How the humble S-bend made modern toilets possible

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“Gentility of speech is at an end,” thundered an editorial in London’s City Press, in 1858. “It stinks!”

The stink in question was partly metaphorical: politicians were failing to tackle an obvious problem.

As its population grew, London’s system for disposing of human waste became woefully inadequate. To relieve pressure on cess pits – which were prone to leaking, overflowing, and belching explosive methane – the authorities had instead started encouraging sewage into gullies.

However, this created a different issue: the gullies were originally intended for only rainwater, and emptied directly into the River Thames.

That was the literal stink – the Thames became an open sewer.

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Cholera was rife. One outbreak killed 14,000 Londoners – nearly one in every 100.

Civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette drew up plans for new, closed sewers to pump the waste far from the city. It was this project that politicians came under pressure to approve.

The sweltering-hot summer of 1858 had made London’s malodorous river impossible to politely ignore, or to discuss obliquely with “gentility of speech”. The heatwave became popularly known as the “Great Stink”.

Unlikely figure

If you live in a city with modern sanitation, it’s hard to imagine daily life being permeated with the suffocating stench of human excrement.

For that, we have a number of people to thank – but perhaps none more so than the unlikely figure of Alexander Cumming.

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy highlights the inventions, ideas and innovations that helped create the economic world.

It is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information about the programme’s sources and listen online or subscribe to the programme podcast.

A watchmaker in London a century before the Great Stink, Cumming won renown for his mastery of intricate mechanics.

King George III commissioned him to make an elaborate instrument for recording atmospheric pressure, and he pioneered the microtome, a device for cutting ultra-fine slivers of wood for microscopic analysis.

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Alexander Cumming’s S-bend was crucial in the development of the flushing toilet

But Cumming’s world-changing invention owed nothing to precision engineering. It was a bit of pipe with a curve in it.

In 1775, Cumming patented the S-bend. This became the missing ingredient to create the flushing toilet – and, with it, public sanitation as we know it.


Flushing toilets had previously foundered on the problem of smell: the pipe that connects the toilet to the sewer, allowing urine and faeces to be flushed away, will also also let sewer odours waft back up – unless you can create some kind of airtight seal.

Cumming’s solution was simplicity itself: bend the pipe. Water settles in the dip, stopping smells coming up; flushing the toilet replenishes the water.

While we’ve moved on alphabetically from the S-bend to the U-bend, flushing toilets still deploy the same insight.

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Rollout, however, came slowly: by 1851, flushing toilets remained novel enough in London to cause mass excitement when introduced at the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace.

Use of the facilities cost one penny, giving the English language one of its enduring euphemisms for emptying one’s bladder, “to spend a penny”.

Hundreds of thousands of Londoners queued for the opportunity to relieve themselves while marvelling at the miracles of modern plumbing.

If the Great Exhibition gave Londoners a vision of how public sanitation could be – clean, and smell-free – no doubt that added to the weight of popular discontent as politicians dragged their heels over finding the funds for Joseph Bazalgette’s planned sewers.

More than 170 years later, about two-thirds of the world’s people have access to what’s called “improved sanitation”, according to the World Health Organization, up from about a quarter in 1980.

That’s a big step forward.

Economic cost

But that still means two and a half billion people don’t have access to it, and “improved sanitation” itself is a relatively low bar.

It “hygienically separates human excreta from human contact”, but it doesn’t necessarily treat the sewage itself.

Fewer than half the world’s people have access to sanitation systems that do that.

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The economic costs of this ongoing failure to roll out proper sanitation are many and varied, from health care for diarrhoeal diseases to foregone revenue from hygiene-conscious tourists.

The World Bank’s Economics of Sanitation Initiative has tried to tot up the price tag.

Across various African countries, for example, it reckons inadequate sanitation lops one or two percentage points off gross domestic product (GDP), in India and Bangladesh over 6%, and in Cambodia 7%.

That soon adds up.

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Open sewers are a common sight in Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya

The challenge is that public sanitation isn’t something the market necessarily provides. Toilets cost money, but defecating in the street is free.

‘Positive externality’

If I install a toilet, I bear all the costs, while the benefits of the cleaner street are felt by everyone.

In economic parlance, that’s a “positive externality” – and goods that have positive externalities tend to be bought at a slower pace than society, as a whole, would prefer.

The most striking example is the “flying toilet” system of Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya.

The flying toilet works like this: you defecate into a plastic bag, and then in the middle of the night, whirl the bag around your head and hurl it as far away as possible.

Replacing a flying toilet with a flushing toilet provides benefits to the toilet owner – but you can bet that the neighbours would appreciate it, too.

Contrast, say, the mobile phone. That also costs money, but its benefits accrue largely to me. That’s one reason why, although the S-bend has been around for 10 times as long as the mobile phone, many more people already own a mobile phone than a flushing toilet.

If you want to buy a flushing toilet, it also helps if there’s a system of sewers to plumb it into, and creating one is a major undertaking – financially and logistically.

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Otto Herschan

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Joseph Bazalgette, standing top right, views the Northern Outfall sewer being built below the Abbey Mills pumping station in 1862

When Joseph Bazalgette finally got the cash to build London’s sewers, they took 10 years to complete and necessitated digging up 2.5 million cubic metres (88 million cubic ft) of earth.

Because of the externality problem, such a project might not appeal to private investors: it tends to require determined politicians, willing taxpayers and well-functioning municipal governments.

And those, it seems, are in short supply. According to a study published in 2011, just 6% of India’s towns and cities have succeeded in building even a partial network of sewers. The capacity for delay seems almost unlimited.

Geographical quirk

London’s lawmakers likewise procrastinated- but when they finally acted, they didn’t hang about. As Stephen Halliday recounts in his book The Great Stink of London, it took just 18 days to rush through the necessary legislation for Bazalgette’s plans. What explains this sudden, impressive alacrity?

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The Houses of Parliament, photographed in 1858, the year of the Great Stink

A quirk of geography: London’s Parliament building is located right next to the River Thames.

Officials tried to shield lawmakers from the Great Stink, soaking the curtains in chloride of lime in a bid to mask the stench.

But it was no use. Try as they might, the politicians couldn’t ignore it.

The Times described, with a note of grim satisfaction, how MPs had been seen abandoning the building’s library, “each gentleman with a handkerchief to his nose”.

If only concentrating politicians’ minds was always that easy.

Tim Harford writes the Financial Times’s Undercover Economist column. 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information about the programme’s sources and listen online or subscribe to the programme podcast.

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What is happening with Japan Inc?

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Japan’s reputation for precision manufacturing is coming under more pressure

Japan has long been held up as a shining example of integrity, assured quality and reliable products.

But the deepening scandal at Kobe Steel over falsified figures could further tarnish the Made in Japan brand.

Kobe’s troubles started when it admitted last weekend to faking data about the quality, strength and durability of some of the materials it delivered to more than 200 companies including Boeing, Nissan and Toyota.

On Friday it said the number of firms involved had risen to 500. The news has wiped out about $1.8bn (£1.3bn) off Kobe Steel’s market value this week.

But with at least half a dozen major Japanese companies admitting to fraud and misconduct in as many years, questions are being raised over why this keeps happening and if there’s a systemic problem in Japan.

‘Cutting corners’

Experts say the long term slowdown in economic growth from the 1990s onwards has been a major contributing factor. It has forced Japanese firms to change their business models, and this appears to have taken its toll.

“Large corporations used to live in a stable, predictable and growing market, but things have changed and some companies may have resorted to cutting corners,” says Takuji Okubo, managing director and chief economist of Japan Macro Advisors, in Tokyo.

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Kobe Steel’s Hiroya Kawasaki apologised for the “tremendous trouble” the firm had caused

Until two decades ago, Japanese firms were focussed on growth strategies but the realisation that their economy would no longer grow as strongly anymore meant companies had to concentrate on restructuring, cost-cutting and extreme efficiency.

Speaking to the BBC, Martin Schulz, senior research fellow at Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo says these painful adjustments have seen some companies struggle “to adjust to the new rules of the game”.

The push to improve efficiencies made management desperate to show positive results, sometimes even testing the limits of quality control, he says.

Mr Schulz adds core-employees and managers have been stretched to the limit, which in some cases, resulted in overwork and misconduct.

But the need to open up new markets overseas to boost profits has created other problems for Japanese firms, especially at their subsidiaries abroad.

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Kobe Steel is Japan’s third largest steelmaker

Florian Kohlbacher, director of the Economist Corporate Network for North Asia, says some companies tried to grow too quickly by expanding overseas without having enough experienced managers to supervise operations.

Detecting fraud

The misconduct at Kobe Steel follows scandals at carmakers Nissan Motor and Mitsubishi Motors, as well as car airbag-maker Takata Corp, which filed for bankruptcy in June after a global recall sparked by 16 deaths and many injuries.

Just two weeks ago, Nissan Motor recalled 1.2m vehicles that had been certified by unauthorised technicians.

And the electronics giant Toshiba Corporation is still reeling from the consequences of an accounting scandal in which its profits were inflated.

Despite the prevalence of such high profile cases, experts say quality and compliance remain paramount in Japan.

But they still expect more scandals involving fraud and misconduct to be uncovered in future.

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Manufacturers of cars, trains and planes are checking if they used sub-standard Kobe Steel materials

Mr Kohlbacher says this is partly because new technology such as the internet of things and sensors have made it easier to detect wrongdoing, errors and fraud, while digitisation has helped to spread information about problems and improve transparency.

While it is still unclear how the data tampering at Kobe Steel was uncovered, “in a more transparent corporate environment, companies have to come clean on mistakes and misconduct much earlier,” says Mr Schulz.

Expect more scandals

Furthermore, more fraud and misconduct scandals are also expected to be uncovered as a result of laws to protect whistleblowers that came into effect in 2006.

The most explosive case came to light five years later when Michael Woodford, the British president of Olympus, became the most senior corporate figure in history to blow the whistle on his own company.

His revelations uncovered a $1.4bn (£880m) accounting fraud scandal in which the Japanese medical and equipment firm hid investment losses dating back to the 1990s.

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Quality control questions at Kobe Steel could further erode trust in Japanese firms

Mr Kohlbacher says more people have reported wrongdoings since the laws were enacted but it is difficult to confirm exactly how many people have been able to use the legislation to raise the alarm about wrongdoing in their companies.

And debate still rages in Japan on whether whistleblowers are adequately protected because the laws do not provide for penalties against companies that punish staff by dismissing or demoting them.

Some argue there are further safeguards from wrongdoing provided by Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency, which opened in 2009.

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The news has wiped out about $1.8bn off Kobe Steel’s market value

It was created following several accidents caused by substandard products and a number of food poisoning scandals including a case involving Chinese dumplings.

“Any manufacturer that had a defective product would once have been dealt with by a government ministry but the Consumer Affairs Agency took over these responsibilities,” says Keith Henry from the consultancy firm Asia Strategy.

Mr Henry adds that the new reporting system focuses much more on the consumer rather than the manufacturer, with regulatory authorities willing to investigate and prosecute cases of misconduct.

Rebuilding the brand

Some people believe the unwanted spotlight on Japanese firms could actually have a positive effect.

“There seems to be wide agreement now that just focusing on costs and increasing profitability won’t be sufficient as future strategies,” says Mr Schulz.

Mr Kohlbacher says he now expects “companies to have a close look at their operations and make sure they amend any problems before they turn into something major”.

But some warn tougher penalties are needed for companies that fail to meet government standards because self-regulation does not always appear to work.

Citing the recent Dentsu case last week in which the Japanese advertising giant was only fined 500,000 yen (US$4,400; £3,321) for breaching labour regulations, Mr Okubo says “I think there’s something very wrong here.”

But rather than highlighting a systemic problem in Japan, Mr Okubo says the prevalence of misconduct cases was evidence that “corporate governance in Japan is working” because firms are reporting internal problems so that they can be dealt with.

As for companies that want to distance themselves from the fraud and misconduct, he says: “It is about time that each manufacturer stops branding itself as ‘Japanese’ and instead starts to build their own brand”.

Source : [1]

Formula One teams’ costs rocket after rules changes

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Lewis Hamilton during the Japan F1 Grand Prix

Next weekend Britain’s Lewis Hamilton could secure his fourth Formula One title at the United States Grand Prix.

His Mercedes team is a staggering 145 points ahead of arch-rivals Ferrari despite the sport introducing rules this year which aimed to put the brakes on the dominance of a single outfit. They came at a hefty cost.

The new regulations were designed to make for closer racing by increasing aerodynamic and mechanical grip through the introduction of wider tyres and wings.

According to one of the teams it has “rewritten” the rulebook and the impact is just as noticeable off track as on it.

But if some had hoped the rules might stop Mercedes from running away with the F1 championship they will have been disappointed. Ironically, they have also forced up its rivals’ costs.

Only the frontrunners have had the resources to foot the bill from their cashflow whilst one of the outfits lower down the grid even had to get a driver to cover the cost.

Research has revealed that new regulations fuelled a £167.6m increase in the F1 teams’ costs in 2016. They rose 14.5% to hit a combined £1.3bn – the highest-ever total recorded in the sport.

F1 cars are designed the year before they race so the bulk of the investment in them is paid for then, too. It means that the cost of this year’s campaign is reflected in the teams’ 2016 accounts and the final one of them was filed last week.

Eight of F1’s ten teams have to file publicly-available accounts – the only exceptions are Ferrari as its outfit is run by the car manufacturer itself, and Swiss-based Sauber where firms don’t have to release their finances.

The costs of the teams’ operating companies came to an average of £165.9m in 2016, topped by Northamptonshire-based Mercedes which spent £274.9m excluding the investment in its engines.

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F1 teams’ costs rose 14.5% to hit £1.3bn last year

It is the highest ever total recorded on the accounts of a British F1 team and even eclipses the turbocharged spending levels before the 2008 economic crash which drove Toyota and Honda out of the sport.

At the other end of the spectrum is last year’s new entrant Haas F1 which spent a third as much as the championship leaders.

Haas has managed to keep its costs down by taking advantage of a new rule allowing teams to buy in more parts than before. Haas uses a Ferrari engine with a chassis created by Italian manufacturer Dallara which also makes the cars for the F2 junior series.

Relying on suppliers reduces research and development expenditure which, along with staffing and engine costs, is one of their biggest costs – it rose across the board in 2016 as teams had to design cars to meet the new regulations.

They were introduced by F1’s governing body the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) to address criticism that the outcome of races was clear before they started due to the dominance of Mercedes.

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Haas has kept costs down by buying in more parts than before

With Hamilton at the wheel it has won both the constructors’ and the drivers’ championship for the past three years running. This year is set to be no different but there has been a far higher price to pay.

Writing in the introduction to its accounts Mercedes’ team boss Toto Wolff notes that there has been “an increase of £27.9m in operating costs mainly due to the impact of technical regulation changes and movement in foreign exchange rates”.

The 2016 accounts for Force India, also based in Northamptonshire, give more insight into the effort required to meet the new rules.

It says that combined with the change in tyre-sizes “our traditional method of retaining 50% of the previous season’s car and updating the remaining 50% is not possible for 2017”. Over 90% of Force India’s car this year is completely new.

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Force India has helped cover its increased costs with cash from driver Nikita Mazepin

The team planned to cover its increased costs with income from an unlikely source: a driver contract signed with Russian youngster, Nikita Mazepin, “secured a cash injection ahead of significant regulation changes ahead of the 2017 season”, said Force India.

Mazepin was just 16 when he signed up last year and he has tested for the team twice since then, most recently in July after the Hungarian Grand Prix. He has ample resources to pay as his father Dmitry became a billionaire through owning the mineral fertiliser producer Uralchem.

Despite this, Force India still chalked up a net loss of £11.6m – the largest of any team in 2016.

The regulation changes even dented the bottom line of British manufacturing giant McLaren. Its went from a net £3.4m profit in 2015 to an after-tax loss of £3.2m the following year.

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For F1 teams, victory on the track is more important than making a profit

Overall the teams made a combined net loss of £2m last year. Perhaps surprisingly this is nothing new as unlike most businesses, profit is not the barometer of success in F1.

Instead teams judge their performance on racing results and tend to spend all of their income on this in a bid for victory.

Some even pump in more than they make, with additional funds usually coming from owners’ pockets or debt. The theory is that it is better to win and make no profit than make money and finish low in the standings.

Victory on track increases a team’s ability to bring in more sponsorship,, as brands are prepared to pay more to be associated with a winner.

The teams’ revenue generally comes from three sources with two providing the lion’s share. They are fuelled by F1’s huge television audience (390m viewers last year). The first key revenue source is sponsorship which comprises around a third of the teams’ revenue,

Another third comes from prize money. F1’s parent company, which is owned by American investment firm Liberty Media, pays the teams around 66% of its annual profits as prize money and it came to $985.5m (£742m) in 2016.

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Despite numerous failed attempts there are new proposals to introduce a budget cap for F1 teams

Payments from owners represent around half of the teams’ remaining revenue and the marketing benefit from the exposure on TV compensates for this investment.

If costs increase these payments often rise to compensate and last year Red Bull poured in four times more money into its flagship team. Its investment into Red Bull Racing hit £40.6m as costs surged 9.2% to £197m.

As its owner has deep pockets Red Bull Racing doesn’t need to rely on drivers who pay but income from them is the remaining source of revenue for F1 teams. They are a hallmark of teams at the bottom of the grid but their days could be numbered.

Despite numerous failed attempts F1 hasn’t given up on introducing a budget cap and recent reports suggest that Liberty Media will shortly present plans to the teams for introduction in 2021 when their current race contracts expire. But it will be the sport’s governing body, the FIA, that will ultimately decide on any changes

A limit of £114m has been suggested and this would level the playing field as the smallest teams are already below this whilst the frontrunners would have to scale back.

Although it may seem like a logical direction for the sport to go in it would make the recent boost in spending seem all the more pointless.

Source : [1]

Where are all the women in economics?

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Clara Starrsjo is a second-year economics student at Cambridge University

We hear a lot about the under-representation of women in so-called STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and maths.

But the proportion of women in economics is by some measures smaller.

In the US, only about 13% of academic economists in permanent posts are women; in the UK the proportion is only slightly better at 15.5%.

Only one woman has ever won the Nobel Prize in economics – American Elinor Ostrom in 2009.

And there wasn’t even a single woman on some of the lists floating about guessing who this year’s prize winner would be – it went to the behavioural economist Richard Thaler.

Some have argued that these figures aren’t necessarily the result of bias.

Maybe, they say, women are simply behaving rationally and choosing different disciplines that are perhaps more suited to their temperament and skills, or choosing to work in different but related fields.

But Cambridge University economics lecturer Victoria Bateman says that can’t really explain all of the gap.

“I think that that way of thinking about the problem is completely false,” says Dr Bateman, who is a fellow at Cambridge’s Gonville & Caius college.

“But I think [it] helps explain why economists have for too long hushed up this problem.

“Because if economists’ models are suggesting that sexism doesn’t exist, that it’s all a result of people’s free choices and… their personal characteristics, then you deny the fact there is a problem.”

‘Hotties’ vs ‘Wharton’

In fact, there is a growing body of research suggesting that there are some biases – overt and subconscious – that might be contributing to the lack of women in academic economic departments.

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The proportion of women choosing to study economics at the undergraduate level in the UK has declined over the last decade.

A study published by University of California, Berkeley’s Alice Wu made waves earlier this year.

Using natural language processing, Wu analyzed over one million posts on a website called, which is a sort of online forum where academic economists discuss job openings and candidates.

Like many places on the internet, the conversations aren’t particularly pretty or politically correct.

Wu found that when posters on the site discussed female economists, they used starkly different terms than those that were used to discuss male economists.

Many of those words are incredibly offensive. Posters tended to discuss a woman’s physical appearance (hot and hottie were in the top ten) whereas those terms used with men tended to emphasise their intellectual ability (Wharton and Austrian – for the school of economic thinking – were in the top terms for men).

‘Women incur a penalty’

The paper caused a lot of debate within the economic community – with many saying that what people say on the internet isn’t necessarily an indication of how they truly think.

University of Bristol professor Sarah Smith says: “I think it’s an extreme view. I don’t think it’s a representation of everyone in the profession.”

But, she adds: “I don’t think it’s surprising when you tie it up with looking at the proportion of women at different levels.”

Prof Smith – who is also the chair of the Royal Economic Society’s Women’s Committee – cites other evidence that suggested a bias against women in the economics profession, such as a paper published by Harvard researcher Heather Sarsons.

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Heather Sarsons

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Heather Sarsons found that women’s contributions to co-authored papers tended to be undervalued

That paper found that an additional co-authored paper on an economist’s resume correlates to an 8% increase in the probability of a male economist getting a tenured post – but only a 2% increase for female candidates.

Interestingly, the gap decreased if women co-authored papers with other women.

Ms Sarsons wrote in the paper: “While solo-authored papers send a clear signal about one’s ability, co-authored papers do not provide specific information about each contributor’s skills. I find that women incur a penalty when they co-author that men do not experience.”

Her paper, she added in a footnote, was intentionally single-authored.

There are more studies – ones that suggest that female economists’ papers take six months longer to peer review in top journals than their male counterparts; that when women get tenured faculty jobs in economics, they get paid less; and that even if a woman makes it to the front of a lecture hall – there might be no men listening to them.

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Victoria Bateman

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Victoria Bateman organised a Women in Economics day at Cambridge in 2015 to encourage more young women to enter the field.

“There was a very interesting and quick bit of number crunching that was done by the Centre for Global Development which has headquarters in both Washington and London,” says Cambridge’s Dr Bateman.

“When they looked at male attendance at the seminars that they run they found that it fell off quite dramatically whenever gender was mentioned in the seminar topic.”

Dr Bateman says the fact that there are so few women at the top has meant that many young women can’t view themselves in those positions. She notes that in the early 2000s the proportion of women studying economics in British universities was around 30%.

It’s down to just 26% today.

‘Only half the story’

That women aren’t even choosing to enter the discipline really surprised me. So I went to Cambridge to speak to some of the current undergraduates in economics.

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Paulin Nusser says she noticed that there were very few women teaching her economics courses.

I met Paulin Nusser, a final year economics, student at the University Centre on a busy Sunday. I asked her what her experience studying economics had been like.

“When I think back to my lectures last year for instance out of the 11 lecturers and supervisors I had throughout the year that are based in the faculty – just one was a woman,” she says.

This is why she says it can sometimes be hard to imagine a career in academic economics, even though she hopes to pursue it at postgraduate level.

“Representation is just something that does affect me because I am subconsciously looking for role models or someone where I can say you know, ‘oh that could be me standing up there teaching this lecture’.”

Clara Starrsjo, a second-year student says she notices that her male and female classmates approach economics problems differently – which often leads to better, more comprehensive answers.

This is why she’s become passionate about increasing the number of women who study economics – including meeting with potential female economics students at a Women in Economics day each autumn.

I ask her why she tells these women they should enter the field – even if the odds may seem stacked against them.

“For the moment economists have only looked at the world around them through male eyes and this only provides us with half the story,” she says she tells them.

“And with only half the story how can we get results that will help the whole population?”

Source : [1]

The companies making bicycles from wood

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Connor Wood

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Connor Wood makes its bike frames from white ash or black walnut

The forerunner of the bicycle – the laufmaschine or running machine – bears only a passing resemblance to the pedal-bikes we know today.

Invented in 1817, it had no chain and was powered by the rider pushing his feet along the ground in a walking or running motion.

Even more unusually, its frame was made from wood.

Jump forward to 2017, and a crop of bike makers is turning back the clock – at least in terms of using wood as a core material.

These firms make their bicycles in part, and occasionally wholly, from woods such as ash, oak and walnut.

They are driven by a love of craft and design, the desire to use natural materials, and a passion for cycling itself.

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Connor Wood

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Chris Connor decided to combine his long held passions for woodwork and cycling

And they have attracted a small but growing base of enthusiastic customers, willing to pay high prices for their lovingly crafted creations.

“People like having something unique, something different,” says Chris Connor, the founder of Connor Wood Bicycles.

“They also appreciate the craftsmanship. Not a lot of things are built by hand these days.”

The company was born in 2012, after the 48-year-old American decided to combine his long held passions for woodwork and cycling.

All his bikes all have wooden frames; the other parts, such as the gears and wheels, are made from steel, carbon or rubber.

Prices range from $3,500 (£2,600) to $11,000.

Sales have gradually been increasing, but it hasn’t been easy, says Mr Connor. That’s because of a perception among some cyclists that wooden bikes may break or be unsafe.

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Niko Crepnjak

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Woodster Bikes makes its frames from beech and bog oak

In fact, Mr Connor says wood is very durable, which is why it’s used to make tool handles, skis, boats, even light aircraft.

It also absorbs vibrations well, making cycling on bumpy roads smoother, less tiring and quieter.

“And of course, these bikes look great,” says Mr Connor, who makes his frames made from “strong but flexible” white ash or “eye candy” black walnut.

A recently published book called “The Wooden Bicycle: Around the World” features 111 companies that make bikes from wood or bamboo.

Only one, Splinterbike in the UK, sells 100% wooden models with its bikes featuring wooden gears, chains and wheels.

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Tjaša Matičič

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Woodster Bikes cost from 2,500 euros to 17,000 euros

However, most limit their use of wood to the frame, and occasionally parts such as the handlebars and forks. Other parts will be made from materials typically associated with bikes, such as aluminium.

It is the unique design of wooden bikes, and their bespoke craftsmanship, that underpins their appeal, says Gregor Cuzak.

The Slovenian co-founded Woodster Bikes after meeting woodworker Iztok Mohoric, who had recently designed a bike with a wooden frame.

“I wasn’t interested at first, but after I saw it and took a ride, I was immediately convinced,” Mr Cuzak says. “People were watching me as if I was driving a wild sports car.”

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Piet Brandjes, right, co-founder of Bough Bikes with his son Bob

Like other firms in the space, Woodster is targeting customers who appreciate the finer things in life. Its bike frames are made of woods such as beech and bog oak, and prices range from 2,500 euros (£2,190) up to 17,000 euros.

In addition, every customer gets a book with a story about how their individual bike was made.

“We even plant a new tree at the same location where we cut one for your bike,” Mr Cuzak adds.

Piet Brandjes, 63, who co-founded Dutch firm Bough Bikes, agrees that wooden bikes “attract attention”.

For that reason, firms in the Netherlands such as Novotel and Rabobank have bought Bough Bikes for their guests and employees to use.

More stories from the BBC’s Business Brain series looking at interesting business topics from around the world:

The bikes are also used in a shared bike scheme at Schiphol Airport business park, in Amsterdam, so workers can give them a spin.

Mr Brandjes says all his models have French oak frames, handlebars and front forks. However, customers don’t need to worry about them getting wet in the rain.

“The bikes in the shared scheme have been outside for three years and they still look good,” he says.

“As long as wet wood dries again, it’s fine. You just need to polish it once a season.”

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Bough Bikes

Everyone I spoke to reported feeling frustrated by assumptions that wooden bikes were less safe and sturdy than other bikes.

Mr Connor tells me that by using the right woods and construction techniques, his bikes are perfectly durable.

“A strong seasoned wood, laminated to itself in strips with reversing grain directions, bonded with aerospace adhesives is incredibly tough.

“Add in interspersed layers of carbon fibre and Kevlar, like in my bikes, and the strength far exceeds the requirements for making a reasonably lightweight performance bicycle frame.”

As for how they function, Mr Brandjes points out that all of his bikes have been tested by TUV Rheinland, a renowned German organisation that certifies products.

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Bough Bikes

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French oak

However, other obstacles may hinder firms in the space.

For one thing, wooden bikes tend to be heavier than many road bikes. The various models of the three companies I spoke to weigh between 9.9kg and 25kg.

“You can’t make them as light as carbon bikes,” says Mr Connor, “but I don’t think a pound or two more or less matters.”

The people who buy them are not competitive riders, he adds.

Too pricey?

Another issue is that wooden bikes tend to cost a lot, which may be preventing higher volumes of sales.

American firm Renovo, whose bikes start at $3,995, is probably the number one producer of wooden bikes worldwide. And yet it told the BBC it had only sold 1,000 models since it was founded in 2007.

“If someone manages to create a wooden bike for under 1,000 euros (£914), sales might rise,” Mr Cuzak says.

He has only sold 10 bikes since he started in 2015, meaning that he and his partner still have to work on the company in their spare time.

However, Mr Connor runs his business full time, having sold around 65 pieces to date. And Bough Bikes has shifted about 600 bikes since it was founded in 2012.

Summing up what many in the wooden bike industry believe, Mr Cuzak says, “this is not a regular business, but a slow business”.

However, he adds: “We’ve planted the seed and are now waiting for the tree to grow. I believe it will, eventually.”

Source : [1]

How maps are powering the tech revolution

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From Hugh Grant to maps – this space now houses Ordnance Survey’s start-up hub

Remember Hugh Grant’s bachelor pad in About a Boy? This epitome of a cool central London home has now given itself over to the British map maker Ordnance Survey.

It’s the site of their start-up hub, helping young companies which are using their mapping technology. It’s a world away from Ordnance Survey’s (OS) concertina’d, paper-based business, but location, location, location still matters here.

Where we are and where we want to go is at the heart of so many of the world’s most innovative businesses.

Think of Uber, Deliveroo, Airbnb, the development of driverless cars, and drone deliveries. All of these companies need location data to power their software.

In fact there are very few sectors which don’t rely on it. Some estimates say the global market for core geographical information will exceed $13bn (£9.6bn) by 2025, according to consultancy firm Navigant.

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Ordnance Survey

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Maps are increasingly being digitised for use in new technologies

Carmakers are among the companies hungry for mapping data, according to Martin Garner of tech consultants CCS Insight. “Developments in mapping are mainly being led by the transportation industry in its push towards intelligent and self-driving cars and trucks,” he says.

In December 2015, for example, BMW, Daimler, and Volkswagen’s Audi acquired the digital mapping company HERE from Nokia for $3.1bn to provide their own in-house source of data.

Mr Garner says the value of location data lies in its ability to mirror every aspect of the world around us. He says technology is turning maps into living databases of places, objects and people where live information comes from a wide range of sources, and is used by lots of different people.

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CNH technology/OS

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Ordnance Survey technology is being used in the development of driverless tractors

OS, founded back in 1791, makes most of its £150m yearly revenue from the private companies who use its data – such as Garmin’s sat navs – and through big public sector agreements providing data for bus routes, planning and flood prevention.

But a third of its products can be used for free. It’s that information – on our roads and rivers – which provides the backbone for so many other companies, including Google Maps.

OS decided to open the Geovation hub in London in 2015. The company felt it was behind the curve on how its mapping data was being used and that it wasn’t seeing the benefits of giving the information away for free.

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The company has been mapping Britain since 1791 – the official year of its foundation – including these maps from the 1920s

The hub’s 900 members range from industry stalwarts to A-level students, but are mainly start-up companies who rely on location data to develop their products.

Taking a leaf out of the financial industry’s book, they’ve even developed a new word for the companies they work with: Geotech.

For Alex Wrottesley, who runs the hub, there are many advantages of this kind of interaction with start-ups, and he says it’s often the best way of bringing things to market.

One of the companies based in the hub is Openplay, which aims to create a comprehensive list of leisure activities and venues across the UK, including in church halls and community centres.

Its boss, Sam Parton, uses a combination of OS maps and shoe leather to build the database. “Parks and open spaces don’t have postcodes so it can be very difficult to find events happening in them. We’ve gone out and practically listed them ourselves,” he says.

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Sam Parton from Open Play is using OS data to build a database of leisure venues

Richa Bhalla who runs Pedals, a green courier company based in the Geovation Hub, says mapping is about more than getting goods from A to B. It tries to use commuters to deliver packages in the safest and least polluted way they can.

Pedals overlays OS data with other sources to do this. “It is all about logistics, getting to places as fast as possible, using green cycle lanes rather than busy roads,” Richa says.

Apart from those companies that have won free placements on one of their accelerator schemes, the programme is funded by a small fee from the businesses who work there and sponsorship deals with private companies.

However, the OS is also looking to the start-ups as future money spinners – as it starts to take stakes in the most successful. The aim, it says, is “to create new revenues for our long-term future”.

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Richa Bhalla from Pedals says coming up with greener routes is something she really cares about

Implicit in this drive for innovation and those words “long-term future”, is the axe that has hung over the future of the OS in recent years.

OS was made a government-owned company in 2015 – a technical term meaning it has greater commercial freedoms such as how to pay its staff – but it remains in the control of the state alongside the likes of Companies House, Network Rail and the Royal Mint.

There was speculation when this happened that the government could look to sell it. However, in a recent statement, the Department for Business said categorically “there are no plans to privatise Ordnance Survey”.

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The Geovation hub is a world away from the traditional cartography done by the Ordnance Survey

OS sees its long-term future in embracing new technologies like providing data for smart cities, the roll out of 5G and driverless cars.

And it’s not the only one. James Hodgson, a senior analyst in smart mobility and automotive at ABI Research, says the mapping industry is being transformed.

“Profitable map building isn’t a matter of owning the capital for map creation,” he says. Instead, it’s about having the ability to ingest data from lots of devices to “build a continuously up-to-date, accurate representation of the world”.

“As traditional map building becomes less viable and less profitable, the traditional map builders are having to innovate.”

Mr Wrottesley is confident OS knows what its core customer wants: “We’ve been selling our services for 200 years.”

For OS – like others in the mapping industry – it’s about how to map the next few decades as well.

Source : [1]

10 toughest places for girls to go to school

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South Sudan has been named as the worst place in the world for education for girls

Debates about schools in richer countries are often about the politics of priorities, what subjects should be given most importance, who needs extra help and what needs more public spending.

But for families in many developing countries questions about education can be a lot more basic – is there any access to school at all?

Figures from the United Nations suggest there has been “almost zero progress” in the past decade in tackling the lack of school places in some of the world’s poorest countries.

A further report examined the quality of education, and the UN said the findings were “staggering”, with more than 600 million children in school but learning next to nothing.

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In Niger, four out of five adult women remain illiterate

While in affluent Western countries, girls are often ahead of boys in academic achievement, in poorer parts of the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, girls are much more likely to be missing out.

And on the UN’s International Day of the Girl, the development campaign, One, has created a ranking for the toughest places for girls to get an education.

Conflict zones

Across these 10 countries, most of those without school places are girls.

These are fragile countries, where many families are at risk from poverty, ill health, poor nutrition and displacement from war and conflict.

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Refugees displaced by fighting this summer in South Sudan

Many young girls are expected to work rather than go to school. And many marry young, ending any chance of an education.

UN figures indicate girls are more than twice as likely to lose out on education in conflict zones.

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Refugees in Chad: Conflicts have disrupted the educations of tens of millions

The rankings are based on:

  • the proportion of girls without a primary school place
  • the proportion of girls without a secondary school place
  • the proportion of girls completing primary school
  • the proportion of girls completing secondary school
  • the average number of years girls attend school
  • female illiteracy rates
  • teacher training levels
  • the teacher-pupil ratio
  • public spending on education

For some countries, such as Syria, there was insufficient reliable data for them to be included.

Here are the top 10 toughest places for girls’ education:

  • South Sudan: the world’s newest country has faced much violence and war, with the destruction of schools and families forced from their homes. Almost three-quarters of girls do not even make it to primary school
  • Central African Republic: one teacher for every 80 pupils
  • Niger: only 17% of women between the ages of 15 and 24 are literate
  • Afghanistan: wide gender gap, with boys more likely to be in school than girls
  • Chad: many social and economic barriers to girls and women getting education
  • Mali: only 38% of girls finish primary school
  • Guinea: the average time in education among women over the age of 25 is less than one year
  • Burkina Faso: only 1% of girls complete secondary school
  • Liberia: almost two-thirds of primary-age pupils out of school
  • Ethiopia: two in five girls are married before the age of 18
  • A shortage of teachers is a common problem across poorer countries.

    Last year, the UN said another 69 million teachers would need to be recruited worldwide by 2030 if international promises on education were to be kept.

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    Florence Cheptoo learned to read at 60, when her grandchild brought home a library book

    The report says there are great economic dividends if girls can be kept in school.

    And there are great gains for individuals, such as Florence Cheptoo, who lives in a remote village in Kenya and learned to read at the age of 60.

    Gayle Smith, president of the One campaign, called the failures in education for girls a “global crisis that perpetuates poverty”.

    “Over 130 million girls are still out of school – that’s over 130 million potential engineers, entrepreneurs, teachers and politicians whose leadership the world is missing out on.”

    More from Global education

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    Source : [1]

    Portsmouth owner Eisner’s journey from Disney to Pompey

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    Michael Eisner watched a lot of football in Europe and the US before buying Portsmouth

    Two decades at the helm of global entertainment giant Walt Disney might seem a strange apprenticeship for taking over a lower-level English football club, but Michael Eisner insists it is the latest logical move in his high-flying business career.

    The 75-year-old American completed his takeover of historic south coast club Portsmouth in August for £5.67m, buying it from fans who had stepped in with their own money to save the club.

    The club, nicknamed Pompey, had fallen on hard financial times since winning the FA Cup in 2008, and had dropped from the Premier League to the bottom tier, but did get promoted back to League One at the end of last season.

    • Michael Eisner completes takeover of Portsmouth
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    After a lifetime working for some of the biggest US and international TV and film firms, including ABC and Paramount as well as Disney, the native of New York state had launched his own investment firm, and was looking for interesting projects to back.

    Mr Eisner, whose net worth is estimated at $1bn (£760m), and his Tornante group will invest £10m in the club.

    ‘Passion is key’

    “What is an American guy doing getting involved with English football?,” he says.

    “Well, I am qualified for this new role. In a way I feel my whole career has led up to this.”

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    Portsmouth FC is starting out on what Mr Eisner hopes is a march back up the league tables

    Indeed, during his time in the entertainment industry Mr Eisner was involved in a number of sports-related projects, including TV scheduling, film production, and the acquisition of clubs.

    “There are differences between sport and entertainment – one must be scripted, planned, produced, and the other is more spontaneous, extemporaneous. But both have conflict, a climax and an ending,” he observes.

    “And whatever your brand, product, league, club – the idea of loyalty or passion is key.”

    And Eisner says it was the raucous fan reaction to Portsmouth winning promotion, and the League Two title, last season that was the final factor in convincing him to buy the club.

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    Mr Eisner says it was the passion of the fans that convinced him to buy Portsmouth FC

    “Because of this mad enthusiasm I found Pompey irresistible,” he said at the Leaders sports conference in London.

    “I had first heard about the possibility of acquiring the club when I was looking at the possibility of buying a US sports team. Investing in US sport is very expensive. The NFL has its physical problems which scare me.

    “It [football] just seemed a great thing to me and my family. We got hooked on the game in the UK.”

    ‘Excitement and history’

    Mr Eisner and his three sons, Breck, Eric, and Anders, make up the Portsmouth board, along with Andy Redman, president of Tornante, and Portsmouth FC chief executive Mark Catlin.

    Despite its recent woes the club has a strong heritage, winning the League title in 1949 and 1950, and FA Cup in 1939 as well as nine years ago.

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    Mr Eisner says he was struck by Portsmouth’s historic past

    “When I passed through the Fratton Park turnstiles I felt like I did when I stepped through the doors at Disney – a sense of excitement and of a rich history,” he says.

    “Portsmouth fans are passionate. [After] four strange owners the fans stepped in and bought the team.

    “Pompey fans had done a remarkable job but it seemed they would need additional investment to build the brand.”

    He says there were another reasons, apart from fan passion and history, that he and his family wanted to buy a football club.

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    The new owners say they have plans to upgrade Fratton Park stadium

    One is the fact that football has a global appeal, and also – in a currently fractured media landscape – “the only appointment-to-view [TV] is for sports events”.

    “Today, viewers can watch the shows they want any time they want on on multiple devices. But sport fans want to watch their teams compete in real time,” he says.

    That means that sports, and football, TV rights will always be in high demand by broadcasters looking for content.

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    Mr Eisner was introduced to the fans before the opening game of the season against Rochdale

    As well as the expertise and cash that Eisner is providing, he is also promising to improve the stadium and promote managerial stability.

    “Over time we will make the match day experience the pleasure it should be,” he says, adding the club will also continue to build on its strong community work, for which it has won a number of Football League awards.

    Michael Eisner: A Sporting Life

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    Michael Eisner at the launch of an ESPN sports-themed restaurant

    “At ABC TV in 1970 we made a crack in the traditional entertainment wall, by moving NFL Football to prime time on a Monday night. ABC was the smallest network and needed success,” he says.

    It became one of the longest-running prime time shows ever on commercial network TV.

    At Paramount he oversaw production of sports films Players, North Dallas Forty, and the Bad News Bears trilogy.

    In 1984 he became Disney chairman and the company produced the film The Mighty Ducks. Disney in 1993 then created an actual ice hockey team called the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, now the Anaheim Ducks. In 2006-07 the team won the NHL’s Stanley Cup.

    Disney also produced baseball film Angels in the Outfield in 1984. In 1997 Disney took over the California Angels team. It was renamed the Anaheim Angels and under Disney’s ownership won its first World Series championship in 2002.

    During Mr Eisner’s time at Disney it also acquired leading sports cable TV channel ESPN in 1996.

    His current private firm bought the Topps sports trading card firm in 2007. It is licensed to produce English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Uefa Champions League, and Indian Premier League cricket products.

    ‘Triumph of the underdog’

    Mr Eisner now says the club, which sits mid-table in League One, now needs stability and continuity on and off the playing field.

    He believes if club owners give their manager support, then the coaching team will have the confidence to lead the team to success.

    “If you look at the great sports teams, you try to find a great manager and stick with him through thick and thin,” he says.

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    Mr Eisner says there are similarities between Portsmouth and Disney fans

    He says he hopes current manager Kenny Jackett will be in the post for a decade, and oversee success during that time.

    “The Disney fans are similar to Portsmouth fans,” he says. “When I went there it was about to be broken up. The fans’ love of Disney helped support it.

    “All of Disney’s sports films had the same theme – the triumph of the underdog. With Portsmouth we hope to get it right in fact, not fiction.

    “We will get there – being slow, steady and smart.”

    Source : [1]

    Four solutions to the disposable coffee cup problem

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    Is the price of our growing addiction to takeaway hot drinks an ever higher mountain of landfill?

    Since last year, when we were all made aware of the UK’s unrecycled cup mountain, some of us have found it hard to buy a takeaway coffee without being wracked with guilt.

    In the UK, we throw away an estimated 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year. In theory, they are “recyclable”, but in practice, only a tiny percentage is dealt with sustainably.

    Yet so far, there’s no agreed way forward.

    Parliament’s environmental audit committee has been hearing the latest thoughts from campaigners and industry on how we can improve on our record in this area.

    A lot of the biggest names in takeaway beverages, including Caffe Nero, Costa Coffee, McDonald’s, Pret A Manger and Starbucks, have signed up to a scheme to collect and recycle more of the current type of cups. Costa is also collecting cups from rival brands in its shops.

    But others believe a more fundamental rethink would work better.

    Here are four ways the coffee cup waste problem might be tackled.

    1. Frugalpac: ‘Just change the cups’

    Conventional cups can be recycled, but only in special facilities, thanks to the lamination that makes them waterproof.

    Frugalpac, based in Ipswich in the UK, manufactures cardboard cups that can be recycled in regular recycling plants.

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    “We looked at this three years ago: everyone was blaming someone else, the cup makers, the coffee shops, councils. We thought, why don’t we go out there and solve the problem?” says Frugalpac’s founder, Martin Myerscough.

    He has a patent for his cup – made of recycled materials, with an only very lightly attached plastic lining (representing about 10% of the weight of the cup), that separates easily during recycling.

    It’s a more pragmatic solution, he argues, than trying to set up specialist collection points for conventional cups, because we already have recycling bins.

    He has done trials with independent coffee shops and is working with Starbucks.

    Of course, consumers will still have to remember to put them in the right bin, and he is still working on replacing the plastic lid.

    2. CupClub: ‘Like city bike rental for cups’

    Safia Qureshi points to chai wallahs in India as one of her initial inspirations. There, tea is poured into glasses that are washed and reused. We all used to drink milk and Coca Cola from returnable, reusable bottles.

    So why not coffee?

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    “The current model for reusable cups is that the consumer needs to buy the cup and take it in. The ratio of consumers doing that is 2% of all the total coffee sold,” she points out.

    Instead, she proposes that the customer joins Cup Club and picks up a reusable cup when they buy their coffee. It can be returned later to one of several collection points. Cup Club is responsible for collecting washing and redistributing the clean cups to participating retailers.

    Because the cups are tagged and registered to your account – using RFID, the same technology that’s on an Oyster travel card – Cup Club can text you a reminder if you’ve forgotten to return a cup and charge you if you keep it.

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    Cup Club

    “I’m very passionate about putting an end to products that are only used one time,” says Ms Quereshi “It’s a selfish and arrogant stance.”

    She’s starting with company offices and universities, but is aiming ultimately for a London-wide scheme.

    Its success will rely on enough retailers subscribing, but she has received an Ellen MacArthur Circular Design Challenge award, which will support her in developing the idea further.

    3. TrioCup: the origami cup

    Tom Chan, an engineering student from Hong Kong studying in the US, said he saw the coffee cups piling up in the rubbish bins outside his university building and wanted to do something about it.

    He has now patented his TrioCup, a triangular-shaped cardboard cup, with sticking up flaps “like bunny ears”. Those ears can be folded down and tucked in to close it.

    The entire cup is recyclable and, without the need for a separate plastic lid, potentially cheaper than normal cups.

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    “I decided if I were to make a new cup, it needed to have more features than just being eco-friendly,” he says.

    So he aimed for some other selling points too, such as spill-resistance.

    “From my anecdotal research, a lot more people spill their coffee than you think.”

    He says you can drop a TrioCup from waist height and most of the coffee will stay in the cup.

    He thinks the shape makes the cups easier to hold and gives them “a cool aesthetic”.

    Even the origami folding technique is pretty simple, he says.

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    Next month, Mr Chan, another recipient of an Ellen MacArthur award, will be making several thousand cups per week for use in the university coffee shop.

    4. Cupffee: the edible cup

    The ultimate waste-free cup, though, must be this: a coffee cup made of cereals that you can munch on like an ice cream cone, once you’ve downed your drink.

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    Three friends from Plovdiv in Bulgaria, Miroslav Zapryanov, Mladen Dzhalazov and Simeon Gavrailov, came up with their “waffle” recipe containing no preservatives, colourings or coatings a few years ago and have been working on commercialising it ever since.

    Apparently slightly sweet and crisp, it will hold your coffee for up to 40 minutes. And if you decide not to snack on it, it will biodegrade within weeks.

    They say they were inspired by a desire to change the world. They might only be changing the diets of a limited number of Bulgarian coffee drinkers, but they are ambitious.

    The founders say that with a shelf life of six months the Cupffee could meet the needs of the big High Street coffee chains.

    But many other firms are thinking along similar lines, at least when it comes to compostable cups.

    Companies such as Bristol-based Planglow have successfully commercialised what they say is fully biodegradable food packaging, including coffee cups.

    And they boast clients from restaurants to contract caterers, sandwich shops to Parliament, so policy makers presumably are familiar with this option.

    Source : [1]

    From fluffy pillows to concrete: The uses of captured CO2

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    Your fluffy pillows and memory foam mattress could be helping to reduce CO2

    Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are contributing to global warming, so could technologies removing some of the gas from the atmosphere help slow the process?

    When you tuck yourself into bed tonight – curling up on your memory foam mattress and fluffy pillows – consider this: you could be helping to reduce climate change.

    This is because CO2 can now be captured from the air and stored in a range of everyday items in your home and on the street.

    It can be used to make plastics for a whole host of things: the insulation in your fridge-freezer; the paint on your car; the soles of your shoes; and the binding of that new book you haven’t read yet.

    Even the concrete your street is made of could contain captured CO2.

    UK-based Econic Technologies has invented a way of encouraging CO2 – a typically unreactive gas – to react with the petrochemical raw materials used in the making of many plastics.

    In this catalysed form, the CO2 can make up to 50% of the ingredients needed for making plastic. And recycling existing CO2 in this way reduces the amount of new CO2 emissions usually resulting from the process.

    “Our aim is that by 2026, the technology will be used to make at least 30% of the polyols [the units making up plastic] made globally, and that would reduce CO2 emission by 3.5 million tonnes each year,” explains Rowena Sellens, chief executive of Econic Technologies.

    “This is equivalent to taking more than two million cars off the road.”

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    CarbonCure’s Robert Niven thinks his firm’s concrete is far more environmentally friendly

    The company is currently working with partners in industry to introduce its technology to market.

    Canadian company CarbonCure Technologies is recycling CO2 and putting it into concrete.

    CarbonCure takes waste CO2 from industrial emitters – such as fertiliser producers – and injects controlled doses of the liquid gas directly into the concrete truck or mixer.

    The reaction that takes place creates calcium carbonate particles that become permanently bound within the concrete – and make the concrete up to 20% stronger.

    Today, CarbonCure’s technology is installed in more than 60 concrete plants across Canada and the US, supplying hundreds of construction projects.

    Another company, Carbon Engineering, captures CO2 and uses it to make diesel and jet fuel. While Carbon Clean Solutions, in the Indian port of Tuticorin, captures CO2 from a coal-fired power plant and turns it into soda ash (sodium carbonate), an ingredient in fertilisers, synthetic detergents and dyes.

    But will such carbon capture efforts really make much difference?

    Simply put, levels of “greenhouse gases” – CO2, methane and nitrous oxide are the main ones – have been rising rapidly because we’ve been burning fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – to make electricity and power our transportation, amongst other human activities.

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    Should we be reducing the amount of CO2 used in making plastics, or simply using less plastic?

    At the 2015 Paris climate conference, 195 countries agreed to try to keep global temperatures to within 2C of pre-industrial times by reducing emissions.

    But to achieve this target by 2030, the world needs to cut emissions – CO2 accounts for about 70% – by 12 to 14 gigatonnes per year, says John Christensen, director of a partnership between the UN Environment Programme and the Technical University of Denmark.

    A gigatonne is a billion tonnes.

    Econic, by contrast, hopes that by 2026, its technology will be responsible for reducing CO2 emissions by 3.5 million tonnes each year.

    And CarbonCure has demonstrated that its technology can help a typical medium-sized concrete producer reduce CO2 emissions by 900 tonnes a year. Globally, the concrete industry could reduce CO2 emissions by more than 700 million tonnes a year, the company believes.

    “It’s great to have these options coming up,” says Mr Christensen, “but there’s no silver bullet, no single solution.”

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    Ashley Cooper

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    Greenpeace’s Doug Parr thinks renewable energy is a better way to reduce CO2 emissions

    Environmentalists are also concerned that such carbon capture technologies merely delay the fundamental shift society needs to make to become a low-carbon economy. A plastics factory producing less CO2 is still environmentally unfriendly, the argument goes.

    “Research into new technologies and approaches that can help reduce carbon emissions is vital, but it must not become an excuse to delay action on tackling the root of the problem – our dependence on fossil fuels,” says Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK.

    “A process that appears to reduce emissions or increase efficiency can lock us into maintaining industries that could be replaced with much greener options.”

    In addition, Mr Christensen points out that these carbon capture technologies tend to be very costly because they are so small-scale.

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    “The advances are positive but it’s far from what is needed,” he argues.

    Another challenge is what to do with the recycled carbon. Some have suggested burying it in the ground or deep under the ocean, but the consequences of this are not fully understood.

    So it’s better to reduce the amount of emissions we produce in the first place through increased use of renewable energies, such as wind, hydro and solar power, environmentalists argue. This could reduce emissions by up to 50% of the amount needed.

    “Use all the technologies available to bend the [emissions] curve down. Then carbon capture can come in,” says Mr Christensen.

    “It could have an important role to play.”

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