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’.

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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)

A Book Report

What should have been a bit of light reading during the holidays turned out to be less recreational and more like my day job, when I selected ‘Not Forgetting The Whale’ by John Ironmonger. I had no idea it would have so much to say about supply chain resilience.

Joe Haak is a city analyst, working for a department that specialises in short selling: profiting from the decline in a company’s share price. He leads a team developing a computer program that monitors the news media in order to predict the market consequences of reported events. It works remarkably well, allowing them to find many profitable ‘shorts’, but one of the bank’s partners demands that he use the software to discover something else:

How will civilisation end?

Over the course of several meetings with the doomsaying partner Lew Kaufmann, Joe learns that civilisation is surprisingly fragile… and that it all hinges upon effective supply chain management.

Have a look at this excerpt from the book:

“How do you feed a city of ten million people, Joe? How many lorry-loads of food do you need every day? How much fuel?’ He turned to the younger man. ‘How do you feed London? Who organises it all?”

“I don’t suppose anyone does.”

Lew Kaufmann was nodding. “Quite right. Nobody does. It works because of a hundred thousand supply chains. Because thousands of people in two hundred countries get up in the morning and do exactly what they did yesterday morning, and the morning before, planting and harvesting and packaging and transporting, flour and sugar and cocoa and coffee and a great long list of foods and fuels and machine parts and devices. We know this, don’t we, Joe? We know this because that is what we do, you and I. We follow the supply chains, looking for weaknesses.”

“We do,” Joe said.

“Have you ever been to a mega-city, Joe?” Kaufmann turned away from the window and sank back into his chair. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Of course you have. London is a mega-city now. Twelve million people, but we’re way down the list. There are twenty-five cities bigger than London now. Rio is bigger. Lagos is bigger. Tokyo has almost thirty-five million citizens. I once sat in a traffic jam in Jakarta trying to get to the airport. There are twenty-five million people in Jakarta, Joe. How many of them do you think keep a larder?”

“Not many, I should imagine.”

“No. I don’t suppose they do. There are half a billion people living in mega-cities now, and most of them live pretty hand to mouth. Even here in London. What happens, Joe, when the supply chains fail? What will happen when twenty million people in Guangzhou or Cairo or Tehran or Paris begin to starve?”

“I’ve never really thought about it.”

“Not many people do.” Kaufmann gave a long whistling sigh.

The troubling thing about this chain of reasoning is that I can’t actually find anything wrong with it.

In the book, the ‘perfect storm’, that disrupts our global supply chains and threatens to bring about a new dark age is a combination of two factors, a flu pandemic and a disruption in the oil supply. Kaufmann is particularly scathing about oil:

“It is the craziest thing in human history, Joe. We’ve built the greatest society that mankind has ever known – a global society. We communicate across continents, we think nothing of jumping on an airliner for a meeting in Zurich or Seattle or Shanghai. And yet all of this, everything we have created, rests upon a finite fluid resource that we’re busy burning away.”

It’s not just the expenditure of oil for jet fuel that bothers these men, modelling the end of the world: it’s the difficulties that agriculture faces, without oil. Farmers can’t grow food, they can’t harvest it, and whatever diminished quantity they manage to produce can’t be transported before it spoils.

Again, the logic is faultless. In fact the hardest thing to believe in the whole book is how sensible and cohesive the people in the story are. I suspect that elsewhere things will have been a lot uglier – but ‘Not Forgetting The Whale’ isn’t about that grim struggle. It’s a very gentle, British take on the ‘prepper’ mindset.

An array of ‘prepper’ tools

A ‘prepper’ toolkit. (What, nothing for use against zombies?)

Nonetheless, we are assured that anarchy ensues.

“… the instinct for survival won’t recognise that the man people are mugging in the street for his last litre of fuel is a driver distributing food. No one will stop to ask if the woman they just robbed of her last loaf is an engineer in a power plant.”

Again, I can’t fault the logic. (I really have to write about the Tragedy of the Commons sometime…) Nothing in this world is worth any more than a person is prepared to pay for it, and what we are prepared to pay is dependent upon everything else still being in demand. I’ve seen farming areas where the principal crop is mustard: that’s fine while transport is working and trade can happen, but if trade is interrupted, you can’t exactly eat the mustard yourself, can you? (Well, not much of it…)

Mustard crop

Mustard. It’s what’s for dinner.

Economies of scale make money, but perhaps they’ve built a kind of fragility into 21st century supply chains, of a kind that we didn’t have to worry about years ago. Another threat, overshadowing that of running out of food, and even the global pandemic, is simply other people.

“Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) observed. Hungry people: desperate people. And what will you do when they come calling?

Kaufmann and family head for the Azores on a yacht, while Joe seeks refuge (apparently at random) in the fictional village of St Piran, Cornwall, where he uses his life savings (and his knowledge of what’s about to happen) to build up a secret stockpile of foodstuffs, while the modern world collapses slowly, but inexorably.

Joe’s store of food is enough to provide for the village for several months, and the villagers use an excavator to block the single road into the village… but where do twelve million Londoners go? We don’t learn their fate, since this is a character-driven book about the people living in a small Cornish fishing village, and as such it works well.

It isn’t a textbook on supply chain resilience. That’s just a happy accident… but it makes one wonder just how perilous the situation could be. Truth through fiction – and reference to Thomas Hobbes’ (1651) ‘Leviathan’, with its discourse on the social contract, and the role of the state in preventing anarchy.

“… by the time you finish reading there might be a few more tins of beans in your cupboard than there were when you started,” wrote one reviewer at GoodReads.

Businesses know all about safety stocks, and maybe it’s time for us to bring the same thinking home. That “few more tins of beans” needn’t be a financial burden on the household, if bought in bulk and rotated properly. Money might actually be saved…

Or, there’s the alternative. Choosing to believe that “thousands of people in two hundred countries get up in the morning and do exactly what they did yesterday morning,” … every day, for the rest of your life.

Coca Cola "hotel"

A Gap in the Market

I’ve written before about Design for Logistics: how products themselves can ease or complicate their shipping, or the environmental impact of their packaging. I object to shipping large quantities of fresh air along with the product, and I suppose we all do, but not everything in the world nests together nicely for efficient shipping.

Once in a while, though, there comes along some holistic packaging design that’s so elegant as to take your breath away. If you haven’t already seen it, meet Kit Yamoyo: oral rehydration salts, zinc, soap and a leaflet of instructions for the care of a person with diarrhoea. The outer packaging also serves as measuring device and cup, and – here’s the clever part – it’s shaped to fit in between the bottles in a crate of Coca-Cola.

Inventor Simon Berry had observed that he could get a bottle of Coke just about anywhere, and yet far more important products such as basic medicines weren’t available. Wouldn’t it be possible to piggyback medicines onto the Coca-Cola supply chain? It was an idea that took twenty years and a lot of persistence to realise… but eventually it took off, as a result of social media.

“What about Coca Cola using their distribution channels (which are amazing in developing countries) to distribute rehydration salts? Maybe by dedicating one compartment in every 10 crates as ‘the life saving’ compartment?”

That was Simon Berry’s original Internet posting on the subject, back in 2008. Somewhere along the way, the idea was transmuted: instead of requiring the good folks at Coca-Cola to give up a fraction of their capacity in order to ship the rehydration salts, the innovative design meant that there would be no bottom line impact for purveyors of fizzy drinks. Everybody wins: it generates good press for the Coca-Cola Company (which makes a nice change from their product being criticised for being cheaper than milk)… and children don’t have to die for the want of a simple, cheap treatment.

Kit Yamoyos in a crate

Kit Yamoyos in situ, in a crate. (Photo: Colalife)

Although it’s the idea of fitting medicines into the space in a crate that brought the product and the newly-formed Colalife charity to the attention of the media, there are at least two other key components that make this grassroots supply chain work: micro-enterprise, and the use of mobile phones (specifically, SMS messages) to confirm delivery and make payments. Anybody could join in this distribution network – and earn money in the process. 

My Supply Chain Management students are already acquainted with Kit Yamoyo: I even made it the subject of one of their exam questions, last year. From a supply chain perspective, I wrote, critically discuss the approach taken, whereby the charity works with microbusinesses rather than simply giving the product away.

Students were divided on this point: some felt that a charity in possession of a life-saving treatment ought to be giving it away… and that’s the kind of aid model that I grew up with, back in the days of Bob Geldof. With a few wealthy sponsors and the assistance of the government, you probably could shift an awful lot of rehydration salts. You could just pitch the things out of the back of low-flying army transport ’plane, or something… but the purpose here wasn’t to deliver a life-saving product once: it was to change the economics of basic medicines fundamentally and permanently. With the ‘AidPod’ as a commercial product (albeit as inexpensive as possible) it gets treated differently. Stocking it at a sensible level is incentivised: tracking, and avoiding spoilage and pilfering becomes everybody’s concern. Manufacturing more ‘AidPods’ becomes something that companies want to do… and at some point between now and 2020, the whole venture becomes commercially sustainable.

Kit Yamoyo packaging

Like many really great ideas, it seems obvious afterwards. (Photo: Colalife)

Funny thing is, having created an award-winning package, Colalife are largely turning away from that design: a survey revealed that only 8% of retailers made use of crates of Coke to carry the kits. (Elsewhere in their published stats, Colalife report that they found just 4% of kits actually went into a Coca-Cola crate.)

In an effort to drive down the cost of Kit Yamoyo still further, a regular plastic ‘jar’ like the kind of thing you and I get peanut butter in has been tried… with the clever packets that fill the voids in drinks crates not entirely being phased out, but becoming rarer in the future.

“It was the space in the market, not the space in the crates that was important,” Colalife say. The Colalife website reports that approximately 60,000 Kit Yamoyos have been sold to date. Academics estimate that three lives have been saved per thousand kits used: if that’s correct, well… do the maths. While I was trying (and failing) to persuade the fishing industry to use crates made out of Pykrete, the Colalife team were saving dozens of lives – and they’re still ramping up the operation.

Let’s finish with what might be a particularly relevant message for our new MSc Supply Chain students in Botswana, Malawi, and Zambia:

“You can get any commodity/service to anywhere in the world by creating & sustaining demand & making it profitable to supply that demand.” – Simon Berry (Twitter: @51m0n)

Packaging Peculiarity: the Edible Cup

How do you address the twin problems of green image and the need to do something quirky in order to generate a buzz on the Internet?

If you’re KFC (or Kentucky Fried Chicken, for people my age) you introduce the edible coffee cup: a concoction made from biscuit, rice paper and temperature-resistant white chocolate. Finish your coffee, and you can chow down on the cup. And why not? A hundred and ten years ago, ice cream retail underwent a similar revolution when it was discovered that customers didn’t need to be given a bowl and a spoon, merely a conical wafer.

2015: enter the ‘Scoff-ee cup’ – and for once the UK doesn’t need to wait for something the USA had first. Quite the opposite, as the cups are planned for trials in the UK first. (Is my island now considered to serve as a testbed for Uncle Sam? That marks an interesting development in itself… or perhaps we’re simply less litigious over here.)

As for the cups themselves, they’re still under development. At this time I can’t tell you about the flavour, nor how many calories the cup is expected to deliver. What we do know is some of the aromas that freaky experimental foodie consultancy The Robin Collective have proposed for the cups, including coconut sun cream, freshly cut grass, and wild flowers. That coffee should actually smell like coffee is out, it seems. Given that the whole exercise is largely a gimmick conducted in order to announce that KFC will be selling Seattle Best Coffee (a Starbucks brand) this seems like something of a mixed message.

Anyway, you finish your drink, and then you get to eat the biscuity cup. To my mind, this is a bit backwards: if I’ve just eaten a chocolate biscuit and some rice paper, I’d be looking for a drink to wash it down. But maybe that’s just a fiendishly clever way to drum up repeat business.

Cardboard and biscuit-based coffee cups compared

Om nom.

In terms of sustainability, an edible cup is probably worse than a cardboard one (never mind the health effects; I’m thinking of the embodied water in materials such as chocolate) but at least it’s biodegradable. An edible cup won’t end up floating around in the ocean for decades like a plastic one.

The cups that have been shown to-date are thick-walled and that means they won’t nest at all well, so a consignment of cups will be bulky, leading to expensive and more carbon-intensive transportation… but the real job of this cup is to provide viral advertising – just like the silly stories of a drone-based delivery system that Amazon generated so much hype with, shortly before Christmas 2013.

Of course the Internet is fickle, and you never know if your innovation will go viral, or if it’ll just be mocked. For Amazon, a particularly classy piece of mockery comes from Audi, with their new advert for the A6…  and for KFC, there’s a piece in The Onion. Also, an honourable mention must go to Sαrαh Dαvis of Georgia Southern University (twitter: @sarahkate678) who wrote the following:

“KFC is now making a coffee cup that will be edible…. No word yet on when they’ll make their chicken edible.”

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

Basket Case

For almost seventy years, British statisticians have used a “basket of goods” to help them calculate inflation. It’s a collection of commonplace items that a family might expect to buy: studying the price of the same items month after month allows a like-for-like comparison, but while it’s interesting to track inflation and see how it affects ordinary families, it’s also instructive to take a long view and see how the contents of the basket have changed over the years.

A recent BBC News magazine item did precisely this, as the annual process of reviewing what goes into a standard basket is a great way to understand the eating habits of the nation. In reality, the basket monitors all kinds of things such as televisions, cars and rail travel… but the BBC concentrated upon the food element. (I hope the podcast is available where you live; it’s quite good.) It makes for an interesting walk down memory lane for those of us who remember Smash (instant mashed potato), tinned peas, Ski yoghurt and Monster Munch.

Smash instant mashed potato

Fifty percent free! Fifty percent more… bland mashed potato. Great.

Nostalgia is fun, but a lot more can be learned from a study of the changes to the basket. It shows how much our lifestyles have changed in three generations, and it says a lot about how much the supply chain for foods has had to adapt as well.

A number of key themes were identified in the broadcast, including the rise (and perhaps fall) of the supermarket: the ‘one stop shop’ for everything was unknown back in 1947 when studies began, when shopping would have involved visits to the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer, and the fishmonger. Then shops got big and moved out of town (accompanied by a rise in car ownership) but since working hours became longer, the notion of the “weekly shop” has been eroded, replaced by “grab and go” visits to miniature supermarket outlets found at railway stations, petrol stations and the like. Home deliveries are nothing new, but the Internet is another disruptive factor.

With somewhat less time being spent on the preparation of meals, and the move to more frequent, smaller shopping trips, the way in which our food is presented has changed as well. Instead of stocking up for long periods of time, customers are increasingly likely to be buying something to eat that evening, with consequences for the way in which food is processed, packaged, transported and displayed.

We’re less interested in dried, frozen or canned goods, and more likely to opt for equivalents that are chilled or sold at ambient temperature. Bad news if you own a canning factory; good news if your facility supplies ready-to-eat lettuce leaves. All of this is reflected in the notional “basket”, once new types qualify by achieving significant sales over a reasonable period of of time. Smash, for example, was invented in the 1960s but didn’t make it into the basket until 1974… where it remained until 1987 when it was replaced because customers had become more likely to choose frozen oven chips.

In addition to being increasingly money-rich and time-poor, Britons are becoming more adventurous in what they eat. Bell peppers were unknown to shoppers at the beginning of the study; can you imagine life without the humble capsicum now? Internationalisation has seen us embracing new vegetables, fruits and spices – some of them used in new ways, and others imported along with more-or-less authentic recipes. Another significant shift has been to move away from simply accepting the seasonality of produce, instead relying upon international trade to deliver things at times when they wouldn’t grow in the UK; cut flowers from Colombia, baby corn from Zambia and so on… something that would have been unthinkable before the jet engine slashed the price of fast airfreight.

Frozen fish fillets in box

Ah, the wonderfully non-specific “fish” (a sign that stocks are in decline…) but frozen food is out; chilled is cool.

The BBC chose to focus upon the food items in the “basket of goods” because whatever else happens in society and the economy, we still need to eat. Thus, despite the study beginning when post-war rationing was still firmly in place, a degree of continuity was achieved. Look closely, though, and almost everything has changed: the foods we consume, their sources, the methods of preparation, the retail outlet, the packaging… and at every step, the supply chain has transformed right along with it.