On only one occasion do I recall seeing our main Sensei give a demonstration of Karate. Most of the time he would run the classes, taking part in all the exercise routines, supervising the sparring, guiding the junior coaches.
But one day at the end of the lesson he was explaining how fighting technique was all about distance and timing. ‘You need to make sure you don’t waste any of your energy’ he said, ‘Don’t move any further than you need to avoid being hit, don’t try to deliver a strike too soon or too late. It will take you years to understand this, but if I have done my job properly, you will all end up better than me when I was your age.’ And he invited one of the best young students up to the front of the class.
‘Go on, then – imagine you’ve got steel-toe-capped boots on, and try to kick me in the stomach. Don’t worry, I promise you won’t get hurt. If you manage to land the kick I’ll award you an honorary black belt.’
So this young lad – agile, experienced and very fit – launched himself into a straightforward kick to the teacher’s belly.
We were all watching intently, but nobody saw what actually happened; just a split-second later, the teacher was calmly holding this lad by his ankle and saying ‘If I drop him now, it would break his neck.’ He gently lowered the lad, who was now gazing at sir with renewed admiration and respect. The two of them bowed to one another and shook hands.
The fundamental concepts of minimal waste crop up in all sorts of industrial processes.
During the manufacture of industrial paint, we see huge quantities of solvent used to clean out vessels between batches. This is discarded without thought, when it could be sold for fuel. Sometimes the actual product is deemed unsatisfactory when it reaches the client, who then returns it to the factory; forty tins of material have to be emptied out into a new mixing vessel. The paint has to be modified by adding more solvents or pigments or resin, and then it has to be tested again and then the material has to be decanted into new tins ready to be sent back to the customer who is now running two days late with their own production schedule. The old tins need to be disposed of as contaminated waste.
At large conferences or trade fairs, the delegates are often issued with free bags containing various glossy booklets. In order to assemble all these goody bags, the leaflets and other printed materials are delivered in cardboard boxes and lined up on long trestle tables. A team of workers will move steadily along the table, collecting one item from each pile until they have a hefty bundle of paperwork, which they then drop into a carrier bag held open and ready by one of the other workers.
And as this process continues, a pile of discarded cardboard boxes and plastic securing ribbons begins to grow around the table. Eventually these bits of waste packaging become an obstacle, so we bring in a wheeled carton to pile them all into. And so on, until at the end of the day the floor of the exhibition hall is scattered with waxed paper, scraps of corrugated beige card, damaged leaflets and empty rolls of masking tape.
The delegates arrive for the conference the following morning; each of them collects a filled bag from one of the smiling conference greeters and entertains a brief flicker of hope that a) the goody-bag will contain something valuable, such as a steel ballpoint pen, and b) one or more of these young ladies will be charmingly available at the hotel bar later that evening.
Likewise, in a supermarket, the goods arrive from the warehouse in large wire cages; the tins and packets are themselves contained within card-and-plastic trays to protect them during transport. At the end of an evening shift, when the store is closed and the customers have escaped, we find the wire cages densely packed with waste cardboard and polythene film. Customers generally have no idea of the energy required to keep the shelves fully stocked, or the technical detail involved in designing the packaging to look neat and attractive – packaging that will be discarded later without a second thought.
Other industrial waste: waste materials, such as the odd tins and bottles of raw materials ordered by development laboratories to craft new product ranges. These are tested, and often found to be either no better than the existing ingredients, or are much better but slightly more expensive. Even the tiniest increase in raw material costs will send the purchasing department into a whirlwind of panic.
Sometimes waste material is more than a small jar of stuff; we once had four tubs of sodium carbonate, twenty kilograms in total, left over from a test project. I suggested that we could keep this material in reserve, so that it could be used to deal with any acid spills which occurred, but I was soundly rebuffed and told that we had to get rid of this material using the official (expensive) disposal procedure.
A few months later we noticed that the lock on one of our storage cabinets was becoming very stiff, and realised that the bottles of acid in this cabinet were releasing fumes, gradually corroding the bare steel mechanism. ‘Perhaps we could buy in some sodium carbonate’ I said, ‘and put a layer of it in the base of the cabinet to neutralise these vapours.’
Everybody thought this was a great idea, but of course it never came to anything, so that the corrosion problem reappeared with every new cabinet.
And at one workplace, I recall seeing a full pallet – minus one bag – of microdol, an ultra-fine mixed carbonate extender pigment. This 975-kg consignment sat there, gathering dust until the factory was eventually sold and demolished. We could easily had decanted this stuff into plastic tubs and given it away for use as an acid spill-kit.
The whole world is full of stuff we can see – goods, services, ideas – and just out of view is a tremendous mountain of ‘waste’, the time and energy and materials which have been used to construct and deliver and arrange the visible aspects of commerce. And any understanding of business needs to acknowledge the importance of this unseen environment.
A waste-processing plant now occupies what was formerly the site of Sterling Technology in Trafford Park, a company originally set up just to supply insulating varnish to the giant Westinghouse Motor company. Along Westinghouse Road here used to be some very distinguished red-brick office blocks, Edwardian I think; these were demolished to make way for bleak, anonymous warehouse structures.
Half-a-dozen pictures remain, some showing the production tanks where resin was manufactured, others showing the warehouse with fractured walls where raw materials were kept ready to be transformed into electrical varnish.
It was a dull day in 2007, and I was using a cheap camera loaded with standard 100ASA colour print film. It’s difficult to make out what the pictures represent; I worked there for a few years, so I can remember the smell of chemicals and the clang of the metal stairs as I made my way up to the office and back down to the lab.
Nobody would remember the walls with bricked-up windows (to avoid paying a levy to the Ship Canal Company) since these would have been hidden behind smooth, powder-coated aluminium cladding.
Perhaps one day I will create a John Piper-ish painting using micaceous iron oxide and aluminium flake and cellulose-acrylic alkyd resin to paint the industrial landscape in its own language. Like a hologram, any tiny square cut from the picture would provide sufficient data for the entire factory to be reconstructed.
The alkyd resin contains small quantities of cobalt in order to harden fully in contact with air; the frantic electronic dance that allows this reaction to occur is the reason why cobalt is so poisonous. For years, researchers have been looking for an alternative catalyst, but every other candidate material gives inferior performance. Even lead, which is also toxic.
Perhaps one days they will set off a cobalt bomb, like the one that produced Miss Fray’s wild flower. A languid flash, and the regulation mushroom cloud. And then, for a radius on 420 miles, we see casualties whose DNA has been perforated by the gamma-ray blizzard. This Mad Max world will be full of dead vehicles with dead people slumped at the steering wheels. The murdered bacteria will no longer be able to launch their frenzy of putrefaction. Extremely sunburnt proteins will crosslink, making skin become an everlasting plastic membrane.
The gamma rays will weld the paintwork to cars and restructure the steel so that it no longer turns to rust when wet. And in twenty thousand years, when visitors arrive from a distant galaxy, they will wonder how this civilisation vanished despite having such advanced technology.