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’.


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.




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

Toy gorilla with bananas

Bananas for Bioplastic

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

Corpse of an albatross chick, showing plastic stomach contents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Banana peel in a blender

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

Banana peel and water, being simmered

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

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

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

Honey, cinnamon and thyme, ready for mixing

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

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

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

The mixture is heated again, and stirred.

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

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

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

For science!

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

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

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

Banana bioplastic on baking parchment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bioplastic sample being rolled tightly.

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

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

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

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

Readers may have better ideas for applications?

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

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

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.

Imagining a World Without Rainfall

Back in 1965, Frank Herbert told a story of humanity’s thirst for the ‘the Spice Melange’, a substance essential to travel and commerce, more than eight thousand years in our future. The spice can only be found in one place: an inhospitable desert peopled by much-persecuted, fanatical natives. His award-winning tale was, of course, an allegory for our own dependence on petroleum.

Let’s leave aside, for now, the idea that the motive power for our economy depends upon a scarce resource found beneath desert sands… and focus on the other precious substance in the story.

Frank Herbert’s book takes its name from the desert planet itself: Dune. It’s a place of extremes, neatly summarised in the early scenes of David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation by statements such as “Precipitation: none. Weather: see storms.”

Not one drop of rain. Can you imagine living in a society where water is essentially a non-renewable resource, like oil? In a sense, this kind of thinking has already begun.

I was in Kenya back in 2013, when the discovery of two new aquifers in the drought-hit Turkana Basin was announced. It was estimated that the new water source held some 250 billion cubic metres of water: an astonishing windfall for a country that currently gets by on three billion cubic metres of water a year. The government announcement said that the discovery could supply the country for seventy years, although you might wonder if the perceived abundance of the new supply might increase the amount consumed – and there’s population growth to think about as well.

The textbooks say that water is a renewable resource. After all, moisture evaporates and evaporation leads to precipitation… so when did we start thinking of water in terms of years’ worth of supply before it’s gone? In a sense, this foreshadowing of the day when supplies will run out is a good thing: if water below ground is thought of as mineral wealth, to be used wisely, perhaps it won’t be wasted, but employed in such a way as to secure a lasting return on investment.

Long-time readers of Capacify might recall my article on embodied material, describing how a kilo of cucumbers embodies 350 litres of water. If that seems like a shocking amount, bear in mind that 15,400 litres of water goes into every kilogram of beef that is prepared. With accounting like that, it’s clear that the water supply can be strained to breaking point, even when large quantities are still there to be had, below ground.

When I looked at the problems of drought in Botswana, I wondered what a society does when confronted with a lack of water. The short answer seems to be that you do without: you endure interruptions in service, quality problems, and high prices… and you hope for the situation to improve over time.

What would bring about an improvement, though? Sharing with neighbours is nice, but those neighbours are all too likely to have growing populations of their own. Some of the people that I spoke to felt that technology held the answer. Desalination was mentioned a few times: not an obvious choice for a landlocked country, but there remains the possibility of a deal with a neighbouring country, I suppose. Personally, I’m concerned that the energy requirements for desalination mean that it becomes an exercise in turning oil into water. That can be done, for a time, but only at the cost of resource depletion and further climate change. It’s not an answer for the long term.

I had a look at solar-powered desalination, but found that it’s mostly being done on a very small scale. A few thousand litres of water a day is so minor a contribution as to be readily dismissed as a drop in (or more accurately, out of) the ocean.

Frank Herbert had a lot to say about the preservation of moisture: the people who live on Dune and harvest the spice wear ‘stillsuits’: fitted garments that trap the wearer’s sweat and separate out the salt, recirculating the water into catchpockets where it can be consumed again and again.

Principal characters in David Lynch’s Dune (1984)

Stillsuits in the 1984 Dune film. “Urine and faeces are processed in the thigh pads,” Dr Kynes explains. Er… OK. Lovely.

To a person in the present day that technology seems implausible, because anything that interferes with the body’s natural process of sweating would probably cause the wearer to collapse from heat exhaustion… but closed-loop systems are possible – in the plant kingdom.

Did you ever attempt to cultivate a bottle garden? I had one, in my teens. I can’t say that it was a huge success, because one species quickly squeezed out all the rest… but what remained proved surprisingly resilient to the neglectful ownership of a young person not blessed with green fingers.

David Latimer did rather better, and he had a head start, too: his bottle garden was planted in 1960, and has only been watered once since then, back in 1972.

David Latimer and his bottle garden

David Latimer and his remarkable bottle garden

The experiment began with a single seedling. This neatly sidesteps any question of one species edging the others out, leaving us with the intriguing possibility of a managed monoculture in a sealed environment, where evaporation and transpiration don’t represent a loss to the system, but simply copy the natural cycle, with dew forming on the walls of the vessel in place of rainfall. You’d still have to ‘pay’ for anything that you removed from such a system, but only what is removed. Thus you’d want to pop in some extra minerals and water, to reflect what was harvested, but a kilo of (hypothetically) cucumbers taken out would demand no more than kilo of water in, not the current third of a tonne… and you’d have no phosphates leaking into rivers, lakes and seas as agricultural run-off, because it would remain in the ‘bottle’ until you chose to extract it. (And since you’re paying for those fertilisers, why allow them to leak away?)

Now, I’m not saying that agriculture can really take place in bottle gardens. For one thing, the cost of putting vast areas of land under glass would be prohibitive. For another, it might be extremely unpleasant for a grower to work inside such a closed environment – almost as bad as wearing a stillsuit. Even so, I wonder how long we can go on accepting the current bad bargain of embodied water.

Degradation in polythene sheeting, seen in Zambia

Polytunnels offer some advantages, but don’t fare well under strong African sunlight, as I saw at the National Resource Development Centre in Zambia

Back when I worked at the University of Nottingham, I proposed a research project in ‘zero emissions manufacturing’: basically allowing nothing in but electricity (on the assumption that this could be clean energy from a sustainable source such as sunlight) and then using only materials and technologies that wouldn’t produce waste that would accumulate and degrade the system over time. I had in mind that the project would exist in several phases: a first phase in which a theoretical system was specified via environmental accounting, to identify sources of entropy, a second phase in which a ‘virtual company’ was operated, offsetting problematic wastes that caused entropy by finding practical uses for them… and a third phase in which a demonstrator sealed facility was constructed, making a sample product with nothing going up the chimney, no effluents, and no solid waste. This is a very demanding brief, because it limits the manufacturing technologies that can be used: conventional milling and grinding are out because sooner or later you’d wear away your cutting tools and want to throw them out. Likewise, deformation (bending, pressing) is preferable to cutting, because you don’t want to be generating a lot of swarf.

“Impossible,” said virtually everyone I spoke to. “You can’t have manufacturing in a closed system!”

“Really?” I said. “We’re living in one.”

Planet Earth

#Plasticbagchaos, or The End of the World as We Know it

Something in the business news caused a lot of passionate reactions among the English this week. It wasn’t Volkswagen’s “Dieselgate” scandal – that has gone by with barely a murmur, despite well over a million drivers in Britain being affected. No… the thing that appears to have got our national knickers in a twist is the notion of paying five pence for a disposable carrier bag.

At first glance, that makes the English seem petty, not least because the amount is very small when compared to our grocery bills, and because anybody who’s been on a European holiday (plus anybody who shops at Marks & Spencer) will have become used to paying for bags. So why all the fuss? Is Britain sliding back into becoming ‘The Dirty Man of Europe’, as some European politicians used to delight in labelling us, back in the late 1980s, before the “Dash for Gas”?

In reality, there are good reasons for debate – even heated debate – on the subject of plastic shopping bags, and their environmental harm. There are more than a few misconceptions about them, as you will find if you’re brave enough to venture into the readers’ comments section of a major media website. One recurring question is “Why can’t shops all provide paper bags instead?” This falls into the trap of assuming that ‘biodegradable’ can be considered to mean ‘benign’.

The poor old HDPE single-use bag gets such a bad press, doesn’t it? Fortunately, others have already done a life cycle analysis of various types of bag, so we don’t have to. The problem, it’s clear, is that there’s an awful lot more work and material in a ‘Bag For Life’ than in one of the disposable ones. A study by the UK Environment Agency found the following:

Number of uses required, to match the low impact of a disposable HDPE bag

Required number of uses, to be as ‘green’ as the disposable bag.

Aussie researchers Hyder Consulting also got in on the act in 2007, producing a very thorough report that details a wider range of bag types, and also studies factors such as water usage. While I’m at it I should also give a “shout out” to Patcharaporn Musuwan, a former dissertation student of mine who studied this topic at the University of Nottingham, back in 2010.

When we consider that the ‘disposable’ HDPE bag often makes its final journey into the afterlife in the form of a bin-liner, its disposal actually serves a useful purpose, and further delays the point at which reusing one of the more durable bags pays off. Then there’s (perhaps) the question of hygiene, if you’re repeatedly reusing calico bags.

Single-use carrier bags

“Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication” – Leonardo da Vinci

So there’s a strong case in favour of the HDPE bag… but even tiny quantities of plastics add up when national consumption is counted in the billions. As many as 7,600,000,000 bags were used in England last year, which the BBC reports to be 61,000 tonnes of the things. We’re talking about England here because, unusually, each part of the UK has separate schemes. Wales (2011), Northern Ireland (2013) and Scotland (2014) all have bag charging in place.

It’s known that a compulsory charge for bags reduces the demand for them quite sharply, by prompting people to bring their own. In a sense we can almost regard the earlier introduction of charging in the less populous parts of the UK as something of a practice run… although if so, why is it that the new rules for shops in England are far less workable than those elsewhere?

Legislators exempted small companies (those employing fewer than 250 staff) from the obligation to charge for bags, in order to spare them an administrative burden. That sounds reasonable… except that some branches of well-known small shops such as Spar, Budgens, Costcutter and Subway will be exempt because they are small franchises… while other shops that have the same name over the door must apply the charge.

With me so far? Now, you still qualify for a free bag if buying buying raw meat, poultry or fish, or prescription medicine, flowers, potatoes, take-aways…

Among those exempt from applying the charge, some are planning to charge anyway, the Association of Convenience Stores reveals… which gives them a nice little bonus, at the cost of potentially exposing front-line staff to verbal abuse from disgusted customers.

This seems like a good point to wheel out one of my favourite quotes. It’s said by Mr Bumble in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist:

“The law is an ass.”

I’ll be delighted if the change means fewer plastic bags end up in the sea, but as usual we’re seeing that legislation is a blunt instrument, poorly suited to making people and companies do the right thing. It’s not all doom and gloom, though: at least there have been a few chuckles along the way.

“Suddenly that huge collection of carrier bags in my kitchen cupboard is worth a small fortune,” one Twitter user quipped – and Internet satirists have been merciless since October 5th, “bag day”, began. For example…

Twitter joke re. plastic bag charges in England

5p per bag: London in flames

#Plasticbagchaos. It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).

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.”


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’?