Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Charly Stamper

Charly completed a PhD in experimental petrology. She used to make pretend volcanoes; now she works in renewable energy. Charly tweets at @C_Stamper.

Plastic packaging – a horror film

Zero Waste Week is an opportunity to reduce landfill waste & save money. In its seventh year, the week runs 1st – 7th September 2014. The theme is “One More Thing” – what one more thing could YOU do? Find out more at or on Twitter using #zerowasteweek

Ever since I spent a summer working on a landfill site, I think twice before putting any items of rubbish in the bin.

Yanley Landfill

Yanley Landfill site, south Bristol, during the Balloon Fiesta in 2007. The site is now closed and is being restored to woodland. Photo credit: Charly Stamper

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Science snap (#30): Aust Cliff, Gloucestershire

One of the most fascinating things about geology is its ability to reveal global events from evidence contained within a single outcrop. The cliff exposure at Aust in Gloucestershire, UK, is a spectacularly colourful example of this.

Located beneath the original Severn Bridge, and running alongside the Severn Estuary, the 40m tall rock face records the drowning of an ancient desert by rising sea levels. In the Triassic, the SW of England sat 30ºN of the equator (the position of modern-day northern Africa). As the supercontinent Pangea rifted apart, the land was flooded by Jurassic oceans.

Aust cliff, near the Severn Bridge in south Gloucestershire. Photo credit: Charly Stamper

Aust cliff, near the Severn Bridge in south Gloucestershire. The change from red to grey-green in the rock strata records the flooding of an ancient desert by rising Jurassic seas. Photo credit: Charly Stamper

The red beds of the Triassic Mercia Mudstone group (~220 millions years old) form the base of the cliff, a geological archive of a time when this part of the UK was a hot, subterranean landscape. Rounded quartz grains with haematite coatings and accompanying veins of gypsum and celestine testify to an arid, windswept desert scattered with ephemeral lakes and playas.

The sudden change to the grey-green strata of the Blue Anchor formation is immediately evident to the eye. These clay-rich silty rocks contain halite crystals and provide evidence for the gradual ingress of inter-tidal lagoons and brackish lakes conditions.

Further sea level rise is charted by the Westbury formation (~205 million years old). The basal section comprises the famous Westbury Bone Bed, noted for yielding fossil insects, plesiosaur teeth and abundant bivalves; above this lies a layer of Cotham Marble, rich in stromatolites.

The Severn Bridge is easy to get to by bike – follow National Cycle Routes 4 and 41 from Bristol. Access to the cliff is via a steel gate to concrete causeway, at the bottom of the hill from Aust village.

The exposure at Aust is a SSSI; please only collect fossils from cliff debris and be careful of falling blocks close to the rock face.

Aim high, shoot low? UK recycling rates missing the target

In 2008, the EU set a target for member countries to achieve a 50 % household recycling rate by 2020; last week, an amendment raised this figure to 70 % . The graph below shows the latest available data for the UK.
UK recycling statistics

Proportion of household waste recycled in the UK. At the current rate of increase, the UK will not meet the 70 % by 2020 target set by the EU. Data source: DEFRA/National Statistics

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or an Earth scientist for that matter) to work out that at the current rate of progress, we aren’t going to hit the 70 % required by 2020. This fact was noted by the UK government at the release of the latest annual statistics in 2013, but becomes even more pertinent given the updated EU directive.

Of course, tackling household waste is a many-layered complex problem, and by only focussing on recycling we are in danger of neglecting other important aspects of resource management. For example, recycling statistics don’t take into account material that people reuse, the decreasing use of certain types of packaging, or domestic waste disposal (such as composting). Furthermore, many believe that we should be moving towards whole system change, where recycling is a last resort.

However, the fact still remains that over half of the municipal waste collected by local authorities in the UK is going to landfill. This figure has declined steadily since 2000, but every year, as a nation we still send 14,000,000 tonnes of material to a big whole in the ground; that’s the equivalent of 241 kg per person.
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In 2012/13, local authority collections in the UK sent 14 million tonnes of waste to landfill. Source: DEFRA/National Statistics

There are many reasons why we put waste in the big black bin, rather than recycling it, with prohibitive factors ranging from socio-economic to logistical and geographic. Undoubtedly, there is a large variation in the recycling rates achieved by local authorities in the UK: 73 out of 352 authorities are averaging over a 50 % recycling rate; whereas the average proportion of household waste recycled in London boroughs falls to a disappointing 32 %.

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Variation in household recycling rates, by UK local authority. Source: DEFRA/National Statistics

Further examination of available data reveals kerbside food recycling is only offered by around a third of local authorities, covering a total of 6.5 million people or a mere tenth of the population in the UK. Some of the neglected may take it upon themselves to compost; the rest simply don’t have the resources or motivation.
These are just some of the issues we will need to tackle in the coming years. However the UK government, and the EU as a whole, move forward to try and meet the target it’s clear we cannot rest on our laurels. The current rate of 43 % is a start, but it’s nowhere near enough.

Review of the BGS myVolcano iPhone app

A few months ago, Elspeth posted a review of her top geology-themed mobile phone apps. Since then, the resourceful folk at the British Geological Survey (BGS) have come up with a new contender; here we take a look at myVolcano.


Any self-respecting app needs a jazzy icon. Photo credit: myVolcano/British Geological Survey

Before we get started, the important details: myVolcano is free to download but is only currently available on Apple’s iOS (an Android version is in the pipeline). You can download it here.

The main driver behind the app is to allow the BGS to collect data about volcanic hazards through observations made by the general public. This concept is known as citizen science, and is becoming increasingly useful to researchers. For example, the USGS and the BGS have webpages where anybody can submit details if they experience an earth tremor; the results are then made openly available as ‘Felt location maps’. In the same way, myVolcano is built to allow you to submit observations about volcanic hazards and ashfall.


Screenshots of the myVolcano interface on iOS 7. Photo credit: Charly Stamper/British Geological Survey

The app interface itself is refreshingly sleek and intuitive to use. All the app’s features centre around a map that is populated with entries from the Smithsonian Institution Global Volcanism Program databse. That’s a huge amount of data (1,550 volcanoes and 10,000 years of eruptions, to be precise) made freely available at your fingertips. Each volcano entry features a geological background, details of the last known eruption and a photo.


Screenshots from the myVolcano app. From L-R: Excellent demonstration of the ‘Ring of Fire’; example of a database entry; example of a user submitted observation. Photo credit: Charly Stamper/British Geological Survey

Now, for those of us living in the UK, the chances of us witnessing volcanic phenomena at home are pretty rare; however, it is not uncommon for ash particles from distant eruptions to settle on our shores (e.g., ashfall from Eyjafjallajökull, 2010, was recorded as far south as the Midlands). Data from such distal deposits can be used by geologists to help understand how ash plumes travel and disperse. myVolcano talks you through how to submit measurements and photos of just such an ash fall. This record is then plotted on the world map using the GPS on your phone and can be viewed by other users of the app.

In truth, it’s worth downloading this app purely to access the Smithsonian database on your phone. Whether the citizen science aspect of myVolcano really takes off remains to be seen…where’s that simmering Icelandic volcano when you need it?