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 to 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)

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The Circular Economy: n, o, p, and q

Such a nice idea, isn’t it? That the byproducts from everything that you need are useful and valuable elsewhere within the system that sustains us all. No waste, no pollution.

No more throwing things away, because (other than a very few, very expensive space probes) humanity hasn’t yet worked out how to send things away.

So how do we turn something linear into something circular?

Natural systems manage to be (more-or-less) circular: the water cycle, for example: evaporation, condensation and precipitation, over and over for billions of years. Or fish in the sea: left to themselves, the various species of fish would fill all the different niches where we have now made them scarce, and natural levels of predation would merely make room for more fish.

Cyclic systems must work, because the natural world got along fine before Charles Darwin, Sir David Attenborough or the Common Fisheries Policy. Long before conscious study and intervention, many species were happily chalking up a span of a million years or more, with plenty of diversity.

Then along comes a species that supplemented the natural cycles with a new one. Animals had used tools before, but one animal didn’t merely make use of sticks and stones that happened to be lying around: man acquired the ability to think ahead, and to shape complex tools that couldn’t have occurred naturally.

I want to use the Acheulean handaxe to illustrate the point because this very early, very simple machine shows something fundamental about human technology: it’s not cyclic. If you were butchering a carcass with your handaxe and you broke it on a stubborn bone, or you decided that it had become too blunt, you had to get a new one. (You could, perhaps, chip another flake off to reveal a new sharp edge, but your axe would become smaller if you did this.) Thus, at the dawn of man, people were acting in more-or-less the same way as we do when we go to Phones4U and request an upgrade. This one’s no good: get a new one.

Flint hand axe

Prototype Swiss Army Knife, circa 750,000 BCE

You can’t recycle a broken flint handaxe. The Earth will do it for you via erosion and the compression of sedimentary rock, but that doesn’t happen on any sort of timescale that a mere species can take an interest in. Instead, you go and get more raw materials from out of the ground.

Interestingly, in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where handaxes were first made, the materials were ten kilometres from any settlement. Even back then, it seems we had logistics and procurement, as well as waste.

You might be tempted to dismiss this example on the grounds that we’re better than this nowadays. It’s true that the bronze age brought us tools that could be reforged, but for the vast majority of human history the stone handaxe was the only device there was, and you couldn’t remake a handaxe any more than you can turn fired pottery back into clay, or make bread out of burnt toast.

We take the raw materials we need, make our devices, wear them out, throw them away, and start again. This is called the linear economy, and we still apply it today. For a while, recycling was an option, but nowadays many modern products are a mass of different materials, not readily or economically separated.

Technology has given us all kinds of good things like dentistry, family planning and communications. Almost nobody would advocate a return to the simpler technologies of an earlier age, but many of the things that we enjoy nowadays come with an environmental price, because they are the product of a linear economy.

Our supply chains are exactly that: supply chains, not supply loops.

Heavy machinery at a landfill site

How’s recycling working out, where you live?

You can think of the single useful life that is obtained from many materials as being like an arc: it comes out of the ground, enters into a period of usefulness, ceases to be useful, and returns to the earth. It’s an ’n’ shape.

the n-shaped economy

Under the ‘n’-shaped economy, materials describe a brief arc of usefulness, before returning to the ground

The archetype for the circular economy is an ’o’ shape, which sees items or materials going round and round ad infinitum. It’s a nice idea, but it’s wholly idealised. Getting something from nothing isn’t realistic because even if you never waste anything again, the materials you depend upon came out of the ground at some point. Statistically, we all (as citizens of planet Earth) own something like 80kg of aluminium… yet two hundred years ago, nobody had ever seen any. Recycling is essential with this costly and energy-intensive material… but it wasn’t always an option: the pump had to be primed.

The ‘o’-shaped, circular economy

The ‘o’-shaped, circular economy may be difficult to realise, with complex products

Thus, the circular economy that supersedes the ’n’ shape isn’t really an ‘o’, but more of a ‘p’. Materials must be taken out of the ground if they are to ascend into a useful cycle. 

The ‘p’-shaped economy

The ‘p’-shaped economy may be more realistic, recognising that cycles have to begin from something…

Even then, that’s not the happy ending of the story. Although your product may be more throughly sustainable, fairtrade, non-toxic, homespun, low-carbon, vegan, recycled and eco-labelled than Jeremy Corbyn’s moustache, there’s always a bit of entropy in any system. Materials wear away, or get contaminated, or mixed together in a way that changes them for good – or they get destroyed in accidents, or simply lost. If the circular economy is truly an economy, then you have to accept that people are going to buy or lease your products and take them away and use them in unanticipated ways.

The ‘q’-shaped model

The ‘q’-shaped model recognises that even though you reuse and recycle as much as possible, entropy awaits

Like zero defects or full employment, the circular economy is unattainable, but it’s a neat way to express an aspiration. In reality, it’s not an ‘o’ shape at all, but if we apply enough ingenuity we might manage a shape that looks something like “pooooq” – a shape that describes lots of useful ‘orbits’ before entropy sets in at last.

The ‘pooooq-shaped economy’

The ‘pooooq’ economy: our best-case scenario sees redesigned products being used the maximum number of times, before they eventually become unfit to serve.

I once heard a guest speaker (and I wish I could remember who it was… Professor Bernard Hon, maybe?) who told us that a car’s electric window-winder mechanism was an ideal candidate for component reuse. It’s hidden away inside the door, so the Fashion Police can’t make a fuss that it isn’t the latest type. Car window winder mechanisms are reasonably durable, because of course it would reflect badly upon the brand if they failed… but how much more would it cost to make a window actuator that was designed to last through not just the life of the car, but through the life of five cars, with the unit being extracted and refitted four more times?

Twenty percent extra, our guest speaker said. But if that’s true, who pays for the current practice whereby an end-of-life vehicle gets shredded and the parts are either melted down or burnt in the name of energy recovery?

Car window actuator

Everything you ever wanted to know about automotive window actuators may be a mere click away.

We all pay. Motorists, for sure, but in fact everyone who needs commodities such as materials and energy… which means all of us.

It seems we’re barely out of the bronze age. Some people and organisations are showing that it’s possible to be ‘greener’, but many items are no more likely to be reused than a worn out Acheulean handaxe. Of course, we’re new at this: it’s only been seven thousand years since we started working with metals.

Perhaps we’ll crack this Circular Economy thing yet – and perhaps evaluating our efforts in terms of ’n’, ‘o’, ‘p’ and ‘q’ will help.

A Better Mousetrap

I was talking to a member of staff from The Owl Sanctuary this weekend, and was pleased to learn that unlike so much of our wildlife, native British owls aren’t classified as threatened.

Barn owls (globally, the most widely distributed species) have endured some difficulties as a result of the widespread use of poisons put down to deal with rodents (it being a very short hop up the food chain from there to those that prey upon them), and the intensification of agriculture is another problem, with hedgerows having been pulled up as farms became more mechanised.

Another problem that owls face is quite bizarre: that of being bought by the parents of Harry Potter fans. (In my day it was terrapins, sold irresponsibly to kids who liked the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. These were then abandoned in the local pond a few months later.) Presumably the Hedwig Effect is a hazard that will reduce in the years to come. It’s strange that you don’t need to have any kind of permit to buy or sell our native owls; anybody can do this… but that’s an issue you’d have to take up with your Member of Parliament.

Harry Potter, and hedwig

Not so magical: Harry Potter and his snowy owl, Hedwig

Barn conversion is all the rage, of course, and changing ramshackle farm buildings into fashionable houses presents something of a housing crisis for the humble barn owl, but they prove to be surprisingly adaptable.

Enter the warehouse owl: not a distinct species, but more of a response to the changing British landscape. If you have a big shed such as a warehouse or aircraft hangar, and the doors are regularly left open, it may well have been colonised by these refugees from Harry Potter fandom.

The first sign of them will probably be a pile of their droppings in a quiet corner. That might seem like a nuisance, but what are those droppings made of? Dead rodents. It’s a pretty decent quid pro quo really: allow some owls to occupy a corner of your roof space, and you don’t have to worry about all that tedious business with mouse traps, poison and so on, over quite a wide site area.

How neat is that? An organic solution to the problem of pests in your facility, at no cost whatsoever, other than an occasional need to sweep up their regurgitated pellets and guano, a free supply of ‘soil improver’.

Barn owls

Sitting pretty: could this be your new pest control division? [photo: ‘HeBi’]

The idea of the ‘warehouse owl’ as an emerging species is charming, but incorrect: it’s a phenomenon of etymology, and not one of genetics. Manmade structures such as barns have only existed for the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. Before that, barn owls had to make do with trees (less popular in the rainy British isles) and caves. Indeed, elsewhere this bird is known as the church owl or cave owl, and by a number of other names. There’s no reason to assume that they won’t be called warehouse owls, someday – and this piece from Alaska shows that great horned owls are getting in on the act, as well…

I love the symmetry of this: a better mousetrap, self-replicating and self-limiting, taking care of a known pest while having virtually no impact upon business activities.

If only everything in the supply chain were this simple!

Asian long-horned beetle [photo: Kyle Ramirez]

Invasive Species: Stowaways in the Supply Chain

The supply chain you operate may be delivering more than you bargained for, if the goods or materials you ship are accompanied by pests that have hitched a ride.

Despite your best efforts to operate a low-carbon, ethical business, people won’t remember you fondly if you introduce an invasive species. In simple terms, that’s a plant or animal that isn’t native to a particular place, and that subsequently thrives. The consequences for native plants and wildlife can be devastating, threatening local biodiversity, harming local industry and providing a huge headache for the people who try to clean up the outbreak.

Thankfully, we’re a bit less naïve about this issue nowadays. It’s still possible to buy some exotic plants or pets, have them escape from your garden and multiply halfway across the country, but the dangers are at least recognised. Since April 1st 2014 you can no longer buy floating pennywort (or four other plants) in an English garden centre – although you can probably find plenty of the stuff choking a nearby canal or lake.

Floating pennywort

Floating pennywort

Modern biosecurity policies represent quite a change from the mid-nineteenth century, when European settlers formed ‘Acclimatisation Societies’ to make the colonies seem more familiar. They introduced plants to make their gardens feel more like home, and they introduced animals too; in order to hunt them for food, for economic reasons, or just to make the landscape ‘look right’… and they didn’t understand the damage that the introduction of a few rabbits would do to Australia – nor that of taking possums from Australia and introducing them to New Zealand.

Truckload of dead possums

Cruel, or necessary? It’s a question of perspective. Disposing of possums in New Zealand, where they carry bovine tuberculosis and pose a terrible threat to biodiversity.

All too often, the results are catastrophic. Invasive species thrive when they find themselves in a place where their traditional predators don’t exist, and where the new things they choose to eat have no defence against them. Competition between species is nothing new of course: everything that still exists has a long, long history of competing for space, for sunlight, for food and so on, but the modern-day pace of change is a hundred times faster than when the distribution of organisms was based upon mechanisms such as coconuts falling in the ocean and being washed up on strange shores. With international trade comes the international distribution of invasive species.

As I mentioned back in August, an awful lot of wood gets used for packaging materials such as pallets. According to Wax [2014] making pallets and the like in the USA accounts for a staggering 44% of US hardwood production. That’s bad enough in itself, but a pallet also offers in-transit accommodation and catering for certain burrowing insects.

The emerald ash borer (agrilus planipennis) is native to Asia and Eastern Russia, but in June 2002 they were found in Michigan, USA, having arrived in shipping materials. Once in North America they multiplied rapidly, finding that the local ash trees had little resistance and there were no predators or parasites to threaten them. It is expected that the emerald ash borer will ultimately kill most American ash trees – a process that takes about ten years, but is too rapid to allow the ash to produce seedlings before it succumbs. The cost of fighting the infestation (not winning, just fighting) is estimated by Kovacs et al [2010] to be $10.7 billion over a ten-year period.

Pallets should be treated before being moved across a national boundary, either with heat (130° F for half an hour) or with methyl bromide – a highly toxic substance that attacks the ozone layer as well. Only its importance in biosecurity has kept it from being phased out… but one can’t help feeling that (as so often in the sustainability field) we’re trying to solve one problem by introducing another.

“I know an old lady who swallowed a fly…”

It’s not just pallets that pick up hitchhikers, though: any ship that takes on ballast water, in order to manage its stability, and subsequently discharges that water elsewhere may have given a free ride to a vast quantity of plants, animals, viruses or bacteria.

When zebra mussels showed up in the Great Lakes (USA / Canada) in 1988, it was clear these fingernail-sized natives of the Caspian Sea hadn’t got there of their own accord: they’d either been transported in ballast water, or (less likely) attached themselves to an anchor or chain. The total cost of the zebra mussel invasion, to date, is estimated at $5 billion.

Zebra mussels

Zebra mussels attach themselves to any hard surface, causing considerable damage to vessels and pipes… as well as edging out native species.

The International Maritime Organization has done a lot to slow the transfer of invasive species via ballast water, but acknowledges that the problem may not have peaked yet: the incidence of outbreaks continues to increase with the growth in seaborne trade. Their list of the “ten most unwanted” makes depressing reading.

I first became alerted to ballast water as a vector during my study of the cruise industry, but if you think about it, a cruise ship is probably going to discharge less ballast water than a cargo ship, because its all-up weight isn’t going to vary all that much from one port of call to the next. Nonetheless, Klein [2008] reports that noncompliance with ballast water regulations in California led to Carnival Cruise Lines paying a $200,000 administrative fee to settle with the California State Lands Commission.

For everybody involved, it seems that biosecurity is a lot cheaper when you get it right first time.

 

References

Klein, R.A. (2008) ‘Cruise Ship Squeeze: The New Pirates of the Seven Seas’, Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers

Kovacs, K.F., Haight, R.G., McCullough D.G., Mercader, R.J., Siegert, N.W. and Liebhold, A.M. (2010) ‘Cost of potential emerald ash borer damage in U.S. communities, 2009–2019’, Ecological Economics 69, 569–578 [available online]

Wax, J. (2014) ‘99 Percent Invisible: Wooden Pallets Carry Environmental Costs Along with Their Loads’ Earth Island Journal, January 10th, 2014 [available online]

Dude… where’s my wind turbine?

When serving as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Hilary Benn, MP, said that “the battle to deal with climate change needs to be fought like World War Three.”

Let’s pursue that analogy for a little bit. In a democracy, how do citizens fight a world war? Along with all the things you might expect, such as volunteering or ‘digging for victory’, one of the most important things that can be done to support the war effort is to provide money – typically by buying war bonds.

In the First World War, my ancestors would have been found buying war bonds at the ‘Tank Bank’. This was a touring display of the weapon that promised to overcome the deadlock of trench warfare, and the people on the home front went nuts for them: during the course of the war over £2 billion was raised. (This is a good time to mention the bonds, since the 3½% War Loan is finally to be redeemed, in its entirety, on March 9th of this year. A century is quite long enough to borrow money for, don’t you think?)

Buying war bonds at the Tank Bank

Buying war bonds at the Tank Bank

After the success of the Tank Banks, in the Second World War came the Spitfire Fund: towns and counties raised money to fund the production of warplanes.

“If you buy it I’ll fly it” – buying Spitfires in World War II

“I’ll fly it if you’ll buy it,” – donating towards Spitfires at a shop given over to fundraising

So, here we are in the opening stages of what Hilary Benn described as World War Three, but the people in my community don’t appear to be clubbing together to buy machinery that could ‘win the war’. In particular I’m thinking of the wind turbine: a machine that has the potential to provide some of our energy on a clean, renewable basis. Conjuring power from thin air: what’s not to love?

It seems strange to me that some of my fellow citizens dislike wind turbines to the point where they club together to protest against their installation. They’re not being asked to part with their hard-earned cash (at least, not directly), nor even to give up their land; only to have turbines placed where they might have to look at them, sometimes.

"Painful facts about wind energy"

Information displayed on a Facebook group opposing wind farm construction where I live.

I wish I could describe their efforts as quixotic, which is to say idealistic and unworldly. We derive the word from Don Quixote, adopted name of the principal character in a novel by Miguel de Cervantes that dates back to 1605. Poor, deluded Don Quixote believes (among various other things) that the thirty or forty windmills he sees on the plains are marauding giants: he charges them, and ends up unhorsed.

“Tilting at windmills,” we call it… but the efforts of the NIMBYs are not entirely quixotic. They’ve been highly successful. Like would-be invaders, the wind turbines have been driven quite literally into the sea, condemned to an offshore existence where difficulties in installation, servicing and power transmission mean they are far less cost-effective. (And still some people complain that they don’t like looking at them, on the horizon.)

Cost of wind energy, per megawatt hour [Parsons Brinckerhoff, 2010]

Cost of wind energy, per megawatt hour [Parsons Brinckerhoff, 2010]

The appeals to buy war bonds in the two World Wars were each centred upon an iconic and popular product, whereas the wind turbine seems to need something of a makeover.

There are problems with wind turbines. One of the major complaints levelled against them is that the benefits don’t trickle down to the local community. Perhaps part of that is because the UK was so slow off the mark with wind energy, and as a result a lot of the technology comes from our European neighbours. The wind turbines installed in the UK are more likely to have benefited a Dane or a German than a Briton, although that’s beginning to change as the supply chain develops.

Another accusation is that there are relatively few local jobs once a wind farm is up and running. Again, it’s true: a wind turbine just stands there, twirling away and putting out electricity. (This is why they’re so brilliant: they give us something for next to nothing… but it does mean that they create less jobs than, say, coal mining.)

For the landowner who manages to secure planning permission for the construction of a wind farm, it’s a license to print money: they don’t need to invest money of their own, merely leasing the land to people who do the rest. This leads to further resentment, because again that’s money for the few, and not for the many who will see them on the skyline. Part of the problem here is in using a planning system that’s poorly suited to this particular purpose. Did we reject major projects in the midst of the first two world wars? No: villages got evacuated to make space for gunnery ranges; forests were cut down for their timber, and so on. Because that’s how you fight a world war. While the installation of renewable energy systems is governed by the conventional planning process, residents will always be left wondering if an approval was granted because of a “funny handshake” or a plain brown envelope stuffed with banknotes.

I suspect we’re going about this backwards. That a community doesn’t benefit from something it never invested in shouldn’t come as a surprise. Instead of leaving wind energy to a new class of ‘little energy barons’ who happen to own the land, why aren’t we erecting wind turbines in the grounds of public buildings? We could start with schools and hospitals, slashing the energy bills of services that we all pay for. You might say that a local authority is too cash-strapped to be able to afford money for such projects… but current wind farms are constructed by companies that borrow money at commercial rates, and they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t expect a return on investment. Why not a council, or even a consortium of citizens?

And the next time somebody says “I don’t want a wind farm here,” I’m going to reply: “No problem! A new nuclear power station will probably bring a lot more jobs to the area…”

Almost Nothing is Infinite

In 1866, in southern Ontario, a flock of birds is reported to have flown overhead. What was unusual was that it took some fourteen hours for the flock to pass overhead: it was estimated to contain 3.5 billion birds and if so, those birds would have been among the most populous bird species on Earth.

Just half a century later, there were none at all.

It’s a hundred years since the very last passenger pigeon, a female called Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. From being so numerous as to inspire awe in the middle of the 19th century, to being extinct in the early 20th: in the space of a human lifetime, a seemingly endless resource was used up, and would never be seen again.

Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon

Martha

Pigeon meat wasn’t a great delicacy, but it was plentiful and cheap: it had become a staple food for the poor, and in some places for slaves. One might draw parallels with salmon, which was once a poor man’s fish: in the Colonial period, servants had clauses in their contracts to limit the frequency with which they could be fed salmon. Only a decline in fish stocks made it into a luxury.

Passenger pigeons were ludicrously easy to kill. They roosted together in large groups, and could be collected by lighting a sulphurous fire beneath them. When on the wing, a shot from a blunderbuss would bring down a score of them or more; even a thrown stick could bring them down. They were netted, lured with alcohol-soaked grain, and killed in half a dozen other ways. They were smoked, salted, pickled and hauled off into the cities by the new railways. Other passenger pigeons were simply used for fattening hogs, where they fell.

Hunting the Passenger Pigeon, 1875

Hunting the passenger pigeon, 1875

Legislative efforts to protect dwindling flocks had begun as early as 1857, but laws were only spottily enforced, and generally came too late to make a difference. Passenger pigeons appear to have been highly social, needing to roost together in large groups for successful breeding to take place. Thus, while hunters didn’t kill the very last of the birds, they had set them irrevocably on the path to extinction.

This is what we do; we consume resources, and we aren’t necessarily logical about it. Like a spendthrift who eats into their bank deposit, rather than living off the interest it generates, for a time one can live well… and then you break the system, and it doesn’t give you anything anymore.

This behaviour isn’t unique to North America; closer to home we might examine the decline in the North Sea fishing industry where herring, “the silver darlings” used to provide work for tens of thousands – and nutrition for millions.

There was a time when there were 30,000 vessels engaged in fishing for herring on the east coast of the UK alone. The sea provided an apparently endless bounty, and people made the most of it. As technology improved, however, an imbalance arose: the 20th century would see the widespread adoption of engines, radio, sonar, nylon nets… all of which made going after the fish a simpler, safer and more productive business. None of this is to be despised, but in an increasingly one-sided contest, the herring all but disappeared – with consequences for the people whose income depended upon them.

With the exception of a few diseases, humanity doesn’t actively seek to bring about extinction. Quite the opposite; few people want a profitable industry to disappear, nor to have to live without the things that industry used to provide… yet species can be taken to the brink – and beyond.

The role of government in all this is interesting, from the weak, non-interventionist stance seen in the case of the passenger pigeon, to the much more hands-on involvement in the North Sea. There, the government had to execute a complete U-turn. Once, good governance involved providing assistance to ensure a healthy domestic fishing industry. This would involve subsidy, infrastructure development, and marine research geared towards understanding migration patterns and reporting these to fishermen, in order to improve the catch. Only later, with fish stocks in crisis, would good governance mean placing restrictions on the size of the fishing fleet and the equipment that could be used, the establishment of quotas, and reductions in the number of days when the fishing fleet could put to sea. In this context, marine research finally came to recognise the finite nature of fish stocks, and the fragile nature of the ecosystem – and it was very nearly too late.

Eventually, fishing activity had to be suspended, for years, as the graph below shows. Only a complete moratorium on fishing for North Sea herring saved them.

Quantity of herring landed [Toresen and Østvedt, 2000]

Quantity of herring landed [Toresen and Østvedt, 2000]

As a great example of the government’s former role in promoting fishing, Caller Herrin’ was a 1947 information film from the Scottish Home Department, named after the traditional cry to advertise fresh herring. It provides a fascinating window on the past, allowing us to learn a new unit of measure: the cran (enough fish to fill a box of about 170 litres capacity), and enjoy the moment towards the end of part 1 where, it seems, four crew are required to land a single basket of herring… despite the obvious time-pressure with no refrigeration in sight.


The people shown in the film, and their jobs, seem strange and alien. We might as well be watching a documentary about the people of Papua New Guinea for all that we have in common with these ancestors. I’ve never eaten a kipper. How does an industry change so much, within living memory?

While it’s true that the Scottish fishing fleet was renewed with government assistance in the aftermath of the Second World War, things had already changed a great deal. The traditional export markets in Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe were largely depressed, or newly inaccessible. The Scottish fishing fleet would soon be transformed again, to go after whitefish, often farther afield and in colder waters. Difficult times (and the Anglo-Icelandic Cod War) were ahead, but that isn’t a direct consequence of the decline of the herring: in fact, British exports of herring had peaked in 1907, long before the inept “management” of fish stocks under the Common Fisheries Policy, which only began in 1970.

Meanwhile, although no commercially exploited fish species has gone the way of the passenger pigeon, Thurstan et al (2010) reported that British fish catches had declined by 94% in a little over a century.

Now, politicians are responsible for the fate of the remaining stocks, to a degree unimaginable not long ago, when species such as herring were still thought of as simply existing in the wild – and being so numerous as to be effectively infinite and in no need of stewardship.

Perhaps we might have said:

“No ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.”

…except that particular quote comes from a century earlier, and the report of a select committee of the Senate of Ohio, in 1857… in response to the first bill that was proposed in order to protect the passenger pigeon.

 

References

Thurstan, R.H. Brockington, S., Roberts, C.M. (2010). The effects of 118 years of industrial fishing on British bottom trawl fisheries, Nature Communications 1 (15): 1

Toresen, R. & Østvedt, O.J. (2000) Variation in Abundance of Norwegian Spring-Spawning Herring (Clupea harengus, Clupeidae) throughout the 20th Century and the Influence of Climactic Fluctuations, Fish and Fisheries 1, 231-256

All at Sea

There’s a nice piece in the BBC news this week about the ‘Tjipetir mystery’: tablets of a strange rubbery material washing up on beaches all around Europe, each with ‘TJIPETIR’ embossed on one side.

Mysterious ‘TJIPETIR’ tablet

Mysterious ‘TJIPETIR’ tablet

It isn’t a viral marketing campaign for some new Dot Com (incidentally, don’t bother: tjipetir.com is already registered) nor a message from the occupants of flying saucers. In fact, Tjipetir is the name of an Indonesian rubber plantation, and these were slabs of raw material. They are believed to be gutta-percha, a latex material collected as sap from a family of trees, later edged out by the emergence of plastics such as Bakelite.

The suspected source of the strange tablets is the wreck of a Japanese liner, the Miyazaki Maru, sunk by a German U-boat in 1917. A recent salvage operation appears to have dislodged a number of the tablets, allowing them to float free and find their way onto beaches a thousand miles apart.

Twenty-five years, it is said, is all it takes for a piece of flotsam to circle the globe. This power of the tide was once harnessed to keep a remote Scottish community connected with the rest of Britain: the people of St Kilda would construct “mail boats” from just about anything that would float, plus a watertight tin or bottle, containing letters. This would be flung into the sea, and left to take its chances. Included was some money, to pay the postage when the letter was recovered and put into the mail system. In a more honest age, about two thirds of the letters sent this way found their mark.

St Kilda Mail Boat

St Kilda Mail Boat (Glasgow Museums Photo Library)

Then there’s Perranporth in Cornwall: the beach where Lego bricks keep washing up. Seventeen years ago, a freak wave caused the container ship Tokio Express to lose 62 shipping containers from its deck, while about 20 miles off Land’s End. One of the containers held 4,756,940 Lego pieces, and many of them have floated free. Although they’ve been a little bit abraded by the action of sand and wave, children (and others) love collecting them.

Lego flotsam

Assorted Lego pieces found on the beach (‘Lego Lost at Sea’ Facebook group)

Plastics are incredibly useful: can you imagine modern life without them? I can’t… but when they end up in the sea, their durability and low density are no longer an asset, but a curse. Stepping up to deal with that curse is Boyan Slat. He might look as if he ought to be smuggling a priceless ring into Mordor in a Peter Jackson movie, but the Dutch youngster’s quest is probably harder: he wants to rid the world’s oceans of plastic waste. A lot of young people have expressed a desire to tackle environmental problems, and made this the subject of a school project… but how many went on to raise $2 million to fund a programme of experiments? At 18 years old, he was a pretty persuasive speaker, too.

Boyan Slat

Boyan Slat (theoceancleanup.com)

Boyan Slat’s proposed approach features a floating boom, mid-ocean, tethered to the seabed. The vortices of water responsible for concentrating the floating garbage into mid-ocean patches – gyres – will deliver plastic waste into his boom system without any need to sail up and down, collecting it. Just as the current was employed on St Kilda to send the mail on its way, it obligingly delivers the waste with no energy required.

Not everybody thinks this is the best solution. For example, some say that the price of the mid-ocean garbage collector could better be spent on preventing plastics ending up in the ocean in the first place. (It’s estimated that a tenth of the 288 million tonnes of plastic products made every year end up in the sea.) Others point out that although there’s a lot of plastic waste, much of it is microscopic, and not all of it is at the surface, as plastic waste is found throughout the water column, and on the seabed.

The approach remains controversial, but do you know what I’ve learned? The smallest good deed is better than the greatest good intention. It might not be perfect, but it’s happening. How many other teenagers could you name who secured the involvement of seventy engineers and scientists, to produce a 530-page proposal for an environmental project? Experiments continue, and the first platform for the North Atlantic gyre should be ready by 2020.

Conceptual rendering of the ocean cleanup system

Concept of Slat’s system (theoceancleanup.com)

In a climate of environmental doom and gloom, where people despair about “the world we’re leaving to future generations”, the first of those generations has come out fighting.