Wednesday, 26 September 2012

You've drunk from this can before

 Aluminium recycling has many advantages for the environment, in reducing the need for mining (see and waste disposal. Aluminium is found in all sorts of things, but because of their rapid turnover and ease of handling, recycling normally means drinks cans. Of course, for it to be meaningful recycling has to be done on a large scale. A very large scale.

In 2009, according to the Associação Brasileira do Alumínio, Brazil recycled 98,800 tonnes of cans for their aluminium content, that's about 14 billion units. Much of this recycling is done at the Novelis plant in Pindamonhangaba (owned by the Indian Adytia Birla company), conveniently located on the main road between the two largest cities in Latin America, Sao Paulo and Rio.

What's driving all this is simple economics. Brazil produces aluminium ore (bauxite), in fact Brazilian production is 3rd in the world (28,000 tons in 2009) behind Australia and China. But actually getting the aluminium out of the ore is a complicated and energy intensive process, whilst recycling of aluminium cans involves, more or less, just melting them. Well, there is of course more to it than that, but still the process uses about 5% of the energy needed to produce "fresh" aluminium, with equivalent savings in production costs.

You still need a raw material. Brazil has the highest can recovery rate in the world at 85%, ahead of even Japan at 82.5%. This in turn is helped by low labour costs. Many of these cans are separated by hand, either at waste disposal sites or directly from bins, and men pulling carts of crushed cans are not uncommon. The Inter Press news agency quoted a can collector in Rio in 2010 who collected 15 kilograms of aluminium cans a day, selling them to the collection center for about 30 reals (17 dollars at the time). This isn´t much, but supports many thousands of people around the country. Even then, supply cannot meet demand. Every day trucks arrive at Pindamonhangaba loaded with crushed cans from all over South America, and the world. Over 42,000 tonnes were imported last year, from countries as far afield as Albania and Saudi Arabia.

So, for recycling to really work it has to make, not lose, money, which pays for the infrastructure. The difference in cost between recycled and ore-derived aluminium ensures that, in this case, can collection is well worth the effort.

Inter Press news agency.

Globo News Brasil

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The future of the Dead Sea

You could say that Ein Gedi is literally after miles of endless highway, past scattered kibbutzim. This windy beach on the western coast of the Dead Sea was teeming with hordes of tourists plastering themselves with mud and floating on the water to the backdrop of Cutting Crew’s “(I just) died in your arms tonight” and lots of human poo on the beach and on the sea itself (which dissuaded us from getting more adventurous). Although  it was late autumn, it was warm (around 24-25 deg C); the sun shone in all his glory, but (incongruously) we noticed the lack of searing heat (explained by being located in the lowest altitude in the world at around 415 m below sea level- due to the high barometric pressure, UV radiation is low).

A misnomer, Dead Sea is a saline lake, extending for approx. 60 kms, located in the Jordan Rift Valley and sandwiched between Lake Tiberias in the North and the formidable Red Sea in the south and surrounded by hostile hills and mountains. The adjective 'dead' illustrates that the lake is practically devoid of life due to its extreme saline content (nearly 9 times more saline than the oceans). There were some exceptions (the Dunaliella algae which nourished halobacteria) when the salinity dropped due to flooding. The surrounding barren terrain has wildlife (hares, ibex, jackals, etc). The water is supposedly curative and therapeutic and there is a booming mineral/salts/mud industry (I too have a hand cream of Dead Sea salts- and I must admit that it does its job).

The Dead Sea is historically significant. The Bible refers to it as the Sea of Salt (Genesis 14:3) or the Eastern Sea. More significantly, the destroyed towns of Sodom & Gomorrah ("the cities of the plain") are said to be under the lake (others maintain that the towns were in Mt Sodom); indeed, overlooking the lake is a rock formation considered to be Lot's wife who was transformed into a pillar of salt when she disobeyed the angels' instructions and turned back to look at the cities being destroyed by God. David hid from Saul in the wilderness surrounding the lake and several centuries later, people used to hide in the caves by the hills bordering the lake.

The major sources of the lake are the Jordan River itself and the Dead Sea wadis. However, the river water is now predominantly diverted for human purposes by three countries (Israel, Jordan, and Syria). Since the lake is in the rain shadow area, rainfall is negligible (2-4 inches per annum). Compounding this is the high evaporation rate due to high temperatures and low humidity. All of this has contributed to a rather grave situation- the shrinking of the lake (more popularly known as the Death of the Dead Sea). Some sources state that the lake has lost a third of its surface area, with the water level falling by more than 80 ft in the past 8-9 decades (and a fall of around 2-3 ft each year). Indeed, as seen in the satellite map, the southern half of the Dead Sea is separated from the northern half, connected by a canal, which prevents the southern part from drying up completely.

On the flip side, many industries depend on the lake for their profits (and even existence). Many are the hotels and resorts by the Dead Sea with customers keen on either floating in water (due to the high salt concentration) or taking advantage of the supposedly therapeutic nature of the mud and water. And there is also a lucrative trade on Dead Sea minerals and chemicals (who are also identified as one of the banes of the lake since they evaporate the waters to obtain the products).

Some preventive measures have been proposed:
1. Siphoning water via a canal (specifically, from the Gulf of Eilat): The intention is to desaline the waters from the Red Sea and diverting the desalinated water towards Jordan and discharging the brine in the Dead Sea. Proponents justify this by pointing out how the waters in the lake would be replenished and surrounding countries address water and electricity problems. However, this does not consider the impacts (and consequences) on the lake's limnology, geochemistry, and ecology (Gavrieli et al, 2005). For instance, there would be increased evaporation due to the relative dilution- which could also result in blooming; another consequence is the change in composition and the accumulation of sea salts- one outcome of this would be a reduction in the therapeutic qualities.
2. A sustainable method of harvesting the Dead Sea minerals (instead of evaporation)
3. Efficient harvesting of the even-if-minimal rainwater. This would decrease the dependency on Jordan River.
4.  Increasing the flow of water from Jordan River which might be achieved by reducing farming in the region

Any thoughts on what else could be done?
 Radwan A. Al-Weshah (2000). The water balance of the Dead Sea: an integrated approach Hydrological Processes, 14 (1), 145-154 DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1099-1085(200001)14:1
Gertman, I., Hecht, A (2002). The Dead Sea hydrography from 1992 to 2000. Journal of Marine Systems, 35, 3–4, 169–181.
Gavrieli, I, Bein, A., Oren, A. (2005). The Expected Impact of the Peace Conduit Project (The Red Sea – Dead Sea Pipeline) on the Dead Sea. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 10, 1, 3-22,


Image source: Google maps

Friday, 21 September 2012

Country tales: A game of tennis, a newt and a country estate

Living in the English countryside has several disadvantages such as no Starbucks in the vicinity, few buses to the nearest town (which is not really a town, but, shhhh, don’t tell the locals!), no cinema, no book store, no supermarket, etc.  But there are also advantages: miles and miles of beautiful countryside, clear air, less populated, less polluted, and being in close communion with nature, which includes having pheasants stray into your garden, having wild ducklings visit your garden, a glass snake slowly sneaking through the conservatory door, swarms of insects invading your  kitchen when combined harvesters plough through the fields. The countryside can also be brutal- you realise that the innocent and cuddly lambs grazing on the fields are destined for the slaughterhouse and then would be neatly packaged for the shelves in Sainsbury’s or Tescos. You see dead pheasants, foxes, rabbits, pigeons, doves, cats, and badgers on the road – unsuspecting causalities that have strayed into the country roads that have 60 mph speed limit.

A couple of  Saturdays ago, being one of the rare sunny days in the part of Britain where we live, we decided to play tennis in our village tennis court. Now the net is secured in a huge wooden box with a padlock. As we were unfurling the net, we noticed an 8 cm long brightly coloured reptile-like thing. The reason, I say ‘thing’ is because it was immobile and it looked so unreal that at first glance we mistook it for a prank by one of the children. Surely a rubber toy, we thought. A close inspection proved to tell a different story. It was a newt, an amphibian, barely alive, but surely not dead. Somehow the poor creature had made its way to the padlocked net box, which had a crack at the top, and had got entangled inside the net once it was there.

Newt in the plastic bag

We gently transferred the newt to small plastic bag we luckily had with us and sprinkled some water from our water bottle. Within minutes the amphibian became alert. Now the question remained as to where to leave it. A quick pow-wow led us to two options: i. we could just release it on the grass or ii. take it to one of the ponds about 4 km away in one of the country estates where we had seen newts before. We opted for the latter. A quick drive and brisk walk later we came to our destination by which time, the newt was very alert. 

We found the ditch which had a supply of clean water and could also see several newt larvae. As we gently lowered the newt into the surrounding grass, it quickly darted off into the water , swimming off elegantly into the undergrowth. It had finally come home and we left, content, back to our tennis court.

The  permanently waterlogged ditch where the newt was released

The parish Councillor was alerted to the fact. Good thing in the villages is that the Councillors do listen. They take public service far more seriously in small villages. But that is a topic for another day.....

PS- If anyone can identify the species, please comment in the post

Photos: Courtesy Tim Whallett


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