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Technology

Nondisposable proposal

Major brands launch experiment to reduce waste through reusable containers

Until well into the 20th century, most Americans had their milk delivered to their door in refillable glass bottles. The milkman also picked up the empties. Now a coalition of major consumer brands is testing a packaging and delivery platform that will use the “milkman model” for products as diverse as ice cream, deodorant, and laundry detergent.

The consortium of 25 companies—including such big names as Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, and PepsiCo —worked with recycling experts for more than a year to develop the platform, called Loop. Online-ordered products would arrive in a reusable tote that would also serve as a receptacle for empty containers. A delivery service would pick up the full tote and return it to a facility where the containers are cleaned, sterilized, and prepared for refilling.

Loop’s developers believe that, while recycling has its place, the waste problem is really a disposability problem.

“To us, the root cause of waste is not plastic, per se,” Tom Szaky, CEO and founder of TerraCycle, one of the project’s partners, told Fast Company. “It’s using things once, and that’s really what Loop tries to change as much as possible.”

In a pilot program to be launched this spring in New York and Paris, customers will be able to buy familiar brands such as Pantene shampoo and Tide detergent in packages designed for up to 100 uses. While the cost of the products will be about the same as those bought in single-use containers, the user will also have to pay a refundable deposit of between $1 and $10 per container, as well as some shipping charges.

Even though customers won’t have to clean the empty containers—a barrier to many who would otherwise recycle—critics of the initiative are skeptical whether the project will ever be profitable or will change consumer behavior. 

However, advocates say it’s significant that major brands are coming together to solve the plastic waste problem. Of the 10 companies Greenpeace lists as the world’s largest contributors to plastic waste, eight are part of the Loop consortium and the other two are in talks to join, according to Fast Company.

In addition to reducing plastic waste, an industrywide shift to reusable containers would ultimately reduce manufacturing and energy costs, proponents say. The key, they believe, is making the new paradigm attractive for consumers.

“You simply have to start somewhere to test it and see what the barriers are and who actually buys into the model,” Unilever’s research and development chief, David Blanchard, told The Wall Street Journal. “If there are sufficient people then you can scale it.”

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A man casts his ballot during a nationwide popular vote in 2014 at a polling station in Switzerland. (Michael Buholzer/AFP/Getty Images)

Technology

Hackers’ election

Switzerland calls on computer hackers to test its e-voting system

The Swiss government is offering up to $150,000 in bug bounties to white-hat hackers who successfully discover vulnerabilities in the country’s internet voting system. Hackers who register for the “Public Intrusion Test” will search for and report on vulnerabilities during a dummy election run by the Swiss postal system from Feb. 24 through March 24, the duration of a typical voting period in the country.

The test is the latest in a series of more than 300 e-voting trials over the past 14 years, according to a Swiss news report. In December, the Swiss government drafted a bill to make electronic voting permanent, stating that it wanted to introduce e-voting gradually as an option alongside ballot boxes and postal voting.

Hackers who discover vulnerabilities undetectable by voters or auditors can receive bounties of as much as $30,000 to $50,000. At the lower end of the scale, hackers can earn $100 by simply highlighting failures to follow best practices.

Demand for electronic voting is high among Swiss citizens, particularly for those living abroad. The Organization of the Swiss Abroad is pushing for e-voting to be made available for all ex-pats by 2021. Currently, e-voting is available in 10 of the country’s 26 cantons (political districts), and the government hopes to expand that to 17 by October.

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Andrej Sokolow/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

(Andrej Sokolow/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

Technology

Air network

Stratospheric balloons to provide phone service for Kenya

In 2011, using a simple weather balloon and some basic, off-the-shelf radio equipment, engineers at Alphabet’s research and development subsidiary, X, tried to show that balloons could provide internet and telecommunications coverage. By 2017 the technology of X’s Project Loon, as it was known, was mature enough to provide emergency internet service for hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico.

Last year Alphabet spun off Project Loon into its own division within the company, and this year Kenya’s telecommunications provider Telkom Kenya will use Alphabet’s Loon balloons to provide countrywide mobile phone service—a commercial first for Loon.

Kenya is an ideal candidate for this kind of technological challenge. Its 50 million citizens use nearly 43 million mobile phones, according to the CIA World Factbook. But outside of major cities such as Nairobi, no infrastructure exists for mobile telecommunications.

“High-altitude balloons are actually a very reasonable way to approach this problem,” Sal Candido, Loon’s head of engineering, told IEEE Spectrum. “They’re high, they cover a lot of ground, and there are no obstacles.”

According to Candido, the key technological challenge was keeping the balloons relatively stationary in the stratosphere for hundreds of days. Loon’s engineers solved this problem by developing a system to control automatically the balloon’s altitude, taking advantage of different wind directions at various altitudes. Loon’s engineers have become so good at navigating this system that the balloons to be used in the Kenyan system will be launched from Puerto Rico.

But even minor deviations in the balloons’ locations can affect coverage, so Loon developed a method for the balloons to transmit data between them using direct, high-bandwidth connections. As a result, the entire airborne system will only need ground stations in the cities, not the rural countryside.

Loon will spend the first six months of 2019 testing the system before handing it over to Telkom Kenya, according to IEEE Spectrum.


 

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