Last month we talked about the possibilities of switching heavy industry to greener production methods to reduce the levels of pollution. These are plentiful if the taxes being levied on them would just be reinvested in the technology instead of syphoned off into other irrelevant sustenance. For example, disposing of steel products from motorcars to pallet trucks carry double their weight in CO2 emissions. So every time you dump steel products, you also dump a whole pile of chemicals used in the process. This includes oils, paints and other materials used to treat the surfaces and all the transportation involved. The implication here is the longer it lasts the smaller the production resource and so the cleaner and more reduced the chemical and carbon footprint becomes.

So this month as we try to mercilessly destroy the pests and productivity disrupters in nature, we will look at the industry behind it and what drives it.

How We Manage Natural Resource

We all know that set-aside is there as a counterproductive measure to overproducing for example. So instead of paying farmers to maintain what we know accounts for around 90% of the world’s animal life, why can’t we rearrange ourselves and return our unused lands to nature. We have good food baskets in this country and we also have great recreational, sport and wildlife areas. There is great debate as to how we manage it and the threat of fire, disease and pollution is not just a risk. It’s happening and with the ever-increasing frequency. In a country where deer roamed free and salmon was plentiful, today we struggle to manage wild populations, open heath and moorland. Television presenters now wield more influence than those who are tasked with the job and are rarely consulted prior to sweeping life-altering actions taken at a high level with little thought to the outcome.

So suddenly we have 30,000 chemicals out there, for which there is little control. Whilst we struggle with fly tipping and water contamination, a lark population is at risk because as usual we fire from the hip with a fraction of the information required to make reliable decisions.

The Paradox of Chemicals

The problem with all this is displacement. The agricultural policy does not encourage farmers to pollute the environment with pesticides and herbicides, quite the opposite in fact. However, it is time-controlled and money is linked to this time. So a beginning and an end are defined for the purposes of subsidies. For that matter so is our environment.  There are literally tens of thousands of chemicals at large in our world today.

With a mere fraction, perhaps less than 4,000 of these are properly mapped, controlled and regulated. Few if any of the rest have been researched with a view to how they can affect the environment. Yet chemical engineering is a £4+bn a year industry employing over 15,000 people and exports around half of its production.

Browse Lab Equipment

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Four million people in the UK are unable to achieve the minimum guidelines required for a healthy lifestyle. This is alarming. The medical industry and food banks have sprung up everywhere, all largely since the last 2008 depression. We had been successfully recovering from it until 2 years ago that is. Meantime farmers who clearly have four million borderline starving people to feed are being paid to leave productive ground derelict as the government subsidies poverty and apparently not very well either.

We Can’t Implement Change Fast Enough

Years ago, I worked with an engineer who was a specialist in dissolved air floatation and flocculates. For those who don’t know what that is, it involves taking process waters from manufacturing industries and cleaning them up before discharging them into rivers. By doing this we hoped to keep the fish the right way up. As far as I know, a well-known yoghurt producer still has brown trout in his out-feed as proof of it working!

My boss used to say, ‘if you don’t want to have to take it out, then don’t put it in there in the first place’. This simple logic is very effective, but only if you design it like that, to begin with. The problem is how you stop production whilst making the changes. For us, engineers, it’s easy – you just do it. However, the knock-on effect with customers, suppliers and the accounts office who have to pay the wages while the factory is in pieces is not always so well received. Thus, the pace of change is desperately slow and challenging.

We can design systems that eradicate pollution, but just as heavy industry was not required or was, in fact, able to produce cleanly back in the 1850s today the past catches up with us. Our ability to control our own ingenuity is outpaced by the lack of research and investment into the results of unmonitored deployment.

All around us, there is business within business. In the 1960s the market for mobile phones was right where it is today, just nobody was aware of it.  Nokia was started by a mining engineer 150 years ago. Its destiny in mobile phones is yet to be fulfilled. Hindsight is very easy to see, perhaps if we look over the stern more often it will be more obvious where the ship is headed. 

Engineering exists to feed the world, keep it clean and protect the environment. The money is always there for a good idea as both Nokia and Apple will tell you.

Written by the Material Handling Hub Correspondent Paul Casebourne

Cover Image © Michael Bourgault