Deep Thought and Tomato Ketchup

When I was studying Life Cycle Assessment, the standard textbook was “the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to LCA”. The opening pages are the paragraphs from Douglas Adam’s Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which Loonquawl and Phoug receive the Answer to the ‘Great Question Of Life, The Universe and Everything’ from the computer Deep Thought. After 7.5 million years work, the answer is 42. “I checked it very thoroughly,’ said the computer, ‘and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.’

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is really the only game in town when it comes to doing a detailed assessment of the environmental impacts of a product or service. There are regular academic advances in methods and the capacity for improvement and self-correction, as described in academic journals such as The Journal of Cleaner Production and The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. There is also a suite of EN ISO standards governing its use as a technique in more applied settings, so providing the ideal balance of real life application and scientific rigour.

And yet, as Deep Thought illustrates, there is a real risk that LCA experts spend a long time answering meaningless questions. I was reminded of this recently when I saw a journal paper on the environmental impact of tomato ketchup. It’s available here. The authors calculated the climate change impacts of tomato ketchup in both glass and plastic bottles, and found that the CO2e emissions from ketchup consumption by the average Austrian citizen were between 5.66 and 9.16kg CO2e/year. This is a very small number; it’s between 0.07% and 0.11% of an individual’s emissions in Austria.

Deep Thought would not have been impressed.

Other ketchup brands are also available…

But there’s a twist in this tale. When you get to the end of a bottle of tomato ketchup, there are two types of people in the world; those that give up and chuck the bottle without scraping the last bit out, and those that feel guilty about chucking it out so get a spoon out of the drawer and spend some time faffing about. You may even be unfortunate enough to live with one of those people that commit the cardinal sin of starting a new bottle because they can’t be bothered to empty the old one, but still putting the old one back on the shelf. Grrr…

The authors are clearly well aware of the domestic angst caused by ketchup, so they shook, squeezed and swivelled ketchup bottles and left them upside down to see how much was usually left in the container at the end. Bottles were even emptied with a ‘dedicated ketchup spoon’ (whatever that is…). The authors then calculated the impact that the waste of ketchup caused by packaging design had on the overall CO2 emissions. This completely changed the results; for two of the four bottle types, the ketchup wasted had a bigger environmental impact than the ketchup bottle itself.

So it seems that packaging designers don’t care that much about food waste. Convenience, aesthetics and the ability to show food to its best advantage are key to packaging design. And as consumers we’re perhaps not sufficiently annoyed by the waste of a relatively low value product for manufacturers to do anything differently.

But in a more general sense, what do we learn from this? Firstly, despite the scale of problems in the world, there is an astonishing level of pointless micro-detail being studied. It would take a matter of minutes to do a back of an envelope calculation that showed that tomato ketchup is a small part of an individual’s environmental impact, and that an LCA expert’s time would be better spent looking at a more significant problem. Secondly, the assumptions that we make in relation to how different elements of a problem interact can completely change our results. In this case, the impact of the food wasted because of the packaging design was greater than the impact of the packaging itself. The authors go on to point out that they didn’t investigate how the packaging might influence ketchup portion size and discuss the importance of tomato content on viscosity and therefore how much is left in the bottle as waste. The impacts of the dedicated ketchup spoon remain a mystery. There is something truly masochistic about demonstrating how a minor change in assumptions would render your work invalid, and therefore how unapplicable your results are in any wider context. Thirdly, and despite all of the caveats on their assumptions, the answer is expressed with a meaningless level of precision (to the nearest gram of CO2 equivalent emissions per year).  

We have a tendency to believe that if someone has spent a lot of time thinking about a question, the answer is probably both correct and useful. Sadly this is not always the case. I will forever be intrigued by how we decide which problems are worth addressing, and in what level of detail. I liken this to doing a jigsaw. If you are going to spend a long time putting a single piece into a 1000 piece jigsaw, you want to make sure that it’s an important part of the picture, and not just a random bit of sky near the top corner. The trick therefore is to understand enough of the bigger picture to pick the right area of the jigsaw to be working on. Or just wait 7.5 million years and ask Deep Thought.

Postscript: You’ll have gathered that I get really annoyed by pointless LCA studies! And that your choice of ketchup bottle is trivial. But if you want to make change that matters, the things that make the biggest impact in your diet are discussed here. Since some of my friends obsess about plant based milks, I’ve written about those specifically, here. A more general discussion of pro-environmental behaviours is discussed here. There are numerous posts about plastic packaging here, with the most recent summary here.

Refuse, reuse, repair and share – cutting the carbon footprint of stuff

Published in Clean Slate, the membership magazine for the Centre for Alternative Technology. Summer 2020. Reproduced here with minor modifications (hyperlinks etc).

How can we cut emissions from the things we buy? In the second in a two-part series, Judith Thornton compares the effectiveness of different approaches.

In the last article (reproduced here if you missed it), I tried to come to some conclusions regarding the total carbon impact of ‘stuff’. The end point was that the emissions within UK boundaries were around 1.1 tonnes CO2e per person per year across public and private sectors. We should then add to this around 1.5 tonnes CO2e per person to account for the emissions associated with goods imported into the UK. This is at best, a very approximate answer, and it’s also one of the reasons why I have neglected to provide a clear definition of what I mean by ‘stuff’; I have no wish to imply any precision. But it’s a starting point for those of us who have worked to decarbonise the biggest impacts in our lives (generally home heating, transport and diet) and are wondering where to look for other reductions.

Reducing the impact of stuff – have less stuff

Hopefully this solution is obvious. The fewer material possessions we purchase, the less we contribute to the environmental problems that stem from manufacturing stuff. So why is that we find this so difficult to achieve in practice? It’s easy to blame our surroundings; we live in a society where material wealth is valued and is widely held as an aspiration. But psychologists regard the phenomenon as deeper than that; possession is rooted in our sense of self-identity as well as the fact that our conspicuous consumption acts as a signal to others.

Less stuff means less stuff – beware the eco-bling

Marketers are well aware that saying that a product is ‘environmentally friendly’ is a great way of boosting sales. So how can we cut through the greenwash? A couple of simple tips. Firstly, the difference in environmental impact between product A and product B is almost always going to be smaller than the simple act of not having the product at all. I surely can’t be the only one who has far more reusable shopping bags than I need? Secondly, who is it that is telling you that a product is environmentally friendly and whose interests are served by you owning their product? Buying nothing is in most cases a much simpler option than choosing between items of stuff that we didn’t really need.

We certainly need some kind of societal shift to combat the desirability of ownership. We are embedded in a consumer society, in which governments and companies require us to continue buying stuff in order to maintain the system. Our response needs to be partly about possessions per se, but also about replacement rates and turnover. This means that we should act to avoid buying stuff wherever we can, keep items in use rather than replacing them, but we also need to be kind to ourselves and accept that we are at least partly constrained by the systems we are surrounded by.

A subset of eco-bling is products that are supposed to reduce our consumption of other products. Reusable coffee cups are an obvious example (my first ever blog post was about this, here). What’s interesting about these is that they are designed to incentivise you to buy your coffee on the go rather than make it at home. Whereas 10 years ago we’d have had insulated flasks that gave us the freedom to choose when we consumed a hot drink, we are now being duped in to buying reusable cups that limit our options (e.g. they’re not insulated, and the lids aren’t watertight). There certainly are instances where we can buy a product that decreases our environmental impact or use of resources (e.g. rechargeable batteries, low energy household appliances) but it’s probably the exception rather than the rule and is certainly more complicated than simply not buying an object.  

Thermal Mug - Gloss Blue
Insulated travel mugs are far more practical than reusable coffe cups…
Bamboo Coffee Cup - Reusable Bamboo Coffee Cup for Sale | Nisbets
These cups aren’t leak proof and don’t keep your drink warm. So what if it’s made from bamboo if it’s a useless product in the first place?!

Why own when you can share?

If we consider products in terms of what functions or services they give us it can help us re-assess whether we need to own the product or not. We already have formal and informal systems of sharing things that we only use sporadically (the public library being an obvious example), but it is worth assessing whether you can expand on these systems, encourage others to join them or improve their functioning. Technologies such as online booking diaries for facilities, or schemes such as freecycle can help. In a similar vein, repair cafes and reclamation projects are becoming more widespread, in order to keep items in usable condition for longer. On a wider scale, paying for a service rather than a physical asset has been touted as a means by which we could incentivise companies to provide high quality assets, or at least de-risk a decision for the individual; lease models for electric vehicle batteries are a good example of this.

Reducing disposability

A related issue is designing products for longevity and reducing the overall level of disposability of products. The EU is beginning to legislate in the area of planned obsolescence; the phenomenon of companies deliberately producing products that will fail. Whilst this is undoubtedly a good thing, we should bear in mind that everything has an optimum lifespan, and excessive longevity is not necessarily a virtue; there is little point in designing a mobile phone that lasts 20 years, because we could reasonably expect that technological advances would render it defunct over a shorter time period. The same is true of appliances for which we expect energy efficiency to improve; if the energy in use phase of a product life cycle is high compared to the impacts of manufacture, then replacing an old machine with a more efficient or better designed one makes sense. Kettles are a good example of this; 80% of the life cycle impacts of an electric kettle are in the use phase (i.e. boiling the water), and we routinely boil far more water than is needed. Many kettles are poorly designed in this regard, with visual fill indicators that are difficult to see. If this is true of your kettle, either develop a way of filling it by the correct amount (e.g. leaving a mug next to it and filling from that), or buy a new kettle. 

Second hand stuff – better than new, but by how much?

When you do need stuff, buying second hand intuitively seems like a good environmental option. Taken at a simple level, this is undoubtedly true. However, calculating just how much better this is for the environment requires us to know the counterfactual scenario. If we would otherwise buy the same object brand new and the secondhand object was otherwise thrown away then the maths are relatively simple (we have a case of ‘perfect substitution’). However, this assumption is unlikely to ever be true. In many situations, purchasing a second hand object only partially displaces the production of a new one. For example, if you buy a pair of shoes from a second hand shop, does this stop you buying new shoes, or do you simply own more shoes? And what of the person who would have come into the shop an hour later and bought those same second hand shoes, might they now go out and buy new ones? The level of displacement varies hugely between objects of different types. Whilst buying second hand shoes may just result in you owning more shoes, it’s highly likely that if you buy a second hand washing machine it is instead of a new one. As is usually the case, scientists have studied the complexities of this idea, and a method for determining the environmental savings from second hand goods has been developed by WRAP, available here.

used shoes
Does buying shoes you don’t need displace the production of new shoes? (This supplier of second hand shoes from China, Comfeel, are offering 300 tonnes of shoes per month).

Decarbonising production, and beyond…

In a world where catastrophic climate change is our major concern, the decarbonisation of our energy sources is paramount. Consequently at the moment, a very large part of the environmental impact of our stuff relates to the energy required to produce it. But once we live in a society where our energy is supplied from renewables, we will still have a problem, both in terms of the physical resources used to produce our stuff, and the environmental impacts of disposing of it. This is particularly the case with a growing population and increasing affluence; the planet cannot support more rich people. One of the proposed solutions is the Circular Economy. In a Circular Economy, objects are either designed in such a way that their components can be reused in new objects when they reach end of life, or are produced using renewable materials. Whilst the concept makes intuitive sense, it is largely being promoted by companies and institutions invested in selling us stuff, and seems to be descending into innumerate greenwash. I’ve written a blog post on the Circular Economy here.

Physical resource flows – what and how much?

A good way of looking at the environmental impact of our stuff is to consider overall physical resource flows. This goes beyond the idea of completely decarbonised energy systems, and takes into account the physical limits of the planet. The graph below looks at global materials extraction from the environment (i.e. the starting point for resource flows) over time; you can see that our resource demand has increased significantly since 1900.  Clearly, world population has also increased over the same time period, and to account of this, the authors present the data as our ‘metabolic rate’ (tonnes of material extraction per person per year). [Full paper available here].

Global materials extraction from the environment over time. Source: Krausmann, et al. (2009). ‘Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century’. Ecological Economics. Available here.

In this analysis resource flows are divided into four categories: Biomass (edible crops, roughage (animal feeds), wood). Fossil energy (coal, oil, natural gas). Ores and industrial minerals (80% of the mass of this is tailings (the waste material left over after mineral extraction), with the major extractions being iron (95%), and most of the remainder being copper and aluminium). Construction minerals (cement, sand, gravel).

We can see that our per capita use of biomass resources has remained relatively constant. Our use of fossil energy and ores and industrial minerals has gone up a little, but the largest increase has been in per capita use of construction minerals.

Reasons for optimism?

The interesting thing about this analysis is that it suggests that despite a century of industrialisation, rising living standards and increased material goods, resource consumption across three of the four categories has not increased by nearly as much as one might have expected. We do seem to be uncoupling resource use from wellbeing, and the efficiency with which the resources have been used has to an extent kept up with increases in demand.

When we look at the total per capita resource flows since 1900, the big increase is in construction minerals. Since these are relatively easy to reuse and recycle without a deterioration in quality, perhaps we can imagine a future where our extraction of construction minerals (cement, sand and gravel) from the environment goes down.

In the meantime, we are well aware of the impacts of extracting fossil energy carriers from the environment, and are taking active steps to reduce them. The extraction of biomass resources from the environment is also an area in which we have a relatively good understanding of constraints and options and the rate at which we can extract without conflicting with renewability. In the case of ores and industrial minerals, the part that we’re interested in is the metals, which are relatively straightforward to recycle so we can imagine systems in place for this. Does this mean that the problem of resource extraction is solvable?

Perhaps, but not yet…

There are clear limitations with this type of material flow analysis. The tonnage of materials in each category does not relate to the ease with which we can extract them from the environment, our requirements for small quantities of key resources such as precious metals are not well represented, and the analysis is only the supply-side of the equation, it says nothing about the impacts of anything that we return to the environment. Per capita consumption tells us nothing about absolute physical limits, and neither does it help us much when we consider the scope for substituting one type of resource (e.g. fossil) with another (such as biomass), or say anything about equity and who gets to use a resource. 

Final thoughts

The difficulty with the environmental impact of ‘stuff’ is that it is made up of so many individual items that it is difficult to know where to start when trying to reduce its impact in our own lives. It is also the case that most of it is beyond our control; we are not in control of whether or not another country producing manufactured goods is decarbonising its energy system, for example. But in terms of what we definitely can do, the most important thing is to calculate your carbon footprint to determine whether or not ‘stuff’ is a significant part of your impacts. If it is, then you can congratulate yourself; you are in a minority. In terms of what next:

  1. Buy as little as possible.
  2. Avoid owning where you can – share instead
  3. Prolong the life of goods wherever possible – repair and reuse things, or pass them on to other people with those skills
  4. Do not buy ‘eco’ products when you didn’t need a product in the first place  
  5. Buy second hand.  

Postscript: Several posts on this theme are linked to from my Circular Economy page, here.

Sources I’m relying on to understand COVID-19

Research database - North East Computer Center

I’ve been reading journal papers relating to COVID-19 for a couple of months now. The scientific community has gathered pace at an astonishing rate, and there are hundreds of papers a week now being published, trying to understand different bits of the problem. Amongst all this there are positive advances, and I’ve been posting some of this each day in ‘moments of reprieve’ on my facebook feed. But not everyone’s on facebook, so they’re also available from here. For each one I’ve tried to include an intelligible summary for a non-specialist audience, and there is always a link to the journal paper itself.

Most of what I’ve read is unintelligibly geeky unless you’ve got a medical background. But there are a few sources that are coming up regularly that I would say are both reliable and easy to read, so I thought it was worth summarising them in one place, because there’s a lot there that I’m not highlighting in ‘moments of reprieve’.  


The BMJ (British Medical Journal) is one of the world’s most prestigious journals. Their blog/opinion site is here. It’s not peer reviewed science, but it represents what some of the world’s leading clinicians, epidemiologists and allied professionals are thinking about and working on at the moment. My favourite posts so far are How can we safely exit lockdown?, This too shall pass and We can do this. The more specialist COVID resources from BMJ are available here and include guidelines for clinicians, and journal papers. All of this is less readable by a non-specialist audience, but gives a sense of what doctors will be referring to when they have time to read.

The Lancet is another of the world’s leading journals. Their COVID resource centre is here. Unlike the BMJ, their stuff for a less specialist readership isn’t handily separated onto a different site, pieces labelled as a comment/editorial/correspondence might be readable. Those labelled as ‘article’ definitely won’t be! My top read from the Lancet over the last couple of months is on remaking the social contract.

BMJ and Lancet are both UK based but world-renowned. If you want the US perspective, the publishers at the top of the pile are JAMA, NEJM and Annals of Internal Medicine. NEJM don’t publish much for the non-specialist audience. The highlight from JAMA is this article on modelling (and its limitations). Most interesting readable bit from Annals is on lessons from history.

The Nuffield Council for Bioethics produces regular and thoughtful blogs relating to COVID-19 that are designed to be read by non-specialists and broaden the scope beyond medical journals. Stuff that I’ve thought was particularly good is what it means to protect the NHS, Following the Science and Trustworthiness.

Nature, and its family of journals are also publishing a lot on COVID-19. The most readable stuff here is all summarised in their Daily Briefing, which you can sign up to receive as an email. It’s a mixture of links to other relatively easy to read articles published elsewhere, and summaries of otherwise unintelligible journal papers.

The Conversation is a UK based site with articles written by academics specifically aimed at a general audience. It covers all sorts of subjects, but at the moment there is an understandable emphasis on COVID-19 with new articles coming out almost daily. This article on how to model a pandemic is interesting.

If you want to know what some of these mega-brains say when they don’t have the moderating force of editors, then Twitter is obviously a good option. Try Richard Horton (Editor in Chief at the Lancet), Anthony Costello (also Lancet) for starters. David King (former chief science advisor, chair of the independent SAGE group), Allyson Pollock (professor of public health), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (Director General of the WHO) and Elias Mossialos (Prof of Health Policy at LSE) are also worth a browse.

12/5/20: I’ve not finished this list of sources, and I’m aware of its very Western bias! I do intend to update it when I have time.

Moments of reprieve, day 51 onwards

Intro: This is the next block of a series of posts that I am putting up on facebook (originally every day, now less frequent), and have been asked to put up here for wider access. The first block covering days 1-14 is here, days 15-30 are here, days 31-50 are here. They don’t really work as a continuous narrative, so I would encourage a browse. As you’ll twig from the title, I’m picking positives wherever possible. The COVID-19 situation isn’t positive, it’s absolutely dire. But as well as the frontline medical professionals there are a lot of very busy scientists working away on this in the background who I think we should pay tribute to.

Statement of interest: I am not, and never have been, medically qualified. I have an undergraduate degree and PhD in human physiology. This was more than 20 years ago, and since then I’ve worked in other disciplines. Consequently whilst I am comfortable reading the medical literature and distilling it into a few simple sentences, I am not going to comment in any detail on any of the science I’m referring to, and all of the posts will be short. Seeing as my blog posts are usually far too long and geeky, you’ll be glad of this… But I will always state my reference and provide a link. This last bit is important!

Day 69

Back after a bit of a break for a few days. Today, Bruno Latour, interviewed in the Guardian. Latour is a french philosopher who studies how science works. I’ve been hoping to include something from him on COVID-19 for a while because he is super brainy, but a lot of what he writes is too hardcore for me to understand! But this Guardian journalist managed to distill Latour’s thoughts into something readable.

Day 68

No science today, a poem instead. “The Great Realization” by Tom Roberts.

Day 67

Using genetic sequences to track down outbreaks. Some countries are routinely sequencing the COVID-19 genome in every patient diagnosed with the disease. We’ve looked at the GISAID database in a previous post, and at the fact that the differences in the virus genome, whilst small, give us an idea of where new cases have come from. Today’s article looks at this in more detail and discusses how this might be useful as part of contact tracing.

Day 66

Nice article about the visual representations of coronavirus. Lots of pretty pictures. Also, includes a link to an outline that children (and adults) have been colouring in to help visualise the invisible.

Day 65

Vaccine trials in macaques. In this trial, macaques were given 6 different potential COVID-19 vaccines and then deliberately subjected to COVID-19 6 weeks later. Vaccinated animals exhibited strong antibody responses much lower viral loads than controls. The 6 vaccines were based on slightly different elements of the COVID-19 spike protein, which means researchers rapidly get a better understanding of what vaccine designs are most likely to be effective.

Cellular immune response in vaccinated macaques. Figure from paper, available here.

Day 64

The Royal Society has been stuffed full of clever people since 1660. Here’s their president, Venki Ramakrishnan, on Following the Science. ‘Evidence-based decision making should absolutely be a cornerstone of government, especially in a pandemic for which science is of paramount importance to our response. However, we must also recognise both the potential and the limits of science.

Day 63

Phase 1 clinical trials of a COVID-19 vaccine. Today’s paper describes a trial in 108 volunteers in China. Phase 1 trials are where you test something on a small number of people to see if it is dangerous (first rule of medicine, do no harm!). Obviously you’re actually hoping that the intervention is beneficial rather than just not harmful. Side effects of the COVID vaccine were mild to moderate (fever, headaches, muscle pain) and subsided within 48 hours after the vaccine was administered. Immune responses were measured after 14 and 28 days and most volunteers were found to have high levels of antibodies to COVID-19, along with a more generalised immune response. Phase 2 clinical trials are now underway (where the vaccine is administered to more volunteers). A long way to go still; its clearly unethical to test whether the vaccine is effective by subjecting human volunteers to COVID-19 deliberately, and so the lack of circulating virus in Wuhan means that efficacy trials will need to be undertaken elsewhere.

Figure thumbnail gr1
Figure from the paper. Available here.

Day 62

Art by Nathan Wyburn. Made from images of healthcare workers. Available here.

Day 61

Super-spreading events. We’re probably all familiar with the R number – the number of people that a COVID-19 infected individual will go on to infect. If this number is below 1, the virus dies out, if it’s above 1, it will rapidly multiply. BUT, the geekier bit of detail for today’s ‘moment’ is the k number. This is the tendency for cases to cluster around ‘super spreader events’. In diseases that cluster very strongly, most people with the disease don’t go on to infect others, but a very small number of individuals do. This is usually circumstance; perhaps an individual at the stage of the illness where they are shedding large numbers of virus particles, combined with an enclosed space where there’s a lot of surface contact or aerosol generation. Calculating the k value and the understanding the nature of super-spreading events is hugely important; if for example just 10% of interactions lead to 80% of COVID cases, then we can imagine a route out of lockdown where most activities are really pretty safe but a small fraction will need high levels of control and vigilance. Most of the stuff on k number is still in peer review, but there’s a nice clear explanation of it here.

Day 60

Emergency attendance at A&E. A concerning aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is the collateral damage to people’s health amid reports that A&E departments are virtually empty. Hence the recent publicity around emergency services being available as normal for those that need them. The reported reason for calling an ambulance is routinely monitored in the UK, and this analysis from the West Midlands showed no decrease in call outs for suspected heart attacks and strokes (the two conditions for which rapid intervention is most likely to be life-saving) since the start of the pandemic. A&E is still there for properly sick people; don’t stay at home, they won’t tell you off.

Day 59

No geeky science today, just some nice explanatory animations and graphics.

New Zealand pair responsible for some excellent COVID-19 public health messaging. None of this stay alert nonsense. See here for the full collection.

Day 58

Solving protein structures in order to aid drug discovery. Today’s article in Nature is an account of the global collaborative effort of working out what the COVID-19 virus proteins look like. Starting with the gene sequence published on 10th January, the process of producing and visualising a whole host of the viral proteins is described. The first step is to make gene constructs – sequences that encode specific proteins, and insert them into bacteria, which then produce lots of the protein. The protein is then extracted and purified. Next, the 3D structure of the protein is imaged in high resolution, either using crystallography or electron microscopy. This process generally takes a year, but for COVID-19 was rapidly completed for some of the more familiar proteins and those thought to make particularly promising drug targets. Once these 3D images have been produced, the process of working out what drugs mind bind to these proteins and disable them began.

Day 57

A part of the plan that the UK got right. The government has come in for a lot of justified criticism about how they have responded to this pandemic. But nestled amongst the incompetence, the legacy of underfunding and the post-truth communication strategy, there is the odd bit of planning we appear to have got right. After the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009, the NIHR (National Institute of Health Research) funded a portfolio of preparedness projects; the type you’d need if a global influenza outbreak arose. More recently, the NIHR asked these projects to extend their scope to include the possibility of other infectious diseases, not just influenza. These projects were designed, planned, peer reviewed and approved, and were put on standby with a low level of maintenance funding so they could be brought into action quickly if the need arose. That need is now, and 8 of the 9 are now deemed relevant and useful to the COVID-19 pandemic and are up and running. You can read about them here.

Day 56

Impacts of reduced air pollution on mortality in China. Measurable decreases in NOx and PM2.5 have been reported ever since lockdown began, but are actually quite tricky to interpret because of their correlation with meteorological features, and then even harder to relate to mortality. But the short answer is that the number of deaths avoided in China due to lower NOx levels is 8911, and 3214 less due to lower PM2.5 (it’s a bit dodgy to add these numbers together, partly because the same person can’t die twice). The fact that this exceeds China’s estimated mortality from COVID-19 is a shocking testament to how we’ve normalised deaths from air pollution.

Figure thumbnail gr1
Figure from the Lancet article. Check the article (link above) for figure legend.

Day 55

Drug treatments. It takes years to develop a drug against a particular virus, but since there are some common features between different viruses, there are lots of clinical trials underway on existing anti-virals that have been used against SARS, MERS etc. In this phase 2 clinical trial published in the Lancet, a combination of 3 anti-virals was significantly more effective than the common current approach of 2 anti-virals, when used in patients with mild to moderate COVID-19. There were only mild side effects, and the 3 drug combination alleviated symptoms, reduced viral shedding and allowed patients to recover from COVID-19 more quickly than in the control group taking only 2 drugs. Expect to see a steady trickle of new papers emerging on the effectiveness or otherwise of drug treatments over the next few months.

Figure thumbnail gr1
Study protocol, from the Lancet article. See article (link above) for figure legend.

Day 54

Vaccine development. We’ve probably all heard of the idea that vaccines can be based on injecting a weakened version of a virus into the body. Our immune system recognises it as a threat, and develops antibodies to combat it, and these are then ready to deploy against an actual live virus of the same type. We don’t always use weakened/inactivated viruses as the starting point; some vaccines being tested at the moment are based on recreating sections of the spike protein on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. Once we’ve found a vaccine that works (clinical trials normally take years rather than months), the next time consuming bit is to build up the manufacturing system. The way this is done depends on the type of vaccine, but it can involve having to grow huge amounts of the virus in a suitable growth medium (this is often chicken eggs), and then isolate the virus, kill it, and prepare it into the injection formula. This scaling up process is unlikely to take less than 6 months, and is highly dependent on the type of vaccine. It’s also expensive. Despite this, work is already underway to do the necessary scale up of several of the most likely platforms before we know that a particular vaccine works. We know that much of this work will be turn out to be redundant. But we have a choice between creating redundant systems, or 6 months extra in the development cycle. 3 articles to choose from today on the subject: BMJ, NEJM and Nature.

From the article in Nature (link above).

Day 53

In the rush to help, lots of clinical research teams are undertaking clinical trials. As discussed on day 46, they get registered before they start on one of a number of databases. The good ‘ol Lancet are now mining all of these databases so that all COVID-19 trials can be found in the same place. This will help avoid duplication of effort, and encourage collaboration between research teams. Larger trials have more statistical power; they can detect small but important benefits against a background of high variability. Given that we still have such limited evidence of drugs that are effective, doing better clinical trials is imperative. Searchable by country, treatment, study design etc. For those of us with short attention spans, there’s also a predicted end date for each trial; many are rapid assessments, expecting about 400 to be complete within the next couple of months. So please stay at home in the mean time… x

Day 53 – bonus post!

This wasn’t a moment of reprieve, and it’s definitely not positive, but it is the clearest summary I have seen of what might be needed for the UK to leave lockdown.

I know a lot of what I post is impenetrably geeky. This one in the BMJ isn’t, I promise. Step 1: read it. Step 2: stay at home. Love to all. x

Day 52

We now have an independent ‘SAGE’ group. Its meeting is on youtube. It’s over 2.5 hours, but it is good. Dip in for a listen, it doesn’t really matter which bit. The first bit is a modelling expert talking about the need for public and unambiguous quantification of policy decisions; what will happen in particular circumstances, and the important distinction between strategies to control the second wave in a few months time, and the immediate policy decisions that cause a flare up of the current wave of the epidemic. The striking thing about the discussion is the respect that the participants have for each other. It’s also a good illustration of how ‘science’ is not a single discipline and another example of how the government’s ‘following the science’ mantra is a meaningless soundbite.

Also, highly educated academics are just as incompetent as us mere mortals at using zoom. But it reminds us that they’re human?!

Day 51

There’s an understandable fear that healthcare workers are contracting COVID-19, either in their workplaces or the community. If they don’t display symptoms, then there’s also a fear of them spreading the infection. This study at Barts hospital in London is swabbing asymptomatic healthcare workers on a weekly basis. They find that the prevalence of COVID-19 in this group tracks that of the general public in London, and importantly is declining at a similar rate, suggesting that staff are doing an excellent job of maintaining safety standards and are not picking up COVID from patients, despite them still treating high numbers of patients and therefore being exposed to this risk on a daily basis.

Screenshot from the Lancet article.

Moments of reprieve, days 31-50

Intro: What follows is the third block of a series of daily posts that I am putting up on facebook, and have been asked to put up here for wider access. The first block covering days 1-14 is here, and the second covering days 15-30 is here. As you’ll twig from the title, I’m picking positives wherever possible. The COVID-19 situation isn’t positive, it’s absolutely dire. But as well as the frontline medical professionals there are a lot of very busy scientists working away on this in the background who I think we should pay tribute to. Best wishes to everyone at this difficult time.

Statement of interest: I am not, and never have been, medically qualified. I have an undergraduate degree and PhD in human physiology. This was more than 20 years ago, and since then I’ve worked in other disciplines. Consequently whilst I am comfortable reading the medical literature and distilling it into a few simple sentences, I am not going to comment in any detail on any of the science I’m referring to, and all of the posts will be short. Seeing as my blog posts are usually far too long and geeky, you’ll be glad of this… But I will always state my reference and provide a link. This last bit is important!

Day 50

The phrase “following the science” seems to be wheeled out by our shambling idiot of a PM whose main qualifications for running the country are studying greek and being so dishonest he got sacked from his first job as a journalist. But seeing as this is supposed to be a moment of reprieve, here is a helpful analysis of why the phrase “following the science” doesn’t either reflect what is happening or mean much in the first place.

Day 49

Today, bee stings. Bit of a tenous one this, it’s an observational study from China of 121 individuals from an apitherapy clinic, where they had been given progressively increasing doses of bee venom in order to become immune to it, having previously had severe reactions. Anyway, none of them got COVID-19, despite being in relatively high risk situations of exposure. It’s biologically plausible; generalised stimulation of the immune system (innate immunity) is definitely a thing. Animal studies are needed to see if immunity to bee stings confers wider immunity. Immunology is complicated and i never studied much of it. Here’s a picture from an article on apitherapy that reminded me why!

Llun Judith Thornton.
From here. You need to understand a lot more immunology than I do to make sense of this paper…

Day 48

Readable (yes, really, I promise!) editorial in the Lancet on the social contract.

Day 47

NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) is the body that provides guidance to the NHS on good clinical practice, medicine and health promotion. They’re producing a steady stream of guidance notes on COVID-19. One out today is particularly good news; children whose immune systems are compromised aren’t at particular risk of severe COVID-19, and their prognosis isn’t significantly worse than the (usually good) prognosis of children in general.

Day 46

Today, clinical trials. Science can easily suffer from reporting bias; the tendency to report positive results, but not studies with negative findings. Thankfully, this is much less likely to happen in medicine than in days gone by. Avoiding reporting bias is vital, because a trial demonstrating that a drug doesn’t work is just as important as a trial demonstrating success. So before trials can recruit participants, they must be publically registered on a clinical trials register. This makes it much easier to check up on any studies that mysteriously vanish instead of publishing results that might affect a pharmaceutical company share price, and the big journals will refuse to publish trials that weren’t pre-registered. The two biggest public registers are the World Health Organisation one (WHO ICRTP) and a US one called There is so much traffic on the WHO one its search function has been temporarily disabled, but as of today (30th April) there are 1087 COVID-19 trials listed on the American one.

Studies are searchable via a list, or by location. From here.

Day 45

More on models. If you read the link on day 43 you’ll know that the simplest models involve 3 basic categories of people; susceptible, infected, recovered (a SIR model). But to better understand the spread of COVID-19 and how to stop it, it’s useful to divide people into a few more categories. So it’s useful to add data on how many people are infected but undiagnosed, because in the absence of any lockdown conditions, these people might behave differently to those who were infected but displayed symptoms. It’s also useful to add other categories, such as infected and needing hospital treatment. This paper describes the 8 category model the Italians are using to base their decisions on, and will doubtless be being pored over by modelling geeks the world over seeking to refine their own.

Fig. 1
Basic model structure from the paper by Giordano et al. Available here.

Day 44

Lockdowns and flu. In the UK, we’ve been lucky that COVID-19 hit us at the very end of the winter flu season which puts huge pressures on the NHS every year. Our death toll would have been even higher if COVID-19 had hit us a couple of months earlier. But in other countries it was pretty much opposite. This paper from China demonstrates that the COVID-19 interventions massively decreased the transmission of seasonal influenza as well as COVID-19. On the downside, it also means that whatever our short term exit strategy looks like in the UK, it is likely that fairly stringent measures are likely to be required again in the run up to next winter in order to decrease the surge pressure on the NHS.

Day 43

Models again today. Nice clear article on how the Imperial College model (that the UK government is basing its response on) got developed, and what the alternative types of model are. Key to us easing restrictions is models that will give us a reasonable confidence that the pandemic won’t get uncontrollably worse (Reproduction number Ro above 1). The data that get put into these models will ideally be based on the experience of other countries a few weeks ahead of us in the process, in combination with a massive ramping up of our ability to undertake testing and contact tracing. Since neither that data nor the testing/contact tracing are in place yet, it’s still not the time to be planning a party. Nobody likes lockdown, but it’s better than being the guinea pigs for experiments on when to let us all out again. The model itself and lots of related geekery are also available from Imperial’s website.

Day 42

In order to safely ease restrictions, we need our reproduction number (Ro) to get below 1, and to stay there. The reproduction number is how many people you are likely to infect if you yourself have COVID-19. If Ro is less than 1, the virus will disappear. If it’s more than 1, the number of people infected increases (and tighter restrictions will be needed again). One of the key reasons why COVID-19 have reached pandemic scale is that some people experience no symptoms at all. Recognising the significance of this, China began reporting these infections separately from the beginning of April. This is important data to feed into future models of how the virus may spread, and further emphasises the need for widespread testing.

Day 41

Moments of reprieve, day 41. Back to ethics and trust today, this time how it relates to contact tracing apps etc. A readable blog from the Ada Lovelace Institute. “While data can save lives at times of global public health crisis (and is already helping to do so), it can only do this effectively if its use, management and governance, even at times of crisis, is underpinned by clear rules (grounded in law, ethics and human rights) about how best to use data; and trust in institutions to use data well.

The study by John Snow that demonstrated that the Broad Street pump was responsible for a cluster of cholera cases in 1854, and the subsequent removal of the pump handle is one of the earliest and most famous examples of public health interventions based on data in epidemiology

They have also published a fairly long (56 pages) analysis of the potential use of technology during the transition out of lockdown (“Exit through the app store?”). It doesn’t make happy reading, but it does set out the key challenges that need to be overcome in order for technologies such as immunity certificates and contract tracing apps to play a useful role in exiting lockdown. The BMJ’s comments on contact tracing are also interesting, and reveal the level of distrust at the UK government’s strategy on this.

Day 40

I’m mostly steering clear of pre-prints (papers that haven’t yet been through peer review), because I lack the relevant expertise and don’t want to say anything dangerous. But today’s paper is sufficiently neutral that it feels ok. It’s about barcoding. The researchers took 2000 complete gene sequences from those submitted to the COVID database, and looked at how similar they were to each other, a sort of family tree (we looked at this on day 14).  They found that sequences fitted into 5 broad families, which could be described by a barcode of just 10 units. They then tested their barcoding system to look at another 4000 sequences, and found it correctly predicted which family each was in 96% of the time. Since it’s much quicker to barcode than determine the whole sequence, we can use this approach to detect whether new infections are from local transmission or imported cases.  

Day 39

Not a journal paper today, but trust, ethics and moral values. A nice simple blog from the Nuffield Council on bioethics.It is not partisan politics to question or criticise Government policy. It would be reasonable to challenge any Government that asked for trust and failed to show exactly why it was trustworthy… The Government can trust us to make the effort, but it needs to more clearly demonstrate its trustworthiness in telling us why we should make it.

Day 38

Simple enough bit of science today. Yeah, this is actually me being slack because it’s now Thursday… Researchers tested over 1000 staff working for the NHS in Newcastle and then correlated the results with the occupations of those staff. Rates of infection in front line clinical staff were very similar to those in non-patient facing roles, which suggests that PPE is effective (or was a month ago when the data was being collected before the PPE started running out?). The numbers of staff getting COVID over the period of the study also follows the flattening curve, suggesting that they were picking it up in the community like the rest of us, and that lockdown restrictions are decreasing rates of infection in the community.    

Day 37

On why we should be really careful on the ways in which the media (of all political persuasions) are over-interpreting the results of modelling studies. Some really important points in this article (bonus points for anyone that clicks on the link and reads it). Firstly, the point of these models is to estimate the impact of interventions in reducing death and disease. They are NOT designed to give precise estimates of total numbers of deaths. Second point, they are only as good as the data that goes into them and the assumptions made. These will change over time. Thirdly, we shouldn’t try and interpret models beyond their range of applicability; Italy has the oldest population in Europe (median of 45.9, compared to 37 in China), other countries or states have particularly high levels of comorbidities.  “the public reporting of estimates from these models, in scientific journals and especially in the media, must be appropriately circumspect and include key caveats to avoid the misinterpretation that these forecasts represent scientific truth

Day 36

No science today, just a short and straightforward piece from a paediatric intensive care consultant in the BMJ. George Bernard Shaw suggested that, “Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.” At the moment we need all of the aeroplanes and all of the parachutes we can muster. There is no doubt that things are bad. They may yet get worse. But we can do this. We already are.

Day 35

Hopefully people have read the Sunday Times article on what a shit show the UK response to COVID-19 has been. Lots of reasons countries have had different capacities to deal with the pandemic (and on day 31, I highlighted Iceland). One of the most obvious factors is recent direct experience of other epidemics, which will always have a more lasting impact than theoretical preparedness exercises. This is certainly evident in Asia, but today’s journal paper looks at Canada. They were the most affected country outside Asia during the SARS outbreak in 2003. The key lessons learnt were the need for a public health agency (we already have these in the UK), and the need to empty out hospitals in the lead in to the outbreak (which we also did fairly well in the UK) and do a lot of consultations digitally. A key thing they’re doing markedly better than us is testing; Canada are running at 2-3 times the rate of testing per head of population than we are in the UK (data from 19th April, 14.04/1000 in Canada, 5.54/1000 UK, here). Although to be fair, high testing rates are also occurring in many countries without recent epidemic experience.  

From here. Daily updates, and the most comprehensive and well explained source I’ve found. You can download data, graphs, replot data with different countries on, all manner of amazing things!

Day 34

 I’ve mostly been picking positive scientific advances for these daily posts. But it feels right to talk about mental health, and what psychologists have discovered when studying the impacts of quarantine. Most of the studies on the issue have been carried out during previous quarantines, so haven’t always been designed with carefully measured control groups for comparative analysis, and we need to be careful about drawing conclusions. However, common symptoms were exhaustion, detachment from others, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, poor concentration, indecisiveness and deteriorating work performance. Meanwhile, facebook continues to be its usual mix of people leading apparently perfect lives, over-achievers and doomsayers. Turn it off for a few days and see if you feel better. Lots of good resources on managing our mental health available here. Sending virtual hugs. xxx

Day 33

Standing on the shoulders of giants. Today, read about June Almeida, who left school at 16, became an expert in imaging viruses and discovered the first human coronavirus in the 1960s. Her obituary and Wikipedia entry are both very readable.

Day 32

The fact that COVID-19 can survive on smooth surfaces for several days was widely reported in the media a few weeks ago. This paper in the journal ‘Lancet microbe’ extends that piece of work, and also looks at the effectiveness of various disinfectants in killing COVID-19. The data on disinfectants is encouraging; all standard household disinfectants were effective. Full list if you want to read the small print before you buy: bleach (1:99), ethanol (70%), hand soap solution, iodine, chloroxylenol, chlorhexidine, benzalkonium chloride. This list covers the active ingredients of most disinfectants on the market.

Day 31

Some countries have very low rates of COVID-19 infection and there’s a lot of speculation about why this is. Most of the speculation seems to be based on political leanings and fortuitous correlations, and has bog all to do with public health interventions. So today’s journal paper is about Iceland, their public health approach, and the results in terms of numbers of cases. They began targeted testing of people deemed high risk (international travellers) early, and then undertook contact tracing for all the positive cases, followed by quarantining them. Iceland actually started their population screening (to detect general spread) relatively late. The cool thing in the paper is that they have done a lot of gene sequencing which sheds light on which strains they have circulating and whether any more are arising (one person actually had been infected more than once, and had two different strains of the virus!). Iceland does have huge advantages; it’s not a major international transport hub, and they have a high testing capacity relative to population. But they do also seem to be doing a pretty effective job at containing the virus.

Moments of reprieve (days 15 to 30)

Intro: What follows is the second block of a series of daily posts that I am putting up on facebook, and have been asked to put up here for wider access. The first block, covering days 1-14 is here. I’m not going to post each one separately (it would drive my followers mad), but I’ll probably start a new one every week or so to minimise endless scrolling. As you’ll twig from the title, I’m picking positives wherever possible. The COVID-19 situation isn’t positive, it’s absolutely dire. But as well as the frontline medical professionals there are a lot of very busy scientists working away on this in the background who I think we should pay tribute to. Best wishes to everyone at this difficult time.

Statement of interest: I am not, and never have been, medically qualified. I have an undergraduate degree and PhD in human physiology. This was more than 20 years ago, and since then I’ve worked in other disciplines. Consequently whilst I am comfortable reading the medical literature and distilling it into a few simple sentences, I am not going to comment in any detail on any of the science I’m referring to, and all of the posts will be short. Seeing as my blog posts are usually far too long and geeky, you’ll be glad of this… But I will always state my reference and provide a link. This last bit is important!

Moments of reprieve, day 30

Moments of reprieve, day 30. All models are wrong, but some are useful (quote from George Box who was a shit hot statistician). Not a journal paper today, but a very readable article on how to model a pandemic.

Moments of reprieve, day 29

The expected impact of lockdown. Yeah, it’s dull and we would much rather be out and about. Simple images, from the Imperial College group, showing the predicted impact of lockdown on infections (which we don’t in practice know because of our lack of testing capacity) and numbers of deaths (which we know a bit more accurately). Model is proving fairly accurate. So we stay at home until the geeks come up with an exit strategy.

Llun Judith Thornton.
From here.

Moments of reprieve, day 28

Dodgy livers that aren’t. The main clinical features of COVID-19 relate to poor lung function. However, the blood markers that indicate liver dysfunction also look pretty concerning. However, it seems like these are simply a feature of the immune response itself, and that the virus doesn’t have significant impacts on the liver. [This isn’t an advertisement for drinking too much; if you knacker your liver with booze; liver damage will cause you to be immune-suppressed].

Moments of reprieve, day 27

Sorry, I forgot! And now it’s late and I don’t want to read about covid. So here is a romp of otters (yes, that really is the collective noun for otters!) enjoying hanging out with orangutans. (several more cute photos if you click on the link!).

orangutan Ujian strikes up a friendship with a romp of river otters
The orangutan Ujian chats with new buddies, a romp of river otters.
(Image: © Pascale Jones/Pairi Daiza). From here.

Moments of reprieve, day 26

Not feeling like reading about COVID-19 today, so instead, seeing as we are naming hospitals after Florence Nightingale, did you realise that she was an excellent statistician and was using infographics in the 1850’s as a means of convincing army officers with no medical knowledge that living conditions for soldiers were strongly influencing death rates? Readable summary of a truly badass woman here.

Llun Judith Thornton.

Moments of reprieve, day 25

We know that staying at home and reducing social contacts is a good way of reducing the spread of COVID-19. But how good? Some Chinese scientists have looked at mobility data and travel histories and compared the spatial distribution of COVID-19 cases before and during lockdown. The study will doubtless be repeated now lockdown is easing. Understanding movement of people and how it might create hotspots of new COVID-19 cases is key to understanding how to reduce current restrictions in the medium term.

Moments of reprieve, day 24

Taking a break from science today. Great article by Arundhati Roy. “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Moments of reprieve, day 23

Ethics today, on what it means to protect the NHS. An easy read, it’s not a journal paper. Clickbait if you need it: “From an ethical perspective, we must recognise the interdependence of our social relationships. None of us can survive alone. None of us has succeeded alone. We all need each other”

Moments of reprieve, day 22

COSMO (Covid-19 Snapshot Monitoring). Behavioural change is a key component of the response to COVID-19. However, in the face of a perceived lack of consistency, competence, fairness, objectivity, empathy, or sincerity in the response to the crisis, behavioural change is difficult to sustain. In light of this the WHO have come up with a standard protocol on measuring risk perception, preventative behaviours and public trust. Some countries are using this protocol on a weekly basis to gauge the public mood and refine messaging to maximise its impact. If we don’t understand how people respond to the messages they are getting, we can’t plan the next phase of our strategy because we won’t know the likelihood of compliance. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that blame culture is more likely to create problems than solve them.

Moments of reprieve, day 21

Comorbidities that aren’t; how to treat patients with multiple conditions. Clinicians are rapidly assembling lists of other medical conditions that make treatment of patients with COVID-19 more complicated or are likely to result in worse outcomes. These are known as comorbidities. However what we hear less about in the news is the conditions that don’t seem to impact. And there is an increasing list of those too. Amongst the most surprising are asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). People with these conditions seem to be under-represented in deaths from COVID-19. Nobody quite knows why at this stage. [Please stay at home, don’t go out and do a life or death experiment on this].  

Moments of reprieve, day 20

I don’t feel like reading about COVID-19 this weekend, but there is lots of other cool science happening, so today’s nugget is a report of teaching detection dogs to sniff out a disease that affects orange trees. The dogs detect the disease before it produces any visible signs on the foliage, and it is quicker and more economic than laboratory tests. Lots of geeky detail in the link, but there are also nice videos of dogs snuffling around citrus trees and getting super excited when they find an infected one.

Bello, a springer spaniel spotting an infected citrus tree.

Moments of reprieve, day 19

Llamas. Yes, you did read that right. Llamas can suffer from coronaviruses just like we can. This team isolated the antibodies from a llama and unfortunately discovered they weren’t effective against COVID-19. In order to understand why, they worked out the 3D structure of the llama antibodies. In an impressive bit of 3d jigsaw puzzle solving they realised that if they bound together the llama antibody with a human antibody, it would probably bind to COVID-19. They were right. Another potential therapy, and a better understanding of the way in which antibodies can bind to COVID-19.    

Llama lying down.jpg

Moments of reprieve, day 18

Brute force drug targeting. When designing drugs to kill viruses, one approach is to look at all the points of interaction between the virus and human cells, to see where these interactions can be disrupted. This team took the COVID gene sequence, expressed all of the proteins that make up the virus and then worked out what proteins from human cells these viral proteins could potentially bind to. They found over 300 points of interaction. They then trawled the current inventories of drugs in use, to see whether we have existing drugs that can disrupt these interactions between virus proteins and human proteins. Turns out there’s about 70 drugs already in use that meet this criteria. They’re now working on testing these drugs for their activity against COVID-19 directly. It is mindblowing how such a massive bit of work has been undertaken in the timescale. By a team of 80 odd scientists across 30 or so university departments.

Moments of reprieve, day 17

Symptom tracking apps and why they’re useful. In normal times health and symptom tracking apps can be wildly inaccurate, induce anxiety and are a data protection nightmare. But these are not normal times. You’ll probably have seen the COVIDradar symptom checking app. Because we have a woefully low testing capacity in the UK, we have almost no idea of how many people have COVID-19 or have recovered from it. As individuals we need to behave both as if we have it, and don’t want to give it to anyone else, and also as if we haven’t had it, and don’t want to catch it. Anything else is irresponsible. But mass data collection on what types of symptoms people have, the demographics these people are in, geographical hotspots, and the extent to which this later maps on to antibody testing, is going to be crucial information. At the point at which the geeks are deciding when and how to ease movement restrictions and how this relates to testing, this information is going to be invaluable. 1.5 million downloads in 2 days! Read about it in BMJ, download it here.  

Moments of reprieve, day 16

Moments of reprieve, day 16. Avoided deaths. The team at Imperial College (who were behind the model that caused the abrupt change in UK policy) have refined their model to estimate the impact of lockdown measures in various countries in Europe. Taking the number of deaths and the dates at which various levels of intervention (social distancing, banning public events etc) occurred, they have calculated that around 38,000 deaths have been avoided in Italy, and 16,000 in Spain. It is too early to usefully apply the model to calculate avoided UK deaths, because of the time it takes for the slowing of the rate of infection caused by lockdown to translate into fewer deaths. Stay home, stay well. xxx

Moments of reprieve, day 15

Animal models of disease. A feature of medical research that nobody likes talking about is the use of experimental animals. In the case of COVID-19, we are using a back catalogue of drugs designed to treat other viruses, that were extensively tested on animals in the past. Meanwhile, animal models for COVID-19 are being developed. Since we know the protein on the cell surface that the virus binds to, we can look for animals whose cells also have this protein. Macaque monkeys are a potential option, albeit a particularly difficult one ethically. Now it’s been reported that COVID-19 in golden hamsters is very similar to the disease in humans. Hamsters are a well studied animal, and this is probably the least worst option for vaccine and drug development.


Moments of reprieve (days 1-14)

Intro: What follows is a series of daily posts that I am putting up on facebook, and have been asked to put up here for wider access. I’m not going to post each one separately (it would drive my followers mad), but I’ll probably start a new one every week or so to minimise endless scrolling. As you’ll twig from the title, I’m picking positives wherever possible. The COVID-19 situation isn’t positive, it’s absolutely dire. But as well as the frontline medical professionals there are a lot of very busy scientists working away on this in the background who I think we should pay tribute to. Best wishes to everyone at this difficult time.

Statement of interest: I am not, and never have been, medically qualified. I have an undergraduate degree and PhD in human physiology. This was more than 20 years ago, and since then I’ve worked in other disciplines. Consequently whilst I am comfortable reading the medical literature and distilling it into a few simple sentences, I am not going to comment in any detail on any of the science I’m referring to, and all of the posts will be short. Seeing as my blog posts are usually far too long and geeky, you’ll be glad of this… But I will always state my reference and provide a link. This last bit is important!

Moments of reprieve, day 1

Clinical research community are stepping up. There are new journal papers daily, pretty much every journal has waived its usual paywall. In today’s good news (in the Lancet), the virus sequence isn’t mutating significantly, and there doesn’t seem to be a difference in how infectious or severe it is according to the gene sequence. This means that those working on vaccines and treatments are not trying to hit a moving target.

Moments of reprieve, day 2

Drugs take ages to develop. But we know the sequence of COVID. And so it makes some sense to see how similar the sequence is to other retroviruses. It is most similar to SARS. The drugs that get used for SARS target particular parts of the sequence. What this paper published yesterday has done is to identify which bits of the COVID sequence are similar to the bits of the SARS sequence that we already have drugs to target. This means we can test drugs that are already licenced for use in humans (which reduces the risk of side effects). The paper is also suggesting combinations of drugs, because if we can use 2 drugs at the same time that target different bits of the sequence, this is often better.


Moments of reprieve, day 3

Not a specific chunk of science today, because I haven’t had time to sift through it. But, the scientific community is going flat out. 266 journal papers last week, 80 in the first 2 days of this week. All open access. The more these geeks understand and collaborate, the better we will all get through this. Collated here.

Numbers of papers published on COVID each week and collated by NCBI. Image from here.

Moments of reprieve, day 4

Today, its spike proteins. The coronavirus has a spike protein on its surface that it uses to bind to the outside of a cell in the body (its like a docking station). Once it has docked, the virus inserts its RNA into the cell, and that’s when it all goes to shit. Scientists have worked out what this spike protein looks like. They are now testing a vaccine that teaches our bodies to make an antibody that stops this spike protein docking onto the cell surface. A bit more on this, and a fair bit of well explained other stuff about vaccines here.

Moments of reprieve, day 5

I’m not going to summarise this one, it doesn’t need it. If you want click bait, here is the second paragraph: “Having grown up in Northern Ireland during Troubles, worked through a war in Bosnia, lived with a baby under UN Sanctions in Serbia, worked as a clinician during the early days of HIV, and been involved in various outbreak investigations, I have been here before. What I have learned is this…” BMJ opinions, here.

Moments of reprieve, day 6

New word for you today, prehabilitation. In essence, getting even slightly fitter before illness strikes considerably improves your chances and rate of recovery as discussed in the BMJ, here. As does eating healthily. Note, this is a general theory, and it has not undergone trials specifically in relation to COVID (because that would be difficult to justify ethically). So please get your ass off the sofa, do 20 press ups, 20 star jumps and 20 sit ups and then resume scrolling mindless/scary/therapeutic stuff on facebook. Make sure you’re eating proper food. And if you can encourage people in high-risk groups to do appropriate exercise, please do; it’s more important now than ever. Which is why I convinced my 80 year old mum to go for a pootle around on her bike today.

Moments of reprieve, day 7

Today, serological testing and why it will be a game changer. The faster we can confirm/rule out COVID-19 in a person, the quicker we can decide what to do next. The current COVID-19 test relys on multiplying up RNA from the virus particle, using a swab from the nose and a technique called PCR. This takes a while (generally 24 hours) and involves faffing about with labelling samples, sending them to labs, and getting results back. As yet, it cannot be done at the bedside or at a testing station. Serological testing is where you test a blood sample for antibodies that are specific to the virus your interested in. Antibodies are produced by your immune system when it faces a specific threat (in this case COVID-19). They bind to virus particles and stop them binding to anything else. So if you have COVID-19, you will have recognisable antibodies in your bloodstream. Antibody tests that are virtually instantaneous are being trialled for their accuracy and specificity, and will allow testing of potential COVID-19 cases to be faster and at a much wider scale.  New journal papers coming out on this almost every day. A review paper here, and an example of a COVID-19 antibody test being trialled here.

Moments of reprieve, day 8

I write this with an overwhelming sense of relief as we are now effectively in lockdown. This is the most effective way of preventing COVID-19 from spreading, and I feel much less concern for my loved ones because of it. There been a few studies that have used travel data to estimate the likely true outbreak size. At its simplest, you take the number of infections associated with travel from a particular country (e.g. from Italy), combine it with the number of travellers leaving that country, and use it to estimate how many people in that country are infected, compared to the official estimates. In the case of Italy, a study of this type suggested that around 72% of cases were un-reported. The percentage of unreported cases will vary a lot between countries depending on their testing capacity (if you don’t test, you can’t report). But it also chimes with the data coming out of Iceland (who have a very high testing capacity for a relatively small population). Stay at home everyone, let’s try and be nice to each other. Wishing you all the best.

Cover image The Lancet Infectious Diseases

Moments of reprieve, day 9

I’m cheating today; Nature have done a great article on what I posted about on day 7; how the tests work at the moment (PCR) and the promise of serological testing. Meanwhile, over 400 papers published on COVID-19 last week; scientists are working their butts off on this and the collective understanding of how we deal with this shitstorm is improving by the day. Stay at home and read about science my friends. xxx

Moments of reprieve, day 10

Today, convalescent plasma. Antibodies are proteins in your bloodstream that bind to specific pathogens, in this case COVID-19. If your body succesfully fights off COVID-19, it means you have loads of these antibodies that will specifically neutralise this virus. What if we take some blood from a patient who has recovered, separate out the plasma (which has the antibodies in) and give it to someone who is still ill with the disease, to give them the benefit of all those antibodies? It was a moderately successful treatment for Ebola, was used in HIV for a while, and has now been trialled against COVID-19. Needs some tweaking of doses, understanding of safety procedures, and a more detailed trial to come up with recommendations, but it may well be an option in the not too distant future.

Moments of reprieve, day 11

The aim of social distancing is to reduce the rate of infection. This has two effects, it stops people getting covid, and it also improves the prognosis for those that do; the so called flattening the curve’ effect that is an attempt to avoid the health system being overwhelmed. We are in for a long period of social distancing, probably several months. But a key difficulty is what happens afterwards; potentially when we start mixing with people again it causes a second wave of infections. Scientists are therefore looking at what measures we would need to have in place in order to safely ease social distancing restrictions and the impact of timing of these measures. So for example, a high level of testing, sufficient capacity to do contact tracing, and localised quarantining are all measures that are being looked at in models based on the gradual easing of restrictions in Wuhan. The hope is that the capacity to implement these measures will soon exist and can be incorporated into models applicable to the UK. In the mean time, stay at home…

Moments of reprieve, day 12

Today, COVID-19 and pregnancy. Previous coronaviruses (SARS and MERS) were both significantly more dangerous to pregnant women. So far, evidence suggests COVID-19 is not. Neither has transfer of the virus from mother to foetus occurred, as judged by testing of newborn babies.

Moments of reprieve, day 13

Movement tracking and understanding interactions. Getting data on how much people are moving around is useful to understand the amount of contact people have with each other (and therefore the number of interactions that might lead to the virus spreading). This study from Italy uses an app downloaded to people’s phones to study how much movement declined as Italy went through various stages of lockdown. We don’t know anything about the type of people who have downloaded the app, and we certainly can’t expect them to be ‘typical’. But monitoring people’s movements could well provide useful data on when and by how much it is appropriate to ease restrictions in the future. NB The study itself has not been peer reviewed and there isn’t enough detail to know how good it is, but the approach itself is potentially really useful.  

Moments of reprieve, day 14

Today, GISAID. This is a German initiative launched in 2008 that promotes the completely open sharing of gene sequences for viruses so that we can understand their ‘family trees’. This information gets used to track transmission (and so for example it is key data when deciding what strains of flu to vaccinate for each winter). In the case of COVID it’s being used to track transmission routes, and also to analyse how much it’s mutating. Key information in vaccine design and a major cooperative effort.


The quest for a Circular Economy – business as usual but with a bit more recycling?

Wales, my adopted nation, is world-leading at recycling, with 2018-19 figures suggesting 64% of household waste was recycled. This is certainly something to be proud of, and it’s something that the Welsh Government and all Welsh councils have been striving towards for a number of years. However, we need to do better; if we are interested in achieving a circular economy, high tonnages of material going to recycling each year is an indicator of system failure rather than success.

Let that sink in for a moment. Recycling is a sign of failure.

Most people have heard of the waste hierarchy; reduce, reuse, recycle. There are other versions of it, with more R’s (the most I’ve seen being 9 R’s: refuse, rethink, reduce, reuse, repair, refurbish, remanufacture, repurpose, recycle, recover, as discussed here), but in essence, it gives us a priority order for how to manage material. The key thing to note in all these hierarchies is how low a priority recycling is. We should do everything we can not to need to recycle things; if material has got as far as your bin (whether it’s a recycling bin or otherwise), then something is amiss. So whilst Wales has an excellent record for the percentage of household waste that is recycled, the problem we are yet to solve is the total amount of material reaching its end of life in the first place (i.e. our success at higher priorities in the waste hierarchy). And on this, Wales has made no progress; household waste generation is not decreasing, as seen in the figure below.

Local Authority Municipal Waste in Wales. We can see that the total waste generated is not decreasing. Reuse/recycling/composting is creeping up, but the most significant trend is for a decrease in landfill in favour of energy from waste plants. Data from Waste Data Flow, statswales.

The Welsh Government is currently consulting on a strategy entitled “Beyond Recycling. A strategy to make the circular economy in Wales a reality” (available here). But what exactly is a circular economy and how does recycling fit into it?

What do we mean by a circular economy?

A circular economy is…. an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources. Circular systems employ reuse, sharing, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling to create a close-loop system, minimising the use of resource inputs and the creation of waste, pollution and carbon emissions. (from Wikipedia).

As is usually the case, some academics have geeked out over the detail, so there is a very scholarly comparative analysis of 114 definitions here (yes, really!). As the authors point out, the lack of coalescence around a commonly agreed definition may well lead to conceptual deadlock and the devaluing of the concept, but in the mean time, it’s perhaps worth analysing a bit more.

The first thing to bear in mind that a circular economy is a physical impossibility (discussed here). Entropy and dissipation of energy are inevitable, so we are always going to need inputs from the environment to replace any leakage out of the material system. Is it worth striving towards a theoretical construct that we know we can’t reach? Opinions differ on this, but the fact that a Circular Economy is a physical impossibility does at least make it relatively easy to spot people who’ve failed to think about the basics. The related concept of ‘one planet living’ is perhaps a helpful way of thinking about the circular economy, simply by expanding the circle to include the environment. Unless we’re proposing mining space, we have a single planet, and we have to respect physical boundaries and the implications of that. Those implications include availability of physical resources, their rate of replenishment, the fate of any waste products we release into the environment, and the capacity of the environment to deal with them. We need to consider these issues both in terms of absolute quantities, but also with regard to time frames and spatial constraints. In this regard, the expanded version of a circular economy concept is a potential way to take the somewhat intangible aims of ‘sustainable development’ and turn it into something measurable.

The Circular Economy Concept. From here.

Does the concept of zero waste help us?

Alongside the circular economy, another major aspect of government policies in this area, including that of Welsh Government, is ‘zero waste’; the idea that 100% of material reaching end of life should be recycled or recovered in some way. This is ok as a generalised aim, but the law of diminishing returns will apply; we should not strive to recycle the last gram of highly contaminated plastic when we could put it in a landfill site without causing significant environmental cost. As discussed above in relation to one planet living, we also need to recognise that from an environmental perspective, flows out of the material/economic system and into the environment are not necessarily problematic, as long as they don’t exceed planetary boundaries.

The concept of zero waste is helpful in another way though; if we are processing materials in a way in which causes them to become something that is then being regarded as waste, this is a sign that we have a poorly designed product in the first place; it demonstrates a lack of systems thinking. We have to design products with their fate in mind, and in the vast majority of cases, this should be a new product. So whilst we can strive to reduce waste to relatively close to zero, this should be a baseline expectation. The risk of making zero waste a prominent policy aim is that it immediately brings waste management to the forefront, and for the majority of people, the answer to waste is seen to be recycling. Redesigning waste management systems is a MASSIVE distraction from the challenge of redesigning the production system. If we were trying to achieve a circular economy it would be more useful to think about the START of the production chain, and work from there.

How did we get here?

Our obsession with the end of pipe solution that is waste management is longstanding, and is fixed by environmental regulations. These start from worthy aims of trying to prevent environmental pollution, and in many regards, they do a pretty good job of this; developed societies are in most cases managing waste in some shape or form rather than simply discarding everything into the environment (notwithstanding the shameful practice of simply sending our waste overseas for reprocessing). This end of pipe solution is an ideal situation for manufacturing companies; moves towards producer responsibility are painfully slow, and in practice manufacturers have no responsibility for how difficult, dangerous or polluting their products are at the end of life, and whats more they have no incentive to produce less stuff in the first place. The burdens are shouldered by the public sector, who have statutory requirements to dispose of waste safely. And since waste management services are largely contracted out to the private sector, it’s in their interest for the process to be as difficult and expensive as possible.

Business as usual – a bit more recycling and a lot more greenwash

A significant challenge for governments and policy makers interested in the circular economy is the extent to which it is being subverted by companies looking to continue business as usual, with recycling as a thinly veiled distraction. A central tenet of a Circular Economy is that it will be easier to achieve if we consume less; the less material we produce, the easier it would be to meet this production with material that had reached end of life. Selling us less stuff is obviously not a popular idea with companies. Concepts such as designing for longevity, repurposing and reparing objects would also present massive challenges to business models; if you are in the business of making toasters, you are dependent on people needing to buy new ones, so you have no incentive to design for longevity or make spare parts available. A Circular Economy doesn’t sit well with companies (or governments) whose success is predicated on us being obliging consumers. Indeed a circular economy is the very antithesis of the convenience culture we have become addicted to, as discussed here. The result is that a worryingly high proportion of discussions about the Circular Economy within communities of practitioners and policy makers revolve around recycling and waste management. Is this ignorance or deliberate subversion?

What might a (more) Circular Economy look like?

When I was a child, my brother and I had a sack of lego. We endlessly built, modified, disassembled and rebuilt it into all manner of objects. Small amounts of new lego entered the system (e.g. at Christmas or birthdays), and small quantities leaked out of the system (this was a mystery to me as a child, but my guess is they got lost in the vacuum cleaner or washing machine). Some lego pieces we had lots of, other shapes were more prized. We made decisions about how to design our objects to make use of these resources. We recognised the physical limits of the system. When we talk about one planet living, or a circular economy, we are talking about a society that has this sack of lego.  

If we knew that main source of raw materials was objects that had reached the end of a previous life, plus small amounts of materials that could be sustainably extracted from the environment, product designers would need a radical rethink; the pallette of materials becomes much more limited, and the way that they are processed and assembled changes drastically. Objects in use are ‘material banks’; collections of sub-components that are in effect our library for future use. We would establish an inventory of components, together with a means of gauging when they will be re-available for re-assembly into new objects (e.g. when an existing assembly is no longer fit for purpose and needs rebuilding). In practice, the rate of production of new objects would have to plummet; if we see our economy as stocks and flows, there is a considerable time lag in the system in the form of objects that are in the economy (as a stock) and are not being disposed of (as a flow) and this would severely curtail any move towards a Circular Economy.

There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few.

Victor Papenek

The Circular Economy presents a major challenge to our individual psyche as well as to manufacturers. Since the rate of production plummets, we might well ‘own’ far fewer things. We wouldn’t just have local libraries of books, but would have similar hubs for a whole multitude of things that we currently own, whether it is lawnmowers, household tools, clothes, leisure goods and vehicles. Even the objects that we do ‘own’, stop really being ours; we are just temporary custodians of various assemblies of materials, which are full of history of previous lives, and will go on to be looked after by others in the future. Fostering a culture of responsibility to look after objects that don’t really belong to us will require us to break the link between value and ownership.

What does this mean for strategy?

Returning to policy and pragmatism, is the Welsh Government on the right track with this strategy? Based on the document that’s out for consultation, it would seem not. In many ways, the Welsh Government is highly progressive and forward thinking. It’s entirely possible that there is good work going on behind the scenes to develop metrics and policies that would move Wales towards a circular economy, but for a strategy that claims to be going ‘beyond’ recycling, there’s a remarkably big emphasis on recycling. Allowing the end of life treatment of materials to dominate debate is a distraction. As discussed above, the challenge of a circular economy is that it requires us to redesign our entire approach to production and use of objects. We can’t simply drop poor quality recyclate into existing design and manufacturing infrastructures. This is a time sensitive issue; the design life and/or payback period of this infrastructure is often in excess of 20 years, by which time our economy should be approaching net-zero carbon. If we were serious about trying to make our economy more circular, we would not have on the market any products for which we do not have the infrastructure to remanufacture within the system. This isn’t simply designing for disassembly, it’s about ensuring that the infrastructure, labour and distribution systems that would do the disassembly, categorise and refashion components and put them back into the system are all in place. In this regard, ‘human centred design’ goes a long way towards achieving the goals of a circular economy, as discussed by Don Norman here and here.

So what can I do?

In contrast to the difficulties that policy makers have in incentivising circularity, the role of the individual in a circular economy is pretty simple. Buy less stuff. It matters not one bit how many environmental credentials the product you’re buying has if it was something that you didn’t need in the first place. Obviously this is the opposite of what the government and businesses would want us to do, and across the board we see policies designed to fuel a growth in consumption and ownership whilst making us feel good about it. So for example, there’s been a 5-6 fold increase in the number of coffee shops in the UK since the year 2000 and this translates into approximately 5 billion disposable coffee cups. But rather than questioning whether we really need so much coffee on the go, businesses are falling over themselves to sell us the idea of reusable cups and compostable packaging. Meanwhile, there are more televisions and mobile phones than people in the UK. The answer to this? Government statisticians earnestly reporting the amount of energy an appliance or a charging device uses in standby mode.

Whatever you make of the idea of a circular economy, there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine, and the scope for virtuous circles is relatively limited. We are being sold the idea that we can consume our way out of a problem that is caused by consumption. This is a fundamentally stupid idea and we need to stop.

Postscript: I’m trying, not very successfully, to write shorter blog posts. The most coherent and robust approaches to the circular economy are based on Materials Flow Analysis, which I didn’t get round to discussing in this post. It’s a subject I will come back to!

Related posts: The Carbon Footprint of Production, first published in Clean Slate. And a really brief one recycling and climate change – why every little doesn’t help.

The carbon footprint of production, and how much it matters – Part 1

Originally published in Clean Slate in Spring 2020. Clean Slate is the member’s magazine of the Centre for Alternative Technology. Reproduced here with links and a few more references.

Earlier in the year I did some carbon footprint calculations with CAT members and students, and decided to make a basic carbon calculator that people could fill out on paper. It’s relatively simple to get emission factors for domestic fuel use (electricity, gas, wood, oil etc), and for various modes of transport. Dietary emissions are tricky to do accurately, but at a simple level we can make assumptions about vegans compared to meat eaters. For most people, domestic energy, transport and diet are the categories are the ones that have the largest impacts, and they are certainly the categories which we can exert most influence over. If you do one thing today to combat climate change, have a go at the carbon footprint calculation below, and act on the findings.

Notes on the calculation: You can get kWh data for your gas and electricity from your bills. Oil and wood are in litres and tonnes respectively. You can either calculate the emissions for your whole household, or divide your home energy use by the number of occupants. The background assumptions about how diet impacts on carbon emissions could be an article by themselves, as could the factors relating to modes of transport. However a rough calculation is probably better than none at all, and for most of us the largest source of error probably relates to working out distances travelled via various means. A full set of emissions factors is available here if you’d like to adapt the calculation.

At a UK wide scale, Zero Carbon Britain does a detailed job of working out emissions across the major sectors and how to reduce them. But obviously these categories don’t represent our total impact; we have things like consumer goods, business impacts and public services to account for. Typically we use a fixed value for these regardless of individual circumstances, and for the carbon calculator above, I made a simplistic estimate of values to use. But when I did my own carbon footprint, this element was a large chunk of my overall footprint. If this is also the case for you, the obvious thing to do is to focus on doing something else that contributes to combatting climate change – such as political lobbying in order to change our governments and advocacy with friends and family to encourage them to make personal changes. 

However, it did get me thinking about the carbon footprint of these fixed elements, in particular the carbon footprint of physical goods, i.e. our ‘stuff’.

Methods for calculating the carbon emissions of production; top down versus bottom up calculations

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is the most commonly used method for working out total carbon emissions from individual goods and services. We start by defining the object or service, and then we draw a flow diagram of everything that we are going to include, expanding it outwards. But whenever we do a bottom up calculation, we are going to miss out impacts, so the answer is usually lower than it should be. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, it’s difficult to do a complete ‘cradle to grave’ assessment of products, particularly if the lifespan is uncertain, or its disposal is going to be a long time in the future. Accounting for proportions of capital inputs are also difficult (e.g. how much of the total carbon impact of a vehicle comes from the impact of building the factory in which the vehicle was assembled?). How widely we cast the net also makes a difference; when we undertake LCA we draw a system boundary, and ignore environmental impacts of parts of the process that are outside that boundary. It’s also unrealistic to undertake LCA for systems that involve a lot of individual items; for example we wouldn’t want to have to list every physical item purchased by the NHS if we were analysing its impacts.

The alternative approach is to undertake a ‘top down’ calculation. We can take the total impact of a country for example, and divide it by the number of citizens. This gets us round some of the problems described above for bottom up calculations, but other problems arise. The principle issue is that it’s not possible to do calculations for specific objects, just general sectors or geographic regions. This is a feature of the methodology; the usual technique is to use ‘environmentally extended input-output analysis’. In this, tables are constructed of the financial inputs and outputs from each sector of the economy in to and out of every other sector. Carbon emissions from each of these sectors can then be incorporated into the table, and by use of matrix algebra we can calculate the total impacts of goods and services in an economy, and how changes in one sector impact on others. These analyses get done at different scales; global approaches allow us to take the emissions of the entire planet and to see how the flows of goods and services between countries are tied to environmental damage. Within regions and sectors, these analyses allow us to determine the total impact of economic sectors. Whilst most commonly done for carbon emissions, it is also possible to analyse different environmental metrics in the same way (e.g. NOx emissions).

Production of stuff – whose emissions are they?

Lots of our goods are produced in other countries. Are we responsible for these emissions, or are they the responsibility of the country in which they are produced? Hopefully, we would agree that they are our emissions; if I choose to buy a mobile phone, then just because it has been produced in another country, the emissions associated with production are my responsibility. However, this isn’t the way carbon footprints are generally reported, either at individual or country scale. Because of the likelihood of double counting and the complexity of supply chains, the IPCC requires governments to measure and report on territorial emissions; the emissions occurring within our own country. Since the UK is not a manufacturing nation, our carbon footprints are actually rather larger than simply our share of territorial emissions. We can use the technique of environmentally extended input-output analysis (described above) to calculate our total ‘consumption emissions’; these are our territorial emissions plus emissions from imported goods, minus emissions from exported goods.

When we look at consumption emissions at a global scale, we get a geographical perspective of the carbon impact of stuff as shown on the map below.  This map shows the 16 largest flows (in Million tonnes of CO2) across the globe. For the purposes of this analysis, the EU is taken as a whole. The two largest flows across the globe are the consumption emissions of goods produced in China and exported to the US (386 Mt CO2) and the EU (380 Mt CO2). The colour of each individual region on the map is an indicator of its net flows; so we can see that China is the largest exporter, and the EU is the largest overall importer. Numbers from analyses like these can get us a fair approximation of the impact of our imports.
Taken from the Global Carbon Project’s 2019 Global Carbon Budget. Used with permission of the Global Carbon Project under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

So what is the carbon footprint of ‘stuff’?

In my initial footprint calculation I simply took the UK emissions of public and business sectors in the UK (8.1 and 65.9 Mt CO2e respectively) and divided them by the UK population, which gives us around 1.1 tonnes CO2e per person. The emissions data came from the ‘2018 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, provisional figures’ published by BEIS. However, as we’ve seen above, this is just an approximation of territorial emissions and takes no account of imports, it’s also just a reflection of the energy used in these sectors rather than their total impacts.

If we take data from input output analysis described above (Peters et al., 2012) then the consumption emissions for the EU-28 are around 23% higher than territorial emissions. Whilst there will clearly be variation between countries, we can estimate our total per capita emissions to be around 8 tonnes CO2e per person, (around 6.5 tonnes being territorial emissions, and 1.5 tonnes CO2e per person being additional emissions relating to imports).

Another source of data on the impact of production of stuff is a report from the Ellen McArthur Foundation. They estimate that 55% of global carbon emissions are associated with energy production, with the remaining 45% of emissions being attributable to goods. However, they include agriculture, food and land use change within goods, and if we subtract these from the total, we end up with around 22% (11 billion tonnes) of CO2e/year of emissions coming from all non-food goods. If we divide this by the world population, we come out with a figure of 1.4 tonnes CO2e per person. Obviously this masks huge differences; we might expect high income countries to have emissions 4-6 fold higher than low income countries.

Are you confused yet?

If you’ve read this far, you’ll notice that not only are my numbers a bit vague, but I haven’t ever really defined what I mean by ‘stuff’; this has been a deliberate attempt to tackle some of the very messy middle ground between calculation types without getting bogged down in what is included in each calculation. But if we had to come out with an approximate value, we could say that the difference between our consumption emissions and our territorial emissions is a proxy for the carbon footprint of stuff; that is around 1.5 tonnes/person. We could then add our individual share of services (public and business sectors) of around 1.1 tonnes CO2e.

Obviously as our energy systems become decarbonised, the impact of manufacturing stuff will begin to go down, because the factories in which our stuff is produced are using renewable fuels. This could be an argument for buying stuff made in countries with low territorial emissions. But it is probably easier just to buy less stuff!

In the next issue of Clean Slate, we’ll look at practical measures we can take to use less stuff, how to reduce the impact of stuff we do need, and what the future impacts of stuff might be in a more decarbonised future.

June 2020: Part 2 of this article is available here. A related post on the Circular Economy is here. Links to my other blog posts on similar subjects are here.

Plastic and food packaging, the 2020 update

It’s now two years since I first blogged about food waste and packaging. At the time, I didn’t realise that what I said was going to be so controversial. In essence, it was clear to me from reading some of the academic literature that plastic food packaging plays an important role in protecting food from damage and decay, and also that from the perpsective of both climate change and marine ecosystem health, avoiding food waste is more important than avoiding plastic waste. It is also obvious from LCA studies that in most cases, plastic is a much better packaging material than paper, glass or other alternatives. I don’t want to rehash the same points I made back then in detail, but if you’re interested, the series of posts is available from here.

However, a few things have changed over the last couple of years, and my personal thinking on the matter has moved on a bit as well, so it’s an issue I am revisiting, albeit with some trepidation. So what’s improved, and what hasn’t?  

Shift 1 – the Climate Emergency

A combination of Extinction Rebellion, Climate Emergency declarations, the influence of Greta Thunburg and the increased prominence given to zero carbon targets it feels like public attitudes to the environment have shifted, from what seemed depressingly like a myopic focus on plastic and what manufacturers and retailers should be doing about it, to a broader sense of the scale of environmental action needed, and the fact that it’s up to all of us to make changes rather than just government and big business. The myopia and blame shifting is the thing that made me saddest about the plastic debate, so I am really glad that we seem to have moved on from it. Most people I talk to do seem to be aware that plastic is a very small part of a big problem, and so I’m optimistic that we don’t have too much moral balancing occuring as a result of our plastic obsession.  

Shift 2 – China and the fate of plastic waste

The biggest change in the last couple of years has been the after-effects of the Chinese ban on imports of plastic waste. It’s estimated that since 1992, China and Hong Kong between them had imported a total of 72.4% of global waste plastic  but this came to an abrupt halt in 2018 when the Chinese govenrment implemented a de facto ban on importing plastic waste (technically imports are still allowed, but with a 99.5% purity requirement, which effectively amounts to a ban). Malaysia, Pakistan, Vietnam and Indonesia have largely stepped into the role of importing our plastic waste, with huge costs to their local environments (see here). We should also remember that there is no guarantee that the exported material is recycled at all, as reported by the National Audit Office in 2018. In the long term the most likely solution is fewer international plastic waste shipments, and more plastic being incinerated within Europe.

The sheer variety of polymers, compositions and colours of plastics means that mechanical sorting at recycling plants will never be effective, and therefore we have a choice between exporting it to countries where labour is cheap enough for hand sorting to be viable, incinerating plastic more locally, or in the long term fundamentally redesigning waste collection systems. Over the next few years we may also see the recycling of plastics into chemicals (reviewed here). Chemical plastic recycling is shaping up to be a major redefinition of what is regarded as ‘recycling’, and the environmental cost-benefits are yet to be determined. My fear is that it will be used as justification to allow consumption to continue unabated.

Until we get to the point where we co-design plastic products with the collection and management infrastructures required to reuse or recycle them, we are unlikly to see any increase in high quality plastic recycling in the UK. There is relatively little prospect of this happening; capital investment in waste management facilities require them to be operating for at least 10-15 years in order to justify building them in the first place, so without clear and stable policy and regulatory steer we will continue to collect low quality materials at kerbside and struggle to recycle them into plastic of any value. To quote from a recent review into the politics of plastic waste management by Gregson and Crang (2019)

What remains tacit here is the process of economization that underpins the UK’s municipal waste infrastructure. This has converted a statutory public service into a private asset capitalised through unpaid household labour (that in the UK has to be cajoled into sorting waste into even rough categories e.g. landfill, recyclables and (sometimes) organic food waste), least cost collection systems that move that more-or-less sorted material from households and businesses to facilities, which then sort that material, but only sufficiently to produce low grade materials sold into the commodity markets. To turn that infrastructure into a system for producing quality recovered materials will require nothing short of a write-off of existing systems of collection and of capital plant, and their replacement with technologies and labour that treat, rather than merely sort, materials.

Shift 3 – product development

The public clamour that ‘something must be done’ about plastic packaging has resulted in a lot of work being done by manufacturers, under the banner of ‘the Plastic Pact’. An initiative led by WRAP, it is estimated that the businesses signed up to the Pact are responsible for around 80% of the plastic packaging sold in UK supermarkets. The Plastic Pact roadmap sets out challenges and actions and has ambitious targets to be achieved by 2025:

  1. Eliminate problematic or unnecessary single use packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative (reuse) delivery models.
  2. 100% of packaging to be reusable, reyclable or compostable.
  3. 70% of plastic packaging effectively recycled or composted.
  4. 30% recycled content in plastic packaging.

The overall level of ambition is impressive, and if it succeeds it will be a game changer. The extent to which it’s achievable is questionable, particularly with regard to the degree of investment required in collection and treatment infrastructure. It would almost inevitably require systems that turn plastic into chemicals to be classified as recycling. The likelihood of unintended consequences and environmental disbenefits is high, but it’s certainly an initiative to watch.  

Tentative signs of progress? – generation of food waste

One of the persisting myths about food waste is where it occurs. We are quick to blame supermarkets, but when was the last time you went into a supermarket and were happy that they had run out of the product you wanted? This is what you are asking for if you want supermarkets not to waste food; it is consumer demand and it’s variability that drives the need for a slight excess of supply. In practice, supermarkets are exceptionally good at not wasting food; in Europe, around 50% of food waste occurs in the household, with just 5% occuring at the wholesale and retail stage (see the pie chart in a previous blog post). Data from UK supermarkets suggests that their food waste as a percentage of sales is between 0.02% and 1.25%. Impressively low.

So we only have ourselves to blame for food waste (unless we blame supermarkets for exploiting our gullibility and forcing us to buy too much?). There are tentative signs of progress, as reported by WRAP, who coordinate initiatives via the Courtauld Commitments, although they are justifiably cautious as to whether this is a consistent downward trend given the stagnation in levels of household food waste between 2010 and 2017 and the problems inherent in measuring a small change against a backdrop of a highly variable quantity. The WRAP report cites various potential reasons for the decrease, including improved date labelling on packaging, an increased number of Local Authorities collecting food waste separately, and a variety of marketing campaigns. Nevertheless, we are still throwing away our body weight in food over the course of a year, so there is plenty of room for improvement.

2019 saw a new review published on consumption level interventions to reduce food waste. The study emphasises; a) the difficulty of getting good data on the effectiveness of interventions to reduce food waste; b) the risk of unintended consequences such as people avoiding throwing food away by over-eating; c) the number of interventions that are promoted based on very weak evidence, and d) the importance of understanding the social complexities of food waste. On the last point, the paper references a fascinatingly indepth Australian study that illustrates the rich variety of ways in which people use their refrigerators. Nobody sets out to deliberately waste food – instead it is a consequence of habits and practices that we need to understand in order to tackle. We need a LOT more social scientists involved in solving this problem.

Still no progress – recycling is not a licence to consume

You’d be forgiven for thinking that recycling is important; the ubiquitousness of kerbside separation schemes in the UK means that we have tangible reminders on a weekly if not daily basis. However, recycling is quite literally the last thing you should be doing; if your recycling bin is full, you should be buying less stuff, not giving yourself a pat on the back for being good about separating your waste! The reality, particularly with post-consumer plastic waste, is that the recyclate is virtually always turned into a lower grade product, or one that it then not recycled at the end of it’s life, so we are merely delaying the inevitable. It should be obvious that the difference between product A (made of virgin material) and product B (made of recycled material) is ALWAYS going to be much smaller than assessing whether or not you truly needed the product in the first place. This seems particularly true of products made from recycled material, which are often eco-bling. ‘Made from recycled material’ is simply another marketing ploy, but the waste hierarchy of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ remains a difficult idea to sell when we are so embedded in a society based on ever increasing consumption of stuff.  I’m not saying don’t recycle, simply that we should be mindful of how minor a part of the solution it is. The best way of wielding power in this regard is simply to buy less stuff. 

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Eco-bricks (plastic bottles stuffed with waste plastic). I know objects made from eco-bricks are meant to be fun and educational rather than necessarily functional, but that’s a commonly used last-ditch argument made when the maths doesn’t stack up.

Still no progress, or getting worse – purchases of plastic

Perhaps the most depressing thing that’s emerged over that last two years is that despite the public clamour that ‘something must be done’, we are actually buying more plastic than we used to. A 2019 survey of UK supermarkets by EIA and Greenpeace indicated that supermarket sales of plastic have actually gone up rather than down. It would be easy to blame this on manufacturers and retailers for not giving us plastic free options, but there are more persistent problems. The much lauded 5p plastic bag tax has indeed led to a reduction in so-called ‘single use’ carrier bags, but our purchase of the heavier duty ‘bags for life’ has sky rocketed; sales of these in 2018 amounted to 54 per household. It seems as if the simple practicalities of sturdier bags with more comfortable handles and the fact that they’re still relatively cheap, means that  we’ve not yet managed the behavioural shift of remembering to take bags to the supermarket.  

Two years of progress?

So where does this leave us? The plastic debate certainly seems more nuanced than it was in 2018, and there seem to be more people aware that alternatives to plastic are not necessarily better. But to me, plastic packaging is better seen as a symptom of something more problematic rather than a cause of problems in itself. We cannot simultaneously expect food to be grown or produced to a high standard and then complain that it is in protective packaging in order to get it to us. If you want unpackaged fruit and veg, grow your own and take the accompanying reality check; you will quickly work out the limits of seasons and just how difficult it is to ensure continuous supply. Our failure to take simple actions to reduce food waste in the home, and to take reusable bags to the supermarket remain depressing. On the other hand, initiatives such as the Coultaurd Commitment and the Plastics Pact give reasons for optimism. I would love to believe that in a few years time we won’t be talking about plastic any more.