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Yes it’s Friday
It’s the Sustainable Futures Report.
And I’m Anthony Day.
This is the episode for Friday, 2 November 2018 and we're going to talk about more plastic rubbish, about energy and about the politicians. I’m going to have a Brexit rant.
A very special welcome if this is your first time listening to the Sustainable Futures Report and I do hope you will listen to episodes in the future. Generally there is a new one every Friday and I'm always open to ideas about what to cover.
Welcome and thanks to all my patrons. If you would like to support the Sustainable Futures Report as a patron I'll give you full details at the end. I hope you’ll still be with me. It’s another 4,000-word edition.
Eleanor Rogers contacted me after the 12th October episode on plastic.
“You posed the question,” she says, “of why aren't we collecting it out of the oceans?”
“The main reasons we're not is it's extremely sparse and small. I find this map very interesting to look at it further:
https://app.dumpark.com/seas-of-plastic-2/#" and she gives a link which you can find on the blog at www.sustainablefutures.report.
“This shows a model of plastic distribution and whilst there's some loose concentrations it's more in widespread bands. There aren't particular "islands" of plastic forming a continuous raft in the way you might think from the name. If you look at the "Ocean Estimates" bit, you can see why; most of the material, by weight, is microplastics (less than 1mm) or really small pieces (1-4.5mm). Also not all of the plastic waste is at the top of the ocean. Many of the more visible-sized chunks get waterlogged and float along below the surface. Plus the ocean is huge on a scale that humans struggle to comprehend. If we take a really high ocean plastic concentration, say 100 kg per km square, and said all of it was completely evenly distributed in visible-sized 1 g pieces, then you're looking for a single piece in every 10 m2 of water.
Pepper in Soup
Eleanor points me to the page from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which says we should think more along the lines of "flecks of pepper floating in a bowl of soup"
That said, Eleanor reports, there is indeed a company making a particularly notable stab at taking plastic out of the oceans, they're called the Ocean Cleanup and they've raised big crowdfunding to explore making "false coastline" pipes which will allow the sea currents to gradually collect the plastic and concentrate enough to remove. They claim they could remove 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
According to the website: “The Ocean Cleanup develops advanced technologies to rid the world's oceans of plastic. A full-scale deployment of our systems is estimated to clean up 50 % of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch every 5 years.”
But their system can only deal with pieces that are a few mm or more, so they leave the biggest component by weight of ocean plastic pollution, microplastics, untouched.
The microplastics are the really tricky bit since we don't know of a good way to collect them up, and we do know that they're so teeny that they get into marine life, and that we're eating them in fish and in sea salt.
In fact a recent headline said:
“Microplastics found in human stools for the first time”
The story in The Guardian said that a small study examined eight participants from Europe, Japan and Russia. All of their stool samples were found to contain microplastic particles.
Up to nine different plastics were found out of 10 varieties tested for, in particles of sizes ranging from 50 to 500 micrometres. Polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate were the plastics most commonly found.
Of course eight participants is a vanishingly small study, but it was interesting that they came from widely diverse parts of the world and still all contained plastic. Researchers believe that larger-scale studies could confirm that more than 50% of the world population has ingested plastic. Little research has so far been done to assess the potential effects of microparticles on the human body, but they might possibly be able to enter the bloodstream and get as far as organs such as the liver. They might be able to cary pathogens deep into the body.
“No plastic in the ocean would be there without us,” says Eleanor, “so I support what Ocean Cleanup are doing, and it also seems sensible to remove those larger plastics before they get ground down into microplastics too. But there's another much more cost-effective way we could gather this ocean plastic up; get it when it's in much denser concentrations, in big pieces, easy to remove, easy to recycle... when it's still on dry land!”
It’s very timely, then, that this week saw the launch of a Global Commitment to eliminate plastic pollution at its source, by the New Plastics Economy.
The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in collaboration with UN Environment, includes signatories from many of the world's largest packaging producers, brands, retailers and recyclers, as well as governments and NGOs, representing 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally.
Signatories include: well-known consumer businesses such as Danone, H&M Group, L’Oreal, Mars, Incorporated, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, and Unilever; major packaging producers such as Amcor; plastics producers including Novamont; and resource management specialist Veolia.
The Global Commitment aims to create ‘a new normal’ for plastic packaging. Targets will be reviewed every 18 months, and become increasingly ambitious over the coming years. Businesses that sign the commitment will publish annual data on their progress to help drive momentum and ensure transparency.
Eliminating unnecessary and problematic plastics is an essential part of the Global Commitment vision, and will make it easier to keep remaining plastics in the economy and out of the environment.
In a new plastics economy, plastic never becomes waste or pollution. Three actions are required to achieve this vision and create a circular economy for plastic. Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items. Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.
You’ll be familiar with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as a leading proponent of the circular economy. To Reduce, Re-use, Recycle, let’s add Eliminate, Innovate and Circulate.
We all support this responsible approach, but of course there are people who just don’t care about rubbish, recycling or the environment. There are some people who are simply after any opportunity to make money. The Guardian reports that there are operators who will take waste for recycling from businesses or local authority collections, take the fee for exporting it for recycling and then just dump it. OK that’s fly-tipping, but we’re talking about fly-tipping on an industrial scale. HM Customs have found serious discrepancies between their records and the claims of exporters. Six licences have been revoked in the last three months but there is criticism of the regulation of the whole situation. The pressure is on because China which took large quantities of waste for recycling has now banned all such imports. The UK does not have the infrastructure to recycle all its waste at home, so much is being diverted overseas with little control over where it ends up.
Closer to home, The Telegraph reports that a Home Office study found that criminal networks are using illegal waste management operations, including running huge waste sites, as a cover for crimes such as money laundering, human trafficking, fraud and the supply of drugs and firearms.
The BBC Radio 4 programme File on 4 told a similar story. Criminal gangs are dumping builder’s rubble mixed with unsorted waste on to agricultural land, tens of tons at a time. Attempts to stop them are frequently met with violence and intimidation. Under current law it is the farmer’s responsibility to remove this rubbish and to pay for its proper disposal. As far as stopping it is concerned the responsibility seems to fall into a grey area between the Environment Agency and the police.
Some good news on plastic.
Do you ever eat Pringles? You know, those potato-based curly crisps which come in a tube? The UK Recycling Association once called Pringles cans the “villains” of the recycling world due to their metal bases, plastic caps, metal tear-off lids, and foil-lined cardboard sleeves. Simon Ellin, the association’s CEO, said the cans are a nightmare because it’s impossible to separate the parts.
But now consumers will be invited to send in empty cans using free labels, to TerraCycle. In exchange, senders receive a charitable donation for each container, that can be redeemed for the school, charity, or nonprofit of their choice. TerraCycle, which claims to recycle everything, plans to turn them into pellets for making products like benches and fence posts. I’ll look into them for a future episode.
Recycling begins at home
The i newspaper reports that the UK throws away 295 billion pieces of plastic each year, and much of it is single-use and cannot be recycled. This is based on a report from https://www.everydayplastic.org, which tracked the usage of one man - said to be an average consumer - who kept all 4,490 individual pieces of plastic which he accumulated during a year. About 93% was single-use and two thirds was to wrap food. About 70% of it was “not currently recyclable”. The report estimated that 10% would actually be recycled: 4% in the UK and the rest overseas. (Hopefully)
Good luck with leading the world on recycling, Mr Hammond. (See below)
Plastic can be a scourge but Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford Organic Farmers, which supplies about 47,000 boxes of vegetables to homes in the UK each week, said demonising plastic could do more harm than good.
He said: "The fervour - the almost religious fervour - of some of our customers in (being) anti-plastic can actually create problems.
"Plastic is not in itself an evil material, it is the fact that we use so much of it.
"The biggest environmental challenge facing our planet is climate change - and anything that distracts attention from that is potentially dangerous."
His company is aiming to use only fully compostable plastic by 2020, but he says switching materials isn't always the best option - as some, like paper, can have a higher carbon footprint than plastic.
He said it would be "a step in the wrong direction" if companies focused too much on their plastic usage, rather than addressing energy efficiency or reducing their carbon footprint in other ways.
Can’t argue that climate change is a crucial issue, but plastic pollution is pretty important too. The government of course is putting all its efforts into Brexit at the moment. More on that later.
In the Budget
The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, revealed his budget this week but said very little about the environment. What he did say included,
“Where we cannot achieve re-use, we are determined to increase recycling so we will introduce a new tax on the manufacture and import of plastic packaging which contains less than 30 per cent recycled plastic, transforming the economics of sustainable packaging.” This will be from April 2022, subject to consultation.
He went on to say that he would not put a tax on disposable coffee cups - notoriously hard to recycle - but he would monitor the situation.
He announced a review of the reform of the packaging producer responsibility scheme and continued, “Working across government, this ambitious package reflects our determination to lead the world in the crusade to rid the oceans and the environment of plastic waste.”
He did not mention climate change, or clean energy or carbon, but he did reiterate that road fuel duty would be frozen for ninth year. This costs £800m in lost revenue per year and has supported the rising sales of gas-guzzling larger cars. They emit more CO2 and other pollutants and most of our fuel is imported, putting pressure on the balance of payments.
You’ll remember that the government is also reducing the subsidy for electric cars, withdrawing the subsidy for plug-in hybrids and removing the FiT for renewable energy, but there will be Enhanced Capital Allowances for the installation of electric vehicle charge points.
The budget document, published by the Treasury at the same time as the speech, reveals that the Climate Change Levy on electricity is to be reduced and there will be a carbon tax even after we leave the EU ETS.
It also says “Planting trees helps offset carbon emissions and supports wildlife. To provide the long-term certainty needed for investment in woodland, the government will set up a Woodland Carbon Guarantee scheme which will support the planting of around 10 million trees by purchasing up to £50 million of carbon credits for qualifying tree planting. The government will also provide £10 million funding between 2019-20 and 2022-23 for local community street trees and urban trees.”
I wonder if they will introduce it in Sheffield.
Other Policy Announcements
“As part of the Industrial Strategy, the government will establish an Industrial Energy Transformation Fund, backed by up to £315 million of investment, to support businesses with high energy use to transition to a low carbon future and to cut their bills through increased energy efficiency.
“ The government will issue a call for evidence on introducing a new Business Energy Efficiency Scheme, focused on smaller businesses. Over time, this scheme will reduce business energy bills and carbon emissions. The call for evidence will seek views on a range of possible delivery options”
I mentioned previously that BBC Radio 4 had done a programme on energy policy. It's another in the File on Four series. I've just had an opportunity to listen to it and this is what I learnt.
The programme started by talking about Vivergo, a £400 million bioethanol plant part-funded by government and recently commissioned in the north-east of England. Petrol sold at the pump in the UK is currently 95% fossil fuel and 5% bioethanol. The expectation was that this would be increased to 10% and the plant in Hull was built to meet this increased demand. It processed 1 million tons of wheat from 900 farmers across the region, but it closed after just six years of operation with the loss of 100 jobs. The government had failed to introduce the legislation to increase the proportion of bioethanol in petrol from 5% to 10% as planned. They were concerned that it might damage older cars and thereby penalise poorer motorists. In fact it was found that the cars mainly at risk were classic cars, and conversations with classic car owners showed that they were not particularly concerned.
The government minister responsible, Claire Perry, has been mentioned on the Sustainable Futures Report several times recently. Interviewed on File on 4 she said she was unaware that the plant, built with much of her government’s money, had gone out of business. The opportunity to increase the use of bioethanol and to reduce the carbon footprint of motoring by an amount equal to removing 700,000 cars from the roads has been lost, at least for the moment.
On the other hand the offshore wind industry is thriving in the north-east of England. 6 MW wind turbines are in place and larger machines, maybe with multiple rotors are planned.
I got an email recently urging UK suppliers to “grasp opportunity” from world’s biggest offshore wind farm
It goes on,
- World’s biggest offshore wind farm will be built here in UK
- Supply Chain Event to take place on 14th November at the Magna Science Adventure Centre
- Ørsted and Tier One suppliers to provide overview on opportunities for UK businesses
- Businesses looking to attend should register their place here
Ørsted. Yes, that’s a Danish firm taking the lead.
Experts interviewed for File on 4 claimed that solar PV and on-shore wind were the most cost-effective ways of generating renewable energy, yet these technologies are effectively shut out by current government policy. Short-notice tariff cuts and U-turns have driven many long-established solar and energy-saving companies out of business. The government now plans to abolish the feed-in tariff completely from next year and energy companies will no longer pay for any surplus energy fed back into the grid - though of course they will sell it on. Industry insiders estimate that the UK is already back to where it was in 2010 and that once the FiT is withdrawn the domestic solar market will disappear. Many installers across the UK will go out of business. Many will be one- or two-man businesses. Individually they will hardly be noticed, but there will be hundreds if not thousands put out of work.
When asked about this Claire Perry replied that one of her constituents had found that the FiT made solar panels an excellent investment. Her reaction was that was not the sort of thing that the government should be supporting. She clearly overlooked the possibility that it could be a win-win situation - clean energy good for the environment, renewable energy replacing some fossil fuel, reduced demand on the National Grid and a good deal for the investor at the same time. After all, it’s the householder who pays for the solar panels and takes the risk that they will perform as promised for long enough for him or her to get the money back.
Meanwhile the government continues to promote nuclear and fracking, both of which are more expensive than the alternatives.
Behind closed doors
The Guardian reveals that our friend Claire and her officials met with all the key shale players – Cuadrilla, Ineos, iGas and Third Energy – along with oil and gas companies including BP on 21 May. While her meeting with wind power executives on the same day was recorded on an official transparency register, the shale event was not.
Minutes of the shale meeting, which were eventually released under freedom of information rules, reveal:
- Perry hopes to “create a ‘UK model’ for shale gas extraction which can be exported around the world”.
- The UK plans to “make a virtue” of the industry’s regulation to help “export expertise abroad”.
- The government will make the case for shale gas to “get past myths on the topic”.
- Gas, including that extracted from shale wells, is seen as a key part of the future energy mix.
Friends of the Earth questioned the lack of transparency and called for a halt to fracking.
In fact fracking was suspended for the second time this week following earth tremors at the site. These are very small tremors which cannot be felt at the surface, but still big enough to trigger alarms and require operations to cease until damage inspections have been made.
Interestingly these tremors are getting stronger.
Who Runs This Place?
I’m very concerned with the low calibre of politicians on both sides of the House of Commons, from Mrs May down. You may say she’s doing a difficult job, but that job is clearly to keep the Conservative Party together rather than do what’s best for the country. She has no Brexit plan beyond Brexit means Brexit and the so-called Chequers deal which has been rejected by most of her party and violates the fundamental principles of the EU. It is clear that if she finally negotiates a deal it will be a worse deal than the country has now. Should she really be striving to put the country in a worse position? Is it the will of the people? The government has published a series of papers on the consequences of leaving the EU without a deal, a scenario which looks more likely by the day. This is new information that we didn’t have at the time of the 2016 referendum. If this is what we’re going to get, surely we should have a vote on whether it’s what we wanted, leaver or remainer.
Apart from Brexit, little seems to be being done, and it’s seriously doubtful whether some ministers are truly in command of their briefs. The Northern Ireland Minister said in an interview earlier this year that she never realised that people in Northern Ireland voted exclusively on sectarian lines. She was in her mid twenties at the time of the Good Friday Agreement. Did she not read the news? Does she not remember the bombings and the murders on both sides of the Irish Sea?
The youthful Defence Minister is the one who told the Russians that they should shut up and go away. Then there’s Owen Patterson, a former environment minister, who is on record as saying that there will no problem if migrant labour is excluded from British farms after Brexit. He says that pensioners could be employed to harvest the fruit and vegetables, and there’s no legal obligation to pay pensioners the minimum wage. Don’t mention Chris Grayling, currently Transport Secretary as the railways snarl up under new timetables and industrial action.
Liam Fox, International Trade Secretary, has said repeatedly that new trade deals will be very easy to negotiate, although there’s little evidence to suggest he’s right. What people seem to overlook is that trade deals are a legal framework of tariffs and taxes and quotas negotiated by politicians, but the actual business is done by businesses who come afterwards to negotiate contracts within that framework. Major contracts take years to negotiate. Meanwhile we will have shut ourselves off behind tariff barriers from the EU, our biggest market. Our customers will already be taking action to protect themselves by seeking out new suppliers. Once we have lost them we have probably lost them for good.
Some say that we should be trading with the Commonwealth instead, but apart from Canada, Australia and New Zealand the commonwealth countries are all third-world countries. As a guide to spending power, the combined Commonwealth GDP is $10.4trn, compared to $18.8trn for the EU. However the fundamental difference between the two blocs is the GDP per head, with $37,800 in the EU and only $4,300 in the Commonwealth. If you take out Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the average GDP per head in the rest of the countries falls to $3,085. These people have clearly not got the spending power to match or replace our customers in the EU.
[Based on figures sources via Wikipedia]
Just a few thoughts to close.
I mentioned my loyal patrons - much appreciated supporters of the Sustainable Futures Report. You too could be a patron for a regular contribution of as little as $1 per month. You’ll get a shout-out on this podcast and if you go to the next level you’ll get a unique enamel badge. Just go to patreon.com/sfr for all the details. Your support helps me cover the hosting costs.
I happened to listen to the Sustainable Futures Report episode from 8th April last year. It was based on a presentation I made to business students at the University of Huddersfield. What didn’t tell you at the time was that they refused my invoice. “But we thought you did this sort of thing for nothing,” they said. Just like all the lecturers do, I’m sure. And I paid my own train fare.
Now what was the theme of the presentation again? Oh, yes. Business Ethics.
Do remember that links to all my stories are at www.sustainablefutures.report
And that’s it.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Bye for now.