Monthly Archives: January 2020

Electronic Waste: The Death of Your Phone and the Duty to Resuscitate It

E-waste is the fastest-growing element of the world’s domestic waste stream, according to a 2017 report by the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor. Some 50m metric tonnes will be produced annually in 2020 — about 7kg for every person in the world. Just 20 per cent will be collected and recycled.  The rest is undocumented, meaning it likely ends up in landfill, incinerated, traded illegally or processed in a substandard way. That means hazardous substances spilling into the environment, poisoning the ground and people living nearby.

Heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium — commonly found in LCD screens,  refrigerators and air-conditioning units — as well as chemicals such as CFCs and flame retardants  found in plastics can contaminate soil, pollute water and enter the food chain.  Research last year by Basel Action Network, an NGO, linked toxic e-waste shipped from Europe to  contaminated chicken eggs in Agbogbloshie — a Ghanaian scrapyard where 80,000 residents subsist by retrieving metals from electrical waste. Eating just one egg from a hen foraging in the scrapyard would exceed the European Food Safety Authority’s tolerable daily intake for chlorinated dioxins 220-fold.

Some appliances are more likely to be recycled than others. The recycling rate for big appliances, such as fridges and cookers, is about 80 per cent. That is because they are harder to dispose of and eventually get picked up, even when they are dumped by the kerb. Of small appliances, however,  barely one in five makes it to the recycling centre.  Across the world, governments are trying different ways to reduce e-waste and limit the amount that ends up in landfill.

For some time, EU countries have operated a one-for-one take-back system — which means that distributors need to take back, for free, an older version of any equipment they sell you. But since the rapid rise of online retailers, this has been harder to implement

In the end, all e-waste needs to be reduced to core metals. “It’s a bit like a mining activity.” In certain recycling  plants robots have been programmed to dismantle flatscreen TVs, extracting  precious metals such as cobalt or lithium, whose deposits are limited and increasingly valuable.  “One of the hardest things about recycling is that you are not sure how [the manufacturers] made  it.”   Companies are encouraged  to include this information on their devices. It could be a  file with instructions readable by robots that could then proceed with the dismantling, making the process “easier, cheaper and more circular”. However, manufacturers have so far kept a close guard on the design of their products.

Many pressure groups and lawmakers have concluded that improving recycling rates will not be  sufficient to tackle the global e-waste problem. Increasingly, they are advocating for the right to repair. In October 2019, the EU adopted a package of design measures to make household appliances more repairable.  Starting from March 2021, manufacturers selling certain household appliances will have to ensure  that spare parts are available for a number of years after their product has launched; that their  items can be easily disassembled (and so use screws not glue); and that they provide access to  technical information to repair professionals.

The rules cover appliances including refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers and televisions.  But they do not extend to IT equipment such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones.  “The road to a new product is very easy, and the road to a successful repair very difficult,” says  Martine Postma, founder and director of Repair Café International Foundation, which celebrated  its 10th anniversary last year. Since its first repair event in Amsterdam in 2009, the organisation  has grown to nearly 2,000 repair groups in 35 countries around the world.  Now, it wants to collect more data about electronic gadgets, to see if it can plot “weak points” in  design that could help manufacturers make them more repairable.

Excerpts from Aleksandra Wisniewska, What happens to your old laptop? The growing problem of e-waste,, Jan. 10, 2020

Algorithms as Weapons –Tracking,Targeting Nuclear Weapons

New and unproved technologies—this time computer systems capable of performing superhuman tasks using machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI)—threaten to destabilise the global “strategic balance”, by seeming to offer ways to launch a knockout blow against a nuclear-armed adversary, without triggering an all-out war.

A report issued in November by America’s National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a body created by Congress and chaired by Eric Schmidt, a former boss of Google, and Robert Work, who was deputy defence secretary from 2014-17, ponders how AI systems may reshape global balances of power, as dramatically as electricity changed warfare and society in the 19th century. Notably, it focuses on the ability of AI to “find the needle in the haystack”, by spotting patterns and anomalies in vast pools of data…In a military context, it may one day find the stealthiest nuclear-armed submarines, wherever they lurk. The commission is blunt. Nuclear deterrence could be undermined if AI-equipped systems succeed in tracking and targeting previously invulnerable military assets. That in turn could increase incentives for states, in a crisis, to launch a devastating pre-emptive strike. China’s rise as an AI power represents the most complex strategic challenge that America faces, the commission adds, because the two rivals’ tech sectors are so entangled by commercial, academic and investment ties.

Some Chinese officials sound gung-ho about AI as a path to prosperity and development, with few qualms about privacy or lost jobs. Still, other Chinese fret about AI that might put winning a war ahead of global stability, like some game-playing doomsday machine. Chinese officials have studied initiatives such as the “Digital Geneva Convention” drafted by Microsoft, a technology giant. This would require states to forswear cyber-attacks on such critical infrastructure as power grids, hospitals and international financial systems.  AI would make it easier to locate and exploit vulnerabilities in these…

One obstacle is physical. Warheads or missile defences can be counted by weapons inspectors. In contrast, rival powers cannot safely show off their most potent algorithms, or even describe AI capabilities in a verifiable way….Westerners worry especially about so-called “black box” algorithms, powerful systems that generate seemingly accurate results but whose reasoning is a mystery even to their designers.

Excerpts from Chaguan: The Digital Divide, Economist, Jan 18, 2019

When the Fish are Gone: As Bad as it Could Get in the Yangtze River

China imposed a 10-year commercial fishing ban in January 2020  on the Yangtze – the first ever for Asia’s longest river – in a bid to protect its aquatic life.  Facing dwindling fish stocks and declining biodiversity in the 6,300km (3,915-mile) river, the Chinese government decided seasonal moratoriums were not enough. The ban will be applied at 332 conservation sites along the river. It will be extended to cover the main river course and key tributaries by January 1 2021, according to a State Council notice.   Dam-building, pollution, overfishing, river transport and dredging had worsened the situation for the waterway’s aquatic species.  Fishermen using nets with smaller holes and illegal practices such as the use of explosives or electrocution have also contributed to the river’s decline

 President Xi Jinping warned that the Yangtze River had become so depleted that its biodiversity index was as bad as it could get, saying it had reached what could be described as the “no fish” level… Back in 1954, the annual catch from the Yangtze was about 427,000 tonnes, but in recent years it had been less than 100,000 tonnes.
According to an official estimate, about 280,000 fishermen in 10 provinces along the Yangtze River will be affected by the ban. Their 113,000 registered fishing boats will be grounded or destroyed. The government has allocated funds to help those affected find alternative work and provide them with welfare and retraining. To counter illegal fishing, he said river authorities would be equipped with speedboats, drones and video surveillance systems. Fishermen would also be recruited to patrol the river.

Excerpts from China bans fishing in depleted Yangtze River for 10 years to protect aquatic life, South China Morning Post, Jan. 3, 2020

Swept Under the Rug: Radioactive Dust and Brine in the Oil Industry

A salty substance called  “brine,” is  a naturally occurring waste product that gushes out of America’s oil-and-gas wells to the tune of nearly 1 trillion gallons a year, enough to flood Manhattan, almost shin-high, every single day. At most wells, far more brine is produced than oil or gas, as much as 10 times more. Brine collects in tanks, and workers pick it up and haul it off to treatment plants or injection wells, where it’s disposed of by being shot back into the earth

The Earth’s crust is in fact peppered with radioactive elements that concentrate deep underground in oil-and-gas-bearing layers. This radioactivity is often pulled to the surface when oil and gas is extracted — carried largely in the brine…

Radium, typically the most abundant radionuclide in brine, is often measured in picocuries per liter of substance and is so dangerous it’s subject to tight restrictions even at hazardous-waste sites. The most common isotopes are radium-226 and radium-228, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires industrial discharges to remain below 60 for each. Some brine samples registered combined radium levels above 3,500, and one was more than 8,500. “It’s ridiculous that those who haul brine are not being told what’s in their trucks,” says John Stolz, Duquesne’s environmental-center director. “And this stuff is on every corner — it is in neighborhoods. Truckers don’t know they’re being exposed to radioactive waste, nor are they being provided with protective clothing.

“Breathing in this stuff and ingesting it are the worst types of exposure,” Stolz continues. “You are irradiating your tissues from the inside out.” The radioactive particles fired off by radium can be blocked by the skin, but radium readily attaches to dust, making it easy to accidentally inhale or ingest. Once inside the body, its insidious effects accumulate with each exposure. It is known as a “bone seeker” because it can be incorporated into the skeleton and cause bone cancers called sarcomas. It also decays into a series of other radioactive elements, called “daughters.” The first one for radium-226 is radon, a radioactive gas and the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. Radon has also been linked to chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Oil fields across the country — from the Bakken in North Dakota to the Permian in Texas — have been found to produce brine that is highly radioactive. “All oil-field workers,” says Fairlie, “are radiation workers.” But they don’t necessarily know it.

The advent of the fracking boom in the early 2000s expanded the danger, saddling the industry with an even larger tidal wave of waste to dispose of, and creating new exposure risks as drilling moved into people’s backyards. “In the old days, wells weren’t really close to population centers. Now, there is no separation,” says City University of New York public-health expert Elizabeth Geltman. In the eastern U.S. “we are seeing astronomically more wells going up,” she says, “and we can drill closer to populations because regulations allow it.” As of 2016, fracking accounted for more than two-thirds of all new U.S. wells, according to the Energy Information Administration. There are about 1 million active oil-and-gas wells, across 33 states, with some of the biggest growth happening in the most radioactive formation — the Marcellus. …

There is little public awareness of this enormous waste stream, the disposal of which could present dangers at every step — from being transported along America’s highways in unmarked trucks; handled by workers who are often misinformed and underprotected; leaked into waterways; and stored in dumps that are not equipped to contain the toxicity. Brine has even been used in commercial products sold at hardware stores and is spread on local roads as a de-icer

But a set of recent legal cases argues a direct connection to occupational exposure can be made… Pipe cleaners, welders, roughnecks, roustabouts, derrickmen, and truck drivers hauling dirty pipes and sludge all were exposed to radioactivity without their knowledge and suffered a litany of lethal cancers. An analysis program developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined with up to 99 percent certainty that the cancers came from exposure to radioactivity on the job, including inhaling dust and radioactivity accumulated on the workplace floor, known as “groundshine.”

“Almost all materials of interest and use to the petroleum industry contain measurable quantities of radionuclides,” states a never-publicly released 1982 report by the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s principal trade group, passed to Rolling Stone by a former state regulator. Rolling Stone discovered a handful of other industry reports and articles that raised concerns about liability for workers’ health. A 1950 document from Shell Oil warned of a potential connection between radioactive substances and cancer of the “bone and bone marrow.” In a 1991 paper, scientists with Chevron said, “Issues such as risk to workers or the general public…must be addressed.”

“There is no one federal agency that specifically regulates the radioactivity brought to the surface by oil-and-gas development,” an EPA representative says. In fact, thanks to a single exemption the industry received from the EPA in 1980, the streams of waste generated at oil-and-gas wells — all of which could be radioactive and hazardous to humans — are not required to be handled as hazardous waste. In 1988, the EPA assessed the exemption — called the Bentsen and Bevill amendments, part of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act — and claimed that “potential risk to human health and the environment were small,” even though the agency found concerning levels of lead, arsenic, barium, and uranium, and admitted that it did not assess many of the major potential risks. Instead, the report focused on the financial and regulatory burdens, determining that formally labeling the “billions of barrels of waste” as hazardous would “cause a severe economic impact on the industry.”…

There is a perception that because the radioactivity is naturally occurring it’s less harmful (the industry and regulators almost exclusively call oil-and-gas waste NORM — naturally occurring radioactive material, or TENORM for the “technologically enhanced” concentrations of radioactivity that accumulate in equipment like pipes and trucks.”…

In Pennsylvania, regulators revealed in 2012 that for at least six years one hauling company had been dumping brine into abandoned mine shafts. In 2014, Benedict Lupo, owner of a Youngstown, Ohio, company that hauled fracking waste, was sentenced to 28 months in prison for directing his employees to dump tens of thousands of gallons of brine into a storm drain that emptied into a creek that feeds into the Mahoning River. While large bodies of water like lakes and rivers can dilute radium, Penn State researchers have shown that in streams and creeks, radium can build up in sediment to levels that are hundreds of times more radioactive than the limit for topsoil at Superfund sites. Texas-based researcher Zac Hildenbrand has shown that brine also contains volatile organics such as the carcinogen benzene, heavy metals, and toxic levels of salt, while fracked brine contains a host of additional hazardous chemicals. “It is one of the most complex mixtures on the planet,” he says…

“There is nothing to remediate it with,” says Avner Vengosh, a Duke University geochemist. “The high radioactivity in the soil at some of these sites will stay forever.” Radium-226 has a half-life of 1,600 years. The level of uptake into agricultural crops grown in contaminated soil is unknown because it hasn’t been adequately studied.

“Not much research has been done on this,” says Bill Burgos, an environmental engineer at Penn State who co-authored a bombshell 2018 paper in Environmental Science & Technology that examined the health effects of applying oil-field brine to roads. Regulators defend the practice by pointing out that only brine from conventional wells is spread on roads, as opposed to fracked wells. But conventional-well brine can be every bit as radioactive, and Burgos’ paper found it contained not just radium, but cadmium, benzene, and arsenic, all known human carcinogens, along with lead, which can cause kidney and brain damage.

Brine as dust suppressant

Ohio, because of its geology, favorable regulations, and nearness to drilling hot spots in the Marcellus, has become a preferred location for injection wells. Pennsylvania has about a dozen wells; West Virginia has just over 50. Ohio has 225. About 95 percent of brine was disposed of through injection as of 2014. Government scientists have increasingly linked the practice to earthquakes, and the public has become more and more suspicious of the sites. Still, the relentless waste stream means new permits are issued all the time, and the industry is also hauling brine to treatment plants that attempt to remove the toxic and radioactive elements so the liquid can be used to frack new wells.

Excerpts from America’s Radioactive Secret, Rolling Stone Magazine, Jan. 21, 2020

The Global Experiment with Malaria Vaccine Starts in African States

Thirty years in the making, RTS,S, the malaria vaccine, also known by its brand name, Mosquirix, targets Plasmodium falciparum, the most common and most lethal of four malaria parasite species. It is an answer to a dire need. After decades of declining numbers of cases and deaths, the fight against malaria has stalled. Parasites resistant to the most widely used treatment, called artemisinin-based combination therapy, are spreading, while malaria mosquitoes are increasingly resistant to insecticides. And yet the rollout in Malawi and in two other African countries, isn’t quite the breakthrough the field has been waiting for. Mosquirix’s efficacy and durability are mediocre: Four doses offer only 30% protection against severe malaria, for no more than 4 years. Some experts question whether that is worth the cost and effort

The biggest concerns, however, are about the vaccine’s safety. In the largest trial, children who received Mosquirix had a risk of meningitis 10 times higher than those who received a control vaccine. Mosquirix may not have triggered the meningitis cases—there are other possible explanations—but the possible risk worried the global health community so much that, rather than rolling out the vaccine across Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) has decided to set up a pilot in Malawi, Ghana, and Kenya in which the vaccine will be given to hundreds of thousands of children.

The Malaria parasite  is a challenging target for a vaccine. It has a complex life cycle that begins when an infected female mosquito bites a human and spits Plasmodium cells called sporozoites into the bloodstream. They multiply in the liver, emerge as another cell type named merozoites, invade red blood cells, and continue to multiply. The blood cells burst, causing fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, and often anemia. (They also flood the blood with gametocytes—the parasite’s reproductive cells—ready to be picked up by the next mosquito.) Along the way, the parasite frequently changes its surface proteins. That makes it an elusive target for the immune system, and for a vaccine.

Mosquirix, developed in the 1980s by a team in Belgium at SmithKline-RIT, now part of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), stimulates an immune response against a protein that occurs only on the sporozoites’ surface. To bolster the response, the research team fused the vaccine protein with a hepatitis B surface protein and added an adjuvant….

A relative outside, Danish anthropologist and vaccine researcher Peter Aaby of the Bandim Health Project in Guinea-Bissau, offered another argument against introduction. After reanalyzing the data from the biggest trial, Aaby discovered that although the vaccinated children had malaria less often, they did not die less often. Among girls, overall mortality was almost doubled, Aaby told his colleagues at the meeting. “This vaccine is killing girls,” he recalls saying. Whereas WHO expects the vaccine to save one life per 200 children vaccinated, Aaby believes one in 200 will die as a result of it; he predicts “a nightmare.”

Aaby and Christine Stabell Benn, a global health professor at the University of Southern Denmark, have an explanation. The married couple has studied routine vaccinations in Africa for decades and believes vaccines can “train” the immune system in ways that don’t affect just the target disease. Vaccines that contain a living, weakened pathogen—such as the vaccines against measles and tuberculosis—strengthen the immune system generally, Aaby and Stabell Benn say, making recipients better able to fight off other infections. But vaccines that contain a killed pathogen or only bits of it weaken the immune system, their theory goes—especially in girls, because their immune systems seem to respond more strongly to vaccines in general.

Excerpts from Jop de Vrieze, A Shot of Hope, Science Magazine, Nov. 29, 2019, at 1063

Out-of-Fashion: Aggressive Tax Planning

In December 2019, Royal Dutch Shell voluntarily published its revenue, profit, taxes and other business details in each of 98 countries. The disclosure aligns with a drive by the energy company, which often attracts criticism from environmental activists, to present itself as forward-thinking, transparent and socially-minded.  That didn’t stop the information feeding a predictable host of headlines in the U.K., where the company is partly based, that it didn’t pay taxes in the country (because of losses carried forward and tax refunds). In the U.S., Shell accrued $137 million of tax—a rate of 8%.  This kind of detailed reporting is required by tax authorities in about 100 countries including the U.S. since 2017, based on rules agreed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, but it is rarely made public.

Companies that don’t jump may soon be pushed. Economy ministers from European Union countries are considering a proposal that would require all large companies with total revenue of more than €750 million ($834 million) operating in the bloc to publish the information annually. The Global Reporting Initiative, an organization that establishes sustainability standards, recently agreed to include a similar requirement. Greater transparency could also spur reform efforts and reduce incentives for complex tax arrangements. Companies, investors and states all agree that it is best to find a global solution to the problem of aggressive tax planning.

Excerpts from Rochelle Toplensky, Beginning of the End of Tax Secrecy, WSJ, Dec. 20, 2019

The Eco-Villain of the 2020s: Moving

[E]ven “green” transport risks becoming a villain… Transport has been the only sector in which greenhouse-gas emissions have consistently risen both in the U.S. and in the European Union… Road, aviation, waterborne and rail transportation put together now account for eight metric gigatons of carbon-dioxide equivalents, which is 24% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. In the U.S. this figure rises to 34%….To be consistent with the existing Paris Agreement goals, transport emissions need to peak around 2020 and then fall around 70% relative to 2015 levels, estimates by the International Energy Agency show.

In theory, electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles chart a clear path to lower emissions. Even once the costs of making the batteries and generating the electricity that feeds them is taken into account, most estimates suggest that they emit roughly half as much greenhouse gases as a gasoline car. But recent experience proves that consumer tastes can easily sabotage steps toward sustainability: In the U.S., rising demand for pickup trucks has offset any gain from electric vehicles. And faster economic development in emerging nations will inevitably mean higher emissions, even if each vehicle pollutes less.

In China and India, the number of motorized vehicles per person quintupled and tripled, respectively, between 2007 and 2017, according to U.S. Department of Energy data. Catching up with U.S. levels of motorization—which admittedly are very high—both countries would need two billion extra vehicles. Even if 100% of those were electric, they would add more emissions on their own than the total level allowed by the Paris goals.

Greenhouse gases coming from aviation also keep surging despite the fact that planes are becoming increasingly fuel efficient because air traffic growth has surged. Furthermore, while environmental policies have tended to focus on passenger transport, this misses a big chunk of the picture, because almost half of transportation emissions now come from freight.

Adoption of rail, a cleaner alternative, isn’t picking up. Meanwhile ocean freight, which is by far the most efficient form of transport per ton mile, faces a reckoning from new rules that take effect in January 2020 because it relies on the dirtiest fuel to be so economical.

Excerpts from  Jon Sindreu, In the Green Transition, Transportation Is the Next Big Baddie, WSJ, Dec. 23, 2019