Thursday, 31 March 2011

A Mission Statement

We have a very big problem on our hands.

This problem affects every human being on this planet, rich or poor, while damaging the earth's ability to support our existence... This problem has been going on for the last hundred years, and has only intensified recently as the global economic paradigm of never-ending growth has increased resource throughput virtually everywhere in society.

This problem is the mass dumping of toxic and non-biodegradable plastics from worn-out goods and over-packaged consumables in many areas across the globe, though typically forced into poorer regions to keep it out of the sight and smell of our plutocrats.

A landfill in Barclay, Ontario, Canada - Wikimedia Commons

One reason why this affects so many people is that these lightweight plastics often blow away from landfill sites on the winds, and end up floating on the oceans and clogging up the beaches, especially expanded polystyrene, which has the added detriment of slowly breaking down into toxic styrene molecules. These plastics are drawn into channels and different spots on the oceans such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where they are bombarded by the natural corrosive forces of saltwater, solar radiation, wind and waves, producing microscopic particles of plastic in the water that are consumed by plankton, and eventually eaten by fish and birds, taking these toxic pollutants across the globe and up the food chain through a process called bioaccumulation.
The problem is now so bad that industrial pollutants from landfill and other sites of waste, such as plastic particles, PCB, DDT, methylmercury and many others, can be found in every living human on this planet, due to their various abilities to spread around on the oceans, through the food chain, be deposited in soil through animal feces, and enter the groundwater that we drink.

Anyone who saw the best movie so far this year will be aware that the basis of our so-called 'economy' is chiefly to blame for this mess through its inherent drive to create waste and cut corners, and that if the human species is to have a hope of surviving another century, we need to transition into a truly sustainable economic system based on scientific conclusions, derived from the resources that the planet is able to provide and the needs of humanity, as opposed to a mathematical game that distorts all decisions made affecting human lives and the environment.
I won't dwell on this, as anyone trained in mathematics can see that the application of interest on money created through loans can never bring about sustainability on a finite planet.

By far the most common criticism of that movie was the fact that there was no time left for a satisfactory explanation of how we can get through the transition from this system, as the film had already reached epic length at 2h40m.
However, there is one transition solution to many problems, including in part, this one, which anyone seeing the film would have caught a brief glimpse of.

That is the reprap project, an international project to design a low-cost open-source 3D printer, capable of producing most of its own parts, in addition to many things that today generally require expensive industrial machinery and investment in mass production in order to produce at a comparable cost.

Not only is there now a large international community working on improving this system and designing products in the public domain for this and other methods of rapid and additive fabrication, but also many of these 'fabbers' and 'reprappers' are using a bio-degradable polymer called Polylactic Acid (PLA) to make their customised products.

The revolutionary potential of this system is due not only to the fact that building something by adding material rather than cutting it away from a block is extremely materially efficient compared to current industrial manufacture methods, nor that it can produce its own structural joints (and soon, circuit boards), but best of all is the potential for it to gobble up much of the waste plastic that all too often slips through the ineffective attempts at recycling made by so many local councils, especially on this land we call alba.

For a simple case example, take plastic bottle tops:
High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) Milk Bottle - Wikimedia Commons
Polyethylene is an extremely useful plastic, and makes up the majority of the plastic produced in the world today. HDPE is quite stiff and tough, as anyone who has handled these wafer-thin milk bottles will know, and one of its key qualities is being food-safe and waterproof, while having a low melting point that is slightly above the boiling point of water. It can also be produced from distilled sugar cane, and so will still be produceable after the insane oil tycoons use up our planet's huge one-time energy store.

Sadly, the local council that plagues glaschu, along with many others across this land, have installed facilities that up to now will recycle the main part of the bottle, but not the bottle caps. This is quite wasteful, since the bottle caps are the part of the bottle that contain the most plastic in a small space.
It's the same story with PET soft-drink bottles, which have HDPE caps, and also most of the facilities do not recycle polystyrene yoghurt pots or margarine tubs.

This issue, as usual, is a result of lack of investment in intelligent processes, due to the crazy system that we live in. In a sane economy it would never be acceptable to produce such high-volume goods as food for billions of people using packaging that did not have a recycling system prepared for it.
Those who know me would probably have heard my rants before about how it would be far more efficient and environmentally friendly to stick to the tried and tested glass bottle-washing system, which was long used by local dairies on this land until supermarkets came and put them out of business, but I won't go on that tangent today. Suffice to say, the only group I know of who still use that system widely today are Barr drinks, who have a clever business model through which customers are paid for returning their glass Irn Bru bottles. Too little too late.

Anyway, while we have these mounds of wasted plastic, and the ability to grab some of it before it even gets to landfill, we might as well make better use of it. To that end, some students from Delft University of Technology worked on recycling domestic plastics last year, specifically with the main part of milk bottles.

Meanwhile, I only just got hold of some reprap electronics in the last 24 hours after the mendel parts webstore re-opened a week or so ago, with thanks also to nophead in Manchester for getting plastic parts to me at lightning speed, and my final year project report is due in a couple of weeks.

My current plan for the next year will be to work on designing a system to recycle chunkier waste plastic parts, and likely more useful open-source eco-machines, until such time as I can find steady employment that doesn't involve designing things to murder people far away.
Donations are welcome, though I would prefer that they come in the form of any scrap materials and the spare time of fellow reprappers, engineers or designers.

Let's make it happen!

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