Earth is becoming ‘Planet Plastic’

Graphic comparison

US scientists have calculated the total amount of plastic ever made and put the number at 8.3 billion tonnes.

It is an astonishing mass of material that has essentially been created only in the last 65 years or so.

The 8.3 billion tonnes is as heavy as 25,000 Empire State Buildings in New York, or a billion elephants.

The great issue is that plastic items, like packaging, tend to be used for very short periods before being discarded.

More than 70% of the total production is now in waste streams, sent largely to landfill – although too much of it just litters the wider environment, including the oceans.

“We are rapidly heading towards ‘Planet Plastic’, and if we don’t want to live on that kind of world then we may have to rethink how we use some materials, in particular plastic,” Dr Roland Geyer told BBC News.

A paper authored by the industrial ecologist from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and colleagues appears in the journal Science Advances. It is described as the first truly global assessment of how much plastic has been manufactured, how the material in all its forms is used, and where it ends up. Here are some of its key numbers.

There is no question that plastics are a wonder material. Their adaptability and durability have seen their production and use accelerate past most other manmade materials apart from steel, cement and brick.

From the start of mass-manufacturing in the 1950s, the polymers are now all around us – incorporated into everything from food wrapping and clothing, to aeroplane parts and flame retardants. But it is precisely plastics’ amazing qualities that now present a burgeoning problem.

None of the commonly used plastics are biodegradable. The only way to permanently dispose of their waste is to destructively heat it – through a decomposition process known as pyrolysis or through simple incineration; although the latter is complicated by health and emissions concerns.

In the meantime, the waste mounts up. There is enough plastic debris out there right now, Geyer and colleagues say, to cover an entire country the size of Argentina. The team’s hope is that their new analysis will give added impetus to the conversation about how best to deal with the plastics issue.

“Our mantra is you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” Dr Geyer said. “So, our idea was to put the numbers out there without us telling the world what the world should be doing, but really just to start a real, concerted discussion.”

Instagram tops cyber-bullying study

Girl receiving a nasty message with girls in background

Research from anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label suggests social media is making youngsters more anxious.

Forty per cent said they felt bad if nobody liked their selfies and 35% said their confidence was directly linked to the number of followers they had.

Instagram was highlighted as having become the vehicle most used for mean comments.

Seven per cent of young social network users said they had been bullied on the Facebook-owned photo app.

That compared to a figure of 6% for Facebook itself, 5% for Snapchat and 2% for Twitter and YouTube.

One expert said children were growing up in “a culture of antagonism”.

Instagram said it encouraged users to report bullying content.

“We know that comments posted by other people can have a big impact and that’s why we have recently invested heavily in new technology to help make Instagram a safe and supportive place,” said policy chief Michelle Napchan.

“Using machine learning technology, offensive comments on Instagram are now automatically blocked from appearing on people’s accounts. We also give people the choice to turn off comments altogether, or make their own lists of banned words or emojis.”

‘Big challenge’

The survey, of more than 10,000 young people aged 12 to 20, suggested that cyber-bullying is widespread, with nearly 70% of youngsters admitting to being abusive towards another person online and 17% claiming to have been bullied online.

One in three said they lived in fear of cyber-bullying, with appearance cited as the most likely topic for abuse.

Nearly half (47%) said they wouldn’t discuss bad things in their lives on social media and many offered only an edited version of their lives.

“There is a trend towards people augmenting their personalities online and not showing the reality,” said Ditch the Label’s chief executive Liam Hackett.

Mr Hackett said: “Cyber-bullying continues to be one of the biggest challenges facing young people.

“Not only is the internet redefining the climate of bullying, but also it is having clear impacts upon the identity, behaviours and personality of its young users.”

He called on social networks to put more resources into policing the comments people post online and responding to complaints in a more timely manner.

His views were echoed by Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, who also called for a government ombudsman to be set up to mediate between the social network firms and children who are having problems.

She also called for “compulsory digital citizenship classes” in schools.

Google Maps adds the International Space Station


The International Space Station has become the first “off planet” addition to Google Maps’ Street View facility.

Astronauts helped capture 360-degree panoramas of the insides of the ISS modules, as well as views down to the Earth below.

Some of the photography features pop-up text descriptions, marking the first time such annotations have appeared on the Maps platform.

This is not the first time 360-degree imagery has been captured beyond Earth.

In 2015, the European Space Agency published its own interactive tour of the ISS. And last year Nasa repurposed images captured by its Pathfinder mission to Mars to create clips suitable for virtual reality headsets.

However, one of the benefits of Google’s technology is that it should give members of the public an improved sense of freedom of movement and a greater choice of viewpoints than had been possible before.

The tech giant said it hoped to inspire the public to further explore the science and engineering involved in space exploration.

“Every [ISS] component had to be flown on a space shuttle or rocket and constructed and connected in space, and it had to be done with such precision that it formed a hermetic environment to support life,” project manager Alice Liu told the BBC.

“That is an engineering marvel that people should care about and know about.”

Bungee cords

The firm said creating the latest Street View expansion had posed unique challenges.

Past efforts – including capturing underwater views of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and elevated sights from Peru’s Machu Picchu citadel – involved transporting specialist camera equipment to the locations.

But the cost and certification processes that would have been required to do this for the ISS meant it was not practical this time, nor could the US company send its own staff to take the photographs.

Bitcoin swings as civil war looms


The value of the virtual currency Bitcoin has always been volatile.

Even so, there has been particular turbulence in recent days as fears of a “civil war” among its adherents first grew and then subsided, although they have not gone away altogether.

On Sunday, the value of one bitcoin dropped to about $1,863 (£1,430) before bouncing back to $2,402 on Wednesday, according to data from the news site CoinDesk – still some way off a June high of $3,019.

What’s at stake?

Bitcoin risks becoming a victim of its success.

The popularity of the financial technology has caused transactions to be processed slower, with some users complaining of having to wait three days or more for confirmation of trades when the backlog was at its worst, in May.

Moreover, fees have also risen, hitting a high of $5 per transaction at the start of June.

That makes it too costly to justify its use for some purchases, such as buying a pint of lager in a Bitcoin-accepting pub.

There are ways around the problem, but the cryptocurrency’s community has been split over which solution to adopt.

The risk is that Bitcoin could effectively split in two, with one type becoming incompatible with another, ultimately undermining confidence in the project altogether.

The issue is that Bitcoin’s underlying technology has an in-built constraint: the ledger of past transactions, known as the blockchain, can have only 1MB of data added to it every 10 minutes.

To understand why, it’s helpful to first understand how Bitcoin works.

To authenticate Bitcoin transactions, a procedure called “mining” takes place, which involves volunteers’ computers racing to solve difficult mathematical problems.

For each problem solved, one block of bitcoins is processed. As a reward, the successful miners are given newly generated bitcoins.

An updated copy of the blockchain database is then copied to all the computers involved in the validation process, which are referred to as “nodes”.

Bitcoin originally did not have the 1MB/10min blockchain limit, but the feature was added to help defend the technology against denial of service (DoS) attacks, which might overwhelm the blockchain by flooding it with tiny transactions.

UK wants continued EU Copernicus participation


The UK has given the clearest statement yet of its desire to stay within the European Union’s Copernicus Earth observation programme after Brexit.

EU member states are building the most advanced ever satellite system for monitoring the state of the planet – with Britain playing a major role.

Business Secretary Greg Clark says he wants that participation to continue.

His comments came as Airbus UK debuted the latest satellite in Copernicus known as Sentinel-5 Precursor.

This spacecraft will make global maps of gases and particles in the atmosphere to track pollution and climate change. It is set to launch on a Russian rocket in September.

“The UK-built Sentinel-5 Precursor satellite and the success of the Copernicus Programme demonstrates what we can achieve through collaboration with our European partners and the UK’s vital role in the programme thanks to our Earth observation expertise,” Mr Clark said.

“We’ve been clear that we want our companies and universities to continue participating in key EU space programmes, and through our Industrial Strategy and ongoing investment in the UK space sector, we are ensuring we have the infrastructure and skills in place to support our ambition to capture 10% of the global space market by 2030.”

What is the Copernicus programme?

  • EU project that is being procured with European Space Agency help
  • Pulls together all Earth-monitoring data, from space and the ground
  • Will use a range of spacecraft – some already up there, others yet to fly
  • Expected to be invaluable to scientists studying climate change
  • Important for disaster response – earthquakes, floods, fires etc
  • Data will also help design and enforce EU policies: fishing quotas etc

The government’s pre-election White Paper on Brexit stated that the UK would like to collaborate with the EU-27 on science and space beyond March 2019 – but the language from minsters on Copernicus specifically has recently become much sharper.

Science minister Jo Johnson said something very similar to Mr Clark last week when he announced a £100m investment in a satellite-testing facility in Oxfordshire.

Continued participation in Copernicus will, of course, be subject to negotiation with the remaining EU nations; but key UK government departments – such as Business, Defra and the MoD – are understood to be pushing hard for that participation to be maintained.

Copernicus is by some distance the most ambitious EO development under way anywhere in the world at the moment.

The general public tends to think that America leads on all things space, but the US does not have a civil EO plan to match what is going on in Europe right now.

Copernicus envisages a whole suite of spacecraft sensors in orbit to take the pulse of Planet Earth.

Five of these Sentinels – as the satellites are all called – have already been launched. 5P is the next to go up. More still will follow.

The multi-billion-euro project is led – and 70% funded – by the European Commission. The other 30% comes from the European Space Agency (Esa), which acts as the technical and procurement agent on the programme.

And although Britain will be leaving EU membership behind in just under two years, its membership of Esa – an international organisation that is a separate legal entity – will continue. That adds an extra layer of complexity into the Brexit process. But Graham Turnock, the chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said that skills, jobs and science would all benefit from Britain continuing to play a full role in Copernicus.

“There is a clear statement of intent,” he told reporters. “Obviously, it will need to be worked through as part of the broader discussions around our exit from the European Union but we don’t want industry to be in any sense unsure of our direction of travel.”

Airbus UK and other British space companies believe their expertise puts them in a strong position to win more Copernicus business. There will be many tens of Copernicus contracts up for grabs in the next two to three years – some of them very large indeed.

Sentinel-5P is the result of a €45.5m (£40m) contract that was signed in 2011. The satellite carries a single sensor known as TROPOMI, which has been produced by a Dutch consortium, led scientifically by the KNMI (Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute).

This instrument is a four-in-one spectrometer that is capable of distinguishing a range of chemical species in the atmosphere that are associated with pollution. These include nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide, which are emissions from fossil-fuel burning.

TROPOMI will also monitor ozone – both the “good” version of the gas that sits high in the atmosphere and protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation; and the “bad” ozone that forms at ground level and causes respiratory irritation in vulnerable individuals.

The Copernicus Sentinel series of satellites

  • Sentinel-1: Radar satellite that can see the Earth’s surface in all weathers
  • Sentinel-2: Multi-wavelength detectors to study principally land changes
  • Sentinel-3: Similar to S2, but tuned to observe ocean properties and behaviour
  • Sentinel-4: High-orbiting sensor to measure atmospheric gases
  • Sentinel-5: Low-orbiting atmospheric sensor to help monitor air quality
  • Sentinel-6: Future version of the long-running Jason sea-surface height series

The “Precursor” in the spacecraft’s name references the fact that the instrument comes before a near-identical sensor that will eventually fly on Europe’s next-generation weather satellites from 2021.

Putting up 5P now also ensures there is no data gap in observations should an ageing, previous-generation instrument suddenly fail. That sensor, called OMI, flies on the US space agency’s Aura satellite. Although still in good health, it is operating far beyond its design lifetime.

“But TROPOMI is more than a gap-filler because it will see a major improvement in data quality,” said principal investigator Pepijn Veefkind from KNMI.

“The spatial resolution is 10 times higher than OMI. It will be like putting on glasses; you will be able to distinguish different regions of a city to see how they change as emissions evolve,” he told BBC News.

Josef Aschbacher, the director of Earth observation programmes at Esa, said Sentinel-5P would be feeding an insatiable demand for EO data.

Already, Copernicus was servicing tens of thousands of users across the world, he added: “Per day, we produce more data from our satellites than Facebook is accumulating through videos and photos uploaded by millions or billions of people on its site.”

AlphaBay and Hansa dark web markets shut downv

Seized noticed on AlphaBay

Two of the largest dark web marketplaces have been shut down following a “landmark” international law enforcement investigation.

The AlphaBay and Hansa sites had been associated with the trade in illicit items such as drugs, weapons, malware and stolen data.

According to Europol, there were more than 250,000 listings for illegal drugs and toxic chemicals on AlphaBay.

Hansa was seized and covertly monitored for a month before being deactivated.

The agency said it believed the bust would lead to hundreds of new investigations in Europe.

“The capability of drug traffickers and other serious criminals around the world has taken a serious hit today,” said Europol’s executive director Rob Wainwright.

It was a “landmark” operation, according to US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Andrew McCabe.

AlphaBay has been offline since early July, fuelling suspicions among users that a law enforcement crackdown had taken place.

‘You cannot hide’

“We know of several Americans who were killed by drugs on AlphaBay,” said US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“One victim was just 18 years old when in February she overdosed on a powerful synthetic opioid which she had bought on AlphaBay.”

He also said a 13-year-old boy died after overdosing on a synthetic opioid bought by a high school classmate via the site.

Mr Sessions cautioned criminals from thinking that they could evade prosecution by using the dark web: “You cannot hide,” he said, “We will find you.”

The US Department of Justice (DoJ) said that illegal drugs listed for sale on AlphaBay included heroin and fentanyl.

It added in a court filing that $450m (£347m) was spent via the marketplace between May 2015 and February 2017.

Investigations were led by the FBI, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Dutch National Police.

Police in other countries, including the UK, France and Lithuania, also contributed.

The Dutch National Police took over the Hansa marketplace on 20 June after two men in Germany were arrested and servers in Germany, The Netherlands and Lithuania were seized.

This allowed for “the covert monitoring of criminal activities on the platform” until it was eventually shut down a month later.

Ever since AlphaBay went offline earlier in July, users of the site had discussed potential alternative dark web marketplaces on online forums.

Hansa was frequently mentioned, meaning that the authorities were likely able to uncover new criminal activity on Hansa as users migrated to it from AlphaBay.

“We recorded an eight times increase in the number of human users on Hansa immediately following the takedown of AlphaBay,” said Mr Wainwright.

The significance of today’s announcement will only truly be known over the coming year or more as authorities follow up the “many new leads” they said had been found as a result of infiltrating and shutting down these two enormous networks.

While the sites’ closure is a massive boost, the DoJ and Europol both readily acknowledge that new services will simply pop up to replace them. After all, the closure of previous dark web marketplace Silk Road in 2013 was eventually followed with AlphaBay – bigger, more lucrative and, by the looks of it, more dangerous.

What authorities really want to do is start putting significant numbers of people behind bars.

This huge coordinated action has only resulted in a handful of arrests – and one key suspect apparently took his own life seven days after being brought into custody.

It’s a start, but it’s clear such big services require a large, intricate network of criminals – and that’s what authorities are targeting.

Why is India’s next president so unknown?

BJP presidential election candidate Ram Nath Kovind along with others perform yoga on the occasion of International Yoga Day in Delhi.

Ram Nath Kovind, former governor of the northern Indian state state of Bihar, has been elected as the country’s new president. BBC Hindi’s Vineet Khare profiles a man many Indians have never heard of.

“I have been writing about the Dalits [formerly untouchables] for 27 years. But I first heard of Ram Nath Kovind the day he was nominated for India’s next president.”

Dalit writer-activist Chandrabhan Prasad is not alone in claiming that he does not know about the man who has just been elected to the top constitutional post.

His nomination by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) caused so much surprise that a local media report quipped that it “seems only two people knew about his candidature. PM Narendra Modi and God”.

It added that his name had been entered more than 500,000 times on Google within 24 hours of the announcement of his candidacy.

When BJP president Amit Shah declared that Mr Kovind would be the party’s nominee, he described him as a Dalit who had “struggled his way up to such a high position in his political career”.

The Dalits sit at the bottom of the Hindu caste system in India and complaints of discrimination are still widespread. Many in fact, accuse the BJP of perpetuating the Brahmin-led caste order where Dalits figure at the bottom, and say Mr Kovind’s nomination comes at a time when the party is being accused of being insensitive towards the community.

The five-year job is largely ceremonial but could be crucial when elections throw up fragmented mandates.

However, many prominent Dalits say they are unaware what contributions, if any, the new first citizen has made on behalf of the community.

“I go to seminars on Dalits. I write opinion pieces. I appear on TV debates. My job is to work around the subject. But I don’t know anything about him,” said Mr Prasad.

“I have never heard him take a stand on Dalit issues. It could be my ignorance.

“He seems to be an educated, conscientious person but I have never heard him comment on the atrocities against the Dalits,” complained another Dalit writer, who preferred anonymity.

“The move to install a Dalit to the ornamental post is symbolic. Did the appointment of [India’s first Dalit president] KR Narayanan help the community in any way? If the ideology of the party is not supportive of the Dalit cause, it doesn’t make much difference,” he said.

“The party has gone for a man who is not towering, is media shy and whose political and ideological orientation is in sync with Mr Modi,” senior journalist Siddharth Varadarajan told the BBC.

Mr Kovind’s long-time neighbour Jageshwar, a Dalit in the northern city of Kanpur, claims he cannot recall if Mr Kovind, “son of a cloth-seller, ever campaigned for a Dalit cause”.

Kanpur journalist Ramesh Verma agrees the new president has kept a low profile.

“He stayed away from the media as he didn’t want to be controversial,” Mr Verma told the BBC.

“I never saw him attend Dalit programmes. In fact, he never projected himself as a Dalit leader.”

Easygoing man

So what is known about Mr Kovind?

A handful of YouTube videos of his speeches show that he is fluent in both Hindi and English.

The activists who spoke to the BBC agree that he is a soft-spoken man who “prefers to stay away from controversies”.

What chance for a new ‘centre ground’ party in the UK?

Emannuel Macron

New political parties have a remarkably high failure rate in the UK. They almost never succeed – but are things different now?

The success of new French President Emmanuel Macron, who created a liberal pro-European party of government, En Marche, from scratch in less than two years, has made some people wonder if it could happen in the UK.

Conventional wisdom says a fresh face could never rise so rapidly to the top – the first-past-the-post electoral system is biased in favour of the existing “big two” parties, the argument goes.

But politics is more fast-moving and fluid than it has ever been and there appears, to some at least, to be a gap in the market.

“The Tories are committing Euro-suicide. Labour is kidding itself that a party with no economic policy can govern. There is a chasm in the middle of British politics,” wrote Tony Blair’s former speech writer Philip Collins recently in the Times.

Dominic Cummings, who masterminded the Vote Leave campaign, said on Twitter this week that a new party looks increasingly “tempting” (although he does not spell out what it might stand for).

Even Gary Lineker has got in on the act.

“Anyone else feel politically homeless? Everything seems far right or way left. Something sensibly centrist might appeal?” Lineker asked Twitter recently.

Within minutes, one of the Match-of-the-Day-presenter’s followers had called for the creation of En Marche of the Day, with the ex-England footballer as leader, naturally.

Anti-Brexit Conservative MP Anna Soubry sounded like she could hardly wait for the birth of a new party in a New Statesman interview.

“If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I’ve believed in all my life – better get on with it.”

But she was speaking before the general election.

Margaret Thatcher suggested threatening Saddam with chemical weapons

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher suggested threatening Iraq with chemical weapons after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, declassified documents show.

The formerly top secret correspondence was between the then UK prime minister and US defence secretary Dick Cheney.

Mrs Thatcher told Mr Cheney the US should consider retaliating “in like manner” if Iraq used chemical weapons.

But President George HW Bush said such a move would “put the US in the wrong in world opinion”.

Under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, Iraq invaded the Gulf state of Kuwait in August 1990.

‘World opinion’

The correspondence, released by the National Archive, details conversations Mrs Thatcher held with President Bush and Mr Cheney before she was forced from office in November 1990, as the countries considered their response to the invasion.

According to a September 1990 account of a meeting with President Bush in New York: “The prime minister asked what we would do in the event of an Iraqi attack with CW [chemical weapons] or BW [biological weapons].

“The president said that world opinion would eat Saddam Hussein for lunch if he resorted to this. The prime minister doubted whether Saddam Hussein would be deterred by world opinion. Did the US itself have CW in the area to act as a deterrent?

“The president said that use or threatened use of CW would only put the US in the wrong with world opinion. It would be better to launch an all-out conventional attack and wipe Saddam Hussein off the face of the earth.”

The memo adds that President Bush described reports in the UK press that the US could possibly use nuclear weapons against Iraq as not “at all helpful”.

In a subsequent conversation with Mr Cheney the prime minister said she was: “Very worried about Iraq’s CW and BW capability. She believed that Saddam Hussein would use them, and we had to decide what our response would be.

“If we wished to deter a CW attack by threatening to retaliate in like manner, we must have CW weapons available.”

Mr Cheney said “no final decision had been taken on how to respond” to a chemical weapons attack.

He said that “the president had a particular aversion to chemical weapons”, adding: “The US military commanders were not keen on them, because American forces had no experience of using them and many of the weapons themselves were outmoded.”

Brexit: UK and EU at odds over ‘exit bill’

David Davis and Michel Barnier

The UK and EU are still at odds over citizens’ rights and the amount the UK will pay to leave the bloc, at the end of the second week of Brexit talks.

EU negotiator Michel Barnier said the UK had not been clear enough about where it stands on these issues and that was hampering progress.

UK Brexit Secretary David Davis said the negotiations on the so-called divorce bill had been “robust”.

He said progress had been made but both sides needed to show “flexibility”.

Mr Barnier said: “We require this clarification on the financial settlement, on citizens’ rights, on Ireland – with the two key points of the common travel area and the Good Friday Agreement – and the other separation issues where this week’s experience has quite simply shown we make better progress where our respective positions are clear.”

Mr Davis said: “We have had robust but constructive talks this week. Clearly there’s a lot left to talk about and further work before we can resolve this. Ultimately, getting to a solution will require flexibility from both sides.”

Michel Barnier said there had been some areas of agreement about how Britons living abroad and EU nationals living in the UK should be treated after Brexit.

But there was disagreement over “the rights of future family members” – meaning children born in the future to EU citizens in the UK – and “the exports of certain social benefits”.

The EU wants rights currently enjoyed by EU citizens in the UK – access to healthcare, welfare, education, residence – to apply to children and family members, whether they currently live in the UK or not, and to continue in perpetuity, after the death or divorce of the rights-holder.

The UK wants to give all EU nationals living in the UK the same rights as British citizens – but they would have to have been residents for five years and there would be a “cut-off point”, probably 29 March 2017, when Article 50 was triggered. After this date they will be able to build up their five years’ entitlement.

In addition, EU nationals who get married after March 2019 would lose the right to bring family members to the UK, unless they pass an income test, like non-EU migrants. They could also risk losing their right to return to Britain if they leave for more than two years.

David Davis said the UK had published its approach to citizens’ rights since the first round of negotiations, which he described as “both a fair and serious offer” and had now published a joint paper setting out areas of agreement, and issues for further talks.

He said sticking points in the talks included the rights of employees of EU-based companies to work for extended periods in other countries, such as the UK, and the right of EU citizens to vote in UK local elections.