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’.

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!


A nine cent radio

I tend to think of environmental issues as being the major challenge for my generation. We could waste some effort cursing the earlier generations that brought us to this point (CFCs, desperate overpopulation, resource depletion and so on…) but earlier generations had their hands full with problems of their own, such as coping with the Great Depression, and defending themselves against fascism.

Some people were aware of the problems ahead, though – including Victor Papanek, a designer and educator born in 1923. Here’s what he had to say about his line of work:

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few… by creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous breed.”

That’s a promising start, but Papanek didn’t just wring his hands about the state of the world: he set about making it a better place. He designed a taxi with disabled access in mind, an innovative method for dispersing seeds… and a radio that cost just nine cents to make. If you wanted to communicate information such as a weather warning or advice on disease control to isolated communities where literacy was still uncommon, radio was a great solution – if people could afford to own and operate one.

Papanek (and his former student, George Seegers) started work on an accessible radio in 1962. By modern standards, not a very good radio: in fact, it wouldn’t work nowadays because it didn’t have any sort of tuner and would pick up every frequency at once. That didn’t matter because the places where it was meant to be deployed only had a single, state broadcaster. Above all, it was simple, and cheap. The body of the radio was a used food tin. Similarly, the earth wire terminated with a used nail. Most unusual of all, the power source… was a candle. Much of the can was filled with wax, and a wick, while a simple thermocouple located above provided just enough power to operate a single transistor, with sound coming from an earpiece. Everything, including a hand-woven copper wire antenna, was stowed inside the can for delivery.

Papanek’s nine cent radio

This isn’t a prototype… this is the real thing.

By the time the radio was ready for mass production (more properly, cottage industry production in the target countries) in 1966, the cost had been driven down to nine cents. (Nobody claimed royalties on the design, and manufacture was done at cost.) In 2014 money, the radio cost maybe $0.65 … still impressive, despite the intervening half century during which the cost of electronic components has dropped through the floor. On a couple of occasions I’ve received a radio ‘free’ with some other purchase, but I’m still absolutely blown away by the nine cent version.

Most of all, it’s tremendously well aligned with the realities of the infrastructure of its era, when solar panels were something that only appeared on spacecraft, and when batteries were short-lived, heavy, toxic and expensive. Papanek’s radio simply met a need, very elegantly, and the fact that he was an industrial designer is evidence of his humility, given that the end product was just about the ugliest device ever. Papanek’s 1971 book, Design for the Real World is aptly titled, because the real world is not as we might wish it to be.

In the UK we venerate Trevor Baylis, and rightly so: he’s a superb engineer. (If you’re trying to remember who he is… the “clockwork radio guy”*.) After a very difficult time securing any interest in the idea, the BBC introduced him to the world and the Freeplay radio eventually appeared in 1996 – thirty years after Papanek and Seegers completed their work. It’s a much better radio – infinitely so — but it’s a also much more complex device. Perhaps that’s a sign of how far we’ve come in a short time; that society can support the widespread use of a radio that isn’t merely for maintaining a listening watch for important public information, but for enjoying sport, entertainment, and the arts.

Victor Papanek

Victor Papanek, 1923 – 1998 (Papanek Foundation)

For an encore, Papanek worked with a team that produced a television set for use in developing countries. It was ready by 1970… and cost nine dollars.


* Nowadays, the ‘clockwork’ aspect of Freeplay devices has been replaced by a simpler hand crank mechanism where the user turns a geared dynamo directly rather than winding a spring, but they continue to serve in several applications that would otherwise require batteries.

iPhone 6 mockups

iPhone 6: trouble ahead?

Apple has sent out the invitations for a September 9th media event that is widely anticipated to be the debut of the iPhone 6. They’re either geniuses at viral marketing, or completely hopeless at keeping secrets… but either way, we already know quite a lot about what they’re planning. Pictures of alleged components and assemblies have been circulating for months.

No doubt the business that Forrest Gump once called “some kind of fruit company” has been busy, and no doubt the latest pieces of pocket-candy will achieve sales in the tens of millions, within days. The iPhone is Apple’s biggest moneymaker, and I have written before about the difficulties that they face in this once-a-year chance to shine… but CEO Tim Cook is equal to the task if anybody is. He’s a supply chain guy. He’s no Steve Jobs (he doesn’t say “boom!” nearly enough during his keynotes for one thing) but the less glamorous task of managing the whole network is what’s needed, if all those iPhones and iWatches are to reach the faithful in a timely manner.

When the initial surge of September madness has died down a little, I hope that the supply chain guy will be able to think long-term, because there may be trouble ahead… in the shape of a post-transition metallic element with the atomic number 49.

If that was sufficient to identify it to you then congratulations: you’re a chemistry nerd.

The material in question is indium, and in particular I’m interested in indium tin oxide (ITO), which has the highly desirable properties of being transparent in thin layers, highly conductive and impervious to water. These have made it a feature of all kinds of modern gadgets including liquid crystal or plasma displays, some solar panels, strain gauges and the heated cockpit windows of airliners.

Sputter a thin film of ITO onto a transparent substrate such as glass, plastic or sapphire, and you’ve got the makings of a touch-sensitive screen; the interface for all the various smartphones – some of which were out before the iPhone, but none achieving similar market penetration. Since the iPhone’s debut in 2007, displays have been getting bigger, and ‘touchier’. Flat-screen monitors and televisions have also grown, and it’s become the norm to own a tablet as well as a regular computer and a mobile phone. All this adds up to an insatiable demand for ITO.

iPhones getting bigger

Manufacturers can keep on trying to spread ITO more thinly, but screens are getting larger. (iPhone 6 mockups: Martin Hajek)

The US Geological Survey puts global indium reserves at about 16,000 tonnes: a sobering thought when you consider that the equivalent figure for economically accessible gold is put at 52,000 tonnes – despite the fact that we’ve been digging the stuff up since the late stone age. Indium was only discovered in 1863, and it looks like it’ll all be mined out within twenty years. Less, if demand continues to grow.

It’s not Apple’s fault. Their designers are simply specifying the most appropriate material now available. Nothing else works quite so well, so this is what their screen manufacturers use… but some are predicting that supplies of indium will run out, and soon.

Given that the amount of ITO used per iPhone or iPad is tiny, a price increase isn’t a particularly strong disincentive. Within the era of the iPhone, Indium has fluctuated between $60/kg to over $900/kg… yet the increase didn’t stop Apple, LG, Sony, Samsung or anybody else using it.

Economists say that any commodity will find its own level: as prices increase, substitutes become more cost-effective, and old mines (you typically find indium in the tailings of a zinc mine) can be reopened. Recycling also becomes more attractive.

Well, maybe. Recycling isn’t really working for mobile devices, though. They don’t take up much space in the home, and there’s always the worry that sensitive personal data might be recovered from one… so we tend not to give them away. Also, they’re expensive: when you remember paying maybe $600 for a gadget just two years before, it’s hard to accept a $50 trade-in for it. Instead, we tend to put our old phone in a drawer (“as a spare”), or give it to the kids. We put our smaller, older television in the guest room, and so on. Hoarding these items is an impulse that’s hard to resist.

Even if you did give up an old phone and it went for recycling, it’s a fiddling small gadget with some nasty toxic chemicals in it. It’s a difficult job to sift through all that, just to extract a thin smear of ITO, a fortieth of a gram of gold and so on. Basically, recycling isn’t going to give us enough ITO for each successive generation of bigger, better mobiles.

If you can’t use ITO… what are you left with? There’s silver nanowires (which are a bit fiddly, at a 10,000th the thickness of a human hair… but the technology seems to be coming along nicely). There are high hopes for graphene and its relative, carbon nanotubes… someday. Graphene still has a long way to go, to reach the mature, commercial-scale technology that Apple would be looking for. There are substitutes such as aluminum-doped Zinc Oxide and gallium-doped Zinc Oxide… but they’re poor substitutes. There doesn’t appear to be anything that makes touch screens as reliable and responsive as ITO, that’s ready for immediate, widespread use.


Graphene. These flakes may offer a solution… one day.

The logical solution is to stay with ITO, for now… but that won’t always be an option.

I’m hoping that the new toys Apple reveals next year won’t simply be faster, or fractionally thinner. If a company with cash reserves of something like $150 billion can’t find a way to break the deadlock and acquire a viable alternative to ITO, then things are grim indeed. Look after your next smartphone; it may be a long while before a better one comes along.

Piles of pallets

The Pallet, Reloaded

There was a time when if you said “pallet” everybody would have assumed you meant a particularly spartan or makeshift bed. (For example, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II: “Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs, upon uneasy pallets stretching thee…”) Still, in the modern era a pallet is, of course, a portable platform used for storing or moving cargo.

If you cast your mind back to the often regrettable fashions of the 1980s, you might remember when futons were all the rage. A futon is also a somewhat makeshift bed.


Mmm… that looks comfy.

IKEA don’t sell their famous GRANKULLA sofa/futon anymore, and perhaps that’s a good thing because it really looked like furniture that had been made from a couple of old pallets… but these aren’t the only pallets that IKEA aren’t shifting anymore.

When you’re in the business of selling furniture, it makes sense to pack things flat. With home assembly, a lot more product can be fitted into a shipping container… and when your product is supplied in a slim, flat box, you start looking very hard at the wasted space occupied by a pallet. A standard EPAL pallet is 144mm high (-0/+2 mm) for example. If you stack two pallet-loads to fill a container, that’s nearly a foot of vertical space expended upon nothing useful… and if you can reduce that, you might be able to squeak in an extra layer or two of product, meaning more goods to sell, and greater profitability.

IKEA turned away from conventional pallets, in favour of their own solution, which they called ‘Loading Ledges’. (If you can persuade a Swede to talk about loading ledges, do so: the pronunciation is cute.) They’re basically polypropylene ‘feet’ that do the same job as a pallet: raising the goods such that the tines of a forklift can get underneath, but taking up a lot less space (the low profile ones are almost impossibly svelte at just 45mm high) and they weigh less. A further space saving comes from the loading ledges being strapped to the lower edges of the shipment whatever size that shipment happens to be: the pallet substitute takes the shape of the product, rather than requiring manufacturers to contrive loads that more-or-less fit the shape of a standard pallet. This elimination of ‘underhang’ can lead to additional improvements in space utilisation within a container or a vehicle.

IKEA Loading Ledges

Loading Ledges. At Sustainability Live there was talk of each moulding including a clever snap-out strap tensioning device, ready for immediate use.

Before IKEA developed the loading ledges, and also adopted a paper pallet system for some products, almost half of the company’s consumption of spruce and pine was for the construction of pallets, which is astonishing if you consider them to be primarily a furniture company. Just a few years ago, virtually everybody was shipping tonnes of wood around the world (most of the half a billion pallets made each year are wooden) and then scratching their heads about how to get them back again. Pallets are that rarest of things: a product that improves with age. As the wood becomes seasoned, it becomes more resilient, so used pallets actually have greater utility than brand new ones – if only they weren’t on the wrong side of the world!

IKEA’s polypropylene loading ledges, being much less bulky and weighing only a fraction of the pallets they replace, are cheaper to backhaul. They don’t improve with age like wooden pallets, but they are more durable – and they don’t have to be treated periodically to deal with insect pests, as wooden pallets do. There’s even an IKEA product that’s designed to be made from recycled loading ledges; the LADIS storage box. How’s that for joined-up thinking?

But why stop there? Just because you’re in the furniture business, that doesn’t mean you have to stay only in the furniture business. IKEA formed the OptiLedge company to market their solution worldwide. If you’re in the business of shipping things that are rigid and more-or-less cuboid, it’s worth a closer look.



Meet the Monstrous Hybrid

In their book, ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’, William McDonough and Michael Braungart set out a manifesto of product design principles for a sustainable society, centred upon manufacturing of suitably designed products. Their vision is a long, long way off, but there are some things that can be done within supply chains right now, not out of altruism but for our own benefit: to reduce waste disposal charges, and to ensure that material supplies last longer… which means that they are likely to cost us less.

A key concept introduced by Braungart and McDonough is that of the monstrous hybrid; a product that is an unholy combination of technical and organic ‘nutrients’. Technical nutrients can be recovered by established processes such as dismantling or melting down, whereas organic nutrients are materials that form part of the organic cycle: they grow, are harvested and refined, put to use, and then they rot away when they are disposed of, becoming compost that supports the growth of new organic products.

Organic and technical nutrients

It’s like the circle of life… only without the Lion King

The trouble comes when a product is a mixture of technical and organic materials. Consider a blister pack, commonly used in the retail of small items: it features a cardboard backing, and a vacuum-formed plastic bubble that displays the product. As soon as you open up the packaging, it becomes waste, and you throw it away… but how? Is it cardboard, or plastic? Even if you try to do the right thing and separate the two pieces so they can be disposed of in different categories, there’s going to be some cardboard and glue stuck on the remains of the plastic bubble. This is one reason why a manufacturer can’t simply melt down the plastic and mould it into something else; in fact it’s far more likely that the plastic will simply become refuse-derived fuel (RDF).

Blister pack

Blister pack, featuring a mixture of cardboard and thermoplastic

Braungart and McDonough go further, pointing out that the inks typically used for printing on packaging are oil-based. Thus, composting of cardboard isn’t an acceptable solution either, as the cardboard part has become a monstrous hybrid, never to be separated. Again, burning for energy recovery becomes the most attractive option.

This is not just a problem that affects packaging, though. Consider polyester cotton garments: they’re superior to pure cotton in that they’re harder-wearing, they resist shrinkage and they crease less… but at the end of life you’ve got a mixture of materials that aren’t easily separated.

Help is at hand, in the form of emerging materials applications such as the use of starch to make disposable cutlery: plastic cutlery would be contaminated by food, and food waste would be contaminated by waste plastic… use a starch-based bioplastic and you can compost the lot – for cheaper waste disposal charges and a clearer conscience. You can make your own bioplastics right now; it’s not particularly complicated, and your main feedstock might be something as inexpensive as potato peelings – producing a material that can be moulded using existing machinery and techniques. There’s no need to assume automatically that when you specify a plastic component that means you’re dependent upon the oil industry.

Perhaps we really can remake the way we make things.

Scrap lead


Lead is great stuff. It’s ductile and malleable, and it resists corrosion. Quite a lot of it is used on the roof of my house, where it’s been folded into all kinds of odd shapes to keep the rain out of various nooks and crannies. The low melting point of lead is also useful if you’re soldering, and if added to petrol in the form of tetraethyl lead, it reduces engine knock and valve seat wear. Lead in ceramic glazes makes good, bold reds and yellows, and in paint it speeds up drying, increases durability and resists damage from moisture. Elsewhere, the density of the metal is useful, such as in making bullets, sailing boat keels or radiation shields.

What’s not to like?

Apart from the blood, nerve and brain disorders, the kidney damage, abdominal pains, muscle weakness, high blood pressure, anaemia, constipation, miscarriage, mood disorders, infertility, delayed puberty, learning disabilities, memory loss and reduced cognitive ability.

Apart from that, it’s great stuff.

Worryingly, when so much lead can be found in children’s toys, it has a sweet taste. In fact, the Romans used to sweeten their wine with powdered lead, which might go a long way towards explaining Nero and Calligula. In addition to ingestion, lead can be absorbed through skin contact and inhalation. When present in soil, it tends to bioaccumulate.

Roman lead ingot

Impressive corrosion resistance: a Roman lead ingot from the 1st century BC. (National Museum of Underwater Archaeology, Spain)

The Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (2002/95/EC) took effect on July 1st 2006. This restricted the use of six hazardous substances, including lead: a rather slow reaction to a problem originally reported by the Greek physician Nicander of Colophon in the 2nd century BC. Still, better late than never, eh?

While the elimination of lead addresses one problem, it created several new ones for the electronics industry. The melting point for lead-free solders was higher, which increased manufacturers’ energy consumption. It doesn’t flow as readily, which can cause increased defects (and makes hand-soldering more difficult), and lead-free solder tends to be more brittle than the alloy it replaces. Also, there’s the problem of “tin whiskers” – a crystalline metallurgical phenomenon whereby short circuits can occur over time. Going ‘green’ has caused the electronics industry a lot of problems.

Interestingly, although a car mustn’t have any lead in the solder on its circuit boards, it’s likely to include as much as ten kilos of lead in the battery. This is tolerated because the recycling rate for used car batteries is so good; Earth911.com suggests that 98–99% of car batteries in the USA are returned for recycling, and a typical new battery contains 60–80% recycled material. With a good closed loop for recycling (made possible because lead is valuable enough to be worth collecting) it’s possible to continue using even this dreadfully toxic material. If only we could achieve the same recycling rates for circuit boards!

Car batteries

The lead-acid battery: invented in 1859, and still going strong.

For the tetraethyl lead that is the main reason why you have 100–500 times as much lead in your body as a person who lived before the industrial revolution, you have Thomas Midgley Jr to thank. He was the mechanical engineer who did so much to promote the use of gasoline with tetraethyl lead. That wasn’t his only gift to mankind, though: he also invented Freon, the CFC refrigerant/propellant that’s done so much to harm the ozone layer. Always a prolific inventor, when Midgley contracted polio in 1940 he invented an pulley system that would allow a carer to lift him in and out of bed.

In November 1944 it malfunctioned, and strangled him to death.