nature was quite deliberate, though, as they would be easier to decontaminate after a gas attack.

After the war, some of those stretchers were upcycled into railings. At perhaps a dozen locations in London, new housing estates acquired railings with a distinctive ‘bulge’ at the ends of every panel: these had been the feet of the stretchers, and they’re a dead giveaway that you’re looking at no ordinary bit of fence, but a piece of our history. They’re every bit as much a sign of the war as the funny little stubs of cut-away iron that still adorn so many of our public spaces.

Upcycled stretchers, made into railings

Upcycled stretcher-railings

Very early on in this blog, I felt the need to explain why recycling doesn’t really work. We can’t afford to think of an item that we’ve finished with as a collection of chemical elements, to be reduced to their simplest state before reuse. If we do that, we waste all the effort, ingenuity and – critically – the energy that went into shaping our stuff. Because recycling is so often downcycling (reuse of the material with degradation caused by contaminants) we make life a little bit harder each time we send our materials around the loop.

McDonough and Braungart (2002) made the case for upcycling, which might be understood to mean finding new uses for unwanted items such that they don’t become waste. A key point here is that the upcycled product should have a higher value than it had at the point it ceased to be wanted by the previous owner.

If you accept that definition then most of the examples of upcycling that you will find will be art projects. Picasso’s “Bull’s Head” was an early one, made from a couple of bits of an old bicycle. It’s fun, and some will say it’s art great art (personally, I’d say it’s no Guernica, but… whatever).

Pablo Picasso, 1942: Bull’s Head

So, um… yeah. All we have to do with our waste is make it all into sculptures.

This kind of upcycling does nothing to solve the problems of our age. Paul Bonomini’s “WEEE Man” conveys a powerful message about how much e-waste we each generate, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions. In fact, a cynic might say it serves to keep three tonnes of material out of the recycling loop.

WEEE man sculpture at the Eden Project

It might sound like a Glaswegian term of endearment, but the WEEE Man is actually a former exhibit at the Eden Project in Cornwall, showing the amount of waste electrical and electronic equipment an average Briton will throw away in their lifetime. (No word yet on what happens to sculptures at end-of-life…)

If we all get creative and upcycle all our waste into art, we could actually increase the demand for virgin material. How much art does a society need? Taken to the extreme, we’ll be drowning in art instead of drowning in waste. This is why the ARP stretcher railings have such an important lesson for us: they haven’t been turned into something that’s only for looking at, and unlike art installations we don’t only need one: the more you reuse, the better. Also, in their new life they’ve been in use for something like seventy years, far exceeding the useful life seen in their primary purpose.

Perhaps upcycling needs a broader interpretation of value, where it’s not about price, but utility – but if we do that, there’s really not very much upcycling going on at all.

Liter of light: a bottle, refilled with water and a little bleach, brings sunlight into a room in a shanty town.Liter of light’ – the people using old lemonade bottles to make improvised light pipes – is still looking good, though.


For introducing me to the stretcher railings, thanks to fellow bloggers Peter Watts and Diarmuid Breatnach, plus the always fascinating 99% Invisible.

A Window on the Past

I recently went to the excellent RAF Museum at Cosford, with the particular aim of seeing one rare ’plane – but not in the conventional sense.

The aircraft in question was sequestered away inside a pair of “conservation tunnels”, being sprayed with a citric acid solution for reasons of preservation. Was my journey down to Shropshire a waste of time, then? No! Admittedly I don’t usually drive 130 miles so that I can fail to see some wreckage while it’s being drizzled with dilute lemon juice, but this was special.

My interest was in a virtual representation of the aircraft, and after an extensive search (caused by human error[1]) I found two of them hovering a few metres above the tarmac in the overflow carpark.

Apparition Dornier screenshot.

Found at last: the Dornier 17, in a car park. The scale is a bit off, apparently.

Apparition Dornier 17, seen in a car park at Cosford.

Quite a convincing takeoff… except that the propellors aren’t spinning.

Apparition Dornier 17 is a free iPhone app, described as “A virtual window into the past, using augmented reality and location based media to recreate aircraft and their stories for the world to see and experience.” Promotional hyperbole aside, what it means is that if you’re in the right location and you waft your telephone around, a ‘live’ 3D model of said Dornier 17 is superimposed upon the feed from your camera. Walk around the location and you get to see the model from various angles. The app was developed by the Middlesex University Design and Innovation Centre and sponsored by Wagaming.net – the people behind ‘World of Tanks’ and other computer games.

I wanted to see how well the technology worked, but the aircraft itself is an interesting one as well. The Dornier Do 17 was a light bomber, used mainly by the Nazis. More than two thousand were built but not a single one survives intact today.

And the one in the tent, marinated in citric acid? In September 2008, the wreckage of a Do 17 was located on the Goodwin Sands, six kilometres off the coast of Kent. It had been on the seabed since August 26th 1940 when the aircraft took part in a raid against RAF stations in southern England. It was damaged by defending fighters and forced to ditch in the sea.

Due to the threat posed by thieving scuba-souvenir hunters, the find was kept a secret until arrangements could be made to recover it. In 2013 it was raised from the seabed and delivered to the restoration centre at Cosford – where the aforementioned citric acid solution is being used to wash away the salts and barnacles that have encrusted the wreck.

Dornier 17 being raised from the seabed near Goodwin Sands

The last of her kind… and somewhat the worse for wear after being shot up and then left in seawater for decades.

A very long period of conservation work may lie ahead, but in the meantime we can see the machine in virtual form… although not from the comfort of your armchair. You still have to get out and visit a location. I doubt this is because the RAF Museum is particularly desperate to drum up business: not least because admission is free. What’s more, you can see virtual Dorniers in dozens of other locations around the world…but you do have to get out and find them.

Selected Apparition Dornier locations

Some of the Apparition Dornier locations (image: Google Maps)

Is this the Pokémon Go of history? Fitbit for sedentary aviation enthusiasts? Well… kind of. I’m quite taken with this synthesis of technologies. It introduces an apparent limitation in that the virtual world doesn’t exist purely for our convenience and we have to get out and navigate physical space if we want to enjoy it, but that’s actually evidence of a very clever system. If you can look through a “virtual window” and see a Dornier 17 in the distance, you might be able to use the same technology to answer the perennial question of supply chains:

Where’s my stuff?

Imagine using your phone not to dial up a call centre and listen to muzak while you wait for the chance to gripe about the non-appearance of your latest purchase, but to actually see where it is in real time, your magic vision reaching beyond the horizon. To know that your package isn’t merely ‘out for delivery’ but that it’s no longer stuck in that eight-mile tailback on the M62, and is now speeding towards your location… wouldn’t that be something? Or how about arriving at your local ‘click and collect’ store and not having to wait while a member of staff sorts through a pile of boxes that looks like that scene at the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’? If, instead, you could peer through your own “virtual window” and see exactly which boxes are yours – and perhaps receive additional information such as a video on safe handling for heavy boxes.

Apparition Dornier conservation project video.

Apparition Dornier shows a video about the conservation project, if you choose to look in the right direction: the two tents in the background aren’t open to the public, but the app gives me magic vision, allowing me to see inside.

My ancient iPhone 5 worked perfectly well for this, which suggests that all but about four percent of smartphone owners could have a “virtual window” of this kind, if they wanted. The model I saw was a bit clunky: up close the surface could be seen to be pixellated, and perhaps it could have been rendered to match the real lighting conditions, for additional realism… but this is a product of electronics and information technology, and it’s a few years old now: if my life has taught me anything, it’s that we can expect something a lot better to come along within a few years.

Dornier landing gear closeup

Having a close look at the landing gear. Could an augmented reality app one day help an engineer to perform maintenance tasks?

What else might we do with the technology? All kinds of things. A company could offer a permanent ‘virtual open day’ to anybody who stopped by the front gate, telling the community about all the good things they’re doing. A walking tour of the city walls of London could be made much more interesting if you could actually see them, instead of merely being told where they once stood. Perhaps an artist’s installation no longer needs no to be constrained by mundane limits such as planning permission, budget, or gravity: come and see the Colossus of Rotherham… and so on.

The window on the past is surprisingly futuristic, then. In fact, I think the world just acquired an extra dimension.

 

[1] You need to allow the Apparition app to have certain permissions on your phone, including access to your current location, or your “virtual window” won’t show you anything.

In Search of Bigfoot

If you think that ‘SPSS’ refers to the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences software tool, as used by so many of my students, think again. Today we’re in the domain of law enforcement, looking at Self-Propelled Semi-Submersibles.

Back in the 1980s, the preferred method for getting cocaine from Colombia to Mexico was to make a dash in a “cigarette boat” – a small, fast vessel that might otherwise be used for offshore powerboat racing. Similarly, during the era of prohibition, “rum runners” had used speed to evade the US Coast Guard.

That’s the way things were done, back when we were all watching ‘Miami Vice’ on TV, but running drugs by sea became a much more difficult proposition when radar coverage was improved and the Coast Guard were equipped with better boats of their own. (How unsporting!)

The drug smuggling business is a simple matter of economics: the cost of a kilo of cocaine when it leaves a jungle lab in South America is around $1,500 but it will have a street value of $50,000 or more when it reaches a major US city. Profits like that mean there is no shortage of people who are prepared to try their luck in the smuggling business, and they also allow a lot of scope for investment in the supply chain: hired muscle, firearms, bribes for officials… and narco-submarines.

Rumours that submarines were being constructed for the purposes of drug-running had been heard throughout the 1990s, but it was a long time before one was actually seen. Meanwhile, they acquired the nickname Bigfoot, after the legendary forest-dwelling cryptid: everybody’s heard of the beast, but few can claim to have seen one.

In November 1988 a submersible ‘capsule’ 6.4m in length was found off Boca Raton, Florida. It had been designed to be towed behind a boat, and could be submerged by remote control. When discovered it was empty: whatever it had contained had already been smuggled into the USA.

For a while, this was the only hard evidence to support the submersible drug-smuggling hypothesis. Then in 2000 a half-finished submarine was found in a warehouse in the suburbs of Bogotá, the Colombian capital. Documents in Russian were recovered from the site, suggesting a Russian mafia connection, or perhaps that Russian technicians had been involved in the construction project. This wasn’t the first such connection: in 1995 an émigré from the former Soviet Union had been arrested in Miami while trying to broker a deal between the Russian mafia and the Colombian cartels, concerning the sale of an old Soviet submarine.

View of the interior of the narco-sub that was built in Bogota

Inside the half-built submarine that was found in a warehouse in Bogotá. If completed it would have been able to transport over 180 tonnes of drugs, submerging to evade law enforcement.

News of the Bogotá find flashed around the world: Bigfoot had been found.

It wasn’t until 2006 that the US Coast Guard caught a Bigfoot at sea. A cutter encountered a strange vessel 145km southwest of Costa Rica. It was around fifteen metres in length, and featured three snorkels. On board they found four men, an AK-47… and 2.7 tonnes of cocaine.

The original Bigfoot narco-submarine

The first Bigfoot, seized in November 2006, is now on display at the Joint Interagency Task Force South. [Photo: Department of Defense / Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro]

This wasn’t a true submarine, but a semi-submersible: a simpler and more affordable craft that can reduce its buoyancy until there’s almost nothing visible above the waterline. Others, often lumped in with semi-submersibles are in fact low-profile vessels, but their purpose is the same and either type can be put together in the jungle without requiring the kind of materials or skills that will attract attention. (Building a true submarine in Bogotá had proved to be rather conspicuous, not least because the city is 2,640 metres above sea level, which wouldn’t have made for an easy launch!) Semi-submersibles are typically made from fibreglass and wood, so if you can build a motorboat you probably have the skills and tools necessary to make a simple smuggling craft of this kind. Dozens of the things are being built every year.

Narco-submarine being intercepted.

This image of a narco-sub being seized shows just how absurdly small their profile can be.

For all their homespun simplicity, semi-submersibles are a very potent threat. The materials from which they’re constructed make them hard to spot on radar, and additional sneakiness is achieved by painting them the same colour as the sea and having them ride so low in the water that there’s almost nothing to reveal their presence. Exhaust gases from the engines are sometimes routed through long pipes that run under the boat, such that seawater provides a cooling function: such vessels aren’t going to show up on infrared.

Interior of two narco-subs

Most narco-subs are very basic, but the War on Drugs has forced the pace of technological advancement, as the interior of the vessel on the right shows. [photos: Luca Zanetti]

There are other tricks, too, such as towed ‘torpedo’ cargo pods that can be cut loose if the smugglers are about to be boarded. The pod sinks, spends a day or two submerged and then surfaces again, using a radio beacon to advertise its position so that the smugglers can recover it. True (fully submersible) submarines appear to be of interest again, and there’s talk of GPS-enabled drone craft as well, although the cartels seem reluctant to entrust millions of dollars’ worth of drugs to automata just yet: perhaps because you can’t threaten a robot with reprisals against its family if it fails to deliver the goods.

A key weapon in the good guys’ arsenal is the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act, brought into US law in September 2008. This was the legislation that specifically named the Self-Propelled Semi-Submersible, and made it illegal to operate an unregistered one in international waters. Before that, any smuggler who got caught could simply scuttle their boat to turn a drugs bust into a ‘rescue operation’ from which no prosecution was possible as the evidence was lost. Nowadays, if you’re caught on board a Bigfoot, you go to jail for a very long time.

Jungle-built narcosubmarine

Some narco-subs are surprisingly sophisticated, such as this fully submersible example, seized in 2011.

Drug smuggling submarines have an interesting ancestor in the merchant submarine. In the First World War the Germans built two of these for the purpose of conducting trade with the USA – something that had become all but impossible due to an allied naval blockade. Deutschland and Bremen were developed and constructed using private funds, and launched in 1916. Deutschland made a highly successful trip to the USA, arriving in July 1916 with something like 680 tonnes of cargo on board. Chemical dyes, medicines, gemstones and mail were delivered, and then the submarine returned to Bremerhaven with a cargo of nickel, tin and rubber – vital war materials. As would be seen with Bigfoot ninety years later, the profit from a single voyage more than justified the cost of construction. Bremen set out for the USA on a similar trading mission in August 1916, and was never seen again. One theory is that she hit a mine, while another suggests a collision. Nobody knows.

Merchant submarine Deutschland

Strangely proportioned for a submarine, this photo sees Deutschland in New London, Connecticut

Deutschland made a second successful trip in November 1916, and would have been sent out again but relations with the USA had soured and trade became impossible. In April 1917 the Americans entered the war on the allied side, bringing an end to the usefulness of the merchant submarine. Deutschland and others of the same type still under construction were converted to long-range ‘submarine cruisers’ and sent out to fight – with considerable success.

New merchant submarine applications have been proposed from time to time, although none has left the drawing board. In the USA, General Dynamics explored the possibility of submarine tankers for oil and liquefied natural gas, opening up arctic oilfields to wider exploitation. The Soviet Union also had plans to build submarine tankers and even a 912 TEU container boat, configured for trading routes beneath the polar ice cap… but the Soviet Union collapsed instead, leaving futuristic submarine cargo vessels as something that you’re only going to see on Thunderbirds for a while yet.

 


This is part of an occasional series of articles on strange modes of transportation. If you enjoyed this one, why not have a look at the transporter bridge, missile mail, the sea-going tram, aircraft with swappable passenger pods, or the gyro-monorail?