Saturday, the 15th of September

Talking points

The news cycle has moved on but Catalonia hasn't. PHOTO: Alejandro Garcia / Zuma Press
  1. A million Catalonians rallied for independence in Barcelona - a clear challenge to the new Spanish government
  2. The European Parliament adopted sweeping new copyright legislation with major implications for tech. platforms
  3. Saudi-led militias in Yemen resumed their assault on Hodeidah even as the UN warned of 'incalculable' loss of civilian life
  4. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma outlined a 12-month succession plan as he prepares to hand over the reigns of Alibaba
  5. Russian nationals charged with the botched novichok attack in Salisbury claimed they were merely tourists
  6. Aid groups believe at least 100 people died off the Libyan coast as yet another migrant ship was wrecked crossing the Mediterranean
  7. A George Soros-funded university in Budapest became the flashpoint between an increasingly illiberal Orban government and the EU
  8. Pope Francis summoned his bishops to Rome for a crisis meeting and blamed the devil for the church's rampant sex abuse and coverups
  9. 12 people died and 40 were injured when a car plowed into pedestrians in Hunan
  10. An Egyptian court handed down death sentences to 75 people involved in a largely-peaceful sit-in

Deep Dive

Boyan Slat's vision materialises. PHOTO: New Zealand Herald

At the age of 16 Boyan Slat was challenged. On a diving trip to the Mediterranean the Dutch teenager was abhorred by the sheer amount of plastic underwater. This week, at the ripe old age of 24, he unveiled a response to the problem of oceanic pollution.

Holding back the tide
A 600m-long U-shaped floating boom was towed out of San Francisco harbour this week. Slat's company, The Ocean Cleanup, is taking its enormous trash-collector and depositing it in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It will act as an artificial coastline, collecting flotsam both above and below the surface (with its 3-metre-deep skirt). When fully operational it will be attended every few months by collection ships that will bring the gathered waste back to shore.

The Ocean Cleanup's name belies a herculean task. There are 1.8 trillion pieces of 'surface plastic' bobbing about in a garbage patch twice the size of Texas. Slat plans to tackle these by having 60 booms operating by 2020. But even then, it will take several years to halve the amount of refuse in it.

Researchers believe they've found another two floating garbage patches (which means the patch in question is now just one of seven). But even this doesn't adequately describe the scale of the mess. All the surface plastic put together still only accounts for a mere 1% of the plastic waste in the ocean. A truly mind-blowing 10 million tons of plastic waste finds its way into oceans every year. And it takes 500 years to break down. So Slat's effort is highly commendable but cleaning our oceans will remain a Sisyphean task unless the free-flow of waste into them is curbed.

A drop in the ocean
The gargantuan figures above cast public responses to reduction measures in sharp relief. The crusade against plastic straws may well seem futile but it should be viewed as a launch pad rather than an end in and of itself. Plastic bags fall in the same boat (or at least under it). At present the human race uses 500 billion disposable plastic bags per year, and that number is still rising. 

Individual action is crucial, especially when it spurs change across an entire community. But the collective power of legislation and regulation remains the cornerstone of any action to curb plastic waste. Take the French ban on plastic water bottles in schools, or the London Marathon doing the very same. 

There is some evidence that these measures are beginning to change consumer behaviour. For the first time ever consumer outlook research shows that plastic packaging, not price, is starting to become a primary consideration for shoppers.

Funnily enough the recent Chinese ban on foreign recycling waste has spurned more action than any single event in living memory. It has forced wealthier countries to consider how they can deal with their own waste rather than simply exporting it. Slat's home, the Netherlands, is a perfect example. In one town plastic equivalent to 220,000 plastic cups (that could have been exported) was transformed into a 30 metre stretch of durable bike path.

We'll leave you with another positive: while we may not be able to clean up the mess we've made, fungi might. A recent paper from a team of over 100 scientists representing 18 countries have broken fascinating new ground. It's been discovered that several exotic types of fungi can break down plastics. If harnessed these organisms might be the key to decomposing our plastic waste en masse. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you are reading this on Saturday the 15th then you should know that the Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup is today. Last year over 100 countries participated in this simple and affirming action. If you live near the coast and want to find out more, click here.


Super Typhoon Mangkhut menaces South East Asia. PHOTO: AFP
Fruit and fury
As you read this Super Typhoon Mangkhut will be wreaking havoc across the Philippines. Mangkhut, the Thai word for mangosteen, will no doubt uproot a fair few namesake orchards in the coming days. 

It is a truly colossal storm system; 900 kilometres wide with wind-speeds topping 250 kilometres per hour. Evacuations in the Philippines were launched mid-week but an estimated 10 million people still remain in Mangkhut's path. A storm surge of six-metres (20 feet) is expected to flatten entire villages across the archipelago. Millions more will also be affected if, as predicted, Mangkhut turns toward the south coast of China. 

Meanwhile, hurricane Florence slammed into the US eastern seaboard yesterday and began dumping a titanic amount of rain on the Carolinas. Florence slowed on approach and was downgraded from a Category 4 to a Category 2 storm but still poses a danger to communities. While the wind-speeds have dropped it is still expected that North Carolina will receive a deluge of 40 inches. 
A date which will live in infamy. PHOTO: Masatomo Kuriya / Corbis
Manhattan's unbidden anniversaries
On Tuesday Americans marked the 17th anniversary of a terror attack that redefined global politics. Today the gleaming Freedom Tower stands where twisted metal once lay. But deeper scars have not yet healed. Islamophobia remains a tenacious prejudice not only in America but around the world. And the "war on terror" - a nebulous concept in 2001 and a completely meaningless one now - has claimed countless lives in every corner of the Earth. Looking back, Foreign Policy ponders a difficult question: did al-Qaeda win?

Another cataclysm was remembered this week, though it emanated from midtown Manhattan. On 15th September 2008 Lehman Brothers collapsed. The giant investment bank had become dangerously overextended in real estate and was mortally wounded by the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Washington knocked back a bail-out plea and Lehman went under, wiping out $619 billion in assets. This was the cliff-edge that precipitated the global financial crisis.

Ominously - after a decade of uneven recovery, America has returned to pre-crisis levels of debt and cheap credit. 

The Best Of Times...

Opposites attract. PHOTO: GREMM 
A whale of a time
This week researchers made a startling discovery in Canada's St Lawrence river: a local pod of beluga whales was spotted frolicking with a newcomer. Amongst these hulking, bulbous white cetaceans was a very lost, grey narwhal. These extraordinary tusked creatures - often referred to as "unicorns of the sea" - are not known to interact with belugas. Yet here was a specimen, more than 1,000 kilometres beyond its usual range, playing games with juvenile males of another species. 

Peace ambassadors
South Korea's Unification Ministry has made good on its promise to open a liaison office in the North. With a footprint of 15-20 South Korean staff the building will become the nexus for communications between Seoul and Pyongyang. It's believed that special envoys from both countries will meet on a weekly basis. The Koreas are setting an example for the rest of our increasingly divided world.

The Worst Of Times...

Your smartphone starts here. PHOTO: Scott Patterson / WSJ

Assault and batteries
You're reading this sentence on a device powered by a lithium-ion battery. Heat is conducted in the battery through a rare chemical element, cobalt. It's no secret that in the past this metal has been mined under despicable conditions in central Africa. It's a familiar story: expendable workers, child labour, illegal mines, war lords. Back in 2016 a major report into the horrors of cobalt-production prompted technology manufacturers to improve their supply chains. Progress has been slow and piecemeal: illegally-mined cobalt continues to enter our phones and electric cars.

Uighur worries
There is a growing war of words between aid groups and Beijing over the mistreatment of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang. The United Nations had heard evidence that as many as one million people languish in "re-education camps". Chinese authorities deny everything. This week some more information seeped out of the security blanket enveloping Xinjiang: what behaviours authorities are on the lookout for. These infractions include (but are certainly not limited to): owning a tent, owning multiple knives, wearing a scarf in the presence of the Chinese flag, telling others not to swear, growing a full beard, speaking with someone abroad, and abstaining from cigarettes. Yes, you read that right.

Weekend Reading

Featured long-reads from inkl publishers:
Tom Wharton


Quote of the week... 
“One could surmise that male executives are more prone to speaking simply to hear themselves speak.” - Evan Schnidman, CEO of the aptly named market-research company Prattle, reveals that men speak 92% of the time on company conference calls. Zip it.

What to watch next week
Macedonia. Things are heating up on either side of the border ahead of the name-change referendum later in September. Aggrieved Greeks are promising to disrupt the vote by any means necessary.

One last thing
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