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)

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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.

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)

#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.”

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’?

A Logistically Challenged Holiday

This isn’t exactly topical, but we ration our son’s chocolate intake, and as a result we’re only now coming to the end of our Easter eggs. Some of the packaging of the very last one is pictured here…

Despicable egg packaging

Despicable photobomb from the chocolate-obsessed one.

In a sense, we saved the best for last, because minions are awesome. Hard-hearted indeed is the person who hasn’t fallen for Gru’s army of fireplug-sized, banana-hued felons… but it seems that their latest caper pits them against the environment.

Any Easter egg is an appallingly inefficient way to supply chocolate: they’re fragile, and the bulk of a hollow egg is far greater than it needs to be, considering the amount of chocolate supplied. Also, they’re… well… egg-shaped. That means they don’t stack properly, so the packaging typically involves an outer layer that is a cuboid. That introduces another lot of fresh air, and a need for some kind of protective spacer to hold an egg-shaped egg in a box-shaped box. For this, vacuum-formed plastic seems to be the solution of choice. This is disappointing because a few years ago plastics seemed to be disappearing from this kind of packaging. Now they’re returning, like a bad sequel.

Easter egg box boasting recyclability

For a time, it seemed that Easter egg boxes were all going biodegradable.

I wrote about the evils of mixed-materials packaging in ‘Meet the Monstrous Hybrid’, and Easter eggs got a mention in ‘What has packaging ever done for us?’ – both back in August 2014.

What packaging does is a key question here. Obviously, chocolate would be much easier to transport and keep fresh if it was moulded into a slab, but we have to bear in mind that an Easter egg is not a chocolate bar. The purpose of the product is not to deliver sugar, milk powder, cocoa butter, cocoa mass, lactose, emulsifier and flavourings in a convenient way: the purpose of an Easter egg is to dress up those ingredients in a way that makes the recipient know that you love them. It’s basically a hug, expressed through the medium of cholesterol.

Small foil-wrapped egg, with its carton in the background

What we need, obviously, is a squarer egg.

People who study logistics might observe that 85mm x 205mm x 240mm is an awful lot of space for a food product of questionable nutritional value, and with a net weight of 55g… but in a sense it doesn’t matter: if the customer is willing to pay a premium that covers the increased cost of transportation and storage, plus the retailer’s increased costs due to shelf space requirements, the product is commercially viable. In effect, the movie tie-in and elaborate shelf presence of this otherwise unbranded Easter egg can be considered to be its advertising budget: the chocolate itself is undifferentiated.

This particular package is made larger, in part, by the presence of a keepsake tin, and that’s a nice touch because it’s the only part of the product that’s likely to outlive the packaging it came in. It was supplied with a collection of magnets… in a cellophane envelope. Inside the tin. Inside the plastic spacer, inside the cardboard box…

Want redundant packaging? Look no further than Bonbon Buddies of Oakdale Business Park, Blackwood, South Wales… although some of the waste shown at Overpackaging.com appears to be worse.

We really enjoyed playing with the little minion: it’s like Mr Potato Head, only far less disturbing. (Seriously: that toy creeps me out.) It’s a shame that so much waste had to be involved, though.

In fact, it’s more than just a shame: it’s despicable.

Smell Sells

Molton Brown has become one of the UK’s more successful toiletries firms, selling upmarket smellies. They’re a warranted “Supplier of Toiletries” to Her Majesty The Queen – and just as importantly in our household, it’s the brand of choice for Mrs. Farr.

This is a good thing, because it means that I always have one idea for what to buy when a birthday or anniversary approaches. ‘Pink Pepperpod’ is the smell of choice, and I have to say it’s quite lovely. Mind you, at £18 for 300ml of body wash, it had better be good.

Pink Pepperpod. Highly recommended.

Pink Pepperpod: highly recommended.

That’s the interesting thing about cosmetics: it’s an industry where you know that the product is being made in quantities akin to a small brewery… and yet the end product is packaged and sold in such a way as to make you feel that the contents are more precious than unicorn spit. From my schooling as a manufacturing engineer, I know that most of any shower gel is water with an awful lot of salt dissolved in it. I know that toothpaste is mostly ground up rock, too. That’s not to say that the ‘clever’ part of blending ingredients to create the right flavour or scent isn’t very clever indeed. Even bleach can have as many as forty chemical ingredients added, simply for the purpose of making it smell as if it will kill germs.

Molton Brown won’t show you their manufacturing process. They were awarded BUAV certification in February 2013, showing that their products are free from animal testing… but other than that, we loyal customers aren’t really supposed to look behind the curtain. Interestingly, though, rival UK cosmetic manufacturer Lush do reveal how their products are made. For example…

Lush still command a moderately high price point: you’d pay £15.95 for 500g of ‘Olive Branch’ shower gel, for example… but their marketing and presentation are somewhat different to Molton Brown.

At the end of the day, whatever you choose, it’s going to be mostly water and salt, in a plastic bottle – although a recent item in the BBC News Magazine claims that solid bars of soap are more luxurious because “You can tie attractive bars of soap up in silk ribbons and present them as a gift to a loved one – the effect isn’t quite the same when you do this with a liquid dispenser.”

It’s interesting to be able to consider not just the packaging for a product, but the actual format that is employed, to deliver much the same result (being clean, and scented). There are a lot of options here: older readers might remember when toothpaste came as a solid block, in a tin…

Packaging and presentation are particularly important when you’re selling cosmetics, because you’re charging unicorn-spit prices for salty water, with chemicals added in a process that’s no more complicated than it is for the people manufacturing bleach… and that doesn’t leave much room in which to derive a unique selling proposition. Manufacturers need to schmooze their customer a little bit here.

Or not. Here’s my most recent consignment:

The complimentary ‘gift box’ was torn, and with its packing peanuts, didn’t exactly reek of luxury.

The complimentary gift box was torn, so I didn’t pass it on. Filled out with packing peanuts, it didn’t exactly reek of luxury anyway.

Crumpled delivery note. When I’m spending seventy quid on “salty water”, I generally expect it to at least appear to have been handled with care.

A crumpled delivery note. When I’m spending seventy quid on salty water I generally expect at least the appearance that my order has been handled with care.

It does smell nice, though.