Dear Colleague

Three things today.

1. Nuclear Power

I had an overwhelming response to "Nuclear Power: To hell? Or maybe, just maybe...Heavenly Bliss?" Thanks very much. Some very interesting comments and some rather acid comments about my professed love for nuclear waste and the nuclear apocalypse. To a (wo)man, all the comments were biased toward an unerring focus on safety and looking after our wonderful environment. I tried to be neutral though and don't have an axe to grind either way. I have placed all the comments on my blog site at:

Thank you, one and all.

2. What on earth do you expect the world to do with your rubbish

As I shoved our overloaded rubbish bin up the pathway for its once weekly dispatch to the dump, I felt a surge of guilt. For the umpteenth time, admittedly. Looking down our street and seeing the rows of bins neatly parked with military precision waiting for the garbo's to take them away reinforced my guilt. Is recycling worth the effort ? Does it have any relevance to me as an engineer ? Where is all the waste going ? Apparently some of it is going into some gigantic tip in China ? I clearly remember as a child hearing the phrase: "Where there's muck, there's brass" (normally said in a broad Yorkshire accent). Unfortunately this is not always true and our consumer society drives frenzied growth and with it more rubbish. There are no wide spread financial incentives for all of us to cut back on waste. So most of the stuff is buried. And we are fast running out of space. And there is the additional hazard of toxic waste leaching into our water table. The other option, burning or incinerating (which I initially thought was an ingenious idea), sadly has other risks. Cancer producing dioxins are a possible product. So the final practical option is recycling.

The numbers are daunting. Since 1960, the amount of municipal waste being collected in America has tripled reaching (not, that this means much to all us numbed by these stats) 245m tonnes in 2005. In Europe, it is now 577kg per person per annum. America recycles 10% of its municipal waste against Austria and Netherlands which are at a wonderful 60%. Is recycling worth it on environmental grounds ? According to credible research at the Technical University of Denmark, it is definitely better for the environment. It conserves natural resources, reduces the amount of waste burnt or stuffed into dumps, and conserves energy. Recycling aluminium can reduce energy consumption by as much as 95% (against extracting it from raw ore). Steel is at a pleasant 60% saving.

Originally, kerbside collection programmes required separate collection of paper, glass and cans. But now it is single stream. I was naturally suspicious when I saw this happening, thinking that the authorities had given up and everything was being dumped again. But new technologies can sort without human intervention and it is more convenient for consumers. And it works.

And onto China. There are concerns about shipping recyclables to China - now the largest importer of rubbish (well, recyclable rubbish) in the world. Does this all end up in landfills ? Van Beukering, a specialist economist in the area says:"as soon as somebody is paying for the material, you can bet it will be recycled". So this is apparently not such a problem. It is being re-used. Admittedly, still significant problem with poor migrants being exposed to toxic waste in China.

Finally, products have to be designed by us as engineers so that they can be recycled. A complete rethink of industrial processes. For example, sustainable packaging is not only good for the environment but cuts down your costs significantly. Wal-mart believes that in cutting the amount of packaging it uses by 5% will save as much as $3.4 billion. and reduce CO2 by more than half a million tonnes.

In conclusion, as engineers I challenge you to:

Work out ways to minimise the junk we produce - recycling and re-using as much as possible

Design products so that they can be recycled - this requires a rethink of our current design processes

Boycott products which are poisonous and non-recyclable

Design new technologies to process the garbage and make money from it

Use the waste tips to generate energy

Convince our peers to recycle, design for more sustainability and use less

And be prepared to pay slightly more to stick to our principles of looking after our environment and ultimately ourselves

There is no doubt that recycling protects the environment by cutting down on energy, raw materials and pollution. But where we as engineers come in - we need to recycle better. As The Economist remarked: " Waste is really a design flaw". And that is where we as engineers are both culpable and have a key role in fixing.

My gratitude to The Economist and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) for assistance here in this article.

3. When you retire, please don't

Every week we get notices from our wonderful clients of retirement and going fishing. If you are retiring and are mildly interested in doing some part time engineering instructing ranging from 2 days per year to a lot more, drop me a line at:

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

and we will send you an information pack on instructing at IDC.

We have some outstanding engineers and techies in their seventies and eighties, who whilst working at their own pace, deliver outstanding training and are an enormous credit to the profession. And get great fulfillment in passing on their know-how. Naturally, we believe we compensate you well for your efforts. But that is for you to judge.

yours in engineering learning

Steve Mackay