A roundup of news, views and ideas from the mainstream press and the blogosphere. Click on the headline link to see the full article.


The coming concrete crisis

Vince Beiser, The Globa and Mail
You may not realize it, but as you read this, you are probably surrounded by the most important artificial material ever invented. Is there a floor beneath you, walls around, a roof overhead? Chances are excellent they are made at least partly out of this astonishingly underappreciated material: concrete.

To most people, concrete is just the ugly stuff used to pave paradise and put up a parking lot. But concrete is an invention as transformative as fire or electricity. Since it came into widespread use around the turn of the 20th century, this man-made stone has changed where and how billions of people live, work and move around. It is the skeleton of almost every apartment block and shopping mall, and of most of the roads connecting them. It gives us the power to dam enormous rivers, erect buildings of Olympian height and travel the world with an ease that would astonish our ancestors.

… Making all that concrete, however, takes a heavy toll on the atmosphere. The cement industry produces 5 per cent to 10 per cent of total carbon-dioxide emissions worldwide, putting it behind only coal-fuelled power plants and automobiles as a source of global-warming gases.

Vince Beiser is author of the The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization, which was published this month and from which this essay is adapted.
(24 August 2018)
Hat tip: Paul Heft.


American Beauties: How plastic bags came to rule our lives, and why we can’t quit them

Rebecca Altman, Topic
… While the plastic sack was designed to carry goods, I’ve come to think that what the bag does best is collect.

They collect in cars and cabinets and closets, in cities and storm drains and in the “waste lonely places,” in the wilds beside highways and parking lots. You might assume bags like these are “litter” and that their backstory involves a careless or callous human. But most bags enter the waste stream exactly as waste systems were planned and as plastic makers wanted: through the trash.

“The future of plastics is in the trash can,” the editor of Modern Packaging magazine, Lloyd Stouffer, argued in the mid-1950s to a group of industry insiders. Stouffer had advocated for the industry “to stop thinking about ‘reuse’ packages and concentrate on single use.” If the plastics industry wants to drive sales, he argued, it must teach customers how to waste.

Disposability was still a new idea, born during the Great Depression and at odds with the frugality of the World War II years. It is a social innovation, and it took time to take hold—a systematic rerouting of human behavior and norms.
(Issue 14: August 2018)


How to stop data centres from gobbling up the world’s electricity

Nicola Jones, Nature
The energy-efficiency drive at the information factories that serve us Facebook, Google and Bitcoin.

… Already, data centres use an estimated 200 terawatt hours (TWh) each year. That is more than the national energy consumption of some countries, including Iran, but half of the electricity used for transport worldwide, and just 1% of global electricity demand (see ‘Energy scale’). Data centres contribute around 0.3% to overall carbon emissions, whereas the information and communications technology (ICT) ecosystem as a whole — under a sweeping definition that encompasses personal digital devices, mobile-phone networks and televisions — accounts for more than 2% of global emissions. That puts ICT’s carbon footprint on a par with the aviation industry’s emissions from fuel. What could happen in the future is hard to forecast. But one of the most worrying models predicts that electricity use by ICT could exceed 20% of the global total by the time a child born today reaches her teens, with data centres using more than one-third of that (see ‘Energy forecast’)1. If the computationally intensive cryptocurrency Bitcoin continues to grow, a sharp rise in energy demand could come sooner rather than later (see ‘The Bitcoin bite’).

… With the spectre of an energy-hungry future looming, scientists in academic labs and engineers at some of the world’s wealthiest companies are exploring ways to keep the industry’s environmental impact in check. They are streamlining computing processes, switching to renewables and investigating better ways to cool data centres and to recycle their waste heat.
(12 September 2018)

Photo: A bag with a smiley face design that bids the viewer “Thank you” and “Have a nice day!” (2009). Photo by GorillaSushi. Via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Have_a_nice_day_and_smiley_face_bag.jpg