Friday, 23 December 2011

New aviation biofuels - a major breakthrough?

Back in October, there was a wave of publicity hailing a major breakthrough in development of alternative jet fuel. Virgin Atlantic announced that it was working in partnership with two biofuel firms, Lanzatech and Swedish Biofuels, pioneering a process to produce jet fuel from waste gas emissions from steel plants. Carbon monoxide (CO) from steel plants, usually flared off as carbon dioxide, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, are being compressed and converted into fuel. A pilot project is underway in New Zealand, a demonstration plant has been commissioned in Shanghai, commercial operations are scheduled to commence by 2014, with the fuel initially used for flights from Shanghai and Delhi to London. Sir Richard Branson, President of Virgin Atlantic, stated that the technology could be applied to 65 per cent of the world’s steel mills, and could also be applied to aluminum and cement plants.

This project promises to capture greenhouse gases from industry, and that would be a positive move, a step change in green technology. So far, there has been a lot of talk about this, but little action, and new power plants and factories, including metal plants, are being built without this technology. But another aspect of the project, the production of biofuel from waste gas seemed not just a truly miraculous breakthrough, but too good to be true. So I tried to find out about the firms involved and the actual process used to make the fuel. It appears that my hunch might be correct, that, although the biofuel might incorporate these waste gases, an input of biomass, living material, is also required.

Virgin Atlantic’s announcement on the People and Planet section of the firm’s website states that: ‘The process involves waste gases from industrial steel production being captured, fermented and chemically converted’. There is a video showing a schematic of the fuel production process.  

Blink and you’ll miss it, but, at the beginning, along with the waste gases, a biomass or MSW (municipal solid waste) input is shown. This indicates that, in addition to the waste gases, biomass is required to make the fuel. Virgin’s repeated description of the new fuel as biofuel (my italics) certainly implies that living material is involved in its production. If a biofuel does not contain biomass, then it is not a biofuel.

If biomass is being used, the new biofuel does still demonstrate progress, in the form of non-food biofuels. Most current biofuel crops, most notably corn and palm, displace food crops, contribute to rising food prices and world hunger. But with any biomass input, I would be sceptical about the airline’s claims that: ‘This next generation technology overcomes the complex land use issues associated with some established biofuels.’ The new project sounds like a major step forward from Virgin’s first biofuel test flight in 2008, which was partially powered by oil from coconuts, and babassu which is used as cooking oil. But, the use of any type of biomass to make fuel, even a non-edible feedstock, still has a land use impact. Even if the biomass input is MSW instead of a crop, the description of these inputs as ‘waste’ can be a lazy catch-all for kinds of materials, such as wood, food and garden waste, which could be diverted from the waste stream and used for another purpose other than burning as fuel, recycled, re-used or composted.

Sir Richard Branson promoted the new fuel initiative with his usual ambition and optimism, saying ‘I think this is the most important announcement that I've made in my lifetime’. In the video, he says the airline and its project partners are turning CO into jet fuel, there is no mention of any other input to produce the fuel. He said that the project will mean the airline can not just meet, but exceed, its pledge of a 30 per cent carbon reduction per passenger kilometre by 2020. Achieving this will depend on dramatically scaling up the demonstration project, and with growing evidence that greenhouse gas emissions from some biofuels are worse than fossil fuels, for example a 2010 study by nine European environmental groups, it is vital that the entire production process for new biofuels is subject to scrutiny. Virgin says that the fuel promises a 50 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional kerosene, based on a lifecycle analysis, so I suggest making that research available. The announcement, and Branson’s blog, invite you to find out more on a website called Change is in the Air, but the links don’t work.
If the reporting of this new biofuel fuel project has been sloppy and inaccurate, if there is a biomass input to the new fuel, it is spreading scientific illiteracy. The distinction between a biofuel production process which involves waste gases, and a biofuel which is made from waste gases is an important one. Implementation of new technologies must be based on reality, not partial information which suggests that the quest for sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels is more advanced than it actually is. This leads to falsely reassuring notions that seemingly intractable problems have been resolved, so we can continue with industry as usual, including uncontrolled aviation expansion, and everything will be OK. I do see value in Virgin’s positive attitude. Nothing major is ever achieved without enthusiasm, a vision for a better future, the willingness to take risks, over-reaching yourself. But optimism needs to be balanced with hard-headed critical analysis. We have to face up to the barriers which remain, to put the problems out there for open debate, in as much detail as the achievements and the potential.

In the US, Lanzatech, one of Virgin’s partners in the project, has been granted $3 million from the FAA for another biofuel project, which was announced at the beginning of December. Green Car Congress outlines the fuel production process in some detail, and it is clear that there is a biomass input. It explains that, in addition to gases emitted by industry, ‘synthesis gas derived from lignin, a byproduct of cellulosic ethanol’ will be utilised to create the new fuel.

Lignin is part of the cell walls of plants. It is inedible and the supply is potentially abundant. It is easy to source lignin, but will it be possible to scale this project up, to source sufficient quantities of lignin which is a byproduct of cellulosic ethanol production? This depends on a dramatic breakthrough in cellulosic biofuels, and the indications are that this is not on the horizon. Maybe there are some wildly successful cellulosic projects I don’t know about, which could supply the lignin, but I doubt it. So far, scale production of cellulosic biofuel, from the non-food components of crops, such as husks, stalks, straw and corn stover, has proved disastrous in the US, as shown in this article in Wall Street JournalThe Cellulosic Ethanol Debacle. Congress mandated the purchase of 250 million gallons in 2011, from sources such as woodchips, stalks and switchgrass. Only 6.6 million gallons were actually produced. The mandate was for more than 37 times the volume of cellulosic fuel which was actually produced.

The ‘half dozen or so companies’ which received subsidies to produce cellulosic fuel have failed. One firm, Cello, declared bankruptcy in 2010. Grants were given to Cello in spite of the fact that it had not built a plant, or even proved that it had the technology to produce cellulosic biofuel. In 2009, a civil fraud case ruled that Cello had lied about how much cellulosic fuel it could produce. Some of the fuel Cello showed to investors was derived not from plants, but from petroleum. WSJ summed it up as: ‘Congress subsidized a product that didn't exist, mandated its purchase though it still didn't exist… and is now doubling down on the subsidies in the hope that someday it might exist.’

Yet, the US government continues to bankroll cellulosic biofuel projects. Government funding for research and projects to develop and prove the technology would be the sensible way forward, but, again, the grants assume that the technology will work and firms are contracted to supply considerable amounts of fuel. In September the federal government loaned Abengoa Bioenergy $134 million to build a cellulosic plant in Kansas, forecasting is that this will produce about 23 million barrels a year. POET, which advertises itself as the ‘world's largest ethanol producer’, was awarded a $105 million loan guarantee for cellulosic fuel by the Department of Energy.

Only two days ago, Gevo, a firm which received millions of dollars from the US government to develop fuels made from cellulosic materials such as grass and wood chips, announced that producing fuel from these sources is too expensive. So, Gevo will be using corn instead, and will retrofit its plants to make butanol instead of ethanol. Along with supplying butanol for the chemicals industry, Gevo has been contracted to produce 11,000 gallons of jet fuel for the U.S. Air Force for test flights.

Yet Gevo is one of the beneficiaries of the recent FAA grants for aviation biofuel, Gevo is to supply the biofuel for a Honeywell OUP project, and stated that the biofuel ‘can be produced from a variety of starch and sugar feedstocks, including corn’. Funding has been awarded to a project which merely holds out the possibility of inedible feedstock, with UOP stating that: ‘In the future, inedible sources, such as corn stover, bagasse and wood residues, could also be used as feedstocks.’ But, in the meantime, more US taxpayers’ money is has been handed over for aviation biofuels which compete with food supplies. Funding should not be used to contract supply from unproven technology. Funds should be dedicated to research and demonstration projects to prove, and improve, the technology for new biofuels.

Friday, 9 December 2011

We’ve been Trumped

Multi-billionaire Donald Trump began flying around in an especially ostentatious new plane in 2010. The plane’s fuel tank has a capacity for over 36,280 kilogrammes of fuel. That’s a hefty carbon footprint for flying just one businessman, his wife and a few mates around. This video gives an inside tour, (preceded by a car advert, sorry about that). 

It’s a refitted Boeing 757, which would normally seat 43 passengers. There is a boardroom, work desks, big flat screen television, a bedroom with ample closet space, a posh loo. There is gold plating everywhere, a shower with gold plated taps, and gold leaf on the seat belt buckles. The Trump name is emblazoned on the fuselage, the white seats, and all over the fittings inside. Trump’s vast wealth and private plane makes him one of the beneficiaries of US tax breaks to private jet owners. These tax breaks have continued under the Obama administration, and helped the private jet industry recover quickly from the economic downturn.

Trump has already made several flights to Scotland in his Boeing 757, where his $1 billion golf resort development on the coast of Aberdeenshire is underway. Along with the 18-hole golf course, with ambitions to be the ‘world’s greatest golf course’, the development includes a luxury hotel and 500 luxury homes, all requiring an access road. Vast swathes of natural vegetation are to be replaced with a monoculture of short grass, and residents of Menie have been subjected to compulsory purchase and are faced with threat of forced eviction. This is documented on the website Tripping Up Trump, which likens the development to another round of highland clearances. I can’t wait for local screenings of this documentary You’ve Been Trumped, which won an award at the 2011 Hamptons International Film Festival. This is the trailer. The intimidation of local people looks horrendous.

is near the resort, and
Trump has backed expansion, adding 124 metres to the northern runway. The runway extension opened in October, and the airport predicts this will help generate an additional 205,000 passengers by 2015. The airport and the golf resort are tightly intertwined in the area’s official tourism strategy. This is myopic and risky, putting too many eggs in one basket. Whilst, aviation remains a growth industry and traffic levels are predicted to increase further, traffic projections for individual airports are notoriously unreliable. Spending millions on vast swathes of concrete to accommodate flimsy growth predictions is a poor bet to boost tourism, jobs and other economic activity. Aberdeen Airport has a major role supporting the oil and gas industry, so will be casting around for new markets as the last dregs of the North Sea deposits are extracted. But banking on Trump’s gold resort is clutching at straws.

Aside from the negative social and environmental impacts, of the airport expansion and the Trump development, the economic viability of the resort is likely to be affected by the low light levels, cold, rain and wind in the long winters. Golf enthusiasts, particularly the wealthy people that this resort is targeting, will have the option to jet off to golf courses in warmer climates. Nevertheless, the Scottish Centre for Tourism said that the new air routes and the Trump development would combine to attract people to the Aberdeenshire area. In 2010, Aberdeen Airport was in talks with no less than 22 airlines, for long haul and short haul routes. China and Russia are expected to be key markets for to attract rourists to Trump’s golf resort.

Trump has been using his money and influence to block more positive developments anywhere in the vicinity of the golf resort. He opposed a wind farm next to the site, 11 turbines off the coast in Aberdeen Bay, complaining about spoiling beautiful coastal countryside. The development still might go ahead in spite of criticism from him and other opponents. Yes, wind turbines can endanger birds, and they do have a visual and noise impact on the environment, but it’s offshore so residents won’t be too badly affected. With North Sea oil running out, ambitious, admittedly imperfect, innovations in renewable energy are vital. Trump even objected to a proposal for a cats and dogs home in the area. Meanwhile, the golf resort is scheduled to open next year.

Whilst lobbying for runway expansion to inflict more aircraft noise on people living under the flightpaths of Aberdeen Airport, Trump took the opposite view when airport expansion threatened to affect his own quality of life. In 2010, he filed a suit against expansion of Palm Beach Airport, attempting to block plans for a new commercial runway. The public statement was that the suit aimed to protect Palm Beach County citizens against noise, but the lawsuit also reflected his personal interests as it attempted to prevent planes from flying over his Mar-a-Largo residence and club. Trump went on to complain about a proposal to disband noise monitoring equipment at several locations around Palm Beach Airport. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) held back on approving runway expansion, as traffic levels were not increasing, and not projected to do so substantially, and Trump dropped his lawsuit against the airport’s expansion in September.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Private jets and the 0.1 per cent

Private jets, symbolic of the further concentration of wealth among the most privileged 1 per cent since the economic downturn, are getting a bit of shtick from the Occupy movement in the US. This criticism is well founded. Private jet sales and usage are actually are actually growing, defying the downturn.

An article in Executive Travel Magazine states that the number of private jet flights in the US did reduce by 20 per cent in 2009, but, in 2010, there was a fast turnaround to growth, of 11 per cent. John Rosanvallon, chair of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association welcomed tax breaks which helped to secure this recovery of the industry, saying:
Flying hours are steadily on the rise, and there are two critical U.S. tax provisions in place that will help our industry recover. One is the extension of a 50 percent bonus depreciation allowance through 2011; the other allows companies to deduct the full cost of new planes from revenues.
President Obama has repeatedly criticised tax break for private jets, six times in a single speech in June, which could potentially bring in an estimated $3 billion to the treasury in a decade. He is talking the talk, appearing to support the 99 per cent who are paying for higher fuel costs for less glamorous travel in cars and buses, but the thing is, the tax break on depreciation was part of his own administration’s stimulus package.

As of 2010, there were 11,000 private jets in the US. Only a minute percentage of people, at the pinnacle of wealth, could afford to own one. A Wall Street Journal article explains that the cheapest new entry level jet costs $5 million, plus $500,000 per year in operating costs. The majority of jet owners have a net 'worth' of $100 million plus, and ‘earn’ at least $10 million a year. Only 29,000 US citizens have net worth of over $100 million. That is just 0.1 per cent of the population, a far narrower segment of the population than the wealthiest 1 per cent.

Not all users of private jets own the planes outright. For those not quite rich enough to own a private jet, or with other spending priorities, chartering one requires deep pockets, costing around $3,000 per hour. For many senior executives, the corporate jet perk, which can come in the form of a certain number flying hours, is an important component of their remuneration package. There is compelling evidence that use of a corporate jet is even more of a perk than realised, that the planes are used extensively for leisure. A Wall Street Journal analysis of FAA flight records between 2007 and 2010 showed that the planes make frequent landings at resorts where executives happen to have holiday homes, an indication that personal use of corporate jets far exceeded the level which was disclosed to shareholders: ‘dozens of jets operated by publicly traded corporations made 30% or more of their trips to or from resort destinations, sometimes more than 50%’.

The companies only provide sketchy information to the FAA about the purpose of the flights, and who was on board, but I’ll bet that a lot of the time the high flying executives are sitting on the beach, by the pool, playing golf or whatever. And all it requires is a few supposedly vitally important messages on blackberries and other gadgets, for it to count as a business trip. An attorney representing executives in negotiating pay packages claimed that it is difficult to distinguish between CEO’s work and leisure time, something that the rest of us couldn’t swing past employers and clients. We only get paid if we turn up when we have to, fill in time sheets, and deliver what we are contractually obliged to do.

Calling these planes ‘corporate jets’ or ‘business jets’ is often a misnomer, and its not just about being creative in how the use of the planes is presented to regulators and company shareholders. It’s about flattering executives that they are staggeringly busy and important, rushing around between supposedly vital meetings, that their luxury travel is vital for galvanising the economy. It’s much like so called ‘sports utility vehicles’, SUV’s, gas guzzling heavy vehicles which are mainly used for activity which has nothing to do with exercise. Driving one of the urban tractors is the very opposite of sport, and they are used for the same sort of journeys as regular cars, trips into town, shopping, school run, gym etc.

Internationally, there is further evidence that the richest 0.1 per cent are splashing out on private jets. Globally, there was a fall in orders for private jets in 2009 and 2010, but this was confined to the smaller models, mostly used by executives of small businesses which had been hit by the recession. In contrast, deliveries of the largest private planes, used by wealthy executives of big companies, grew by 13 per cent. Growth rate is expected to increase in 2012. The growth rate is higher in Asia, but this if from a much lower starting point than in the US. As of 2010, there were only 600 private jets in the entire Asia-Pacific region. Unsurprisingly, China is a key target market, with huge growth expected from just 100 private jets in 2010. Apparently, the marketing strategy is different from the usual process of persuading owners to start with a small plane and upgrade as their wealth accumulates. A representative of private jet manufacturer Gulfstream said that in China, once a new customer decides to make a purchase they will start out with a top if the line jet. People in China with private jets will number fewer than 0.1 per cent of the population, by a few decimal points I reckon, but these individuals will be wielding the heftiest carbon footprints.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Perfect hummus - it’s all in the detail

Most of my cooking is slapdash. I can’t be bothered with reading recipes, weighing ingredients, measuring or timing. It’s just a matter of throwing together a basic curry, chilli, goulash, pasta dish, savoury pancakes, salad, or stew with a range of vegetables, with nuts or seeds. Also, I don't like shopping enough to hunt around  for particular high quality brands, or speciality ingedients.

homemade hummus
With hummus though, little differences in the ingredients, and how you cook it, really affect how it turns out. I make great hummus, though I’m not sure how much is down to how I do it, or the fact that it is fresher than what is available in most shops. The addition of the lemon zest, from the lemon peel, gives the flavour a real zip. Also, I leave out olive oil. The tahini has plenty of oil in it, and olive oil has a strong flavour which I think dominates and conflicts with the other ingredients. Nutrition wise, hummus is great, chickpeas are low on the GI (Glycemic Index), which means that the energy is released slowly into the bloodstream. So it helps keep your blood sugar, and energy levels stable, reducing the risk of weight gain and diabetes. 


150 grams dried chick peas*
2 lemons - unwaxed (I like a strong lemon flavour, 1 lemon is fine if you want to reduce the amount)
100 grams tahini (about a third of a jar) – different brands of tahini vary in quality, the worst taste a bit like peanut butter, the best smell like freshly toasted sesame seeds
2 cloves garlic

This makes enough hummus for a serving for about 8-10 people as part of a Mediterranean type lunch with bread, salads, olives etc. Any left over will keep in the fridge for a couple of days.


Soak the chickpeas in water for between 12 and 48 hours, use lots of water as they can expand to many times their size. I don't thin less than 24 hours is long enough for soaking, but over 48 hours and the chickpeas can start to sprout, changing the consistency so they won't go soft when you cook them. Drain, add plenty of fresh water, bring to the boil then simmer for between 1-2 hours, until soft. Chickpeas vary tremendously in how long they take to cook, buy them as fresh as possible. The less dried up and shrivelled they look, the better they will taste, and the quicker they will cook.

As you are cooking the chick peas, squeeze the lemons into a bowl and mix the juice with the lemon zest. Using the zest of the lemons gives hummus a fresher taste (that is why unwaxed lemons are best, and you will need a little grater for this). Finely chop the garlic and add that as well. It is best to make this mixture while you are cooking the chick peas, as the flavours from the lemon zest and garlic will permeate into the lemon juice, and the texture will be smoother as well. Do not add the tahini at this stage, as the mixture separates into a granular sludge.

When the chickpeas are soft, leave to cool. Do not add the other ingredients until the chickpeas are at room temperature, the lemon and garlic will lose thier fresh taste. When the chickpeas are cool, drain off most the water, but keep it as you might need to add some of this liquid to the hummus. Add the lemon juice mixture and tahini to the chickpeas. Blend thoroughly, adding some of the drained liquid gradually, if required, then fresh water if you run out, to get the right texture. A hand blender is brilliant for this.


Add freshly ground cumin seeds

Add freshly chopped coriander leaves

Leave out the garlic and add paprika powder to taste – the best makes have a hot, slightly smoky taste

Sweet hummus – replace the garlic with a small amount of honey, somewhere between a teaspoon and a dessert spoonful should do it. This sweet hummus is good served with fresh dates or figs as a pudding, or with dried fruit and chopped nuts as a very filling and satisfying breakfast.

* It’s OK to use tinned chickpeas, but I think cooked from fresh is much nicer. Soaking and cooking the chickpeas is a bit of a palaver, but the fresh version has a nutty taste which the canned version doesn’t.

Bradford chick peas
Chickpeas can be grown in the UK, but I've not found any in the shops. The young plants look really pretty. Here are some from a few years ago, in Bradford.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Russia’s air safety record – awaiting the turnaround

Russia’s air safety record has been dreadful in recent years, and a government programme to address the reasons for the high accident rate, announced earlier in 2011, has been slow to show positive results.

In 2006, Russia had the world's worst air accident rate, 13 times the international average. A total of 318 people died, a substantial proportion of the world total of 755 fatalities. Two Airbus crashes resulted in the accidents with the highest number of fatalities. On 3rd May, 113 people were killed when an Airbus A320, attempted climb out after an aborted approach to Sochi, rain and low cloud with poor visibility. The plane broke up in the water, off the coast of the Black Sea, near the border with Georgia. There were another 125 fatalities at Irkutsk on 9th July. An Airbus A310 took off from Moscow, Domodeovo with six equipment defects. The plane collided with a concrete perimeter fence and brick garages and burst into flames.

All 88 crew and passengers on board a Boeing 737 were killed in the worst accident of 2008. The jet crashed on approach to Perm, landing on the outskirts of the city, only a few hundred metres away from apartments and houses. The pilot lost control of the plane in ‘difficult’ weather conditions, and alcohol was detected in his body.

In 2009, Giovanni Bisignani, CEO of International Air Transport Association (IATA), said that Russia's safety record was still ' well below international standards '.  CBC reports that IATA figures showed that the 2010 accident rate in Russia, and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, was 7.15 hull losses per million sectors. A 'hull loss' is when a plane is damaged beyond repair. This is almost three times the world rate. There were 15 air accident occurrences in 2010, four of them fatal, and a death toll of 122.

2010’s worst accident was on 10th April. All 96 crew and passengers were killed when a Tupolev, operated by the Polish Air Force, crashed on approach to Smolenk Air Base, in poor visibility due to rain and heavy cloud. Passengers included Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Chief of General Staff Franciszek Gagor, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrzej Kremer, several Members of Parliament, and Slawomir Skrzypek, President of the National Bank of Poland. The flight failed to divert flight to an alternative airdrome, and the door to cockpit was open with two passengers on the flight deck. Accident investigators speculated that the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Air Forces exerted pressure on the crew to continue to descent to Smolensk in spite of the risky conditions. The plane broke into pieces after crash landing over a kilometre from the runway, colliding with a large tree. IATA figures showed that the 2010 accident rate in Russia, and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, was 7.15 hull losses per million sectors. This is almost three times the world rate.

The Aviation Safety Network (ASN) is the best website for air accidents. There are detailed incident reports, photographs and maps showing the location of crashes, and interlinked database enable compariosn between the satefy recrods of different aircraft models, airlines, countries and airports. So far, for 2011, ASN has documented 14 air safety ‘occurences’ so far in Russia. Eight of these incidents resulted in fatalities, with a total of 119 people killed, and the information about the accidents listed below is from the ASN website. The country’s largest carriers have a good safety record. Critics blame the high accident rate on a proliferation of small airlines, inexperienced, flying old Soviet era aircraft, and second-hand Western models, and it is the case that old, Russian made Antonov, Ilyushin-76, Yakovlev and Tupolev planes account for the majority of accidents.

Another factor is lax enforcement of safety regulations, and, indeed, the tally of accidents even includes at least one incidence of an unregistered plane, and instances of crew being intoxicated by alcohol. Poor weather, predominantly heavy rain and dense cloud reducing visibility, is a factor in many of the accidents. But the underlying reason is that planes’ navigation systems and air traffic control are unable to deal with these conditions. Poor plane maintenance is another reason behind the high accident rate, with incidences of fires breaking out on board, and faulty navigation equipment.

Russia’s lamentable air safety record for 2011 began with a serious accident on New Year’s Day. Three passengers on board a Tupolev passenger jet died when a fire ignited in the rear of the plane and spread to the cabin, after it was towed to the runway for engine start-up. Then, on 20th June, there was another Tupolev accident, which reculsted in an accident with the most fatalities so far this year. The plane struck trees and crash landed on a highway on its approach to Petrozavodsk, killing 47 of the 52 occupants. Investigations revealed that the flight navigator had been drinking, with ‘a light level of alcoholic intoxication’, and the weather forecast was incorrect, impeding the ability to deal with severe fog.

In April, the Russian government committed to improving air safety standards, with an overhaul of air traffic control, new flight management technology to help air traffic controllers, a minimum of five new centres for analysis of air crashes, and new monitoring equipment on runways. But the following months have seen a catalogue of accidents. On 11th July a Antonov An-12 passenger plane, en route between Bogashevo and Surgut, reported an engine fire, and six of the 37 passengers were killed when the plane crashed into the Ob River.

On 9th August another Antonov An-12, the oldest plane in the Russian commercial fleet, a cargo plane, flying from Magadan to Keperveem reported a fuel leak and an engine fire and made an unsuccessful attempt to return to Magadan. The wreckage was found in Omsukchan the following day, all 11 were occupants killed.

On 22nd August one person was killed, and three seriously injured, when an unregistered Antonov An-2, a single engine bi-plane, operated by a private woodcutting company, was damaged in an accident on an island near Lake Choigan-Hol. Just six days later, on 28th August, an Antonov An-2 crash landed in the Krasnodar district when. The plane was on an illegal crop spraying flight, and one of two crew members was killed.

Forty-four people were killed in another serious accident on 7th September. A Yakovlev crashed 2 kilometres from the runway, on the bank of the Volga River on the climb out from Yaroslavl-Tunoshna Airport. The fatalities included several members of the Yaroslavl ice-hockey team, and the flight was destined for Minsk for a match. After this disaster, President Medvedev stated he would expedite the overhaul of the aviation industry, and move swiftly to reduce the number of small airlines operating in the country.

Time will tell if the improvements will be implemented as thoroughly and quickly as Medvedev promised. Since his statement, there has already been an incident. On 9th October, another Antonov An-2, carrying out agricultural work, crashed to the ground, again in Krasnodar. The pilot narrowly escaped. This was the third Antonov An-2 accident in the space of a few weeks.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

No wonder children’s teeth are falling out

No wonder children's teeth are falling out
Ruining children's dental health
 Every so often I pop into local shops to find out what awful products are being promoted to children, in the guise of ‘food’. This is some stuff from the past few months. In the middle of this photo, well, its like a baby’s dummy, inside the blob of clear plastic is a red sweet, it was shaped like the teat of a dummy but it melted back in May during some of the hottest days we have had this year. As you can see, it comes attached with some plastic teeth, maybe in a misguided effort to help children out when their teeth crumble into pieces after eating rubbish like this. There was also a Halloween version with purple gums and pointy teeth. I should have reported it to Trading Standards but if I go down that road, I could become dangerously obsessed. It’s all tied up with complicated definitions about whether labelling is correct. Can we not have some sweeping, over-riding regulations that stipulate that products which are sold as food, are actually, well, FOOD.

The bag of sweets, they look like coloured polystyrene foam, and the texture is what I imagine polystyrene is like as well, just heavily sweetened. They are in the shape of toothbrushes and sets of false teeth. Maybe the company is trying to be helpful by reminding children to brush their teeth, or it’s a rare example of honest marketing in children’s food, as they will need false teeth if they eat this crap. Yet, it has the audacity to have a health claim on the packet, that it contains 'NO articifial colours'. Yikes, it reminds me I haven’t been to the dentist in ages, and this gives me the motivation to make an appointment. Will take these products along and ask what for an opinion.

Food products, apparently

This next photo. Finally I am able to eat Toxic Waste. I read an article about this – yes it is a confectionery product - being launched in the UK about five years ago, in The Grocer magazine. This is a wonderful publication for keeping up with new food and household product launches, advertising campaigns, store openings, commodity prices, and retailers’ involvement with and reaction to government policy on issues like healthy eating. I saw the advert for Toxic Waste about five years ago, and stores were preparing a launch marketing campaign, but only found it on the shelves a few months ago, in Cornwall. In the interests of research I tasted it. The tin is full of little grey pellets, a colour like you might imagine something truly dreadful emerging from a waste pipe, probably illegally. It tastes truly disgusting, very sour, but underlying that it is very sweet, and the first ingredients on the list are sugars. That is the secret with all the gross out sweets, the main ingredients are sugars, sucrose, glucose, corn starch etc.

The pink tube thing on the left is a whistle, that does not even work, filled with nauseous neon pink coloured powder. And on the right, a spray on sweet. There is spray on cheese in America. It looks a bit like the yellow foam spray for filling up holes in household walls. Gross out food for kids is nothing new. Jelly Babies are a bit weird really, and I remember gobstoppers, which were huge and as hard as a ceramic ball, took ages to melt in your mouth, and left your tongue coloured a virulent green or purple colour. It is fun, I know as child I loved it. But maybe this needs looking at, with the problems with so many children’s unhealthy diets. They just seem to get addicted to junk food so easily, and awful, over-processed products help them on the road to developing an aversion to real, fresh food. There are some photos of hilariously bad examples on the Flickr group Unnecessary Consumer Prouducts and Questionable Foodstuffs. Sustain's Children's Food Campaign does excellent work on issues including marketing to children, learning cooking skills, and improving school meals.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Flag carriers - too big to fail

Like many of the world's banks, flag carriers seem to be regarded as ‘too big to fail’. Since the recession began, airline liberalisation has gone into reverse, with many governments intervening with financial support packages for national airlines. The deals are dressed up as ‘restructuring’, ‘recapitalisation’, ‘refinancing’, and other fancy economic terms, but basically it is all bailouts, flag carriers being propped up by taxpayers’ money. Another fossil fuel intensive industry appears to be sacrosanct, like car manufacturing, which saw massive bailouts for the big three US firms, GM, Ford and Chrysler. The poor suffer the most from the recession, but the airline bailouts main benefit will be to the wealthy, who are the frequent flyers.

China stepped in early as soon as the economic downturn took hold. In December 2008, China Southern, China Eastern and Air China each received $438.66. In 2009, Oman Air received $650 million to help its expansion. Air Canada received $300 million in government loans. Half this sum came from Export Development Canada (EDC), whose raison d’etre was turned on its head in order to prop up the beleaguered airline. EDC’s remit to support exporters and investors in expanding their international business was reconfigured to include domestic business.

South African Airlines and Air Namibia are both beneficiaries of serial bailouts. South African Airways received a cash injection of over $220 million  in 2009 to support its ‘turnaround strategy’. This followed $190 million for recapitalisation in 2006-07 and $230 million in 2007-08 for restructuring. A $10 million bailout for Air Namibia for 2009-10, brought total state support for the carrier to $246 million since 2000. Yet another Air Namibia ‘turnaround strategy’ was agreed in July 2011, to cost $222 million over the following three years.The Nigerian government extended a $3.3 billion to the country’s indebted domestic airlines in May 2010, enabling refinancing of loans for 10-15 years.

In Europe, Malev, Hungary’s national airline, received an emergency cash injection of $26 million to help pay for aircraft leases, and Slovenia’s Adria Airways received support from various government agencies, including $2.8 million from a state owned restructuring company.The Latvian government has intervened in airBaltic, in attempts to ‘stabilise its operations’, since 2009. Now there is to be a further increase in the airline’s share capital with taxpayers’ money, in spite of a gaping budget deficit. AirBaltic made losses of $67.2 million in 2010, and the capital increase is likely to be somewhere  between $97 million - $136 million.

The biggest bailouts for flag carriers have been in Asia. Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA) described 2010 as the ‘Year of the Asian Airline Bailout ’, with Japan Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, Air India, Garuda Indonesia, Thai Airways and Malaysia Airlines set to receive over $10 billion in bailouts in the first three months of the year. By this time China Eastern had received $2 billion in 2009 and another £1 billion appeared inevitable by the end of the year.Within days of this report, Japan Airlines was rescued from bankruptcy with $6.6 billion. The support package for Air India, approved in February 2010, was expected to amount to $432 million. In August, the Thai government approved $467 million for Thai Airways.

It is likely several other countries have also bailed out flag carriers, but I have not found a comprehensive international report with all the information. Some countries' national airlines are not as strategically important as governments make out, and it is more a question of keeping up appearances.

Monday, 30 May 2011

India’s crops laced with pesticides

The Indian government has proved more effective at meeting food export targets than feeding their own people. Over 220 million people go hungry but food exports are booming. In 2009 the (Agricultural and Processed Foods Export Development Authority (APEDA) set a target to double India’s agricultural exports from $9 billion to $18 billion within five years. But India’s food export drive, and attempt to build a reputation for organic produce, could be compromised by repeated incidences of contamination with pesticide residues, which have exceeded MRL’s (Maximum Residue Level), or are banned, in importing countries.

Basmati rice fetches about twice the price of non-Basmati, and India’s exports are worth around $300 million per year. Yet future exports could face uncertainty, after thousands of tonnes of Indian Basmati rice were rejected by European countries in 2010. High pesticide residue levels were detected by the Eurofins laboratory in Hamburg. Levels of Cabenenzum and Isoprothiolane were three times more than the European Commission MRL of 0.01 mg per kg. Stores in Germany alone withdrew 30,000 tonnes of the rice, and there were concerns that exports to the Gulf, which accounts for 70 per cent of India’s Basmati rice exports, might be affected.

In December 2010 the EU rejected three shipments of okra grown in India, because levels of three pesticides, Moncrotophos, Acephate and Traizaphos exceeded the MRL. Triazaphos is known to be toxic to birds and the level detected, 0.11mg per kg, is over ten times the EU MRL of 0.01mg per kg.

The Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry’s has set a target to increase exports of grapes from 37,000 tonnes a year to 44,000 tonnes. About 70 per cent of India’s grape exports are to the EU. But, in 2010, the exports faced a setback when several consignments of grapes were rejected because of residues of Chlormequat, which is not permitted in the EU. Some of the grapes rotted in Rotterdam Port, but most ended up being eaten by citizens of countries with lower pesticide residue standards. Some of the consignments of grapes were diverted to other countries, and the UK and Sweden allowed import of the grapes by introducing their own MRL, even though the European Food Safety Association (EFSA) stated that children eating a large amount of the grapes in a short period might suffer ‘acute symptoms’, which could include ‘irritation mouth or throat, vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain and headache’.

Most of India’s organic food is grown for export. In 2009, India exported 135 types of organic products, and APEDA has set an organic food export target of $1 billion within five years. Asit Tripathy, chair of APEDA, stated a goal of making India the world’s number one organic hub over the next 10 years. Currently, India ranks 33rd in the world in terms of total land under organic cultivation and 88th regarding the proportion of agricultural land under organic crops compared to the total farmed land.

Cotton is India’s leading organic export, and carries a premium of 15 – 20 per cent more than conventionally grown cotton, and in 2008-2990 India accounted for as much as 65 per cent of the 175,113 tonnes of organic cotton produced worldwide. In February 2010 it was reported that garments labelled organic in popular clothing stores including H&M, C&A and Tchibo contained genetically modified (GM) cotton. Lothar Kruse, director of an independent testing laboratory Impetus, based in Bremerhaven, said that about 30 per cent of the samples were contaminated with GM cotton. It appeared that the Indian subsidiaries of the two European certifying bodies had failed to check the seeds being used by organic farmers, many of whom had used seeds of Bt (GM) cotton. With Bt cotton accounting for between 65-75 per cent production in India, contamination is a widespread concern. G. V. Ramanjaneyulu, executive director of Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, said ‘even at 100 metres there is possibility of contamination’. If just one plant in a one-acre plot, which can have 4,000 plants, becomes contaminated, there is a serious risk that the seed for the next season will be contaminated.

Pesticide residue levels on India’s food crops, including banned pesticides, are far higher on food for the domestic market. A report by Government of India’s Department of Agriculture and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, shows the results of analysis of samples from 13 states across India in 2008 and 2009. Many tested above the MRL set by the 1954 Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, showing widespread lack of monitoring of pesticide application. Residues of four pesticides which are banned in India were detected. Aldrin, Chlordane, Chlorfenvinfos and Heptachlor are banned for use, manufacture, import and export:

• Aldrin - detected in brinjal, cauliflower, tomato, okra, banana, apple, wheat and milk
• Chlordane - detected in apple, banana and cabbage
• Chlorfenvinfos – detected in bitter gourd, cabbage, cauliflower, tomato, rice and wheat
• Heptachlor - detected in brinjal, okra, tomato, rice, milk and butter.

These four pesticides are among the POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) identified by the Stockholm convention as the ‘dirty dozen’, pollutants which remain intact for long periods and accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals and people.

Now there is the issue of GM-related insecticide contamination. GM crops were promoted as ‘resistant’ to pesticides and insecticides, but are actually dependent on these inputs. On Devinder Sharma’s blog there is an article about a recent Canadian study which detected the widespread presence of Bt-related insecticide in the blood of 93 per cent pregnant women and 80 per cent of foetuses. There are indications that Bt-related insecticide disrupts foetal development. A few weeks ago the Stockholm Convention met in Geneva, and agreed to add endosulfan to the list of POPs to be removed from the global market by 2012. But the Stockholm Convention is unable to keep pace with a juggernaut of newer, more powerful, chemicals being pushed onto the marketplace.

An article by agriculture and trade policy analyst Bhaskar Goswami, Scars of the Green Revolution looks at the impacts of high dependence on pesticides in the Punjab. Pesticide consumption in the Punjab State stood at 923 grams per hectare in 2006, putting it in the ‘very-high-use’ bracket. Pesticide residues have been recorded in human beings, water, milk, vegetables and several other foods at far higher than permissible limits. Incidence of cancer and other ailments have reached alarming levels and large numbers of farmers and their families from the Malwa region regularly travel to Rajasthan for treatment for cancer. There are instances of children as young as 10 years old suffering from arthritis, and looking prematurely aged with greying hair. The pest population adapts to the pesticides and becomes resistant, putting farmers on a treadmill of higher pesticide application, with increased application of the agricultural inputs that have caused the problems.

Goswami’s article explains how agriculture in the Punjab faces other serious problems besides over use of pesticides. Farmer debt has increased with more expenditure on farm machinery. Debt as a proportion of farmer income increased from 68 per cent in 1997 to 84 per cent in 2008. Intensive monoculture of wheat and rice has displaced a wider range of crops including corn, groundnut, barley and rapeseed. Livestock diversity had dwindled, and is now dominated by just three breeds of cows, buffaloes and sheep and two breeds of goats and poultry. Water stress is increasing, with overexploitation of groundwater. In more than half of districts, water levels have reduced by 30 centimetres. The depleted water is contaminated with residues, and air is polluted by burning straw. Yet, the government Working Group on Agriculture Production recommends this ‘Punjab Model’ of framing is recommended for replication by all states across India.

The latest issue of the public health charity Friends of the Human Race e-zine is focussed on alternatives to chemical intensive agriculture in India. Town of Kulithalai in Tamil Nadu, waste segregation, transformed, biodegradable waste fed to cows and composted. An article by Jaison J Jerome looks at organic alternatives to using dangerous pesticides, focussing on long term soil fertility with cow dung, green manure and crop rotation. Pest infestations are far less frequent, and when they do occur alternatives to pesticides, such as sticky tape, light traps, herbal extracts and types of fungi have proved effective. Micro-organisms can be effective in removing a wide range of pathogens, and are non-toxic even if accidentally ingested, and have been used effectively in agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry, aquaculture, composting and solid waste management. There is an article from a farmer who worked on a tea plantation in Kerala for nearly ten years, repeatedly exposed to pesticides, witnessed banned pesticides being used, and was poisoned with Monocrotophos. He was diagnosed with a type of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, in 2001, and fortunately has been well since receiving treatment. My article has more information about the alarming levels of banned pesticides on India’s food crops.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Airport Fuel Supply - the Real Fire Risks

In August 2010 two men were convicted of plotting to blow up JFK Airport’s fuel farm and underground pipelines running under the Queens neighbourhood, aiming to killing thousands of people. Subsequently, one of the men was jailed for life, and the other for 15 years. JFK’s fuel farm’s steel cylindrical tanks hold 121 million litres of aviation fuel. The prospect of terrorist attacks on tanks holding millions of litres of highly flammable fuel, and pipelines running under densely populated areas, sounds alarming, but the plot was unfeasible, more talk than action. There is no oxygen inside the fuel farm or pipelines so ignition is impossible, and unauthorized use of the heavy machinery required for digging underground and puncturing fuel tanks and thick steel pipelines would be highly conspicuous. In the unlikely event of interference, it would immediately be detected with alarm systems.

Puncturing a fuel farm would require an air strike or a ground to air missile. This is what occurred when the Lam Luk Ka oil depot in Bangkok was targeted during anti government protests on 21 April 2010. A grenade fired from the motorway, just 200 metres away, hit one of the depot’s 19 tanks, T-401D, which supplies Suvarnabhumi Airport, and it took an hour to extinguish the fire. The tank was holding 9 million litres of fuel at the time. The grenade made a 4 centimetre hole in the tank but did not ignite the main body of fuel as it did not penetrate the protective double layering.

In New York, the mundane reality is a series of accidental leaks from the fuel pipeline to JFK and La Guardia airports, which runs under Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens neighbourhoods. Stephen Muther, Vice President of Buckeye Partners, the firm operating the pipeline, admitted that the firm’s operation of the, has been prone to ‘mishaps’. In 1985 a construction worker drove a digger into a valve in the Staten Island section, spilling over 130,000 litres of fuel into the street and dozens of homes were evacuated. In 2009, a maintenance worker accidentally drilled a hole in the pipeline running just 1.2 metres under Queens, and firefighters poured flame retardant foam on nearly 1,900 litres of fuel that escaped into the street. The fuel supply to JFK has also polluted water. In autumn 2008 a leak was discovered in a pipeline running only a metre deep under an environmentally sensitive marshland area near one of JFK’s runways. Six months later over 340,000 litres of fuel had been recovered and the full extent of the spill was still unknown. JFK’s fuel farm also had a mishap, an electrical fire, in May 2008, and flights were delayed for nearly an hour until the fire was extinguished.

The risk of jet fuel fires occurs when the fuel is accidentally exposed to air, and ground crew are the most at risk. Planes are refuelled with hoses or hydrant dispenser vehicles which tuck under the wing. On 5th September 2001 a 24 year old ground service worker died from injuries when refuelling a British Airways Boeing 777 at Denver Airport. A large ball of fire engulfed the hydrant truck and the aircraft’s left wing. Witnesses thought that fuel leaked when a hose either came loose or ruptured.

Fuel depots and refineries, far from the airport site, are more vulnerable to fire than fuel farms. Overall, considering the global scale of operations, airport fuel supply is well managed, but when accidents do occur the risks to people and the environment are serious. The FBI was called in to investigate whether a fire at a petrol and jet fuel depot in the city of Bayamon in Puerto Rico, which ignited on 23rd October 2009, was started intentionally. An explosion triggered fire which spread to 21 of the 40 tanks on the site, and sent 2.8 magnitude earthquake forces which were felt in several neighbourhoods. Firefighters battled with a blaze for two days, over 1,500 people were evacuated and thick smoke billowed over the area. Suspicions were raised by graffiti reading ‘Boom, fire, RIP, Gulf’ in three locations in the vicinity, but the investigation concluded that the cause of the explosion was a fuel leak which occurred while one of the tanks was being filled. This created an enormous cloud of gas vapour, which was then ignited by an unidentified source.

On 5th May 2010 a tanker truck exploded at a loading dock at the AGE Refinery in San Antonio, Texas. Two workers were injured, one critically, but a major disaster was averted. More than 100 firefighters worked for six hours to contain the fire and prevent it from igniting 12 nearby tanks of jet fuel. Fire Chief Charles Hood said that if this had happened the area ‘could have seen a major explosion big enough to kill people a half-mile away’.

Underground jet fuel pipelines are entangled with gas, petroleum, and water supplies, bringing the risk of an explosion if they are accidentally punctured during maintenance work. In 2004 a jet fuel pipeline supplying San Jose Airport, running under Walnut Creek in San Francisco, exploded during construction of a water supply pipeline. An excavator punctured a high pressure pipeline and five workers were killed and four suffered serious burns. Workers had accidentally cut into the fuel pipeline, resulting in a huge explosion and a fire ball several storeys high. In May 1989 a train derailed in Muscoy in San Bernadino County, California, killing four people and destroying seven homes. Two weeks later, after residents had returned to their homes, an underground jet fuel pipeline damaged by the accident ruptured and exploded, killing two people and burning down 11 homes.

Road tankers supplying fuel to airports are more vulnerable to spills and fires than pipelines, as traffic accidents can result in leakage of fuel and highly flammable vapour. Whilst the amounts of fuel carried in trucks are relatively small in comparison to the millions in refineries and depots, they can pose a risk when accidents occur in populated areas. A truck towing two trailers of aviation fuel along Highway 20 in a rural area near Colusa, California on 25th March 2008 caught fire when a piece of metal from the truck dragged along the highway and sparks ignited the fuel. Firefighters contained grass fires on both sides of the road and decided to let the blaze burn itself out, sending a pall of black smoke over the area. A few hours later nothing remained but the frame of the truck and melted metal all over the highway.

On 17th June 2010 a jet fuel truck overturned at the intersection of Highway 31 in Montgomery, Alabama. Nearly 19,000 litres of jet fuel were spilled, which took about 40 firefighters several hours to clean up. Just ten days later, on 27th June 2010, disaster was narrowly averted, when a tanker carrying jet fuel to TF Green Airport in Massachusetts flipped over on its side in the town of Foxboro. The accident occurred only 35 metres from people sleeping in their homes. All the fuel, over 45,000 litres, gushed out. Firefighters from 14 communities joined the TF Green Airport HazMat team and covered the spill in foam to prevent it catching fire. It was fortunate that the tanker skidded onto grass. If it had crashed into hard pavement, it would have been likely to produce sparks, which would have ignited the fuel into a dangerous fireball. Two days after the Foxboro incident, on 29th June, a plane being prepared for flight at Kickapoo Airport in Texas leaked over 3,000 litres of fuel onto the parking area. The airport hazmat team and ten units from the Wichita fire service sprayed foam on the spilled fuel, then trucks dumped sand to absorb it.

The litany of minor accidents in the jet fuel supply chain to US airports continued over the following few months. Fortunately, there were no casualties but the incidents added to the workload of America’s fire and HazMat teams.

• On 14th July 2010 over 7,500 litres of jet fuel leaked from a tanker loading a fuel station at Sea-Tac Airport (Seattle-Tacoma).
• On 22nd September 2010 a section of the road between Farmville and Chesterfield County in Virginia was closed down after a 30,000 litre tanker spilled jet fuel.
• On 24th September 2010 a truck overturned near terminal 3 at Chicago O'Hare Airport, spilling 'hundreds of gallons' of fuel and causing delays.
• 30th September 2010 - The northbound lanes of 805 highway San Diego were closed for four hours after a tanker carrying jet fuel jack knifed and collided with the guardrail. The truck fortunately only spilled a few litres of diesel on the road as it had just delivered over 29,500 litres of jet fuel to Brown Field Airport.
• 7th December 2010 – An accident in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, involved three vehicles. No jet fuel spilled on the road but the process of transferring the fuel into another tanker took several hours. The highway was closed for three hours.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Confusing supermarket offers

Sainsbury's store on Huddersfield ring road is, as usual, like most supermarkets, filled with special offers, such as BOGOFs (Buy One Get One Free). When I popped in a couple of weeks ago there was a major discount promotion on the Mexican food section, items like tortilla chips, tacos, fajitas and jalapeno peppers. These small tins of refried beans were on offer at 3 for £3. Yet a single tin was priced at 85p. I was confused, it seemed to mean that if you bought three tins you would pay 45p more.

I would have mentioned it to the customer service desk on my way out, but there was a slow moving queue and I haven’t got all day. When I got home it occurred to me that I could have put three tins of the refried beans in my trolley and seen what happened at the checkout, if the till receipt would show that the so-called 'special offer’ was actually a rip off and customers were actually being charged extra. Then I popped back to the store and had a closer look, and realised the 3 for £3 actually meant you could buy 3 items from a range of Mexican food products, the idea being that the price adds up to more than £3. I am not sure what would happen if you did misguidedly just buy 3 tins of the beans. I think its confusing, there are so many different kinds of offers, so much writing on the shelves and on packaging, not to mention the offers announced on the tannoy system.

All kinds of discount offers, even the more straighforward ones, are a problem as the price cuts don't benefit everyone. There is a problem for less well off shoppers, and for people living alone or in small households. If you do not have a car, so you can load shopping trolleys full of food into to the boot, you are faced with hauling multiple heavy shopping bags home on foot, or on the bus, so your purchasing of ‘buy more for less' deals is restricted. If you live alone you buy fresh produce in smaller quantities, otherwise it will go off before you can eat it. More and more of the fresh produce is pre-packed in plastic, so the only option is to buy it in a certain amount, and these packets are often quite large, such as big bags of most of the varieties of carrots and potatoes. We throw a lot of food away in the UK, so it could be encouraging us to buy what we don't need and more food will end up in the bin. And special offers to buy more for less can't be helping with rising obesity rates.

The buy more for less offers benefit richer people. Anyone living hand to mouth with a tight food budget of what they can afford each week cannot take advantage of the offers. This affects pensioners in particular, who are often living alone, not at their peak of physical strength so less able to haul loads of shopping up a hill (nearly everyone in Huddersfield is uphill from the main Sainburys store), among the worse off, and vulnerable to malnutrition.

Which? magazine has a lot of information about supermarket offers that are not what they seem, the latest being products for which deals are offered online, then when the order turns up on your doorstep you find out you have paid full price for it, because the order expired before it was delivered. Other instances include 'better value' multi packs which are not better value than buying single items. Also, there actually are 'offers' when buying mutliple items costs more than buying just one, the most ridiculous being a fruit drink, on offer at 2 for £4.

One category that is always on special offer is alchohol. Trading Standards have investigated Tesco, the UK's biggest retailer, the common supermarket practice of using heavily discounted alcoholic drinks to lure bargain hunters into their stores. Tesco was also investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority for promoting offers with banners at store entrances, in spite of not having the stock to sell.

Also, not to do with special offers, Trading Standards in Lincolnshire bought a landmark case against excess packaging. A joint of beef was encased in multiple layers of plastic - a vacuum packed layer, a tray, a lid and then covered in a cardboard sleeve. Lincolnshire County Council dropped the action at the eleventh hour before the case was due to be heard. But their action still made a difference as the council stated that the amount of packaging on the product had been considerably reduced.

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