The Fourteen Billion

I was re-reading a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov. Asimov was born in 1920, and each story is prefaced with an explanation of how he came to write it. At the end of the story the note continues with an end piece. Although Asimov was famous as a writer of science fiction – I, Robot was made into a film but it was not his best work – he was also a scientist of renown. Continue reading

Oil spillages: prevention is better than cure

A few years ago oil was discovered under the sea off the coast of Brazil and there was, of course, a rush to exploit the discovery. Chevron (amongst others) built wells to drill into the oil reserves and started to produce the crude but two weeks ago something went wrong, as it often seems to go wrong when drilling oil under the sea. Continue reading

Investing in the Future of Energy

Brent Crude Oil is today selling at more than $115 a barrel. Its price has risen by 9% in the past month and that price rise has largely gone unnoticed because the world financial farce has dominated the media. Whatever you think of the economy the availability of fuel and energy is important to it. An oil price rise would make things more difficult right now so we need to know if oil prices are likely to rise further and plan for the rises. Continue reading

A Scandal in the Pipeline

As news of a gas pipeline being completed under the Baltic to bring gas from Russia to Europe breaks, in the other part of the Northern Hemisphere news of a scandal comes, about another pipeline, this time bearing oil. This is the Keystone XL, which carries oil taken from Canada’s oil tar sands and which runs from Hardisty in Alberta to Pakota in Illinois and to Cushing in Oklahoma. Continue reading

A New Fusion Initiative; the Search for the Grail of Energy

In theory if you can compress atomic nuclei – fusing them together you can get energy because as the nuclei get closer they release energy. That is the theory of nuclear fusion, the holy grail of energy creation. If you can get it to work, the theory goes, the energy released in the form of heat can be used to drive steam turbines thus generating cheap electricity in a manner that as far as we can ascertain, is cheap and relatively safer that generating heat by splitting atoms, which is the traditional nuclear energy way. Continue reading

Giving the EPA more powers does not threaten the Constitution

Some folks in the United States of America are getting upset about measures which are proposed to give the Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA) more authority to grant permits and regulation greenhouse gas emissions. It is claimed that not only would these measures bring an end to economic activity as we know it, but that they would also threaten the constitutional separation of powers. Continue reading

Look before you leap or look before you push us

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Having been fiercely criticised for its handing out of sing use plastic bags the international supermarket chain Tesco came up with a bright idea; they would make their familiar free plastic bags biodegradable.

Simple. They would add small amounts of metal to the plastic which they use to make up the bags. The bags would then break down in the presence of oxygen and daylight and hooray, Tesco would save the planet. The bags (known as oxo biodegradable bags) went into product more than eighteen months ago and Tesco virtuously handed out them at the rate of two billion a year.

Good intentions are not enough to save the environment. Things are rather complex and you cannot rely on a bright idea without thinking it through properly and doing the research otherwise you run the risk of your bright idea causing more harm than it mends. We do rush into things, without thinking them through; that is why we have wind turbines that generate electricity intermittently, over subsidised photovoltaic panels and low energy light bulbs that may end up creating atmospheric mercury without creating that much light.

Having produced their biodegradable bags with a flourish of publicity, Tesco left it to others to study the real environmental impact of their bags. In this case DEFRA (theUK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) organised the study appointingLoughboroughUniversityto study and report on them.

You can read the report at http://wales.gov.uk/docs/desh/publications/100602wasteoxydegradableen.pdf . It concludes that the bags do break down more quickly provided they are exposed to ultra violet light and oxygen, but the breakdown does not take eighteen months but somewhere between two and five years before the bags degrade to small fragments. However, they only degrade to small fragments, and do not degrade into substances that can be mixed with compost; in fact mixing the bags with compost (that you might be tempted to do with a biodegradable bag) will adversely affect the quality of the compost.

The researchers are not sure what the environmental effect of plastic fragments in the soil will be on animals that eat it. There is no evidence that it is harmful, but no evidence that it is not harmful. Further the bags are difficult to recycle with under plastics. This makes the bags unlikely to be recycled or if mixed with other normal plastic waste makes the recycling harder.

The metal additive made the bags weaker and made them unsuitable for being reused; you would more likely throw them away where they would not degrade because when the bags are used in landfill (as most of them are) they will not degrade at all; there is no ultraviolet light underground.

Of their decision to take the biodegradable oxo biodegradable plastic bags out of use Tesco said

“We took the decision to remove the biodegradable additive because we believed it contributed towards bags becoming weaker and to help better promote their re-use and recycling at end-of-life. This decision was underpinned by a detailed review of the science to help us understand the full life-cycle environmental impacts of our carrier bags.”

It is a shame that Tesco did not themselves commission and pay for the research before they put this type of bag into the environment. They did not look before they leapt. You are supposed to to that so that you know the consequences of your action but as with so many corporate decisions the consequences of leaping do not  affect the company as much as they affect the environment. Looking before they leap is costly for companies like Tesco whose actions have great and adverse effect upon the environment. The problem is that the consequences of their actions, their leap, affect us more than them. It is not a case of looking before they leap but looking before they push us.