Saturday 29 March 2008

Recycling Condoms

Recently, a Mr Science Show reader, let's call him Scott, asked a question regarding the recycling of condoms. How does one do this?

This is a very good question, and one I need to tackle during this recycling challenge. In general, condoms are made of latex and are not recyclable. It is probably better to dispose of your used condoms in the rubbish - where they will eventually end up as land-fill - than flushing them down the toilet - which not only wastes water but puts them out into the sewerage, where they eventually wind up in an anerobic digester and reduced to sludge.

It may be constructive to look at the steps we should take when being environmentally friendly - reduce, reuse, recycle:
  • Reduction - so how should red-blooded males go about reducing their condom use, without reducing their sexual activity? The answer may lie in alternative methods of contraception - although, there is nothing out there as good at preventing STDs as condoms. So unless you are in a loving STD-free relationship, keep using them! Let's have a look at a few contraceptive alternatives:
  1. The Pill: The Pill, a combination of estrogen and a progestin, is one of the most popular methods of contraception. It is a female contraceptive that limits fertility by preventing the ovaries from releasing eggs. But is it environmentally friendly? As opposed to condoms, there are no waste products that need to be thrown out (bar the packaging, which can be recycled). But the process of making The Pill I do not imagine is particularly environmentally friendly. Some of the contents of The Pill are synthetic organic compounds and others are isolated from natural sources (or at least made using biological processes). They all come together in an organic lab, and organic solvents and other chemicals are used in its making. These chemicals require specialist disposal and are more often than not incinerated. Any leaks into the ecosystem can be deadly and catalytic metals need to be mined out of the ground. This does not paint a positive picture, but as a chemistry graduate (albeit it in Physical / Theoretical Chemistry - see paper and patent), I am all for the advancement of science and human knowledge, even if it comes at a small cost. Such advancement may one day solve the problem of plastic in our oceans, so whilst this may not be environmentally friendly, I am all for organic labs.
  2. The Catholic Method: "Withdrawal", "getting off one stop before Central station"; it has many names and simply doesn't work. Not to mention the fact that you are vulnerable to STDs (as you are with The Pill), and it is sexually ungratifying. It only takes one scare to let you know that it does not work as pre-ejaculate fluid means there is never a good time to pull out.
  3. Abstinence: The biggest environmental threat on the planet is us. There are too many humans on Earth. Housing and transport deplete our natural resources and pollute the environment, especially given the exponential population growth in developing countries that are hardly environmentally friendly. My personal viewpoint however is this: If you are intelligent, don't use condoms and breed. This will bring more intelligent people into the world who may eventually solve our problems. If you are dumb, use condoms and create plastic waste - hopefully the intelligent offspring of others will remedy your condom use.
  • Reuse - this is definitely not going to happen, but it's not unheard of. The following video comes from a Filipino documentary on how prostitutes recycle condoms - go down this road if you dare....

Listen to this show here.

Friday 14 March 2008

The Recyling Challenge - Early Days

I was recently quite upset to read about a Plastic Soup twice the size of the US floating in the Pacific Ocean. This vast expanse of debris is held in place by swirling underwater currents and stretches from 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost too Japan. It is believed that there is about 100 million tons of trash in the region.

However, I was inspired by one British woman who is now saying no to plastic packaging. So I've decided to copy her. I am going to see how long I can go without buying anything packaged in a non-recyclable or non-biodegradable container.

This promises to be more difficult that you might think. I am astounded by the amount of packaging UK shops use. Lettuces and cucumbers come in their own plastic bags, as do bananas (even they do have their own thick skin to protect them...). The British lifestyle is surprisingly fast-food. Most items are sold in bite-size chunks, all wrapped up in ubiquitous non-recyclable plastic packaging. It is almost impossible to get a freshly made sandwich - but it's very easy to find one made that morning and all wrapped up.

And whilst it should be relatively easy to not use plastic bags (or to re-use them again and again), and whilst the green grocers down the road will supply non-wrapped fruit and veg, some things will prove difficult. Pasta for instance. Where can you buy pasta not wrapped in plastic? Rice also. Even cereal has a plastic liner inside the box. Looking out for products that are not coated in plastic will, I think, cost a lot as there will be no more shopping at discount supermarkets. Today's challenge was finding cheese without plastic - I failed in finding cheddar, so I ate some very fatty feta that came in a jar.

The actual act of recycling will also be hard. My local council amazingly does not provide a recycling pick-up service, and the local recycling bins only cater for clear and green glass. The recycling plant is a decent walk down the road but has become part of my weekly routine - although the local talk is that it is soon going to be replaced, ironically, by a plastic packaging-loving Sainsburys. My apartment block provides no recycling service either, and the amount of recyclable material that is thrown out by my supposedly young/funky/forward-thinking apartment block is utterly astounding (see picture).

So far, it has been smooth enough sailing, but that wont last long. Difficulties I foresee are days when I grab a drink or something to eat on the train before a night out. Where am I going to put my rubbish? It's hard enough to find a bin near most London tube stops, let alone a recycling bin, and I don't fancy carrying my rubbish around all night till I get home. I've already had to carry around some aluminium Mars-Bar wrapping for a day, but that's a minor problem. Thankfully, the Cambridge Maths Department have just introduced more recycling bins, easing the issue, although I can't eat most of the things they have an offer as they're wrapped up in plastic.

I'm sure the late night kebab will also prove something of an issue, but we'll see how we go. I am quite converted to the Fried Chicken shops in the area anyway, and they have cardboard boxes... Another exception will be when I eat out. I can't do anything about where restaurants get their products, although I'm sure we can make some ethical choices.

The UK situation is different to the Australian one. The ACT was the first government in the world to set a goal of achieving NO WASTE going to landfill. Canberra is lucky enough to have vast open areas for composting - something London certainly doesn't - but its pro-activity is fantastic and hopefully by 2010 it will achieve this goal. state that recycling just one plastic bottle saves enough energy to power a 60W lightbulb for six hours. And as the UK has ridiculously decided to invest in new coal factories, instead of a renewable source such as wind (we are having the "storm of the decade" at the moment), every little bit counts.

Listen to this show here

Thursday 6 March 2008

Science through song

They say that music is a very mathematical pursuit. Here at Mr Science, we have written about science and music many times.

The MASSIVE database is a website that contains information on over 2500 science and mathematics songs. Some songs are for children, others for professors. Some are by professional recording artists, others recorded in garages. The site is maintained by Greg Crowther, who is affiliated with the University of Washington, Science Groove, and the Science Songwriters' Association. MASSIVE is part of the US National Science Foundation's National Science Digital Library.

My personal favourite science song? She Blinded me with Science by Thomas Dolby — and you can find this song in the database. Another way of tracking down science songs is by doing a search for science at LastFM.