Charged with Battery

As something of a model aircraft enthusiast, I’ve been hearing scare stories about lithium-ion batteries for over a decade – and they’re not just stories: every once in a while a model flier would leave a battery charger running in their vehicle, and suffer a fire that gutted it.

Any battery will get hot if subjected to an inappropriate regime of charging or discharging, but this kind poses additional hazards due to its chemical properties. I’m going to have to simplify quite a bit here, but basically the chemistry of the common lithium-ion cell leaves it vulnerable to a condition that is euphemistically termed “thermal runaway.”

Inside each cell is a cathode and an anode, separated by an electrolyte and a porous material called the separator.

If a component has a manufacturing defect, if it becomes damaged, if it’s short-circuited or perhaps if it’s made to work too hard, the electrolyte can catch fire – but that’s just the start. In the fire, the decomposition of the cathode and anode commonly release (among other things, if I have understood correctly) oxygen, and hydrogen. The release of oxygen in particular means that the more it burns… the more it burns. Naturally, the heat generated inside the cell means that its neighbours promptly get in on the act and the whole battery burns.

If this occurs in a confined space, such as that formed by the casing of a mobile ’phone, you get a small explosion – plus toxic gases released as the other components in the phone are subjected to extreme heat.

Oh – and lithium reacts with water. It’s not really going to be an issue by the time you notice that Samsung made you a smoke grenade instead of a telephone… but strictly speaking, you ought to use a powder extinguisher on a lithium fire.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry says that “… there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

But then, Lord Henry never heard of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

Last time I boarded a flight, they were talking about this ’phone:

“For safety reasons we don’t permit any model of the Galaxy Note 7 to be carried on board. If you’re carrying this device, please tell a member of the cabin crew.”

There are signs at check-in. There is coverage in magazines, on websites, on TV and radio. This is the kind of publicity that even Gerald Ratner would choke on.

Detail from the Emirates airline website

Detail from the front page at Emirates.com – the wrong kind of publicity

Launched on August 19th 2016, the Galaxy Note 7 was Samsung’s flagship mobile, and its specifications were impressive. Just five days later came news of a Galaxy Note 7 exploding, in South Korea. By the end of the month they had delayed shipments to South Korean carriers, although the next day the product launched in China. (Presumably this reflects a belief that the bad batteries were all to be found in a particular batch, rather than any belief that Chinese customers are inherently more fireproof or more expendable than Korean ones.)

Just a day later, Samsung announced the global recall of 2½ million ’phones, although at this stage it was voluntary. On October 6th a Southwest Airlines flight was evacuated due to smoke from a Galaxy Note 7, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to instruct passengers not to turn on or charge the ill-fated ’phone – nor to stow it in cargo. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission urged Galaxy Note 7 users to cease using their phones, and carriers including AT&T and T-Mobile withdrew them from sale.

After a series of fires in replacement devices – those that had been subjected to additional inspections and quality control measures – Samsung finally threw in the towel, suspending production of the product and then announcing its end. The withdrawal of the Galaxy Note 7 left a highly unusual gap in the market because Samsung’s rivals commonly avoid bringing out competitor products at the same time of year, so customers who received a refund had relatively few options to spend their money on. Meanwhile, Apple’s share price surged, despite a recent lukewarm reception for their latest iPhone – a device most notable for the unpopular decision to remove the headphone socket.

Part of the problem here is the very personal nature of mobile ’phones: you put a lot of personal information on them including passwords and banking details; you store photos of your loved ones; you expect people to be able to reach you; you learn your way around the quirky operating system. Nobody wants to have to delete all their personal information and preferences, and give them up. Your ’phone is closer to you, for longer, than your loved ones – and you probably sleep with it on the nightstand. The idea that it might have harmed you, and that it will be taken from you – not because you broke it or lost it but because it’s no good – that feels like a betrayal. It seems that Samsung will continue to feel the effects of this problem for a long time to come.

On Supply Chain Radio they said that the times we live in magnify Samsung’s woes, because of the perils of social media. Certainly, there have been some great jokes about Samsung’s plight (see below) but I think our interconnected age actually makes it much simpler to handle a problem of this kind. For one thing, all Galaxy Note 7 users are online, by definition: they could be reached with a message about a product recall. Contrast that with the old days, when the manufacturer of a defective car would have to take out advertisements in newspapers, to tell the world how crappy their cars were. The new approach is free, and it’s accurately targeted: it need not scare off potential customers.

Unboxing the Galaxy Note 7

Unboxing the Galaxy Note 7 [twitter user Marcianotech]

There is also the option of a software patch, delivered over the airwaves, to fix problems. Samsung tried a patch that would limit charging to 60% of capacity… but their ’phones kept on melting down, all the same.

Even when a fix can’t be achieved remotely, at least the connected nature of the surviving Galaxy Note 7’s offers a way to ensure compliance with the recall: presumably it would be simple enough to send out a software update that forces a shutdown – and once your smartphone has become a novelty paperweight (warning: keeping it near paper is probably a mistake) most users will be persuaded to swap it for something that works.

So, are all those defective telephones going to be remanufactured? No. Samsung has announded they will destroy all the returned ’phones. Given that the device sold for something like US$850, that’s an awful waste, but we’re now looking at a product that must be treated as hazardous. It can no longer be transported by air, or carried in the post. This leaves returned Galaxy Note 7’s scattered, rendering remanufacture uneconomical. Presumably, some recycling can still take place, if only to  salvage some of the more valuable metals – but almost all of the effort that went into making these ingenious devices is wasted.

Samsung Galaxy S7, burnt

Nothing beats that new gadget smell…

When Apple laptops were found to have hazardous batteries in 2006, they were quick to point out that the batteries in question had been made by Sony. Samsung has no such luxury: the Korean giant’s batteries were made by a subsidiary. Also, the remedy for Apple’s older laptops was relatively simple because the battery was removable. Samsung only recently switched over to a sealed in battery – presumably for reasons of waterproofing – and this has magnified their pain.

According to Credit Suisse, Samsung will have have lost nearly US$17 billion in revenue as a result of these problems.

Efforts to pack still more energy into a smaller, lighter devices continue.

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 a 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 unit 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.

No way to treat an old lady

As I departed Kuala Lumpur recently, our ’plane taxied past a very forlorn looking Boeing 747. It’s abundantly clear when a ’plane is never going to fly again: grime accumulates on all the upper surfaces, while the tailfin is painted in a drab, uniform colour that conceals the branding of the aircraft’s former owner – because a ’plane at the end of its life is a poor advertisement for the airline. Often, the nacelles are left gaping after the engines have been removed, too.

That ’plane, and two others like it, are in the news this week: Malaysia Airports have taken out newspaper advertising, inviting the unknown owners to claim their aircraft within fourteen days or see them disposed of.

Malaysia Star newspaper notice

Eviction notice: substantial landing and parking fees are owed.

It’s easy to talk about the end-of-life for vehicles, appliances and the like, but it’s more complicated for aircraft. Some are parked up in deserts for years, where the dry conditions minimise corrosion. In a changeable business climate, the hope is that some will return to service later on. Others are are stripped of valuable parts (nowadays, that mostly means engines) and then broken up for scrap. Where an aircraft is stranded at an airport, though, with parking charges accumulating daily, it’s simply not possible to be sentimental: if a buyer can’t be found an excavator or two will make short work of the ‘Queen of the Skies’.

Boeing, boeing... gone in 3-4 days [image: Daily Mail]

Boeing, boeing… gone in 3-4 days [image: Daily Mail]

This is going on all the time, and the recycling rates are actually quite impressive… but the speed with which Boeing 747s are now disappearing from our airports and our skies is surprising – and the 747 isn’t just any old aeroplane. When the 747 goes, it marks the end of an era. This was the ubiquitous ’plane that became a unit of measure in its own right. (What would British journalists do if they couldn’t describe the size of things by inviting comparison with Jumbo Jets, football pitches and double-decker buses?)

For a machine that first flew in 1969 it’s had a good run, with 1,519 aircraft delivered – at a present-day list price of over $350 million a pop. Not bad for a machine that can trace its roots back to 1963, and design work done for a military project where Boeing didn’t succeed: it was the requirements of the CX-Heavy Logistics System that gave the later 747 its distinctive ‘hump’ – originally because of the need for a cavernous cargo bay on the main deck, with front loading. The contract for the military transport aircraft went to Lockheed, as the C-5 Galaxy… but some aspects of the CX-HLS design can still be seen in the DNA of the 747.

An early campaigner for the large passenger jet was Pan Am’s president, Juan Trippe. He saw large capacity aircraft as a solution to airport congestion (sound familiar?) and ordered the first twenty-five, back in 1966. Back when the 747 only existed on paper, that is – and when the company didn’t have a plant big enough to assemble it, either. The difficulties they had to overcome were staggering… but they managed it, and 747s began to carry passengers in 1970.

Forty-five years is a long time in aviation, and even with a relatively recent upgrade in the form of the 747-8, it seems that the writing is on the wall. Just two were ordered this year, and none at all the year before. Peak production occurred in 1980, with 73 aircraft delivered; peak orders were 122, in 1990. With just twenty outstanding orders, now, Boeing probably won’t be able to keep the production line open for much longer.

So what new aeroplane has stolen away the market for the 747? Actually, it’s an aeroplane that’s already twenty years old: the Boeing 777. It’s smaller than the 747, but not by much, and it incorporates two engines (with very large turbofans) instead of four. That means airlines save on fuel usage and maintenance costs, as well as paying a lower price to acquire a ’plane. I was in a 777 when we taxied past that clapped-out old 747 in Kuala Lumpur. Thus far, Boeing has delivered 1,355 of the smaller jet, and there are hundreds more on order. This is the ’plane I used to refer to frequently when teaching Concurrent Engineering, thanks to Karl Sabbagh’s book, 21st Century Jet: The Making of the Boeing 777. (Boeing called it “working together”, but it was classic Concurrent Engineering, and the result was a world-beating aeroplane.)

Formerly, when an older aeroplane was no longer wanted for use on passenger routes, it stood a good chance of putting in a few years of service as a freighter. Now, that’s by no means guaranteed. Again, the 777 is the culprit. The freighter variant of the 777 scores over the 747 for the same reasons as it does in passenger usage, but there’s also the issue of belly cargo capacity for passenger flights. A passenger airline can squeeze 202 cubic meters of freight (or luggage) into a 777-300ER, as well as carrying passengers, so that’s a valuable additional revenue stream.

By contrast, an upper deck full of passengers on a 747 (or an A380 for that matter) adds weight, but does nothing to improve the cargo capacity… and you’re still stuck with those four expensive engines.

Relative size of the 777, 747 and A380

Relative size of the Boeing 777 and 747, and the Airbus A380

A dedicated freighter benefits from larger doors and the option of flying routes and times that aren’t attractive to passengers, but there’s no opportunity of cross-subsidy: the freight must pay its way, every time. This article in Supply Chain Brain described the air-cargo freighter as an ‘endangered species’… and that means fewer freight conversions, and faster retirements for converted aeroplanes now in service. All this accelerates the process by which the 747 will become a rare bird indeed.

Even at a time when oil is crazy-cheap (Brent crude is under $40 a barrel as I write this), it seems that for most applications four-engined aircraft are out, and two-engined is the way to go. There’s only one customer I can think of who absolutely demands four engined aircraft, and that’s the U.S. Presidential Airlift Group. They recently brought their replacement process forward, to ensure that they would still be able to obtain 747s: this purchase was the source of the order for two 747s in January of this year.

The simple fact is that engines have come a long way since the 1960s, and nowadays two are plenty. ETOPS (Extended Time On Partial Systems) rulings determine what routes an aircraft can fly, taking into account distance from airports that might be diverted to in an emergency. If you’re an industry insider, you probably refer to the standard by its other name: Engines Turn Or Passengers Swim. It’s an important historical detail because of the US Civil Aviation Authority’s “60-minute rule” of 1953: that the flight path of twin-engined aircraft should not be farther than 60 minutes of flying time from an adequate airport. Thus, in the 1960s and 70s an airline wanted three- or four-engined jetliners if it was to cross oceans and the like, but this requirement is now greatly reduced.

Some 747s will still be in service for a good while yet. Some will find niche jobs such as the former Virgin Atlantic 747-400 recently announced as due for conversion into an airborne satellite launcher… but many are disappearing. Air France, once a major user of the 747 has only a single 747-based service on their schedule this winter, going between Paris and Mexico City. Passengers reports (available on SeatGuru, if you’re feeling nerdy) include failed in-flight entertainment, and a recent cancellation due to engine failure: symptoms of an aircraft approaching the end of its useful life.

Sure enough, Air France just announced that a special tribute flight on January 14th next year will mark the end of the 747 era for them. British Airways have chosen to refurbish eighteen of their Boeing 747-400s… which is a nice way to say they’re halving the size of their present-day fleet. That’s another batch of 747s for the breaker’s yard, then. Perhaps some of them will find new life, one way or another…

The 747 Wing House

American architect David Randall Hertz Turned a former Pan Am 747 into ‘The 747 Wing House’, in the Santa Monica Mountains.

 

Need affordable yet distinctive accommodation in Stockholm? Look no further than the Jumbo Stay hostel...

Need affordable yet distinctive accommodation in Stockholm? Look no further than the Jumbo Stay hostel… it’s handy for the airport, too!

 

Table featuring an upcycled turbofan

Or you could always make some furniture out of aircraft parts…

 

Lufthansa, Korean Air and Air China will continue to operate the updated 747-8s that they bought more recently, but the price of oil won’t stay low forever: not least because its current low level is preventing oil industry investment, and that hints at a future shortage.

If, presently, we see another price spike like the one that peaked in July 2008… what would you make out of an unwanted 747?

Recycling isn’t getting any easier

The last night of a recent holiday in Germany found me walking the streets late at night, trying to find a bottle bank. I had to do this because I didn’t understand the local recycling arrangements. It wasn’t entirely a problem of language, but one of local custom. Knowing that the Germans are renowned for their recycling efforts, and that even a small quantity of material in the wrong stream can contaminate a batch, I hoped not to mess up. At the supermarket they didn’t accept bottles, but had a collection slot for ‘cartons’. But what is a carton? We use the term to describe a variety of things, including those Tetra Pak boxes in which we buy orange juice; being a multilayered mixture of plastic, paper and aluminium they’re notoriously difficult to recycle. I still have no idea what the good people of Zarrentin am Schaalsee consider to be a carton.

As they say at the online guide ‘How to Germany: recycling guide’ (seriously…) “the whole subject of recycling can be a daunting issue for any newcomer to the country.” In fact it seems that the Germans may be almost as confused by regional variations as visiting Britons.

I’m good about sorting my waste at home in Yorkshire, because I understand the arrangements: what goes in each bin and when they’re emptied. In Greater Manchester, where I work and keep a small flat, I find it all much more of a mystery: those local variations again. Bearing in mind that the boundary between one local authority and another is in some cases drawn down the middle of a street, with each area having a profusion of different coloured bins that serve the same purposes.

Excepts from Manchester recycling instructions

The simplest plans are the best ones…

This is just the variation between the districts of one moderately-sized city, in one waste category; far greater differences can found if you compare one county with another… and yet in every case the recycling strategy was (at least, we have to assume…) consciously designed.

Can cooked food waste go in compost? It depends where you live. Does the collection of plastics also include plastic films? Always a tricky subject. Again, it depends… and the places that accept plastic films usually do so because they’re not really recycling at all, but sending the whole lot straight into a waste-to-energy plant.

I don’t have to wrestle with such quandaries in Greater Manchester, because I live in a flat, and we just get a single, large dumpster for all waste. Yes: all waste. Because, as you will no doubt agree if you have studied the British class system, people who live in a block of flats won’t be intelligent enough to sort their waste. Indeed, they are bound to keep coal in the bathtub, and when they run out of coal they probably tear up the floorboards and burn those…

At work, our recycling scheme features still another colour scheme, and another set of rules.

nine recycling categories

Residents in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, have to contend with nine waste categories [photo: Daily Mail]

It’s no less baffling for me when we visit my parents’ place in London. In fact, it’s worse. They don’t seem to actually have a bin in the house at all, except for a tiny one in one bathroom. Their recycling regimen is so strict that almost nothing is ever permitted to mix; instead, rubbish gets pigeonholed as soon as it is generated: I hand it to my dad who files it away in an array of designated plastic boxes and bags that are kept in the garage. (They don’t have a car, fortunately.) This approach to waste is vital if the 255,000+ people who live in the 47.35 km2 of the Royal Borough of Greenwich are to avoid being buried under a mountain of rubbish, but it assumes that people will learn and obey the rules. Furthermore, it assumes that the local authority has found a market for the neatly sorted waste it collects… and in any case it confuses the hell out of occasional visitors.

How do you get rid of disposable nappies (diapers)? It seems you’re supposed to register with the council for a special bin, if your household is a source of disposable nappies. Presumably nobody in London ever has visitors with young children anymore. If not, I’m not surprised; one certainly doesn’t feel particularly welcome. When you bear in mind that registering would involve having a fourth wheelie-bin in front of your house, plus kerbside boxes for paper and cardboard, the 21st century street is getting more than a little crowded. Streets with smaller front gardens have become little more than parking areas for bins, in the name of caring for our environment.

A terraced street, and its recycling

It’s preferable to a street covered in litter, but does this create the ideal urban environment? [photo: Daily Mail]

Some local authorities seem to be operating on the basis that if they make waste collection inconvenient enough, people will cease to generate waste and this will save them a fortune. I’m concerned that opposite is true: when you make it hard to get rid of things though the proper channels, people dispose of them improperly. Always assuming they understand what ‘properly’ means in the first place.

Not that being confused by recycling instructions is always the fault of the local councils: industry is more than capable of spawning silly recycling schemes of its own. Take a look at this splendid piece of bad design:

Logo indicating the presence or absence of mercury in a screen display

“Mercury inside”… not as desirable as “Intel Inside®”, it turns out.

“Don’t Hg!” What? If you never studied chemistry and you don’t know your ancient Greek, you may struggle to recall that mercury was once known as hydrargyrum. So: Hg. And if the logo shows ‘Hg’ crossed out, that means you can dispose of the item, because it doesn’t contain the toxic metal. So crossing out means do, and not crossing out means don’t.

With me so far?

DigitalEurope set up this new labelling scheme last year, with funding from WRAP. While it appears that some of the major display and TV manufacturers wanted a way to crow about their adoption of LED-based backlighting (i.e. no more mercury vapour lamps…) the scheme remains entirely voluntary. To quote the DigitalEurope website:

“DigitalEurope does not perform controls and has no control over the use the Television and Computer Monitor producers make of the right to apply the Logos. DigitalEurope will not be liable for any misuse of the logo.”

DigitalEurope

It’s an approach to e-waste with no teeth, doing nothing to address the confusion already pertaining in the minds of citizens who want to recycle. Codification without common sense is not unknown in the bureaucracy of the EU, but right now the Union itself seems shakier than ever. Our Greek friends slide towards an exit that nobody knew existed, hitherto. In the process they unravel the Emperor’s new clothes, demonstrating that the Euro currency may have been little more than a glorified currency peg… and chaos ensues.

But if, after a couple of decades, we couldn’t even establish a sensible and comprehensible waste handling regimen that was understood and followed in the same way across multiple countries, what chance did we ever have of solving the ‘big questions’?

School: where sustainability begins at home

On March 20th, sustainability coach Anthony Day presented at the Education Show in Birmingham. His topic was sustainability in schools, with three main themes; the school as a sustainable business, the role of sustainability in the curriculum, and its emergence as a career choice for young people.

You can find a podcast of the talk here.

Mr Day had a lot of good advice for schools, mentioning bodies such as the Carbon Trust, the Energy Saving Trust, WRAP, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – any of which might provide help with making a school ‘greener’, and saving money. He also mentioned Friends of the Earth’s “run on sun” campaign.

What most interested me, though, was his take on sustainability in the curriculum. “It puts a different dimension on the pupils’ understanding of their place in the world,” he said, “and how the world is changing.”

If we want to teach sustainability, we have to teach by example.

While Mr Day gave his presentation in Birmingham, I was in Malaysia running a workshop on sustainable supply chain strategy as part of our BSc in Supply Chain Management. I’m pleased to say that our partner (the Supply Chain Management Professional Centre, SCMPC) in Kuala Lumpur also believes that we should practice what we preach.

The centre has a long history in the training of supply chain professionals, but only relatively recently has the curriculum been expanded to include ‘green’ operations. Accrediting bodies and an increasing number of employers now want graduates to be able to get to grips with ‘green’ issues, and this is reflected in recent updates to the programme. As you might expect, we address the environmental impact of manufacturing, logistics and supply chain operations, but sustainability can be pursued at many different levels, and SCMPC shows that a business in a supply chain training role doesn’t need to present only the theory.

Anthony Day’s message to schools would be entirely familiar to the management at SCMPC. It’s about ‘doing the right thing’, sure enough… but pursuing sustainability is also good business sense, as I learned during my most recent visit. Changes began, as is often the case, with the installation of low energy lightbulbs – LED types compatible with existing fittings. (I approve; I never thought much of the compact fluorescent type). Modern LED bulbs are being installed throughout the centre, with priority given to areas where the lights are switched on for most of the day.

SCMPC class photo

Director Edward Ang, and some of his students

Perhaps a more significant example was that whenever possible, faulty equipment is repaired rather than replaced. Finding a business with the skills to repair digital projectors wasn’t easy, and it’s harder still to find this at a competitive price, when compared to simply replacing electronic items outright… but again, SCMPC shows that the skills on the curriculum aren’t there just for show; procurement prevailed, and a suitable deal was struck. For a training outfit that uses digital projectors all the time, the effort paid dividends – and it has resulted in less e-Waste being produced, of course. Using a common model throughout the centre has permitted cannibalisation – something we could all think about when tempted by the latest hardware, perhaps!

Polystyrene cups have been replaced with paper ones, with a clear environmental benefit… and a sign appeals for attendees to take only one cup. Office waste goes for recycling, too. While any one of these small steps won’t make a huge difference on its own, each moves things in the right direction, and shows evidence of intent. There’s nothing wrong with picking the low-hanging fruit first! Future plans include adding motion sensors to control the lighting and save additional energy. I asked about water-saving, but such a small quantity of water is used within the centre that this isn’t being pursued at present. (Water may be somewhat less of an issue in rainy Kuala Lumpur than elsewhere in the world: there’s no ‘one size fits all’ in sustainability.)

When a course begins, students are given an information pack, and these come in a small, re-usable carrier bag. These not only promote the centre, but in their redesigned form they now give top billing to sustainability. We might take issue with the whole ‘bag for life’ thing – the UK Environment Agency seems determined to dispel a few myths – but that’s another story.

SCMPC branded carrier bag

SCMPC branded carrier bag

Meanwhile, if you really want to ‘go green’ and have a bag for life, here’s a great example of ‘upcycling’ that you might consider… Sourced make bags by hand, from old lorry curtain material. The designers make use of the logos and lettering that the material displayed in its previous life, so every bag (or laptop case) is unique. Not only can you feel good about your recycled purchase, but you can look good, too.

Anthony Day doesn’t like the term “retail therapy”… but I wonder if he’d be prepared to make an exception in this instance?

Bag by Sourced

Before Sourced, old truck tarps never looked this good – and (gasp) it’s made in Britain!

It’s called “waste” for a reason…

Back in the days when I worked in a furniture factory, there was a sarcastic but surprisingly effective sign in the workplace:

“When the floor is full please use the bins provided.”

overflowing bins

It’s a scene that could be found in just about any city, nowadays – at least at times. Technology offers alternatives, such as the Envac system of urban waste collection which uses vacuum tubes rather like a giant version of those pipe systems that you used to see speeding capsules around within department stores and hospitals. Very nice… but it seems likely that the cost of such a major infrastructure project will confine it to airports and showpiece communities for a long time to come.

I’ve seen a lot of litter in the last few weeks, on my travels in Southern Africa. The character of that litter varies from one country to another, and I can only assume that’s because the prevailing economic conditions in different places make for a different pattern of recycling. In Malawi, for example, you see very few plastic bottles, although the shreds of old plastic bags are seen everywhere amid the crops. (In Rwanda, shops can no longer give you a plastic bag, but this rule hasn’t been adopted elsewhere, yet.)

I have to make assumptions here (since a literature search has revealed almost nothing about the economics of recycling in Malawi) but presumably plastic bottles are sufficiently valuable to be worth collecting. One tiny piece of evidence was found:

“The next day is warm as we drive towards Lilongwe, the country’s capital. Blandina drains her water, winds down the window and tosses the plastic bottle from the car. I give a disapproving frown and glance back to see a child give chase as it cartwheels over the road. “I’m recycling,” says my genial guide. “He’ll use it for mango juice.” Beyond the safari tents and sundowners, Malawi’s poverty plays out at the roadside.”

– Phillips (2012)

If plastic bottles are worth collecting in Lilongwe, it seems they aren’t in Lusaka – so the wealthier city actually has a worse litter problem. Many empty lots in the city seem to have acquired a colourful stratum of them (although as I write this, the long-awaited rain has just arrived, so perhaps that will move much of the waste on, via the drains). I fully accept that I’m part of the problem, because my delicate British constitution means I’ve been consuming vast quantities of bottled water (plus Carlsberg ‘Green’ or Mosi lager by night, but that’s another story…)

In both Malawi and Zambia, the tax base is very narrow, and the governments have other, more pressing needs than worrying about litter. “Will Malawi cities, towns ever be sustainably clean?” asks the Nyasa Times (Ngwira, 2014) and that’s the real challenge: not an expensive burst of activity, but a lasting shift to a different way of doing things.

Waste plastic is actually a very valuable resource. A thermal depolymerisation process could be fed waste plastic (including the lower-value plastic bags and films) plus old tyres, biomass and a wide range of other things, yielding sufficient gas to run the process while also producing light crude oil of considerable value.

For that matter, one might ask why we don’t do more thermal depolymerisation in the UK…

Waste-to-oil requires investment, of course… but do you want to live in a world where it doesn’t happen?

Have a look at this ancient piece of pottery from the early Bronze Age, which is to say around 4,000 years ago. It was found in a burial mound where an unknown young man was sent on his journey into the next world, perhaps with an alcoholic drink…

beaker

Early Bronze Age beaker.

Nowadays, it can be seen in the Hull and East Riding Museum, and it is artefacts such as this one that gave us our name for these ancestors: the Beaker People. Once a culture that covered virtually all of Europe, I understand.

And it makes me wonder…

Four thousand years from now, will we be known as the Garbage People?

 

References:

Ngwira, S. (2014) ‘Will Malawi cities, towns ever be sustainably clean?’, Nyasa Times, August 16th [available online, accessed 4/11/2014]

Phillips, A. (2012) ‘All creatures great and small in Malawi’, The Independent on Sunday, July 15th [available online, accessed 4/11/2014]

Hummer vs. Prius: surprisingly sustainable?

Back in 1970, Kermit the Frog sang “it’s not easy bein’ green,” and that doesn’t seem to have changed. Consider the Toyota Prius: a hybrid electric car beloved of Hollywood celebrities as well as ordinary families. A fuel-efficient car must be the ‘green’ choice… right?

Toyota Prius

The celebrity connection: Cameron Diaz, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts… even Brian, the dog on Family Guy has a Prius.

Nobody disputes that the Prius has been a commercial success, and it delivers reasonably good mileage for city dwellers… but it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s good for the planet.

A key component of the Prius hybrid is the large battery pack that lurks behind the back seat; in most models it’s a nickel metal hydride (NiMH) type, featuring nickel mined in Ontario, Canada, shipped to Wales for refining, and undergoing manufacturing operations in China and Japan. When the car is brand new, the battery pack has already travelled something like ten thousand miles, critics say. Perhaps the most damaging critics have been CNW Marketing Research, the Oregon-based consultancy whose report investigated environmental impact through the measurement of energy usage per mile travelled. That isn’t just the energy paid for at the petrol pump, but the whole life cycle; materials extraction, manufacturing, driving, and end-of-life recycling or safe disposal. CNW came to the shocking conclusion that the emerging hybrid cars were actually using more energy per mile than the Hummer H2 or H3.

Hummer... the ‘green’ choice?

Hummer… the ‘green’ choice?

There are a number of factors that need to be understood here, including the relatively limited usage commonly made of hybrids (CNW found that they tend to be the second vehicle in the household) and their shorter life expectancy. The inevitable deterioration of the expensive battery pack leads in some cases to premature scrapping, or to the vehicle ceasing to be used as a hybrid. Meanwhile, the far sturdier gas-guzzling SUVs such as the Hummer soldier on for decades. Materials are also an issue: the exotic steels found in modern cars are more energy-intensive than those found in the low-tech Hummer, in both the manufacturing and reclamation stages – and the recycling of NiMH batteries is complicated, while it’s a problem that has long been solved for lead-acid batteries.

So was a Hummer ‘greener’ than a Prius? (I say ‘was’ because General Motors closed the division making the Hummer in May 2010, a victim of the economic downturn of 2008.) Well… yes and no: a grudging “yes” when considered purely in terms of lifetime energy efficiency (the metric that CNW used), and a resounding “Hell, no!” if you consider real issues that affect real people. Sustainability should be about communities as well as energy: people who have to share crowded roads and limited parking space with cars that are technically light trucks. People concerned about local air quality, safety in a collision, and so on: there are many grounds on which to consider a very large vehicle to be antisocial. (I wrote about this, among other things, in a paper for ICRM2010.)

In the Oscar Wilde sense, perhaps being talked about has done CNW a lot of good, even if their findings are often criticised by outraged ‘pale greens’ (many of whom own a hybrid car). Despite the controversy it’s useful because it gets people talking and thinking about sustainability, and the complex mix of issues that affect decision-making. Remember Futerra’s ten signs of greenwash? Number two is “clean products vs. dirty company”, and the Prius shows an interesting extension of that: a clean product from a company that are doing their best (Toyota’s action on waste is actually pretty good…) but the overall supply chain is letting them down badly, due in part to sheer distance covered.

Meanwhile, the best answer for increased sustainability in motoring is probably that people should extend the life of their current vehicle for longer, regardless of make and model. Of course, this is very seldom heard. Continuing to own a used car is not a ‘glamorous’ solution, it doesn’t keep motoring journalists, salesmen or automotive engineers in work and it doesn’t fill advertising space.

Maybe it’s not easy bein’ green… but it’s even harder sellin’ green.