Saturday, 29 January 2011

Waste lands

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgModern cities generate huge amounts of rubbish, and disposing of this is one of the most pressing environmental problems. One can bury it of course, or burn it in incinerators, or just dump it in a big pile just outside the city. This is the approach chosen for the Jardim Gramacho in Rio, Brazil, one of the worlds largest rubbish dumps, which is the subject of the Oscar nominated film, Waste Land.*

Seventy percent of Rio's rubbish arrives at Jardim Gramacho, which is an astonishing 7,000 tons every day. In a rich country with few people, trash can be passed through automated factories which remove the most valuable materials for recycling. Brazil is a not-so-rich country with a lot of people, but recycling still takes place, on a massive scale. Thousands of scavengers ("catedores") clamber over the rubbish very day - an estimated 3,000 people, supporting 13,000 men women and children. About 200 tons of material is recycled daily, 50% plastic, 21% metal and 16% paper, though metal is preferred as the most vulnerable.

The catedores, incidentally, don't necessarily conform to the expected stereotype. A survey in 2004** found 90% could read and write, and 79% own their own homes. The catedores are also reported as feeling a certain amount of pride in their efforts, contrasting with other job options such as drug trafficking or prostitution.

Well so far so good, the system does generate meaningful employment and recycling is a good thing, but obviously there is a price.

In the 2004 survey, although 70% used gloves only 0.9 use masks. Over 20% reported "colds or flu" in the previous 6 months and 10% had respiratory problems, whilst 45% had had conjunctivitis at some time in their past. There is also the ever present risk of cuts from glass, falling objects and burns, as well as bites from the mosquitoes which thrive in the marshes nearby, with 23% having had dengue fever. Interestingly, only 13% of those interviewed actually regarded their work as responsible for these problems, as opposed to their life in general. They may have had a point. Collecting rubbish will never make you rich, only 50% in 2004 lived in homes connected to the sewage network and ironically, about a third have no rubbish collection at home and have to burn rubbish or dump it in local waterways.

One last point. Several cities such as Salvador and Recife, in northern Brazil, dump their rubbish near the airport, a text book example of an idea that "seemed a good idea at the time". After all nobody wants to live right next to a busy airport. Unfortunately, whilst people won't, vultures will. Black vultures are flourishing on the easily available food, and birds and planes do not mix. Bird strikes have more than doubled in Brazil in the past decade, and about half the cases involve vultures. Whilst a jet airliner might shrug off a hit from a sparrow, vultures are big weighing up to 2.5 kg and at least two two planes have been forced to make emergency landing after pilots were injured by vultures crashing into their windscreens. So far there have been no fatalities, but the potential is there and relocating or even killing the vultures has had limited success.

As Wagner Fischer, coordinator of the wildlife management department at IBAMA, the Brazilian federal environmental oversight agency, is quoted as saying***, “What if you have a bunch of house flies in your home?, is it better to kill or relocate the flies or clean your house?”

* The film incidentally follows artist Vik Muniz creating art from recycled materials, in collaboration with various catadores (hunters). It's a tribute to Muniz's talent that he has generated a very successful career from such unlikely material, including even the title sequence of the recent hugely popular Brazilian soap, Passione.

** Porto, M, Junca, D, Goncalves, R Filhote, M. (2004).
Garbage, work, and health: a case study of garbage pickers at the metropolitan landfill in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Cad. Saúde Pública [online]. vol.20, n.6, pp. 1503-1514. ISSN 0102-311X. doi: 10.1590/S0102-311X2004000600007.


Porto MF, Juncá DC, Gonçalves Rde S, & Filhote MI (2004). [Garbage, work, and health: a case study of garbage pickers at the metropolitan landfill in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil]. Cadernos de saude publica / Ministerio da Saude, Fundacao Oswaldo Cruz, Escola Nacional de Saude Publica, 20 (6), 1503-14 PMID: 15608851

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Formula 1’s new green cloak

Formula 1’s (F1) foray into the carbon-reduction drives may not have exactly been a bombshell since it is in vogue to don a green cloak and hail this environmentally efficient attitude of reducing carbon footprint.

Trucost’s finds:
Trucost, an environmental consultancy, had conducted an exhaustive research on the full range of activities performed by and within F1 teams and their suppliers. Unsurprisingly, the carbon emissions arising from the testing and racing of F1 cars is only a small proportion (0.29%) of the total carbon chocked up by F1 as a whole (215,588 tonnes per annum in 2009, the majority being attributable to the production and supply of raw materials and parts at 50%, electricity consumption at 30%, as well as transport of team and equipment from race to race at 14%). Trucost’s environmental research analysis suggested measures to decrease carbon emissions- ergo, the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA, which comprises of all 12 current Formula One Teams) has commenced a comprehensive and externally audited carbon emissions reduction programme. It is anticipated (by Martin Whitmarch, Chairman of FOTA and Team Principal of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes) that F1 will have reduced its total carbon emissions by 12.4% compared with the 2009.

FOTA’s aims:
A small step, but some step nonetheless towards cutting the total carbon emissions of the sport. The ultimate stated aim is to address environmental problems and benefit mankind in the long run. This is to be achieved by developing new automotive technologies which may be, in time, introduced in consumer production cars. Consequently, from 2013, all entrants have to obey technical regulations, such as fitting the F1 cars with fuel efficient engines and powertrains. Furthermore, F1’s regulations will be revised to enhance and incentivise further reduction of fuel consumption and enhancement of fuel efficiency (apparently, the amount of fuel which can be used by each team could be restricted).

Therefore, the major sources of emissions reductions come from reduced electricity consumption (16.95%), reduced operational fuel use (17.92%), and reduced expenditure on parts and raw materials (20.25%).

Tips on reaching the chequered flag (apart from those stated by FOTA):

- As of yet, F1 held 19 races in 2010, around the world, and in no particular order- starting at Bahrain in March and ending at Abu Dhabi in November. As a result, there is a significant of zig-zagged travelling and carting of teams and equipment around the world, from race to race, by air, road, rail, and sea- not to overlook the devoted fans and spectators from around the world. So races could be conducted in a systematic manner, for instance, an itinerary which starts in Europe, then moves on to the Middle Eastern races at Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, and then the Asian races (Chinese, Malaysian, Singaporean, Japanese and Korean GP). Or a more austere option would be to conduct the races solely in one continent per annum.

- Decrease the number of teams.

- Alternatively, decrease the number of races.

- Imposing emissions cap on each team.

- Conducting a GP solely with green technology (this will also popularize such consumer cars).

- Use ethanol as fuel (examples being Australia’s V8 SuperCar series which uses 80% ethanol and Indy Racing which uses 100% ethanol). However, this opens a can of worms. Producing ethanol does require more energy input. Furthermore, there is an increased risk of deforestation (especially rainforests) so as to provide area for corn cultivation. If existing agricultural lands are utilised for biofuel cultivation, there could be an increase in food prices (and such affects the poor more detrimentally). A feasible solution is if biofuel is made from crop wastes or sourced by cultivation in wastelands.

- Use less(er) fuels. From my former days as an F1 fanatic, I seem to remember that teams were always keen on lesser fuel, for more fuel implies more weight, which implies slow(er) car, a veritable harakiri in a sport where every millisecond counts.

- The electricity used (also for lighting up the tracks) could be sourced from solar/wind/tidal- the former an excellent option in the Middle Eastern and Asian races.

- No more races held at night (I believe, this is the case at Singapore and Abu Dhabi).

- F1 is bound to consume a significant amount of water as well- therefore, rain water could be harvested for non-drinking purposes.

- Planting innumerable rows of trees around the F1 circuits- trees are, after all, carbon sinks.

- Creation of energy efficient and clean/green technologies (which could be translated to consumer cars), which also implies something akin to starting from scratch.

Force behind the force:
One of the drivers behind this step of FOTA is pressure from sponsors who are increasingly keen to be associated with a ‘green product’. So is it just green washing to smoothen ruffled feathers?

More likely is the possibility that this new green mantle is all thanks to new austerity measures, the consequence of the financial stress faced by F1 as a result of the recession.

My other two cents:
I would like to see how the earmarked 12.4% carbon emissions cut can be achieved.

Secondly, it does seem as if FOTA’s current plans/suggestions are targeting the measly 0.3% of emissions contributable to racing and testing of F1 cars. Shouldn’t the focus be placed on the remaining 99.7% of emissions and their sources?

Whilst teams such as Lotus and McLaren (the first to achieve a Carbon Trust certification for ‘achieving annual savings of more than 1500 tonnes of CO2 emissions) have whole-heartedly accepted the new rules, Ferrari’s disgruntled attitude towards the new cloak does make wonder whether this entire greening is a conscious change towards efficiency and environmental responsibility.

What also significantly irks me is that whilst F1 lays focus on carbon emissions, they are totally overlooking the pollutants, especially NOx and particulates (likely to be emitted from a myriad of sources, including F1 engines).

I wonder whether, as in a domino effect, F1’s new stance would inspire its fans to adopt an environmentally friendly outlook. And is it too much to hope that they wouldn’t be using petrol-based transportation to reach the race tracks? Hopefully, the future might be bright, but not be orange, but green.
Image source: Pete Keen / Free Digital

Quo vadis Sasthamkotta?

The overexploited Sasthamkotta Lake, one of the 25 Ramsar sites in India, is now facing another lethal threat, all thanks to a new drinking water scheme, the Chavara-Panmana Water Supply Scheme, due to be commissioned on January 12th despite warnings by expert committee that the lake cannot bear up further abuse.

Ideally, the outflow from a water body should be limited to 60% of its inflow: as of yet, Sasthamcotta Lake’s outflow has exceeded 70% of its inflow (37.5 million litres per day is utilised to supply Kollam district + additional 12 million litres per day under the new scheme). The Water Resources Minister, however, maintains that this new water supply scheme will not affect the lake since there is sufficient water. Is the Ramsar Site heading towards its demise?


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