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!

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A pallet order card

Mastering the Logistics Game

The watchword for UK educators, nowadays, is employability. We need to ensure that our students have better prospects as a result of the time they spent with us (not least because of debts that they commonly acquire during their studies) but how do you prepare a student for a career as a supply chain professional?

The Very Enterprising Community Interest Company think they have the answer – along with a pretty silly name, obviously – and their solution is an educational board game, Business on the Move.

Will we end up calling it BOTM, for short? Not on this blog… but school kids everywhere probably just started sniggering.

Every once in a while there’s an article (e.g., this one) in which those in the know fret that children didn’t know where their food came from. Inner city kids are horrified that eggs come out of a chicken’s backside, that vegetables grow in mud and so on. Trouble is, it’s not just food: young people are hazy on where manufactured goods come from, too – and how they are made to arrive. That’s where Business on the Move comes in: the game’s creators (Andy Page and Patricia Smedley) have used it with children as young as nine, which is pretty clever when you consider the complexity of the real-life systems that it represents.

Game board with vehicles in place

Planes, trains and automobiles. Oh – and ships.

This is a big game, in a big box that’s bursting with supply chainy goodness! Literally, in the case of my copy, which was damaged in transit. Plumbers have leaky taps; supply chain professionals have bad logistics. In fact, the whole game is an embodiment of the global supply chain that it describes: a sticker on the edge of my box reports that it was made in Ningbo, China (a quick shout out to old friends at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo…) so the game was imported in just the same way that the little counters on the board make their way from China to the UK.

Business on the Move - contents may settle in transit!

My copy of Business on the Move arrived somewhat scrambled, but the game box was the only casualty. With a somewhat squishy box measuring 61cm by 44cm, this isn’t a game that I’m going to be taking with me to Botswana on teaching trips.

In Business on the Move, virtually everything comes from China. There is a single domestic manufacturer, “the UK Factory” on the board but it comes into play only rarely, on the turn of a card. That’s a little unfair because UK manufacturing has grown tremendously in productivity: the “decline” of British manufacturing has really only been one of employment – not output.

UK Manufacturing output

UK manufacturing output [source: ONS via this BBC article]

At this point, let’s have a look at what you get for £60, plus shipping. The first thing we have to do is pause for a giggle at the world map that completely omits the Americas. (Are the authors getting the Americans back for the map in Avalon Hill’s ‘Diplomacy’ – the one that famously refers to the whole of the British Isles as ‘England’?) Beneath the game board, we find a large collection of counters that players of all ages will be itching to play with, featuring containers that fit into trucks and trains – although, sadly, not aboard ships and aircraft.

Detail from the centre of the Business on the Move game map

It’s like Christopher Columbus never sailed west: Business on the Move omits the Americas.

Closeup of the contents of the box

You get a lot of bits and pieces in Business on the Move: probably more that you’ll ever need, which is useful for a classroom setting where a few bits can be lost over time.

In game mechanics, Business on the Move is reminiscent of an old fantasy quest board game called Talisman, in that it features a board with looped, concentric playing areas where the player can choose to move either clockwise or anticlockwise after the dice are thrown. It’s a simple but workable system. In this game the player must declare at the start of their turn that it will be an ‘air and sea turn’, or a ‘road and rail turn’. The fairly simplistic air and sea stage involves bringing containers of goods from China to the UK: aircraft take a direct route and are likely to arrive sooner, but each only delivers a single container’s worth of goods. When a ship arrives in the UK, it delivers three containers of goods.

(Yes, the idea that a container ship carries only three times as much as an aircraft is ludicrous, but it’s a game. You’ll need to tell yourself that from time to time as you buy cargo ships for £20,000 and aeroplanes for £30,000, but it’s really no worse than buying Whitehall for £140 in Monopoly, and building a house on it for a hundred quid…)

Having purchased any new vehicles and paid for their upkeep (more on this later…) you’re almost ready to “roll your dice and move your mice”, as board game enthusiasts say. First, you must take a card, and again these are split into ‘air and sea’ or ‘road and rail’. These introduce a random element, detailing events such gridlock on the roads, piracy on the high seas, or the opportunity to buy an extra vehicle at a reduced price. At last it’s time to roll the dice: the number thrown matches the number of vehicles that are eligible to move, up to a maximum of four. All are thrown at once, and the player chooses how to allocate the results between those vehicles.

These aren’t standard dice, however. Instead of generating a number from 1–6, these only go up to five, with an additional result of ‘CO2’ – which is somewhat like rolling a zero. The player is then given the option of paying £5,000 to purchase carbon credits, permitting a result of ‘CO2’ to be re-rolled. It’s a simplistic system – all goods movements are assumed to have the same carbon footprint – but it’s good to see that the contribution logistics makes to climate change isn’t introduced in some game variant or optional rule: it’s built right into the fundamentals of the game.

Carbon credits game mechanic

When a ‘CO2’ result is rolled, the player can pay into a carbon credits system for another chance to move. Later, a player may be able to collect the accumulated carbon credits money.

Players will always begin with an air and sea turn, because all goods start in China. Will you choose to buy pricey aeroplanes with their limited cargo capacity, or will you choose the slower but more capacious ships? Will you buy some of each, reasoning that if certain random events mean that one kind of vehicle is delayed or sent back to base, the other one still has a chance of getting through? This is an example of the strategic decisions that players face as they play through the game. Some such dilemmas aren’t always terribly realistic: after all, most real companies don’t find it necessary to own a vehicle of any sort in order to get a container to the UK: they leave that job to a third party – and pay a bit less than you end up paying in the game, when you take all the risks yourself.

Logistics was never so multimodal as it is in Business on the Move: the Green player is supposedly Eddie Stobart… but this is a parallel universe incarnation of Eddie Stobbart where the company is also a shipping line and/or an airline. It would make more sense if players were able to negotiate deals to carry each other’s cargo, or to have a non-player entity take on some elements of the overall logistic system, but… it’s a game. By forcing players to move goods at both the intercontinental and national level, a more educational experience results.

With the goods now sitting at ‘Container Handling’ it’s time to get them on their way to the recipient. A player’s obligations to deliver are shown on cards with the CILT logo: for example, £30,000 will be received for delivering a container of microwaves to Tesco Extra, or £12,000 for delivering cuddly toys to Home Bargains. This is a nice touch because the anonymous container token can become something recognisable, that players feel a connection with. They get a sense of achievement in addition to some money.

Will the player choose to buy a train, or a fleet of trucks? Vehicle pricing continues to be artificial, with a train costing £40,000… and again, who actually buys trains? You’d pick up the ’phone and call Freightliner to get your goods moved, surely?

Rail transport is going to end up with a bad reputation because trains are relatively expensive, and a train only moves twice as much cargo as a truck. They move around the board slightly faster (fewer spaces on the inside track) but this advantage is dissipated by the need to move goods onwards from the railhead with a truck: trains seem like a bit of a bad bargain. Upon each turn, either ‘air and sea’ or ‘road and rail’, players have to pay for the upkeep of all relevant vehicles at £2,000 per vehicle – which includes those that you no longer have a use for. Since goods going overland must complete their journey by road, trains are going to be dead weight at least some of the time, and there’s no mechanism within the rules for selling off an asset that isn’t working well.

The game can be played at varying levels of detail because the rules are split into seven distinct levels: you can get players started quickly and then introduce more realism later. At the most basic level a ship that arrives at ‘UK air and sea terminals’ is immediately converted into three containers, and the vessel is sent to the company base, ready to be reused. There is no requirement to sail back to China… but since the basic game is a race to deliver four containers of goods, there isn’t much more sailing to be done anyway. Some of the simplistic game mechanics are addressed as the level of complexity is ramped up in subsequent games. For example the Monopoly-style business of handling money in the form of high-value banknotes is done away with in later games, in favour of company accounts: this will be great for our module on finance and decision making. At another level comes the opportunity to take “pallet orders” instead of container lots: containers are split into three pallet loads at distribution centres and then sent on for final delivery. With this comes the option of buying into a pallet pooling scheme… or not. Real-life decisions reflected in a board game: excellent!

Some other simplifications remain throughout the game’s seven levels, though. Insurance could have been made interesting, but instead it’s a mere vestigial stub of what it might have been. Buying insurance costs £5,000 regardless of how many vehicles you have and what cargo they might be carrying. Insurance is not per-period but lasts indefinitely, until a claim is made: you hand over the card when you invoke the insurance to avoid certain mishaps. Having handed over the insurance voucher, you’re in the clear. Given that a vehicle costs at least £20,000, the uninsured player would be daft not to renew their insurance at the start of the very next turn. The message that you’d be wise to take out insurance is valid but in a system as simplistic as this, it’s reduced to a no-brainer. (We’ve been teaching a lot more about risk and the value of insurance, just using Monopoly.)

A simplification that I really find it hard to like is that any container can satisfy any one order – there’s no such thing as traceability. If you lose two containers off your ship in a storm, for example, it’s a very non-specific setback. You haven’t lost the consignment of lipgloss, push chairs, laundry detergent, or whatever: you can move any one of your remaining containers to any destination represented on one of your orders cards and collect some money. Thus, on a bad roll of the dice you might still manage to make a short move and declare that the goods have arrived at Home Bargains – or on a good die roll you could forge on up the board towards Marks & Spencer and a more valuable payoff – with the same container. Real life doesn’t work like this. Or have we invented Shroedinger’s shipping container, where the contents are undetermined until it is opened? Fascinating.

An ‘air and sea’ event card

I lost some containers, swept off one of my ships in a storm – or would have, but the “i” symbol denotes an event where my insurance can be invoked.

Actually, we need to talk about Marks & Spencer. Clearly, they sponsored the development of the game – just as a lot of organisations did: the game positively drips with logos. That was a good way to fund the game’s development, I suppose, but why were Marks ’n’ Sparks allowed to feature on the board in three places? The distinction between ‘Your M&S’ on the north side of the board and ‘Your M&S Online – Mobile’ on the west side is insufficient – in fact just plain confusing. It could lead to frustrating mistakes, or even accusations of cheating. Perhaps M&S have convinced themselves that they really do have three distinct, strong and popular brands… but it doesn’t work for the purposes of a board game. Fortunately, such a problem is easily remedied with some laser printed stickers: simply replace the indistinct or unfamiliar logos on the board and on the order cards with those of a different organisation. I thought it would be nice to have IKEA in the game: everybody likes IKEA. A lot of the entities represented in the game don’t really have a recognisable brand in the eyes of the common man. If you’re already a supply chain professional you might know who Bisham Consulting are, but for most players the game would be far better if the container of goods went to a well known recipient like Toys ‘R’ Us or B&Q – neither of whom are represented. (You might object that I’m covering up the logos of the sponsors that made Business on the Move possible, in favour of companies that didn’t, but so what? They sponsored the Very Enterprising Community Interest Company – not me and my teaching.)

Two orders with different destinations, but very similar logos

Weak differentiation between objectives could cause players some frustration.

Before we leave the subject of Marks & Spencer (having replaced two thirds of their territory on the game board with something more distinctive) one thing that needs to be discussed is the notion of importing foodstuffs from China. With the apparently endless succession of food scares and scandals coming out of China, food from that source is thankfully rare in the UK. The Food Storage & Distribution Federation are mentioned on a few cards, but these can be picked out and disposed of easily enough. One of them is a bit silly anyway, in that it implies that all containers in the game are temperature controlled.

None of these gripes should be seen as insurmountable problems with Business of the Move: unless you’re competing in the world championships[1], you should always feel free to fix anything that you don’t like in a board game. Out of the box, Talisman (mentioned earlier) is a pretty awful game – but if you throw out certain cards that wreck the game mechanics and make a few other tweaks, it can be improved no end. Few people play Monopoly according to the rules as written. Similarly, Business on the Move is a very promising kit of bits: it has a few quirks, but nothing that can’t be fixed with ease.

Surprisingly, I have been unable to find a web-based forum that allows owners of the game to share experiences, and perhaps resolve the occasional ambiguities that are found within the rules. Perhaps the Very Enterprising Community Interest Company don’t have the resources to moderate a forum, but it seems a major oversight in these days of Web 2.0. (If you can find an online community that discusses how to get the best out of the game, please let me know?)

Meanwhile, I think one of the best ways to resolve the limitations of the game will be to have the students take care of them. For example, after introducing the students to the game, why not turn them loose with instructions to write rules for a game variant of their choice?

One thing a modified game might benefit from is rules for vans. If you’re playing the variant where you get to split a container into three pallet-loads for different recipients, it’s a shame that you’re left delivering those pallet loads using the standard truck: a fleet of vans could be made to dash off in all directions. Other student projects might add a set of rules that address warehousing, or replace the simplistic rules for insurance with something that teaches more about risk and decision management. How about adding a ‘nearshoring’ option whereby the player gets to consider procuring goods from the European Union – less profitable but with items available sooner? You could have UK manufacturing play more of a role, too.

Business on the Move needs a few tweaks to really get the best from it, but it’s oozing with possibilities.

 

 

 

 

[1] If ‘World Championships’ and ‘board game’ seems too embarrassingly nerdy, bear in mind that the Monopoly World Championship is played with real money – winner take all.

Scheiss Glumpf

We learned a new phrase from our German friends this weekend, or perhaps a part of a phrase: Scheiss Glumpf.

We had to ask: what does it mean? The Scheiss bit is familiar enough, I’m sure… but Germans do so love to concatenate their words. (Remember, these are the people who brought us “Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften”: insurance companies providing legal protection.)

Thus, a Bavarian carpenter who strikes his thumb instead of a nail is able to say…

HimmiherrgottZagramentZefixHallelujaJamilextamArschScheissGlumpffaregts

You can see “Scheiss Glumpf” on the bottom row – but what does it mean?

“It’s something you say when your kid is playing with some plastic toy, and it breaks right away,” our German friend explained. “We say it’s just Scheiss Glumpf: it’s garbage.”

I see a lot of Scheiss Glumpf. My son favours quantity over quality, for sure: he’ll always choose a fleet of shoddy injection-moulded vehicles that come three or four on a card from Poundland, rather than one durable toy… but that’s to be expected, because he’s four years old.

Are we all infants? Why do we keep on buying Scheiss Glumpf?

We do, though, don’t we?

Thinking back to my childhood (and a number of toys that came from jumble sales, and were thus older still) the cars produced under the ‘Dinky Toys’ brand were ridiculously tough. US manufacturer Tonka even claimed (with a somewhat unfair test showing everything you will ever need to know about scaling laws) that their toys were tougher than the real thing:

The toys of the 1970s were so well-made that they could be handed down from child to child, in a way that was all but guaranteed to drive their manufacturer out of business. A list of the manufacturers who provided the toys of my childhood reads like a roll call of casualties in the postwar decline of British manufacturing: Palitoy, Tri-ang, Meccano, Chad Valley… all acquired by somebody else, or disappeared entirely. Not beaten by a rival who made better toys, but beaten by their inability to react to the changes wrought by the age of Scheiss Glumpf.

Nowadays, it seems the whole economy is geared towards Scheiss Glumpf: products that are flimsy, but inexpensive. We’ve grown accustomed to teeshirts that look shabby when you’ve washed them a couple of times, but you know that things have sunk to a new low when you start seeing tools that you’re expected to throw away. (Whatever happened to saw sharpening services, anyway?)

Why does anybody need two saws?

Saws used to last a lifetime. Now they’re two for £10 at B&Q. You just know they’re not going to be much good.

Is this inevitable? We shall see. But first a word on the scam that flimsy products work upon us all, eloquently explained by the late Terry Pratchett, in the character of Captain Samuel Vimes:

“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

“Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

“But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

“This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”

– Terry Pratchett, ‘Men at Arms’

How many things do you own that were made in the last twenty years, and which you plan to pass on to your descendants? Can you think of anything that’s worth listing specifically in your will, and that you’ll still have, whether you should die tomorrow, or twenty years form now?

Jewellery, maybe. Not much else.

Patek Philippe, watchmakers, told us in a recent advertising campaign that “You never actually own a Patek Philippe: you merely look after it for the next generation.” If you can afford to spend more money on a wristwatch than most people spend on a car, perhaps you deserve a bit of durability. The rest of us make do with much cheaper substitutes… but probably enjoy a lower total cost of timepiece ownership, over a lifetime. Owning a Patek Philippe, then, is about more than telling the time. You’re buying something else.

So, we choose Scheiss Glumpf for complicated reasons – but it doesn’t just exist at the bottom of the price range. Some people who apparently have more money than sense actually pay a premium for theirs. Apple offer a gold ‘edition’ version of their wristwatch at up to £13,500… for a gadget that your descendants almost certainly won’t take delight in wearing. Being a ‘smart’ watch, it’s subject to a cycle of redevelopment and consequent obsolescence in perhaps two years. It’s guaranteed solid gold digital Scheiss Glumpf.

The holidays are a great time for the exchange of Scheiss Glumpf, whether it’s Easter with its incredibly inefficient format for the delivery of chocolate, or Christmas with all its excesses in presentation, packaging, and the entirely understandable desire to make sure your kids have the “best Christmas ever” (coupled with the low, low price that seductive Scheiss Glumpf always exhibits). But are we any happier?

At Christmas, my in-laws gave us a very generous gift. One that we’ll use for years to come, secure in the knowledge that it’ll never wear out: lifetime membership of English Heritage. I was alarmed to see just how much it cost, but it’s a brilliant gift. Free entry to over four hundred historical sites: from Stonehenge to Cold War bunkers; windmills to stately homes, and much in-between.

Even today, some things aren’t Scheiss Glumpf: choose wisely.

Stonehenge, Wiltshire.

A relic from a time when things were built to last.

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.

A Cool Wall

Back in 2011, Peter Kinnell and I were developing a module in sustainable manufacturing at the University of Nottingham. Although we’ve both moved on to pastures new, they still run the module, and good luck to them: it’s an important topic.

Peter and I had plenty of basic sustainability concepts to throw into the mix: the triple bottom line, remanufacturing, legislation, greenwash, recyclability and so on, but we wanted to have a bit more fun with it. Was there some kind of group activity that could be a common theme throughout the eleven weeks of the module?

A game perhaps? We didn’t find anything on the Internet. Supply chain management has the Beer Distribution Game; manufacturing has (predictably enough) the Manufacturing Game; sales and marketing has (or had) Unilever’s ‘UniSim’ game[1]… but where is the ‘green game’?

We didn’t find one. I have since created something for young people that simulates the clash between economics and green goals at the political level, but at the time and as far as we could tell, there wasn’t a ‘green manufacturing game’.

So, as staff setting up an all-new module have to… we got lazy. Instead of a game with decisions to make each week, we went for something simpler, and created the ‘Sustainability Cool Wall’. If you’ve seen the BBC’s late, lamented Top Gear programme[2], you’ll be familiar with the Cool Wall: an imprecise (or at least highly subjective) linear scale upon which pictures of vehicles are placed, to indicate the desirability of each car.  For example, Skodas of all kinds were rated “seriously uncool”, BMWs were mostly judged “uncool”, the Mazda RX-8 was “cool” and the Jaguar XJR was “sub-zero”. (These are the opinions of motoring journalists, and not necessarily endorsed here at Capacify.)

Chaotic, contentious, but immediately comprehensible: the Top Gear Cool Wall [BBC TV]

Chaotic, contentious, but immediately comprehensible: the Top Gear Cool Wall [BBC TV]

The Sustainability Cool Wall ran from “cool” to “fool”, the latter in fiery letters that can be associated with climate change, if you like.

Cool scale

There were five subdivisions: future-proof, promising, better than nothing, misguided, and suicidal. We started the class off with a few examples, such as my rant about CFL bulbs, and then the students were invited to nominate items for the Wall during each session.

We weren’t able to use a physical wall, because we had to vacate the classroom as leave it as we had found it each week. Instead, we opted for an electronic version, maintained by the tutors. I hope one day to find a web-based service that will permit students to position images on the ‘board’ at any time… that would be neat.

Let’s have a look at some of the judgments that appeared on our Cool Wall – each successfully ‘sold’ to the group, to produce a consensus of opinion. We were impressed by the remanufacturing work being done by Brother Industries UK (two of their staff attended the class as guest speakers). We liked ‘Liter of Light, the low-cost ‘light pipe’ made from an old lemonade bottle containing water and a little bleach, as used in the Philippines. We were dubious about biofuels that replaced food crops, but we liked the news that Virgin Atlantic were experimenting with a biofuel made from the algal bloom on sewage. Other ‘cool’ items included a low-cost water filter, and the humble bicycle.

Yes: a group of students judged Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson to be ‘cool’. Honestly!

Yes: a group of students judged Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson to be ‘cool’. Honestly!

We were horrified by the Jiangling Landwind, the cheap 4×4 that had performed worse in crash test results than any vehicle had done for decades… and equally doubtful about Sheddable Shell, a brand of disposable polyethylene-polypropylene clothing used by (and discarded by) runners. We ridiculed Gillette when an inquiry from Peter was responded to with a classic piece of corporate ‘boilerplate’ text about how much they care for the environment – nothing but ‘Greenwash’, we decided. I don’t recall the reasons for one student’s loathing of the Cambridge to Ely guided bus scheme, and this is an important lesson if you ever want to run a Cool Wall of your own: you need to record the why as well as the what, if you intend to refer back to it later.

Could you have a ‘Supply Chain Cool Wall’? Well… maybe. I think any subject could be judged on a spectrum of ‘cool’ if it ends up looking at successes and failures, heroes and villains, desirable products and dross. I don’t believe the Cool Wall would work so well in a “block mode” setting (I teach mostly via intensive, weekend-long workshops nowadays) but where students come together for a few hours every week, the Cool Wall provides a good reason to reflect upon personal experiences or stories in the news, with a view to bringing something up in the next class.

 

[1] Last time I ran Unisim with students, it came on a 5¼” floppy disc and ran under DOS, so don’t hold your breath for this one. (But a reboot would be very much appreciated!)

[2] Apparently the BBC still plan to make the show, but without Clarkson et al… meh.

#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).

Botswana’s Water Crisis

I’ve just left Botswana, a place that I visit once a year as part of our Supply Chain Masters programme. I inducted ten new students there, and kicked off their first module, on the subject of supply chain strategy.

In Botswana a topic of conversation, time and again, was the shortage of water. The people of Gaborone are waiting for the rainy season to begin, but I’m told it’s been about a decade since the rain was sufficient to really fill up the reservoir at the Gaborone Dam. My colleagues have suggested that the public hasn’t been informed as to the full extent of the problem, although research suggests that the failure of supplies is hardly a secret: there’s even a neon sign in the city that reports the current level of the reservoir. The Water Utilities Corporation (WUC) also provides regular updates as to the state of supplies via its website. It makes grim reading: the principal sources of supply for the Greater Gaborone area are well below their maximum capacity:

Dam and Water Supply Situation, September 2015
Dam and Water Supply Situation, September 2015 (information from WUC, 2015)

The situation is somewhat better elsewhere, in the north of the country, but the capital is greatly inconvenienced and some southern villages are reported to have been without water for two or three weeks at a time.

Water shortages are not new. They’ve accompanied every visit to Botswana that I have made, and an article on Mmegi Online from last year illustrates the problem:

“For the first time in its history, Gaborone Dam is dying, its once proud 141 million cubic metres of water drying up to barely four metres above silt level. Of the seven water draw-off points in the Dam, six are exposed and the last is halfway in the water.

“Once the water reaches below this last water draw-off point, Gaborone Dam will have failed, depriving the 500,000 or so residents and businesses of Greater Gaborone their primary and traditional source of water.”

– Mguni (2014)

Can a dam die? Reporter Mbongeni Mguni’s article describes the Gaborone Dam as a great beast in its death throes. It’s a colourful simile, but there’s nothing wrong with the Dam: it will still be there, ready to serve again… when the rains return. In a sense, the fault doesn’t lie with WUC and their infrastructure, but with a growing population in the area – and with all of us, for our contribution to climate change.

A bad situation is becoming worse because Gaborone depends upon South Africa for some of its water. The Molatedi Dam (in the table above) is actually in South Africa. Equally, some places in South Africa depend upon water from Botswana: national boundaries don’t always reflect the infrastructure and resourcing arrangements. Under agreements that date back to 1988, cross-border transfers of water are reduced when reserves fall below a certain level. That serves to preserve dwindling supplies, but if you happen to live on the far side of a border it exacerbates the effect of reduced rainfall.

I have personal experience of being without water, although in my case it occurred in winter: our supply froze a few days before Christmas one year, and wasn’t restored until early in the New Year. For a couple of days, we clung on: showering at the gym, cooking with bottled water, and storing dirty dishes in the dishwasher, although it couldn’t be used. I was fortunate because I could bring snow and ice indoors, and leave it to melt. (Melted snow is nasty-looking stuff and you wouldn’t want to drink it, but it’s good enough for flushing toilets.) Eventually, though, we were forced to accept defeat, and we spent Christmas with relatives. Drinking bottled water is OK, but until the mains supply fails you don’t realise how often throughout the day you depend upon water for ordinary tasks, such as for washing your hands between jobs.

Next summer, we had our water pipe replaced with a frost-proof one, buried deep – at considerable expense. I hope never to be without water again: virtually everything in the household grinds to a halt, and I can only imagine what the impact would be if one were trying to run a business.

The first time I came to Gaborone there were times of day when there was no water to be had in our hotel. These times were announced in advance, and forced us to wake up early in order to shower. (The measure didn’t seem to save water, so much as to cost us sleep.) This time, there were no such interruptions, but the water in my washbasin was distinctly brownish. There’s nothing inherently wrong with water that comes with a bit of soil in it: I recall a bath on the Isle of Arran that looked like weak tea. It still got me clean: in fact, the peat-laden water was so soft, compared to that of my London upbringing, that a moderate quantity of soap caused it to foam madly.

Gaborone water, though, was water of last resort. It smelled strongly of chlorine, so obviously the water company are doing their best to keep it wholesome. Even so, I nursed my delicate British constitution by not to drinking any, and I avoided foods such as salads that would have been washed in it. (But I’m going to start suffering from scurvy if these trips get much longer…)

Tap filling a bucket with brownish water

Water supply as seen recently in Gaborone [photo: Fahmida Miller]

This is a report without a satisfactory ending, because the story itself hasn’t yet ended. The people of Gaborone can only wait, and hope that the situation improves. WUC have to do more than merely wait and hope, reacting quickly to reports of leaks and delivering water by truck where necessary. The government of Botswana can’t just wait and hope, either: they’re engaged in large-scale, not altogether successful schemes to pipe water over longer distances, including some from neighbouring countries. There is also a long-term plan of drawing water from the Zambezi, but Botswana’s Zambezi riverfront at the ‘Four Corners of Africa’ (the border between Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe) is tiny: just a point on one bank of a 2,574km river. In such a situation, how much water is it reasonable to extract from a river that others also depend upon? Perhaps the tremendous flow of the Zambezi means that dipping into this shared resource won’t cause friction? On average, 1,088m3 of water per second goes over Victoria Falls, not far downstream… but even if water is so abundant as to be considered free, such engineering projects require time. Meanwhile, Botswana’s capital must continue to function, somehow – as must the nation’s water-intensive mining activities.

In the same week, one of my lectures was on the subject of the sustainable supply chain. I explained that sustainable materials are things that grow, or are refreshed by natural processes. Water is a sustainable material, per this definition… which serves to underline the difference between ‘sustainable’ and ‘being sustained’.

 

References:

Mguni, M. (2014) ‘A requiem as Gaborone Dam gives up the ghost’, Mmegi Online, October 10th. Available from: http://www.mmegi.bw/index.php?aid=46594 (accessed 03/10/2015)

Water Utilities Corporation, WUC (2015) ‘Dam Levels’, available from: http://www.wuc.bw/wuc-content.php?cid=109 (accessed 03/10/2015)