Ocean Cleanup

plastic-bottle-beach
We have all heard about the problem of the oceans getting cluttered up with plastic. Unfortunately, solving the problem of marine plastic pollution is not as simple as picking up all of the pieces of plastic. While a lot of plastic pollution is concentrated in the gyres, it is not floating in a single mass on the surface. Pieces of plastic are distributed vertically, through the water column. Plastic breaks down into tiny particles in the ocean, making clean-up efforts very difficult. One of the many challenges of cleanup is how to remove the plastics from the ocean without also removing or damaging marine life.

The Natural Resources Defense Council website has lots of information related to the problem. They also describe some of the possible solutions as also being problematic. This is what they say about bioplastics and their marketing:

“The term “bioplastics” is increasingly being used to refer to a wide range of products, some of which are primarily or entirely plant-derived, others of which contain fossil-fuel-derived plastic, and all of which might be biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, some combination, or none of the above. While many companies are marketing these products as “green” alternatives to traditional plastics, the reality is more complex. Even biodegradable and compostable plastics are typically designed to break down efficiently only in commercial composting systems; on land or in water, these plastics generally persist long enough to cause potential hazards to water systems and wildlife. Any plastic, regardless of whether it is derived from plants or from fossil fuels, should be properly disposed of, and ideally should be recyclable and/or compostable to avoid the need to landfill.

Besides the issues related to improper disposal, production of bioplastics is also potentially problematic. Corn-based bioplastics are some of the most widely available bioplastics today — while these represent a positive step in the growing market toward finding alternatives to non-renewable, fossil-fuel-derived plastic, they rely on the production of corn, which raises concerns about agricultural impacts on land use, food production and global warming. These production impacts are all significantly reduced by specifying bioplastic products made from waste-based agricultural residues (residues left over after harvest from an existing agricultural land use which would otherwise be treated as waste). Replacing some current plastics with renewable bioplastics (especially those made using agricultural residues) is a promising way to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but more research is needed to develop better products which will reduce the reliance on non-renewable resources and address concerns associated with marine plastic pollution”.

Interesting food for thought, so bioplastics do not seem to offer a solution. What we need to do is stop putting plastics into the oceans and try to get the plastic out that is already there.

The Ocean Clean up organization believe they have found a viable way to proceed with the removal part of my great plan, and have launched a crowdfunding appeal to raise the money to put their idea into full production. 19-year-old Boyan Slat has been leading a team that have designed a system that helps the ocean to clean itself. The system uses a series of solid floating barriers that are placed in the ocean. The currents and wind force the ocean to pass under the barriers, but anything that floats or is neutral in the water (plastic for example) cannot pass and so is collected in the boom. The plastic collected can then be reused. The website has a more detailed explanation and a glossy video.

This concentration of the waste means that it can then be removed from the booms easily, and at much lower cost both economically and environmentally that using other methods. Check out the concept here.

So all they need is to raise $2 million to step up into the next phase. At the time of writing the crowdfunding campaign has raised more than $765,000, and with 80 days to go it looks hopeful to me. If you have a few quid to spare it might be a good investment.

Readers might like to have a look at a post I wrote earlier this year about the INSS meeting in Charlotte. The post includes a review and photos of an art installation called “The Real Toy Story”, that includes a giant baby stuffed with waste plastic taken from the sea.

Nanofoods

This week I want to put two of my little pets together. Nanotechnology and food might sound like two very different topics, like a cat and a gerbil to use the pet metaphor, but you would be surprised. Many products in fact have manufactured nanoparticles in them, and we eat them.

Now we might ask if this is safe, and some would say of course it is. Some have great reservations about it, and some point to the fact that there has been little research done into the matter and that it might be better not to eat them anyway.

Friends of the Earth US have recently published a report entitled Tiny Ingredients, Big Risks, and it is free to download here.

To give you a flavour of what is on offer, I just take a few lines from the report:

A ten fold increase in unregulated and unlabeled nanofoods over the last 6 years

Nanomaterials are found in a broad aray of everyday food (cheese, chocolate, breakfast cereals etc)

Major food companies are investing billions in nanofood and packaging

An increasingly large body of peer reviewed evidence indicates that nanomaterials may harm human health and the environment

Nano agrochemicals are now being used on farms so entering the environment

US regulation is wholly inadequate

Public involvement in decision-making regarding these problems is necessary

The products containing unlabeled nano-ingredients range from Kraft American Singles to Hershey’s chocolate. They are made by major companies including Kraft (KRFT), General Mills (GIS), Hershey (HSY), Nestle (NSRGY), Mars, Unilever (UL), Smucker’s (SJM) and Albertsons. But due to a lack of labeling and disclosure, a far greater  number of food products with undisclosed nanomaterials are likely currently on the market.

To give you an idea we are talking about silver, titanium dioxide, zink and zink oxide, silicon and copper, as well as the traditional carbon nano tubes that are found in food packaging and freshness labelling technologies.

The report documents 85 food and beverage products on the market known to contain nanomaterials — including brand name products, and points out that the nanofood industry will soon be worth $20 billion.

This is a detailed report, it lists the products that have been found to contain these materials, the health problems associated with ingestion of such materials in animals and calls for action. It does not make for light reading, but it appears to me to be a technology that is being sneaked in through the back door, and soon like genetic modification will be difficult to avoid.

Take a look back at my food series for more tasty stuff.

Deep Sea Mining Agreement

bbc bulk cutter

Time moves like molasses as they say here, but it moves.

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a post called Mining the Seabed. Almost exactly a year before that I wrote a post about the possibility of sending robots to mine asteroids. All science fiction I heard you say, but oh wait.

A couple of weeks ago Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian mining corporation, signed a deal with the Papua New Guinea government to start digging (mining) the seabed just off their coast.

The mining will be done from the surface. A series of large machines (310 tonnes), one of which we see in the photo above, will be operated from ships, placed on the seabed and will effectively break up the top layer so that the ore can be pumped up as slurry (muddy stuff).

Now this doesn’t sound too good to me, but the operators claim that “It’s a resilient system and studies show that life will recover in 5-10 years. An active venting site 1km to the south East has the same bugs and snails and the current will carry the bugs and snails to the mine site. We expect it to recover quite quickly.”

Greenpeace don’t agree. The truth is we don’t really know who is right. What we do know though is that there is big money involved. The bed is rich in gold and copper, and we need this stuff for far more than wedding rings and rheumatism charms.

Now as some of you will know, my mission in life is to promote responsible innovation through my work at the Bassetti Foundation, and we can take a look at the developments above from this perspective. We all use gold and copper, and it is in great demand. My computer won’t work without electricity, copper cables, solder, silicon etc, so we can be as forthright as we like but we are the ones creating the demand.

Companies are looking to supply us and make a profit, there now seems to be a viable mining approach that will involve getting it from under the oceans. Nobody will be able to stop them doing it, so we need to think about how they are going to do it, and where.

There is probably no real way of knowing how quickly the seabed will reform or how much damage is going to be caused, there are no qualified experts in mining to conduct the operations (it’s a first time gig) and international regulation still needs to be drawn.

There does not seem to have been much public debate, we won’t be able to monitor proceedings ourselves and at the best of times, mining is a dirty affair.

So this could be a disaster waiting to happen, or it could be a fantastic opportunity to create a framework that could address all of the problems above and be applicable in other fields.

Last year some academics published an article about their experiences working in a geoengineering project. Similar set of problems as described above, but social scientists were involved in the project and participated in the decision-making process. The outcome was extremely interesting, the project scientists decided to suspend their research and rethink their positions. The article is free to download here, where there is also a more precise description. It’s easy to read and very interesting.

Earth Day

earth

Today is Earth Day. It is the 44th time that we celebrate this planet that we call home. The celebration started in 1970, and is the brain child of US Senator Gaylord Nelson.

Nelson asked Denis Hayes to organize a day of awareness, on April 22nd, and by the end of 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had been established, and efforts to improve air and water quality were gaining political traction.

Today is a time of celebration, of love for our little speck in space. And it is a lovely speck, there are some quite beautiful places to see and experience dotted across the surface.

This year’s Earth Day boasts an organization that includes more than 22 000 organizations and hopes to conduct 2 billion acts of awareness and improvement. It is an education day, that has green schools and a Leadership Center.

Why not have a look at the organization’s website, and look around your little piece of the speck to see what you can do to raise awareness of the problems faced by our world and maybe plant a tree, collect some plastic for recycling, weed an invasive species or get into a debate with your kids?

There are plenty of opportunities!

Review of the INSS Sustainability Meeting

In this post I would like to continue my review of the Integrated Network for Social Sustainability (INSS) meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina. As I mentioned in last week’s post I was fortunate enough to have been selected to present a poster as part of the Saturday afternoon poster session. Further details of the poster and the full abstract are available here, and I was pleased to see many other interesting topics that readers may find worth thinking about.

An array of presenters from many disciplines addressed issues as broad as earthquake risk analysis, teaching sustainability in civil engineering, promoting ethics, culture and community based research and a very interesting permacuture collective run with the aid of students and staff of Ball state University. Read an outline here.

The poster session sat within a large and varied program that included an art exhibition called Sustain me Baby, that included a giant model baby filled with plastic toy trash and photos of dead baby albatrosses, and various installations placed throughout the city representing the problem of plastic waste. See the Keeping Watch website for further details.

The Other Toy Story

The Other Toy Story

The meeting started on Friday with a tour of sustainable manufacturing, that included a visit to a brick works owned and operated by Boral. The Boral website goes into the detail of their sustainable design frame, but the thing I found most interesting about the factory was the fuel used to heat the kiln.

Boral buy waste sawdust from local saw mills, have an in-house grinding and drying process for the dust that they then use as fuel for the kiln. This has brought costs down dramatically as well as providing a market and use for what is essentially a waste product.

The tour was followed by a dinner presentation about aquaponics. This is a system for growing vegetables that relies on using a fish pond and a series of pipes to produce large volumes of vegetables in a relatively small area. The plants grow in pipes fed by the pond water, while the fish provide the nutrients through their excrement. 90% of the water is reused, as the plants remove the nutrients as the water passes so it can be pumped back into the pond in a continuous circuit.

Ron Morgan wove a fantastic story around his project to build gardens in both North Carolina and Haiti, recounting tales of homeless genius, chance meetings and ordinary people leaping into the unknown at the drop of a hat (Sam Fleming for one). Read this article for an outline of his ideas, it is quite an incredible and moving tale.

There are plenty of videos on the web that demonstrate how the system works and how you can build one for a few hundred dollars, start by taking a look at this presentation on Youtube. Ron’s partner Sam Fleming explains the system. He was also on hand to describe the technicalities on Friday evening, and the pair were great entertainment and inspiring.

This type of system really does appear much more efficient than modern industrial production methods, and is readily transferable to inner city production. Ron spoke of his experiences of transferring this system to the earthquake hit island of Haiti, and ideas of how to use the massive quantities of food that it can produce to feed populations that find themselves living in food deserts for any number of reasons.

The conference Keynote Speaker was Julian Agyeman. Readers should take a look at his website for a full description of his work, as it is broad and immense.

This was a hard hitting delivery, in which he outlined his concept of ‘just sustainabilities’ and argued that “integrating social needs and welfare, offers us a more ‘just,’ rounded and equity-focused definition of sustainability and sustainable development, while not negating the very real environmental threats we face” (taken from conference notes).

His focus on social justice led to a call to read sustainability from a broader standpoint, and asked some questions and raised some issues about consumption and justice that many here in the so called industrial world might have difficulty reconciling.

Saturday also included a series of case study presentations, with representatives from SMART CN Project, the National Academy of Engineering, and Habitat for Humanity presenting about their work. They all do interesting stuff. The day closed with a panel discussion entitled Art, Manufacturing, Sustainability.

Sunday started with presentations from virtual attendees, demonstrating both the possibilities and problems that virtual attendance offers and poses. After another session of working group reporting came a session on network engagement tools, before assessment and adjournment.

I had a great time as I think did everyone else. The conference was well organized and there were a wide variety of interests and fields represented. I made a lot of new friends and learned a lot.

Reports from the INSS Sustainability Meeting

As readers might know this weekend I attended the Integrated Network for Social Sustainability (INSS) Meeting in Charlotte North Carolina. It was a great event, and I met a lot of great and interesting people, and over this week I would like to write a bit about them and what I learned.

The first is Adrienne Brown, a second year at Dickinson College in Carlisle Pennsylvania. She is currently participating in an application competition which involves answering a prompt with a two-hundred word essay and a two minute video. The organization orchestrating the web-based contest is the Arctic Climate Change Emerging Leaders Program Fellowship (ACCEL). This year they will be piloting an internship program with two positions, one in Washington DC and the other in Berlin, where the two student finalists will work on developing creative marketing strategies using media technologies.

The Arctic Today

The Arctic Today

Adrienne believes that there is a growing need to use technology to talk about important social issues, and as the popularity of social media platforms increase many social movements have started to use these technologies to market their cause to a particular audience. That audience tends to be young and motivated and therefore are a resource of human capital just waiting to be tapped.

To get the ACCEL internship students must gather public support for their essay and video responses. Essentially to demonstrate their ability to wield the powerful weapon of the internet to gain support and spread a particular message. Those who are stronger at encouraging people to act will theoretically get the most votes and present themselves as a good candidate for the position with the ACCEL. Once the public voting ends on April 13th the students who have collected the top ten amount of votes will move to the final round and submit a resume during an interview.

Adrienne feels strongly that the environmental field has not done enough with web-based marketing and is really excited for the opportunity to work on developing a public relations strategy for Arctic environmental issues. At the INSS conference she presented her video response and asked the network’s members to vote for her. Take a look at her essay and video and if you like the ideas presented follow the links and vote for her, and check out the other participants.

I will tell more stories about the event and people involved as the week goes on.

Integrated Network for Social Sustainability

This weekend I am going to the Integrated Network for Social Sustainability Annual Meeting in Charlotte, USA, where I will present a poster co-produced with anthropologist Cristina Grasseni. The poster title is Food Sovereignty and Social Sustainability Through Solidarity Economy Networks, and it fits into a meeting whose focus is to prioritize challenges for social sustainability.

A possible sustainability diagram?

A possible sustainability diagram?

Our poster presents work-in-progress insights into solidarity economies. We are looking at provisioning activism, or different ways people go about sourcing and buying the products they need in their daily lives. If you read my food series you might have seen references to this work, particularly the review of Cristina’s book about Italian food provisioning networks.

Through the poster I will be talking about groups of people who get together and form collectives or food coops, or run urban community gardens or community-supported agriculture. Other projects also include the development of small workers’ cooperatives with ambitious plans to create “green” jobs for marginalized youth in post-industrial wastelands.

These groups are organizing themselves in an attempt to replace supply chain consumerism in many fields with locally controlled networks. Although it was initially limited to food, “provisioning activism” increasingly focuses on clothing, IT, renewable energy, green construction, recycling, mutual insurance, cooperative credit and local currency exchange.

Here in Massachusetts for example we have the town of Worcester that acts as an informal focus point for groups that produce and distribute food, invest in locally owned and produced solar energy and are constructing a bio-fuel plant where they can produce bio-diesel from used vegetable oil collected from local restaurants.

There are other examples in the energy sector, take a look at this post I wrote years ago about a similar plant that opened in the UK. Sundance Renewables is the name.

And this is not just a fringe market. The main energy coop in Worcester takes $1.3 million a year in income, while in Italy a loose network of solidarity buying groups spends about 80 million Euro per annum, mainly on locally produced food.

The meeting also includes a tour of Charlotte’s renewable energy manufacturing base, so I should discover a lot more about this sector of the economy across the USA. I will report back next week.