Social movements are evolving all the time, and an interesting example I keep coming back to is how new atheists turned into social justice advocates nearly overnight after realizing that fewer religious people did not equal less bigotry. Many of the movements of our day focus on the actions of individuals, such as energy conservation, curbside recycling, reusable bags, and ethical consumerism. Yet it's pretty implausible that members of the public can significantly reduce climate change, pollution, or unfair labor practices on their own. I hope that the next evolution of social movements will start to approach systems, too.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~14% of opens) was artist Richard Ankrom's guerilla freeway sign installation. In the Members' Slack, we've been sharing best practices for maintaining project documentation and for avoiding burnout.
Planning & Strategy.
- Curbside recycling does not work as well as most people think: Recent research by Greenpeace reports that only #1 (water bottles) and #2 (shampoo, laundry detergent containers) plastics are actually recyclable. That is, most American recycling facilities are landfilling all the other types of plastic. Growing public concern about plastic pollution has influenced some state-level bills this year, which vary in tactics. States are targeting recycled content minimums, extended producer responsibility, or plastic bag bans. I'm skeptical of the plastic bag bans, which backfired in California.
- In the 1990s, an independent inventor developed a cost-effective retractable syringe that can prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis by making needle reuse impossible. Becton Dickinson, a multinational medical devices corporation, managed to block the safer retractable syringe from being sold by bribing the hospital Group Purchasing Organizations that dominate the industry. The ensuing legal drama even inspired an indie film, starring Chris Evans. GPO monopolies are still creating problems today; the FDA recently highlighted the role GPOs play in drug shortages. GPOs only buy generic drugs at super low prices, which means that there's less incentive for manufacturers to make them.
- As you may have suspected, carbon offsets suck. An analysis of the Brazilian Amazon showed that carbon offset projects performed nearly sixty times worse than advertised. It's only getting worse - climate change is increasing the dry season, causing trees and plants to die faster, which transforms parts of the Amazon rainforest from a carbon sink into a carbon source. Who's responsible? On the certification side, nonprofits are approving bad carbon offsets. On the supply side, companies that sell carbon offsets are overvaluing their assets by millions of dollars.
Making & Manufacturing.
- An informative discussion on recycled content mandates. Recycled content is easy to measure, but I don't think it's the right metric for gauging reduced environmental impact. It's difficult to recycle materials into equivalent products due to contamination. 48% of plastic collected from homes and recycled domestically is used for plastic lumber or films, applications which don't require the plastic to adhere to a strict specification. Coca-Cola is investing in cleaning post-consumer recyclables to make it easier to maintain high recycled content in their bottles, but I find it hard to believe that putting water and energy into cleaning plastics will be net positive for the environment. I hope I live to see widespread use of packaging made of material that can be transformed back into organic matter, with low carbon emissions.
- A thread explaining how the Dutch firm ASML became the leading company producing machines for semiconductor manufacturing. Only 50 extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) machines are made a year, and they each cost $150 M.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- I live by a "self cleaning" public toilet in San Francisco, and there's always a worker there hosing it down between uses. The toilet hardware is provided by JCDecaux, and is a more expensive and less functional descendant of the pissoir, which kept drunk men from dirtying the streets in 1800s France. Since they signed the deal in 1995, JCDecaux has made a billion dollars of ad revenue off the toilets, while my tax dollars pay for their toilet babysitters. The whole thing smells of corruption, and city officials have since been arrested.
- My dad loves lobster so much that he used to bring them live in his carry on luggage whenever he flew from Toronto to Hong Kong. Recently he told me that global warming actually increased the lobster population by expanding their available breeding area. Unfortunately for him, the temperature has risen too high, and lobsters have been on the decline since 2014. The industry has collapsed in Long Island Sound and Rhode Island, and it's only with careful conservation practices that the Maine lobster industry is still plodding along. (Dad says the key to keeping luggage lobster alive is to give them fake seaweed in the form of wet newspaper.)
Distribution & Logistics.
- Market concentration in shipping is contributing to the exponential rise in freight prices. Over the past 4 years, 20 shipping companies have been reduced to 12, and those companies organized into 3 alliances, which control nearly 90% of the world's transportation. Lack of competition means less incentive to decrease prices and increase shipping capacity, which is directly related to why so many goods are out of stock right now. Biden is trying to do something about it, as part of his Executive Order on Promoting Competition.
- The consumer electric bicycle company Urb-E has shifted to last mile grocery delivery.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- The Lead Exposure Elimination Project (linked in 2021-02-22) has convinced the Malawi Bureau of Standards to start monitoring and enforcing limits on lead content in paint. Lead had been eliminated from paint drying agents, and the Bureau didn't realize it could be in pigment. LEEP has a nice writeup about the speed of progress in Malawi and other learnings from their first year in operation.
- A thorough analysis of who was affected by overnight subway closures in NYC during the height of the pandemic. Spoiler: it was essential workers who work night shifts. While the MTA said it was necessary to shut down so the trains and stations could be cleaned thoroughly, empty trains still ran their regular nightly schedule to get into position for morning rush hour. Ultimately, people think you're cleaning more deeply if you shut everything down to do it.
- In 2013, biotech company Oxitec set out to reduce the mosquito population in Brazil by releasing genetically modified mosquitoes that contained a lethal mutation. Their offspring were expected to die out within a couple generations but instead of dying out, the new mosquitoes mixed with the wild population, making them more robust. Initial results suggest the wild population is more resistant to insecticides and more likely to transmit disease. Still, the desire to reduce mosquito-borne illness is so great that the same Oxitec mosquitoes are being piloted in the Florida Keys.
- I was surprised to learn that we had a quarter million units of public housing in 1978. President Reagan slashed this funding in the 80s, causing a three to fourfold increase in homelessness in many cities during that decade. Now, we have 25,000 units - a tenth of what we had before. Federal funding for homelessness is one third of what it was in the 70s, while expenditures for homeowner subsidies have increased threefold.
Thanks as always to The Prepared’s Members for supporting The Prepared. Thanks also to Barry Lynn for writing Cornered, and to Dad, Jonas, and Cassie for links. Thanks to Members of The Prepared's Slack (Saket, Jeffrey, Victoria, David, Skyler, Florian, Alex, Dave) for the shipping congestion discussion.
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