Plastic California

Californians have some good ideas as well as plenty of bad ideas. The state, founded upon an aggressive war which annexed the territory from Mexico, today has an economy larger than most nations; it has plenty of confidence and plenty of money and has wreaked plenty of environmental damage upon itself. It was such a lovely place, such a lovely place but is becoming an ugly place.  Continue reading

The Complexity of Dealing With Plastic Bags

It is very difficult to understand why the government of the United Kingdom, with all its resources and all its clever members of Parliament are taking so much time and making so much complexity in introducing a simple requirement to charge for the use of plastic bags. 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.

Why are we still using plastic bags?

For many years plastic supermarket bags have caused terrible environmental problems. They are taken to landfill sites because they cannot be easily recycled, where they either do not rot in the ground or get blown over the countryside ensnaring birds and animals. They are made from finite resources like oil which itself has a significant climate change effect. It seems odd to use fuel to make bags, creating long term emissions instead of using recyclable and easily biodegradable materials like cotton, hemp or paper to carry the shopping. Continue reading

Recycling collapses with the economic down turn; what should we do?

I have occasionally expressed concern about “recycling” household waste but mainly from the standpoint that much of it is shipped to China and ends up in land dumps there.  Genuine recycling is important but the economic recession has made recycling uneconomic. That does not mean that we should not recycle, but we should find a way to encourage recycling so that we can free ourselves from the tyranny of the market which has consistently poisoned our environment.

What happens now in most developed countries is that recycling is usually made mandatory by the use of various sticks and carrots. In the United Kingdom there are far more sticks than carrots to drive the donkey on. There is a tax on landfill, so local authorities either have to pay the landfill tax (which they recover from the people living in their area by raising higher taxes) and they have to find an outlet for the household waste.

There have been a number of recycling centres that take household waste all over Europe. Many of them have grown up very rapidly and have enjoyed success as commercial enterprises. Most recycling involves packaging not the actual product that the consumer wants to buy.

The success of recycling plants was based on what seemed a limitless demand for raw materials from India and China. Steel products that could be recycled used to command nearly £300 a tonne; now you cannot find anyone to give away the scrap to, and the same applies to paper and plastic products for recycling. The cost of raw materials has fallen and with those falls so the economic necessity for recycling in developed nations has fallen.

In undeveloped nations there has always been more recycling because poorer people will try to reuse any of the discarded material of the wealthy if they can. It has always been thus.

So what happens if the recycling industries have to put their businesses on pause, or worse still close them down, because for example, they based their business models on selling recycled plastic material which no one now wants ot that everyone can buy at far cheaper rates when made out of un-recycled material, because prices have fallen? The recycling industries are very important to the environmental health of our planet. They slow down the using up of resources and prevent the obscenities of landfill sites, oozing methane and burying problems for future generations.

Recycling household waste is in many parts of the United Kingdom mandatory. People have been fined for trivial mistakes or omissions. Those fines have met with widespread publicity and that creates hostility towards recycling, which is something that we should all do. However, if we carefully separate our paper, glass, plastics and empty cans and put them out for the Council’s recycling contractor to collect, what does it benefit the environment if at the end of the day the recycling contractors cannot sell the carefully, painstakingly sorted waste, so simply dump it or store it?

It is time to rethink the issue and when rethinking anything it is usually best to test first principles. The principle that we operate from now is that anyone can use virtually any packaging to make the goods more attractive, more consumer friendly but the cost of disposal rests with the consumer, through his or her taxes and effort. To my mind that is certainly putting the cart in front of the horse.

We need to develop some rules about packaging, and if we do that making rules about recycling and landfill taxes will be less of an issue. What should we do? I suggest some radical action:-

1.     Make plastic bags illegal

2.     Make plastic food wrapping including polyurethane trays and hard plastic domes on fruit illegal

3.     Some goods need careful packaging; television sets need to be packed carefully for transportation with all kinds of materials. Devise a system so that the vendor of such equipment is under a duty to collect and reuse such packaging.

4.     Return to glass bottles with deposits, rather than using plastics.

5.     Require plastic liners and similar products to be biodegradable.

6.     Tax packaging; you will be surprised how many people will go for the unpackaged option.

If we had these kinds of rules we would eliminate much of our packaging and a significant amount of our household waste. The life changes would not be significant; after all it is mostly simply a question of remembering to take your shopping bags with you before you live the house.

Marks & Spencer’s green profit centre

There is a tendency for people who try to sell you things to exaggerate the qualities and properties of what they sell. In modern times we smile at the propaganda of advertisements of many years ago. They seem so childish, but they worked because people believed them, not wanting to think that the manufacturers of toothpaste, soap or even carbolic smoke balls had set out to scam them.

Nowadays advertisers and merchandisers hone in on the words “green” and “organic” to sell their wares. Retailers like Marks & Spencer appeared to have created a “green” profit centre, where none existed before. Continue reading

The Clean Development Mechanism and Emissions Trading or a Carbon Tax?

The great and the good of the world have decided that one of the best ways to combat excessive carbon dioxide emissions is by way of a “Clean Development Mechanism”.

In December 1997 at Kyoto in Japan the world’s nations agreed that nations that have fixed limits for their greenhouse gas emissions can assist other nations to implement projects that reduce emissions by “removals” (that is to say carrying out an activity that would normal create emissions in a way that reduces the emissions) or by “sinks” (that is to say sequestrating the emissions). Where one of these projects is implemented the country providing the assistance can count the units of saved emissions as part of their own. Continue reading