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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT

I think to truly understand the programmer's axiom, “garbage in, garbage out”, you have to go back before computers, back to 1933, when two British chemists, Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett, were trying to do two things at the same time - get rich inventing a substitute for rubber, and avoid blowing up their lab. See, natural rubber comes from Pará rubber trees grown in hot , humid places like Malaysia, Vietnam and Burma, which are also places that grow malaria infested mosquitoes, and which tended to be politically unstable. Lots of chemists were looking to make a molecule that would act like rubber but avoid the bugs and the angry locals. But it was dangerous and expensive work
Dangerous because Gibson and Fawcett were working with a hydrocarbon, meaning it contained combinations of carbon and hydrogen atoms. The hydrogen makes all hydrocarbons flammable, and this particular one, ethylene, or C2H4, and made from either alcohol or petroleum, is more flammable than most. But Gibson and Fawcett figured if they heated the ethylene in a pressure cooker, that would break the bonds binding the ethylene atoms together, and when they cooled they would recombine in a way that would imitate rubber. Most of the time, the experiments ended with an explosion, which is why it was expensive. But in 1933, somehow they avoided the boom and got, instead, what looked like a lump of coffee colored sugar. So they tried it again, and this time got nothing – no explosion and no “lump”. Now they were confused.. They wanted to try it a third time, but the Imperial Chemical Company, which employed them, decided it was too expensive, and even if it did work, it would never show a profit until long after the current executives had retired. So they told Gibson and Fawcett to move on.
Well, Fawcett figured he was being cheated out of a Nobel Prize, and in 1935, this ambitious, bitter chemist started telling anybody who would listen what he and Gibson had done. Two other ICC chemists, Michael Perrin and John Paton, decided to duplicate the experiment, and got the same lump. But in checking their data, Perin and Paton discovered their pressure cooker had leaked, which is what must have happened to Fawcett and Gibson. When they fixed the leak, Perrin and Paton got no “lump”. So, figuring the missing element was the oxygen in the air that had leaked in, they added a drop of almond oil, or benzaldehyde, which has seven carbon atoms, six hydrogen atoms and a single oxygen atom. They heated up the ethylene and benzalheyde in the pressure cooker and they got the “lump”. They could now make artificial rubber anytime they wanted. They called their artificial rubber polyethylene, or PE for short.
Now, PE is better than rubber because it is a thermoplastic polymer, meaning it is a chain of chemically stable molecules, each exactly like the others, like rubber, but when PE is re-heated under normal pressure, it can be easily injected or extruded into molds. The first idea ICC had was to use PE to insulate underwater telegraph cables. They had been using the sap drained from Gutta-percha trees, native to northern Australia and many of the same unpleasant places (for Englishmen) that rubber came from. Now they had a way to avoid those places. So they built a plant on Wallerscote Island in the middle of the Weaver River, just upstream from the Liverpool docks. They planned to produce 100 tons of PE a year. But on the day the Wallerstcote plant opened, September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, setting off World War Two.
Britain won the Second World War, but they went $50 billion in debt doing it – the equivalent of $500 billion today. To repay that debt British corporations held industrial yard sales, including selling the formula for polyethylene (above) to the American company Dow Chemical. And this is where Harry Wasylyk comes into our story. He was born on the Canadian prairies of Manitoba to Ukrainian immigrants, and was just as ambitious as Eric Fawcettt. After the war Harry was living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and he knew the Winnipeg General Hospital was facing a big problem. Their admissions had increased by 50% in the previous ten years, and the post war baby boom was promising even bigger growth in the near future. What were they going to do with their swelling medical wastes?. It was an increasingly important question, and an old one.
It is an evolutionary artifact that before humans came down from the trees, our thinking was strictly “out of sight out of mind”. Thanks to gravity, anything we dropped, from our hands or our butts, magically disappeared. And we have often suffered from this elevated view. In 1887, when the Prefect of Paris tried to require all citizens to use “sanitary” metal garbage cans, libertarian landlords justified blocking the measure not because of the expense, but - so they said - because their “right” to throw garbage in the street was being infringed. The argument that living surrounded by garbage was unhealthy did not impress this early Tea Party logic. As John Ralston Saul pointed out in his 1993 book “Voltair's Bastards”, “The free market opposed sanitation. The rich opposed it...That is why it took a century to finish what could have been done in ten years” In short, public hygiene remained stubbornly “out of sight”.
Six years after Parisians had rejected metal garbage cans, the Boston Sanitary Commission reported, “The means resorted to by a large number of citizens to get rid of their garbage and avoid paying for its collection would be very amusing were it not such a menace to public health. Some burn it, while others wrap it up in paper and carry it on their way to work and drop it when unobserved, or throw it into vacant lots or into the river.” About the same time a visitor described New York City as a “nasal disaster, where some streets smell like bad eggs dissolved in ammonia.” City dumps were established to allow rag and bone men to simplify their jobs, and usually next to pig farms (below), as 75 pigs were able to dispose of a ton of garbage a day. None of this, of course, solved the problem of disease spreading flies, cockroaches, and mammals, all drawn to the aroma of rotting garbage produced by an average human household.
Only because of high insurance rates were the thousands of small smokey fires in the ubiquitous backyard trash incinerators, finally extinguished And as living space in cites shrank, so did room for compost kitchen waste. By the middle of the twentieth century, in most of the first world, trash and garbage were now lumped together and left at the curb to be removed by the modern day rag and bone men - now called garbage men. Anyone who thought about public health, like the directors of the Winnipeg General Hospital, expected the post World War II population boom would lead to an explosion of plagues, brought on by garbage spilling out on the streets.
And that was where Harry Wasylyk came in. In 1949, in his Winnipeg kitchen, Harry melted pellets of polyethylene. He chose PE because it was cheap, available in large quantities, easy to work with, water proof and air tight. He squeezed it between rollers into thin twin sheets, cut and sealed it into bags, and in a stroke produced the world's first plastic garbage bag. The directors of Winnipeg General saw it as the hygienic solution to their growing waste problem, and made garbage easy and safer to handle. The hospital eagerly signed a contract. By 1951 Henry Wasylyk had leased a warehouse, installed equipment, and was mass producing garbage bags for Winnipeg General, and a few other local industrial customers.
At about the same time, the Union Carbide PE plant in Montreal, Quebec, had a back log of pellets.
Larry Hanson, at the UC facility in Lindsay, Ontario, about 60 northwest of Toronto, was assigned to find something profitable to do with them. He quickly hit upon the same idea of making garbage bags, and they proved so popular with the janitorial staff, that management adopted the idea. Doing patent research Dow found out about Harry a thousand miles to the west, in far off Manitoba, and decided to buy his factory and his process. In the end, the patent for the plastic garbage bag is held jointly by two Canadians, Harry and Larry.
Every year humans produce 4 to 5 trillion polyethylene bags, mostly the flimsy supermarket shopping bags. And every year those discarded bags kill a billion seabirds, reptiles and sea mammals, making them one of the most deadly materials in the 4 billion year history of our planet. Less than 1% of 380 billion PE bags discarded each year in the United States are properly recycled. The obvious answer would be to ban the production of all PE bags. But, of course no problem is that simple
According to a 2011 study by the British Environmental Protection agency, the average cotton tote bag has a life span of 52 trips to and from the supermarket, and replaces less than 2% of the “fresh water aquatic ecotoxicity” of 350 PE bags. And PE bags themselves make up less than 1% of American landfills. What fills the landfills, is what's in the bags. Concern about the environmental impact of plastic garbage bags is a case of not being able to see the garbage for the garbage bags. They solved a problem, but not THE problem. As Beth Terry writes in her “My Plastic Free Life” web page ““The fact is, there is no magically perfect way to dispose of garbage since the whole concept of garbage itself is not Eco-friendly. The best option is to try and reduce the amount of waste we generate in the first place.”
Less garbage, fewer garbage bags. But the constant remains – garbage
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