Friday, July 21, 2017

Sustainability Series Part - 2 - The plastics

Ask a Process engineer working in the oil and gas industry -  what the most valuable product coming out of refinery is, more often than not she/he would point at the plastics!! Yes Plastics!! They are a broad range of chemical compounds that have revolutionized our life. Take a moment to look around, the paints on the chair or the chair you are sitting, the window frames, your coke bottle, your favorite snickers wrapper and many more. You can throw a random dart and the probability of hitting some plastic coming out of a refinery is very high!! The fuels (diesel et al) are just a good byproduct that have some value and use. In this post let us look into what plastics are and how they influence our life!!

1. Are plastics really bad for environment? 
YES . There are several reasons why plastics are bad!!
a.Plastics are mostly non biodegradable. Meaning in not disposed in the right way, they will remain a few million years.
b. They are mainly produced from fossil fuels. You can never say goodbye to oil and gas until plastics' usage is reduced or an alternative is found.
c. The impact it has on animal diversity both on land and in ocean is damaging.
d. Many plastics are considered carcinogenic. Long term effects are not fully known yet, but research is putting plastics at the forefront of many physical damages.

2. What are the major types of plastics ?
While plastics can refer to a lot of synthetic materials, they can be broadly classified into 7 different types. Any plastic container or material that we use, has a marking in the bottom that helps us identify what kind of plastic it is. This identification is also used in segregating them for recycling when we dispose them.  
A good overview of the types of plastics can be found in:

Code Plastics Exp Recycling%   Toxicity     Use
1 PET Polyethyleneterapthelate     <30 td="">    medium     Avoid for storing food
High Density Polyethylene
   <30 nbsp="" td="">    Low     Good for use
3 PVC Poly Vinyl chloride    less    high     avoid  
Low density poly ethylene
   less    low     Good for use
5 PP Polypropylene    less    low     Good for use
6 PS Polystyrene    less    high     avoid
7 Other many types    N/A    Low  high    depends on the type 

Only number not complete in the article is number 7. More on that  later.

3. If plastics are this bad, why are we using?
Plastics are not all bad. They have immensely helped the world fight hunger and wastage (ironic is it not). They are light, resistant to heat and long lasting. This has helped in preserving food, transport different manufactured goods at fractional energy expense, make things waterproof etc etc.

4. Can plastics be made degradable?
Yes. There are couple of additives that can make plastics (bio)degradable.
a. Oxo additives for plastics. They are metallic additives and they make plastics degradable in a landfill. Jury is still out on this process as they leech out precious metals,
b. Enzyme based additives: Bio based additives that make plastics biodegradable. Still lot of research is underway.
It is important to note that these are just additives to normal plastics that we use.

5. What are green plastics? Are they biodegradable?
Green plastics are one of the most misunderstood terms. Not all green plastics are biodegradable. Green plastics are mostly normal plastics (from answer 2), but produced from bio based feedstock. They have have the same problems as the normal plastics. But they are better, as we become less dependent on fossil fuels and the production process emits lower CO2.

But there are other plastics that are completely different like PLA (poly lactic acid). The plastic made from lactic acid is biodegradable. They also come under code no 7 in question 2, with biodegradable written on it. Remember to throw them with compostable waste rather than  plastics. PLA is nowadays used extensively in 3D printing and food packaging. Some places where I have seen them are:,
1. TU delft campus (most of the disposable cups at least in the chemical engineering building are PLA.
2. The coffee company milkshake cups.
3. Leon restaurant in schipol airport

6. What is this Code no 7 then?
There are 2 main types of code 7, that I have seen. PC (Poly carbomate) - which are very bad as they are known carcinogenics. Other ones are the compostable ones - PLA. Usually there is no recycle foe this number.

Plastics are very much necessary for our sustenance. At the same time we much understand the consequence of using them and be sensible in using the right kind of plastic for the right use (Eg - Water bottles should not PET/PS and use PP, Using PLA for packaging and disposable plastic cutlery ).

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The sustainability series Part -1: Electric vehicles

Climate change and sustainability are 2 topics that we as a society need to understand and then come to have an opinion.  In this post, I will try to answer a few pressing questions that I feel are necessary to understand the application of a topic. I want discuss some critical issues in simple words. I am not going to give sources of the numbers. Having tried my best to get the numbers right, the main aim of this post is to trigger some curiosity and make the readers decide on their own on what to do next.

Before you read, I am not a climate change skeptic. I believe that climate change and associated pollution are one of the greatest challenges of our generation. Also I work in the oil and gas industry.  In the first post, I will look into electric vehicles.

1. What are the different types of vehicular pollution??
There are different types of vehicular pollution.  

  •        Particulate matter (PM). These particles of soot and metals give smog its murky color. 
  •          Total Hydrocarbons (THC) - Vaporised and unburnt fuel from the vehicle
  •          Nitrogen oxides (NOx) - Oxidation of N2 in the fuel
  •          Carbon monoxide (CO) - Partically oxidized fuel
  •          Sulfur dioxide (SO2) - Sulphur in the fuel
  •          Carbon di oxide (CO2). - Oxidation of fuel

2. Is there vehicular emission from Electric vehicles?
There is no emission from electric vehicles.

3. Does this mean if I use Electric vehicles, there are no CO2 emissions?
Nope. The electricity generation is always associated with emissions.  
For example, In India 80% of the total electricity comes from fossil fuels. (Coal, gas and oil). There are cases, when an EV could result in more net CO2 emission if the electricity is from a dirty source of electricity.

4. How can a user understand the CO2 emission from the use of EVs?
 This is where things like Life cycle Analysis help (LCA). This is used to understand the environmental impact of energy use. More on that later. It’s clear that if the electricity is from a dirty source, the advantage of EVs is significantly reduced.

5. Then is an EV really advantageous?
There are a couple of hidden benefits.
  •   Reduced pollution in the cities. Depending on your source, the vehicular pollution causes close to 30 % of net pollution. City like delhi would benefit from all public transport converted to electric vehicles.
  •    Single source of CO2 emission. When all the vehicles burn CO2, the source of pollution is distributed all around. Now a power plant is a single source and there are easier measures to prevent pollution from power plants like CCUS (Carbon capture Utilization and storage). 

5. What percent of the total vehicles on road are electric?
Less than 1%

6. If electric vehicles are so good, why has it not become a success
There are a few reasons for that.
  •       The best of the electric cars will go about 300 km on road and it would take about an hour to recharge fully from the best of charging stations.
  •        Cost is an issue. But the numbers are coming down rapidly.
  •         The infrastructure around charging. Most of the world is not ready to move to EVs just yet. It requires tremendous effort from the governments to set up the infrastructure.
  •         Lack of awareness amongst people. This is once again a very big hurdle. There is nothing black or white and it’s important to understand what is necessary.

7. What is the auther’s outlook on EVs?
EVs are the future long term. Short term depends on the lot of factors. Tesla will be keenly looked upon. Their success could influence the success of the EVs in the next few years.  

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Confessions of an arm chair critic

Before going any further, let us all for a moment watch this incredible scene from the movie ratatouille.  

To quote Ego, "In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so" 

Such an insightful quote from an equally insightful movie. In a way most of us or at least I am sure of myself , belong to the category that is worse than a piece of junk than the junk itself. I find it incredibly easy to say a solution is wrong. Its the easiest thing to do. But when it comes to the finding the solution, the whole brain thingi  goes to the drain. While  being a critic comes to us naturally, listening to one does not. Being a toastmaster, giving feedback is an integral part of the educational program. While giving feedback it is always asked to sandwich a negative feedback  between positive things. This is a something toastmasters as an organization has learnt over the years.

So why am I writing about things that seem so random and out of context. Recently I read this article from the guardian "Guardian article about negative comments". With the advent of the digital revolution we have access to plethora of information. This is a great power, and of course with this great power comes great responsibility. There is an unusual surge in the right wing, rather extreme thoughts through out the world.

Over the past year or so there are loads of issues creeping up in and around me, particularly from india that has made me and many of us take a stand. Ofcourse each of us have a right to take a stand as much as the other person. Let me start with things close to my heart. The whole intolerance debates. Amir Khan or Shah rukh khan who said that there is a growing sense of intolerance around us. They might be right or they might be wrong, one thing that we must respect is their right to speech. Without going into the merits of their statements what is completely unacceptable, is the reaction of the people who are both for and against their stand. What followed was an incredible name calling and swear exchanges, where terms like presstitudes, AAPtards, bakhts etc etc. Why have we become so sensitive to criticism and why do we get hurt so easily.

Historically there have been many such debates where personalities more than idealogies have dominated. Closer to home, the debates Ambedkar vs Gandhi, Bose vs Gandhi are definitely the top picks. In the social media we can always find people sharing how the country would have been different if the other had been in charge. For example, let us take the Bose vs Gandhi debate for instance. Both wanted complete freedom for India. How it would be achieved is where the difference rose. While Bose wanted an Indian version of fascism (Without the racism bit), Gandhi was in favour of step changes, with Indians slowly taking control rather than going for immediate complete independence (Source : From the book "Bose in Nazi Germany", Bose had lived in Germany for about 2 years trying to persuade the Axis powers to invade India).  Both the ideologies have their merits, and Gandhi being a better tactician and people's person, had persuaded the majority to follow his ideology.

Does this mean the two lost their mutual respect! When INA officers were arrested in 1945, Gandhi went on a fast seeking their release. Nehru was the chief  defendant for the INA officers. The term, Father of Nation was bestowed upon Gandhi by Bose himself, while Gandhi called him the "Prince among the patriots". Source [Bose's address to MK Gandhi from Rangoon]. We cannot get back in time and verify if these statements are true. But what is clear was a clear mutual respect and accepting to agree to disagree. Researching for this article, I came across these 2 letters,
Bose to Gandhi
Gandhi to Bose 
This shows a clear mutual respect and admiration.

There is a beauty in having a difference of opinion. Time and again it is nice to have our beliefs shattered. Thats how we grow up. But once we grow we somehow forget what helped us grow in the first place. We have over the years lost our ability to listen, be tolerant and question our on beliefs. I really hope there is a more mature interaction, where different ideas can coexist. India in particular has had unity in diversity in her DNA through out the history. Our first prime minister was an atheist, who was a protege of a staunch believer, and had a law minister who hated both their ideologies, home minister who was more right than liberal. I wish we could learn from that and  have constructive respectful conversations. And yes, I am dreaming. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The ticket

He has been in chennai for more than a year now. Though he is long way away from his  home, he had grown quite fond of his adopted home. One of the biggest challenges he faced daily was his commute from Koyambedu to Chrompet (The commute path for the benefit of the readers here). A stretch that is 17 km, usually takes something between 1 to 2 hours depending on the mood of the traffic. The travel in the bus  was quite simple. Get in, get a ticket from the conductor and then go to sleep. Getting a seat was hardly a problem as his stop coincided with the start of the bus route. He knew the route like  the back of his palm and could navigate with ease using the public transport.

He was very tired due to an ever increasing work load. He had been contemplating getting a  motor bike to ease his commute. He  nonchalantly entered the bus that was standing in the bus stand. He saw scores of people walking by. The average commute time was easily over a hour for a travelling professional. He could now rest in peace for the good part of next 2 hours. The bus was getting full and as it started, he saw the conductor navigating slowly through the crowd and coming towards him.

In order to help the conductor he wanted to keep the change ready for the tickets. As he counted the coins and to his surprise he had 2 full rupees short. For a moment he was stunned and confused and missed a stop where  he could have  got down. He conductor was close to him and quickly thought of a plan. " Bhaiya, 1 ticket Anna Nagar" he said confidently. The conductor looked at him with   disappointment. In the local language Tamil, the conductor started saying, that the  bus is not going in that direction and he is in the wrong one. He looked at  the conductor confused. People who saw the incident unfold, began to explain to him in broken Hindi and English about what he should be doing. The conductor gestured him to get off and get the bus in the opposite direction. And obliged with a confused and a small smile unnoticed by others, he got down at Kasi theater.

Within minutes another fully packed bus arrived and took him. Since the conductor was in the front and it was already late he took his own sweet time to issue tickets to the passengers of the backside door. But he could not escape for a long time. He was asked for ticket after the second bus stop. Though he had enough money, he was high on the adrenaline and used his trick here too. "Before getting in, why don't you silly fellow see the bus number properly? Now the driver will stop at alandur bus depo. You can get down there." Shouting at him, the conductor moved to the next person. He was extremely happy for having covered a long distance without any ticket. When he got down from the bus, he heard someone sympathizing him in Tamil. "Poor boy! He has to go back all the way to get his bus now. He doesn't even know the language". Some one else helped him by telling the number of the bus, which would take him to his destination. He thanked him whole-heartedly for his kind gesture on him and walked away, with a painful smile.

By this time he had become very bold. As the next crowded bus came along, He consoled himself for becoming a liar and decided to have a complete free journey on that account. He remained at the back and wanted to get down as soon as he could. He was calm and was masking his nervousness enjoying the view from the footboard. He had a terrible shock when he saw the ticket checker waiting at the entrance, where he was supposed to get down. He showed the folded ticket which was used by him in the morning and disappeared  as quickly as possible.

He could not believe his luck. Slowly guilt and pettiness started clouding him. He saw an old man sitting by the road side. He gave the old man the rest of the coins he had and started walking home.  

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Football

It was  getting boring for Ramesh. He was not good at this at all. He was the last defender and one of the least involved players in the playground. It is the unspoken rule to make the worst player in group the goalkeeper and the next worst as the last defender. It was amazing that he was one of the fastest runners in the class, almost making it to the school athletics team, still found himself considered one of the worst players in the pitch. He did not mind because, it gave him enough time to take rest in between the multitude of special classes he had to attend. He was standing almost 25 yards away from the action. The ground was large and was  divided into several small sections with each group playing a different sport. It was surrounded by tall buildings all around.

This time around,  2 classes were sharing the ground.  The boys played football and the girls played dodgeball or chocho. The boundary between chocho and football pitches was non existent.  Ramesh was getting bored. He wanted to spice up the whole occasion, after all it was the first PT period after the monsoons. He got an idea. He wanted to spoil the girls' game by hitting the football into the chocho pitch. Stella was busy playing along the edges of the football pitch. She was one of the most studious students in the class and sat in Ramesh's adjacent desk in the classroom. She was also a teachers' favorite. Ramesh had his pick for the girl to target. With a wicked smile he set about putting his good evil plan into action. Stella was playing in his close proximity.

Wanting to get more involved in the play, he pushed up and started shouting for the ball to be passed to him. He wanted to play in such a way that, everyone would think that the ball was unintentionally hit at the girls. One right moment came. An opponent was progressing quite fast towards the goal. Ramesh quickly moved across and tried to hit the ball as hard as he could. To his embarrassment he kicked thin air and the ball hardly changed directions. The opponent was past him in a jiff, Ramesh refusing to give up chased him. He got to the ball and this time caught the ball near perfectly. He had hit the ball perfectly in exactly the right direction he wanted to. To his horror he had caught the ball too well and could well bodily hurt her. Involuntarily he shouted "Stella, ball!!".

There was  a huge thud sound. Stella alerted by Ramesh, expertly evaded the ball. But Ramesh, keeping his eye on the ball had failed to notice the goal post near by and hit the post hard. He was knocked out cold. When he slowly opened his eyes, he felt a bloody nose and Stella was sprinkling some water on him.

20 years down the line, Stella was angry. "Ramesh, see what a brat your son is turning out to be. I dont think I can handle him anymore!!".

"Dont worry stella!! I will take care of it."

With a straight face, Ramesh called his son separately. He winked at him and said, "Its ok to be naughty some times".

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The long journey

It was getting cold. The new place had bare minimum stuffs. They have been here for a couple of weeks.  He was yearning for the warmth of his bed, the secure feeling his wall used to give him, the sound of kids playing in the street, the  vendors shouting their throat off to sell their meager possessions and the aroma of the mom’s food.  His mother's cooking did not have the aroma anymore. His sister was too small to remember the past and his parents were really happy to not to remember the past. They were glad that 2 years of running had come to an end.  It was only he who missed his buddies, the brown sand, the fun associated with the dirt and the happiness related to the scorching sun.  Now even the milk and the water tasted different.

His mother called him to go to the market to get some vegetables. It was cold. He had to dress up for at least 10 minute before he could step out of the house, while he saw the kids play in the street in their tshirts. The neighborhood was clean and he could hear almost zilch sound.  The people looked so different, they smelt different. They spoke a language he did not understand.  His parents have been telling him constantly that the place is safe. He has been o the school only once. Not many kids could talk to him or wanted to talk to him.

He walked hiding behind his mother. The sun was bright outside, he was still feeling cold. There were a few kids playing in a caged football ground. One of the kids was down injured and the football had rolled out of the ground. Involuntarily he moved forward and hit the ball back into the field and quickly ran to walk behind his mother.

One of the kids came outside the caged field and called out and asked him if he would like to play with them. Another kid even spoke the language he understood. The kid felt elated and was not feeling down anymore. He looked at his mother with the hope that she would nod her head.  His mother could sense the excitement in his eyes and slowly nodded her head. In no time the kid ran off into the cage and she sat on the bench nearby. For the past few months he had his football for company and tired the tricks he had once seen. He was never bored of practicing alone, but nothing felt remotely close to playing on the field. It was his field now.

He did not have the shoes to play on this field nor was he in the right attire, but that did not matter. He did not understand a word other boys were talking. The first pass he got, his mind froze and he passed it on to an opponent.  The boys were stronger, but was not about to give up. He took his time to understand the players around him. The boys were all powerful and good athletes, but he was nimble and very fast,  and had the desire to keep running forever. His teammates had slowly started noticing him and see how good he was and he got the ball more often.

The game was getting more and more interesting and passionate. He was slowly but surely winning over admirers. And there was that moment on the pitch. One of the boys won the ball and passed it on him. He evaded a couple of challenges and moved towards the goal. There was another boy running parallel along with him shouting for the ball. He understood for the first time the words he was talking. He waited for the right moment to pass the ball to him to score!!! And he started feeling at home.

P.S: The title is credited to a recent toastmaster speech I had heard. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Question

“Hello, Is it Sita? Ramesh’s mother?”

“Yes speaking.”

“I am calling from the KV Karaikal. I am Ramesh’s class teacher. I want to talk to you about Ramesh. Can you please come to the school?”

A bewildered Sita was taken back. “Is he doing allright? What happened to him?”

“Nothing Mam. We want to talk to you about him. That’s it”

Sita did not understand why she would be called to the school. Though not very bright, Ramesh was a courteous boy and rarely got into fights. But this was a new school and he just started going to school alone. She had a swirl in her stomach, with an unknown fear and rushed to the School.

Ramesh was standing outside the teachers’ room waiting for his mom to come. It was his punishment to stand there.  He was hanging his head down and could hear whispers behind him.  He wished the teacher hadn’t called his mom.  The principle’s room along with teachers rooms were the first building a person would bump into when entering the school.

When Sita entered the school she could already see Ramesh standing in front of one of the rooms. She was rather relieved that Ramesh was fine. But Ramesh standing there made her curious. As she went closer to ramesh, her teacher walked out.

“Hello Mrs Sita. Good afternoon. I’m Ramesh’s class teacher”

“What happened to Ramesh? Why is he standing outside ? What did he do?” She enquired with a concerned tone.

“Ramesh has become a bad influence on his class mates.”

It had all started in the morning. Like any other day he was cycling to his school.  He was new to this school and city. It required lot of crying and fight to get to use the cycle.  Recently moving into double digit age corridor, Ramesh was feeling important. His usual road was blocked and had to take a detour travelling through a different path.  It’s a road he had not taken and was warned not to take this road. The new road had a lot of bumps.

‘Thud’ He hit one of the bumps and fell down. He fell side on and the cycle was crushing him from the top. Quickly a lady who was standing near by came to help him. She instantly removed the cycle.

“Are you feeling alright?” she enquired.

Ramesh started to sob a bit though had no major injuries. She dusted him off and asked “ Do you want something to drink”?

Suddenly a man jumped in out of nowhere and pushed away the lady.

“Don’t touch the boy.  Now you want to spoil small kids too? You dirty prostitute” The lady was saddened and walked aside. He quickly turned to the boy and strongly grabbed his shoulder “you should not be talking to that lady.  Now keep going to the school.”

Ramesh was stunned. He couldn't understand what happened. The one who was nice to him ended up crying and ran away, while the one who had hurt him, felt accomplished.

Curiosity had gotten over him. "What is a 'prostitute' mam?",  Ramesh asked this question to his teacher with his widened eyes after reaching school. His teacher was shocked to hear this and still thinking of what would have led to this inquisitiveness.

"Where did you learn this word from?" She asked in utter rage and shock. She instantly had called up his mother.

And Sita was in the school facing his teacher.

“Ramesh is being led in the wrong company and it can affect the kids around him” she said concerned. She even threatened them about taking this issue to the Principal if he carried on with this shenanigan. Sita assured her it was be the last time Ramesh does something like this. When Ramesh narrated the whole incident to this mother, his mother’s response surprised him. She told him sternly not to talk about this again.

Ramesh wasn't that young to not be able to differentiate the injustice being done to that girl, but he was not old enough too to understand the reasons behind it. In the evening he was determined to know why people were behaving so strange around him.  When he returned from the school he reached to the cupboard in the storage room and dusted down his father’s old websters dictionary without his mother knowledge.

25 years later.

Ramesh was walking in his house’s garden with his older daughter who had just turned 8.

“Appa what is the meaning of the word prostitute”? She asked.