Immigrant UK waste turned back at Brazilian docks

Paul Raven @ 22-07-2009

shipping containersOnly the other day we were talking about tracking trash to find out where it goes. Well, it turns out it’s not just people that end up immigrating into countries that don’t want to deal with them; the Brazilian environment agency Ibama is demanding that 1,400 tonnes of hazardous waste – everything from rotting food, used condoms and dirty hypodermics – be repatriated to the UK where it came from.

Among the rubbish were the names of many British supermarkets, and UK newspapers were also clearly identifiable.

Ibama officials say they want the waste sent back to the UK.

“We will ask for the repatriation of this garbage,” said Roberto Messias, Ibama president. “Clearly, Brazil is not a big rubbish dump of the world.”

Reports in the UK media say the waste was sent from Felixstowe in eastern England to the port of Santos, near Sao Paulo, and two other ports in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul.

The Brazilian companies that received the waste said they had been expecting recyclable plastic, The Times reported.

I guess this is the nation-state version of the rocks-in-an-iPod-box scam. Hopefully it’ll get harder for organisations to pull off this kind of switcheroo without getting caught by shipment tracking systems… but while there’s money to be made, you can guarantee they’ll keep trying it on. I expect corruption is a large part of the problem – as much at the UK end as elsewhere. [via SlashDot; image by bejnar.net]


Seven great games to play with civilian nukes

Paul Raven @ 14-04-2009

old Russian nuclear bombHey, guess what – nuclear bombs can be used for more than just annihilating entire cities!Wired has an article rounding up a selection of seven proposed civilian deployments of nuclear weapons, most of which (unsurprisingly) leverage their ability to make a very big hole in something. [image by mikelopoulos]

But how’s this for a counterintuitive idea – why not use nuclear weapons to dispose of nuclear waste!

This scheme was originally proposed at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. A hole is bored beneath the waste processing plant, and a nuclear bomb is set off in the hole. Then the radioactive waste is poured into the subterranean cavity so formed, over a 25-year filling period. The wastes heat up through their own activity, boil dry, and eventually melt themselves and some surrounding rock into a glassy ball. The cost is quite uncertain but was judged to be extremely attractive.

If you’re anything at all like me (i.e. not a nuclear scientist), you’re probably thinking that’s a batshit stupid idea. But apparently not:

“For excavation, we put a lot of time and effort and money into developing nuclear explosives which had minimal fissionable material so that you could carry out a 100-kiloton cratering explosion and release the radioactivity equivalent to a 20-ton explosive of fissionable material,” Nordyke said.

But despite the technical success of the Plowshare program, Nordyke doesn’t see nuclear weapons being used for excavation or mining anytime soon because it doesn’t seem politically feasible.

“I think its time came and went,” he said. “I think reconciling it with the enhanced environmental concerns today and the inherent association with weapons is difficult.”

My reaction proves his point, I suppose. Nukes are a Pandora’s Box technology, in that we can’t just pretend we don’t know they exist (which is one of George Dvorsky’s points regarding the risks of nuclear disarmament), but because we’ve been predominantly shown nuclear blasts doing things which are deeply nasty and lethal we have this knee-jerk reaction to the idea of them being used for a more creative purpose.

Then again, there’s a trust issue as well – a government-commissioned experimental mega-engineering project involving not just nuclear waste but nuclear weapons? Even if you could show me the calculations and experimental data that proved it could be done, I’m not sure I’d feel at all confident in the ability of a government – or a corporation, for that matter – not to screw up by cutting corners somewhere.


Where will we send our trash now China doesn’t want it?

Paul Raven @ 22-01-2009

scrap wasteIt’s no secret that a lot of the West’s waste ends up in China and other far eastern countries. What you may not have realised is that a significant number of people make a living from sorting, reclaiming and reselling that waste; used plastics to packing chip factories, for example.

Or rather, they used to make a living doing it; now, scrap trading in China has fallen at the hands of the global economic slump:

Minter says the predicament is typical of the trade. “People would borrow money from relatives and buy a container of scrap and then throw all that money back in and reinvest it. Great if it goes up – but the moment it starts slipping, especially if it’s slipping 20-30%, you’re finished,” he said.

Even if you’re so hard-hearted as to think that the economic fate of Chinese scrap workers is no big deal to you, the consequences of this are going to be felt in your world too: China used to import scrap and waste from countries like the US and the UK. Now there’s no one who can make a meagre living by cleaning up behind us, we’re going to have to start doing it ourselves. [image by Paul Goyette]


NEW FICTION: RESURFACING BILLY by Douglas Lain

Paul Raven @ 03-11-2008

This month’s Futurismic story is a sober yet striking piece of work; Douglas Lain has constructed a moody and multilayered metaphor that compares our approach to waste management with our approach to our own minds… and the minds of our children.

Charged with subtle emotion, “Resurfacing Billy” will provide you with plenty of food for thought, and greatly rewards a close re-reading. Enjoy!

Resurfacing Billy

by Douglas Lain

About half way through my thirty-fifth year, some problems came up. My young son was unbalanced and maladjusted to school, my wife’s bohemian tendencies made her myopic and unable to respond to the situation, and the garbage buried under the wicker weave surface of our neighborhood leaked through. Toxic sludge oozed up in the parking lot of our local Food Co-Op, on the bike trail, and in our own backyard.

I didn’t know what to do about my wife and son, but my solution for the leakages in the Hawthorne neighborhood was the gumball. The design was colorful, nostalgic, and tactile. I felt confident that resurfacing the district with red, green, and yellow globes designed both to stick into a coherent and easily traversable surface and to separate into individual objects that pedestrians could manipulate, would work. I would win another ASLA prize. Organic and absorbent, they were designed to neutralize and sanitize leakages that occurred where the tarp lost integrity; the gumballs would change colors when exposed to toxins, serve as a warning system as well as a surface. Continue reading “NEW FICTION: RESURFACING BILLY by Douglas Lain”


Conducting bacteria that feed off garbage to produce power

Tomas Martin @ 06-08-2008

Is rubbish going to become too valuable to be piled up like this?Whilst some of first generation biofuels like corn and soy based ethanol are proving to be more trouble than their worth, scientists are working hard on second and third generation alternatives that should add to our energy mix without damaging our food supply. One new development is microbial fuel cells (MFCs) – bacteria that breaks down garbage and conducts electricity. Scientists think by digesting our waste these cells could replace up to 25% of the fuels we currently use.

In a microbial fuel cell, the bacteria acts on the anode of the circuit, breaking down waste with oxidation. As a byproduct they produce electrons. Normally a bacteria would transfer these electrons to a nearby oxygen molecule but if the fuel cell has no oxygen in it, the microbe must move these electrons elsewhere and an MFC uses this to drive an electrical current.

Researchers are beginning to make headway in creating self-contained microbial fuel cells. Biofilms are bacteria that create matrices of material to attach themselves to the anode. This mix of sugars, proteins and cells is thought to contain tiny conducting nanowires that help move the electrons into the electrical circuit, making the whole clump of bacteria act like a big living anode. If this works, people aren’t going to be leaving their litter on the streets any longer. It’ll be too valuable!

[via Daily Galaxy, picture by Alan Stanton]


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