Plastic bag in ocean

Chile bag ban, Ribena hair dye, Google sunroof and more: Picks of the week’s news

Image credit: Dreamstime

E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Chile set to become first country in Americas with plastic bag ban

The competition to be the greenest country in Latin America hots up. Following Costa Rica’s recent announcement that it will completely abolish fossil fuels, now Chile has stepped up to the environmental plate with a Senate vote to ban shops from handing out plastic bags throughout the country. According to the Association of Plastic Industries (Asipla), Chileans use more than 3.4 billion plastic bags per year (more than 200 per person per year), with each bag getting less than 30 minutes of use. Ninety-seven per cent of these bags end up in landfills, oceans or are dumped illegally. Those statistics are hardly unique to Chile: it’s the sad, pathetic tale of plastic bags the world over and – as we all know – they’re choking the life out of the world’s oceans, along with a toxic torrent of other plastic waste flooding out of the world’s rivers into the sea. The very least we can all do, in whatever country in the world we live, is to do as the Chilean people are now doing and say #ChaoBolsasPlásticas (#ByePlasticBags).

Chemists transform Ribena leftovers into sustainable hair dyes

Take a walk around any town or city, anywhere in the world, and within the space of just a few minutes you are likely to see a rainbow of dyed hair parading before your eyes. While a blue or lilac rinse used to be the sole preserve of the octogenarian lady, now every colour on the hair spectrum is enjoyed by boys and girls, men and women, of all ages, whether their hair is ankle-length or pixie-crop short. Whatever colour you’re rocking – whether its ombres, balayages, mermaid hair, ice blonde (umm, grey?) or any combination you dare to dream up – a hair dye product is at the core of the shade-shifting process. A lot of these dye products are toxic – even potentially fatal – to humans and other lifeforms and their disposal down the drains of hair salon sinks and home bathrooms is environmentally questionable. Now, researchers based at the University of Leeds have used natural dyes extracted from, of all places, the waste from the Ribena manufacturing process to create sustainable, non-toxic hair dye. It’s not just purple, either – the pigments in the Ribena by-product can, in fact, create myriad dye colours. As one of the researchers put it, nature makes amazing colours.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Google launches ‘Project Sunroof’ solar power service in UK

This sounds like a pretty good idea. It only operates in a fairly restricted number of areas but you have to start somewhere. For me there are two reasons for not investing in solar panels on my roof. One is the large initial investment – according to this calculator it would take something in the order of 10 years to recover the cost. The other is that they are still pig ugly. I am not sure where we are on the first point, but surely it represents good value for the power generation companies and the government if it is to meet its renewables targets, so maybe further financial incentives would make sense to soften the blow in the first place, either centrally or from the electricity suppliers.

Looks are more subjective. I think solar panels are pig ugly; my son, who has just escaped his teens, thinks they look pretty cool – futuristic even. One of the problems is that they come in standard sizes that never seem to quite fit properly on a roof in a way that would make them look like a considered part of ecologically sound design, rather than as an afterthought that has been bolted on. That is changing now, of course. Alongside the standard panels there are now non-standard sizes and colours, options for small panels that can be overlaid to effectively replace a traditional roof fabric, and even panels that look like slates and tiles. The latter have been introduced by Tesla and have just started to be rolled out in the US – and they look pretty good. Like traditional roofing with a bit more sparkle. However, price drops along with aesthetics and the large black panels with white grids on them are still the budget option. It will change, but with PV technology so refined these days it is surprising a pioneering housebuilder hasn’t thrown its weight behind full solar roofing.

Incidentally, if you use the Google sunroof website to find out if you can get an immediate quote or not – you can, but depending where you are you need to input more details – it asks if your house is occupied during the day. Maybe I am turning into one of those people who trusts no one, but while putting in an address is something we are all used to, I get a bit twitchy at the thought of revealing when the house is vacant.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Drone operators could get jail time for flying near airports

As with many new technologies, getting the engineering right is only part of the story. There’s already a drone code, but now it will have the backing of the law. Drones in the UK (apart from those under 250g) will have to be registered and users will need to pass an online safety test. While that won’t stop the occasional idiot thinking it’s funny to fly close to a conventional aircraft, it does mean that it will be easier to prosecute them for it and jail the worst offenders.

AI outperforms doctors at skin cancer diagnosis

An international team of researchers have demonstrated the ability of an artificial intelligence algorithm to detect the most lethal form of skin cancer – melanoma. In tests, the system missed fewer melanomas than dermatologists did, and misdiagnosed fewer benign moles – but in fact the dermatologists did pretty well too. This isn’t going to make doctors redundant, but with development it might become a useful tool in their armoury.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Chemists transform Ribena leftovers into sustainable hair dyes

I can’t agree more with the scientist, quoted in the above news story, about a certain ‘serendipity’ of making something sustainable out of something… er… not-too-sustainable. According to the Daily Mail, furious customers blasted the new recipe of Ribena introduced earlier this year with reduced sugar content as tasting “like drain cleaner”. Can drain cleaner become a potential by-product of the new, less sugary Ribena’s useful dregs, I wonder? Inspired by the University of Leeds chemists’ initiative, I’d like to suggest possible uses for the leftovers of some other popular soft drinks. The dregs of Irn Bru as window cleaning liquid? Of Coke as nail polish remover? Of J2O as ant killer? Of Pepsi as superglue? Ginger beer as all of these? To avoid legal action from the powerful manufacturers of these non-alcoholic drinks, let me stress that all my suggestions are made solely as a jest and should not be taken seriously or – least of all – tried at home.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Chile set to become first country in Americas with plastic bag ban

If the people of Chile would like some reassurance that a decision by the country’s Senate to ban shops from giving out plastic bags doesn’t mean the end of the world as they know it, they could do worse than take a look at British newspaper headlines from a couple of years ago, before a similar law was introduced in the UK. After a couple of months of cursing every time we got to the tills and realised we hadn’t brought our own bags and would have to actually pay for a few new ones, everyone got the hang of the system and – in my experience of supermarket shopping – doesn’t venture out without at least one reusable carrier about their person.

The actual situation was very different to the widespread predictions of checkout Armageddon that the Chilean media may even now be forecasting, and has played a part in a welcome rethink about single-use plastics. An interesting statistic hidden in this story is that the average life of one of the 3.4 billion plastic bags used in the South American country each year is less than 30 minutes before it’s binned or just dumped. Not everyone’s going to be able to head out with a shopping basket that’s going to last them years and years, but there’s got to be a better alternative.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Chemists transform Ribena leftovers into sustainable hair dyes

I do like me some Ribena and I do partake in dyeing my hair unnatural colours, so I’m down for this. Some hair enthusiast researchers from the University of Leeds used natural dyes from Ribena waste to make the colour – OK, maybe I’m not so enthusiastic now. Blackcurrant poop on my hair? Perhaps not. Anyway, the sustainable, non-toxic hair dye is much better for your hair than synthetic products, which can damage the environment and your health. Apparently, normal hair dye is a possible risk factor for cancer. Yelp. And allergic reactions aren’t a great selling point either. Stuff called anthocyanins, which are found in blackcurrants and other fruits, could be a great alternative to synth dyes. The pigments – responsible for pink, red, purple and blue colours in fruit, berries and flowers – are water soluble, non-toxic, and bond strongly with hair. Awesome. I’ve loved the purple stuff ever since I was a toddler, and I am still partial to a glass of sugary goodness, so I may be up for trying it out if it ever comes to market. If I don’t think of it as fruit poop.

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