Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Plastic bag ban is a bad idea

San Francisco has been threatening to ban plastic grocery bags for quite some time. Last year the city entertained the idea of a $0.16 per bag tax on plastic grocery bags. Fortunately this was defeated in council. Now it appears that they may have finally succeeded in their attack on plastic. Today the city leaders passed an ordinance that bans plastic grocery bags, requiring stores to provide either paper bags, compostable bags or cloth bags.

San Francisco supervisors and supporters said that by banning the petroleum-based sacks, blamed for littering streets and choking marine life, the measure would go a long way toward helping the city earn its green stripes.

"Hopefully, other cities and states will follow suit," said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who crafted the ban after trying to get a 15-cent per bag tax passed in 2005.

The mayor is expected to sign the bill into law.

This is a bad idea for the following reasons:
  1. Litter is a behavioral problem. Switching to paper bags will not reduce litter. Paper bags thrown on the ground do not magically disappear.
  2. Paper bags do not degrade in a land-fill. Nothing degrades in a landfill. One of the arguments against plastic bags is that they do not degrade and we are disposing of tons of waste every day. In the late 1980's and early 90's, Dr. William Rathje, a "garbologist from the University of Arizona, found that buried waste degrades so slowly that old food and newspapers were recognizable after 10 years in a landfill.
  3. Plastic bags are recyclable. The San Francisco supervisors would have better spent their efforts establishing and promoting the collection and market for recycled plastic products.
  4. Paper bags actually create more pollution during their manufacture than plastic bags do. The Kraft paper manufacturing process is a dirty process that relies on some rather noxious chemicals. Ask anyone who lives downwind of a paper mill about the constant putrid smell. Plastic bags are made from polyethylene. Polyethylene, by contrast, is produced with a clean process in which ethylene gas is reacted in a pressurized reactor. The ethylene reaction requires very pure reaction components. So the reactors are sealed very tightly thereby eliminating practically all emissions. The polymer, once produced is fabricated into a film in a process that again emits essentially no emissions.
  5. Plastic products is one of the few industries where the US maintains a trade surplus. A Houston radio host discussing this issue tonight had a caller who claimed that the plastic bags are produced with low wage labor in China and tariffs should be applied. The fact is that plastic products are produced in the USA. Tooling and machinery are finding their way to China but we still have the lead with finished plastic goods.
  6. Paper bags cost around 0.8 cents per bag while plastic bags cost less than 0.2 cpb. This ban will automatically cause prices to rise.
  7. The current compostable products, primarily made from PLA (poly lactic acid), are very new and are promising. These products, though are very expensive with a cost per bag as high as 8 cents per bag for large size garbage bags. As this technology is scaled up and expanded, a new, cost effective solution will develop. This must be the result of normal market forces NOT legislation.
Laws such as this will succeed only in stifling growth and doing more damage to the environment.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Today is the Vernal Equinox

Happy New Year!

No I'm not off by a few months. I've always thought that ancient humans missed the boat when they designated the first day of the year to be in the middle of winter.

Of course the idea was that the Winter Solstice marks the time of the year when the sunlight returns in the Northern Hemisphere, quite literally north of the Arctic Circle. From that day onward, the days get longer and longer.

But today is the Vernal Equinox. The day when day and night are equal. The symbolic return of life. Spring brings the buds of trees and flowers, the green grass, the warm days and cool nights. I always thought that the Vernal Equinox, the symbolic return of life was a more fitting day to mark the start of a new year.

For many cultures throughout history, people got ready to start tilling the fields. Ancient peoples may not have understood orbital mechanics, but they were tireless observers of the Sun, stars and planets and noted with enviable precision how the position of the sunrise shifted on the horizon throughout the year. By tracking solar motions, they kept track of time and could estimate with some security when the last frost had passed and it was safe to plant crops.

“It seems wonderfully appropriate that you would anchor the timing of your planting season directly to the source of it,” said Dr. Paul Doherty, a physicist and senior staff scientist at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco.

Many cultures throughout ancient times made close and very accurate observations of the movement of the Sun and stars.
Archaeological evidence abounds that astronomy is among the oldest of professions, and that people attended with particular zeal to the equinoxes and the solstices. The Great Sphinx of Egypt, for example, built some 4,500 years ago, is positioned to face toward the rising sun on the vernal equinox.

In the 1,500-year-old Mayan city of Chichén Itzá, in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, the magnificent Kukulcán Pyramid practically slithers to life each spring equinox evening, as the waning sun casts a shadow along its steps of seven perfectly symmetrical isosceles triangles, a pattern suggesting the diamondback skin of a snake.

In the West, the equinox is intimately fastened to the holiest of Christian holidays: Easter is timed to occur the first Sunday after the first full moon that follows the vernal equinox. “One of the main motivations for having astronomers working at the Vatican,” Dr. Hawkins said, “is that they wanted to know the precise date for Easter each year.”
So ... Welcome to Spring 2007. We've traveled a long distance in one year. A full trip around the Sun at ~67,000 MPH as we ride off into the sunset once again.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Science Fair Innovation

Seventeen year-old Science Marvel

Mary Masterman developed a new inexpensive Raman system and spectrograph. Spectrographs can cost as much as $100,000 yet Mary built her's for around $300 from household parts and has proven the concept. Besides science achievements, she is talented in music and is studying several different languages.

We always hear the negatives about our teenagers and how American youths score lower than their counterparts around the world. Well this young lady is certainly a cut above.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The pleasure of finding things out - RP Feynman

Excellent short 40 min documentary interview with Dr. RP Feynman- one of the greatest physicist of our times and a Nobel Laureate. Specially uploaded for students of NSIT.