Why Aluminum needs to replace Plastic beverage containers and why bottled water is the biggest sin of them all

There’s a lot of debate over how to say the word “aluminum” or is it “aluminium.” I personally believe in the former pronunciation but the latter spelling. But this debate has little consequence. The question that should be asked is: Aluminium is the third most abundant element, why are we wasting petroleum, a non-renewable resource on plastic bottles? There a many much more important industrial and medical uses for plastics that cannot be substituted.

Here’s a brief introduction on the benefits of Aluminum:

–       It has remarkably low density that makes it very light relative to its strength. Ever wonder why Airplanes are made out of aluminum?

–       Living organisms do not metabolize aluminum. It’s everywhere and exposure to it doesn’t affect your health at all – meanwhile if you leave a plastic water bottle in the sun you’re giving yourself a little dose of carcinogens!

–       Re-iterating how healthy it is – Aluminum has an LD50 of 6207 mg/kg which means that to run a 50% risk of dying an adult human would have to eat slightly over one pound of the stuff.

–       Aluminum is way more recyclable than plastic. Actually it’s nearly infinitely recyclable because it’s so easy to separate chemically from other compounds.

–       Aluminum prices have declined over the last 25 years… clearly it’s not being used enough

Aluminum isn’t perfect, nothing ever is. It also would stand to reason that there’s no one-stop solution to sustainability. The problem is over-reliance on one resource. The US Economy is addicted to Oil and Corn, for example.

The thing is consumption of plastic, especially plastic bottles is a really understated problem. Plastic, which is a petroleum product – is causing serious environmental harm, raising toxicity levels in the environment and killing or disfiguring animals, especially birds and marine life. Let’s not even discuss the Pacific Garabage Patch sitting in the Pacific gyre. Even the recent Malaysian Airlines flight disappearance has brought to light how much plastic debris is just floating everywhere in the ocean.

A serious downside of Aluminum is that making it is a fairly high-energy process from Bauxite ore. Critics of Aluminum point to this as being a key reason why plastic is better, especially plastic wrap versus aluminum foil. Except as Slate’s Nina Rastogi points out:

“if you use one piece of foil three times, it will contribute less aquatic toxicity than using three pieces of LDPE [plastic cling wrap], and it just about matches the plastic on fossil-fuel usage and eutrophication. You’d have to use that foil six times, however, before the greenhouse gas emissions and human health impacts were comparable as well.”

Eutrophication is the response aquatic ecosystems have to aritifical materials, especially plastics, being introduced, which is characterized by prolific toxic algae blooms.

Even when it comes to re-usable bottles, steel or aluminum are better options than plastic. Toxins from plastic will always leech into water while the worst that happens with metal is a slight metallic taste but no physiological harm.

When it comes to the disposable bottle versus the can the can is also clearly the better option. According to the EPA the US overall plastics recycling rate is 9 percent, or 2.8 million tons in 2012.[1] This means that some 28.3 million tons of recyclable plastics is put into landfills each year. By comparison to all waste this is a disaster considering that in 2009 Americans recovered 34% of waste generated.[2] By comparison when looking at Aluminum cans: “The U.S. recycling rate for aluminum beverage cans reached 58.1% in 2010- a rate that is more than double that of any other beverage container.”[3]

Because Aluminum is so recyclable it quickly offsets the initial energy cost of making it from virgin ore. Aluminum cans in circulation typically contain 68% recycled aluminum and “twenty recycled cans can be made with the energy needed to produce one can using virgin ore.”[4]

The “Story of Bottled Water” really reveals the problem with plastic water bottles:

Several points are made in the video:

–       We shouldn’t be buying bottled water anyway because tap water is prefectly safe in most places.

–       Tap water typically tastes better than bottled water.

–       Bottled water costs thousands of times more than tap water.

–       The consumption of bottled water relies on an economic principle called manufactured demand. Manufactured demand play on people’s emotions, specifically fear, to create an artificial need for something. A deceptive yet clearly commonplace and accepted practice.

–       The plastic water bottle industry has resulted in the US Government under-investing in tap water infrastructure by $24 billion dollars.

–       The billions of dollars spent on bottled drinking water and cleaning up the mess it causes could be used to address the actual challenge of communities with poor access to water. It could also be spent on making tap water the best water to drink!

So this seems fairly daunting. The evil capitalist machine is going to destroy humanity? No, because we are all individuals living in a society and with free will you can easily do things to change the current predicament:

1)   Boycott bottled drinking water

2)   Reuse the plastic bottles you do buy

3)   Support your local politicians who want to invest in public water infrastructure including treatment, purification and public drinking fountains.

4)   Ask for tap at a restaurant!

5)   Spread the word that Bottled Water is a colossal waste. With social media it’s very easy because you can share an article or a funny comedy sketch.

Students at universities often demonstrate how institutional change can be affected. As a member of USC’s collegiate sailing team I served on the Pacific Coast Collegiate Sailing Conference’s (PCCSC) Executive Board. During my tenure I witnessed the then 24 teams of the PCCSC ban plastic water bottles at regattas. I have done a little bit of math to demonstrate how much a big deal this is.

Let us assume that a team buys two racks of 30 water bottles for a two-day regatta. I would also hazard that the typical PCCSC regatta conservatively has 20 teams attending and the average team sails 10 regattas over the course of an academic year:

2*30*20*10=24’000 plastic water battles

That’s the amount of plastic water bottles reduced just by banning them for college sailing in California, Arizona, and Hawai’i. Make a difference, don’t use plastic water bottles at events your club or organization participates in or hosts.

Imagine now that plastic bottles were banned or made obsolete at a university of tens of thousands of students. Seems unlikely? Think again. Many students have pushed to remove plastic water bottles from their campuses. Most recently students at University of Wisconsin – Fond du Lac began a fundraising effort, not to ban plastic bottles but to encourage re-using plastic water bottles.

They hope to purchase water fountains for the university that are designed to fill water bottles. In other words with a tap style spout rather than your typical up-facing waterspout. By making sustainability easier they are reducing the effort required and making a behavioral appeal for good.

 

 

 


[1] http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/plastics.htm

[2] http://www.kab.org/site/PageServer?pagename=recycling_facts_and_stats

[3] http://www.kab.org/site/PageServer?pagename=recycling_facts_and_stats

[4] Idem

The Problem with Venetian Independence

A good while back, in March, an informal online plebiscite was held asking residents of Venetia, the Italian region in which Venice is situated and the core of what was once the Venetian Republic , whether or not they wanted to become independent from Italy.

Lots of people together waving flags always bothered me on some level.

A fairly misinformed article in the Atlantic blew this even way out of proportion. You can read it here:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/03/europes-latest-secession-movement-venice/284562/

However it was enough to get my attention. When I found that the Italian media had completely ignored the plebiscite – which a significant number (several million) of Venetians participated in – I decided to investigate a little.

What I found was that this plebiscite was largely populist political move by the separatist Lega Nord (Norther League) neo-fascist xenophobic party. A party which has a large base of support in Venetia where there are many wealthy but relatively uneducated business owners.

I recruited a childhood friend of mine who attends Bocconi univerity and native Venetian to write an article explaining this Byzantine situation to a foreign audience — which he did quite brilliantly:

http://scinternationalreview.com/2014/04/venetian-independence-explained/

The problem is that this story hasn’t gone away. In fact it’s gotten more coverage in the foreign press. Not surprisingly The Scotsman published this article claiming the Venetians are inspired by Scots and Catalans:

http://www.scotsman.com/news/world/rich-venetians-hopeful-in-independence-poll-1-3341460

And then there’s this sensationalist fool:

http://globalcomment.com/will-venice-secede-from-italy/#

Both these articles really use the same arguments all of which are refutable.

“Venice would be the 7th largest economy in Europe” Really? As a part of Italy you can measure it that way but to claim that Venice would just chug along if it were separated from Italy… considering that Italy’s Infrastucture is national!  Furthermore an independent Venice would be dominated by far right political parties that would wreak their own political havoc on the new republic which would soon translate into an economic mess.

“Venice pays 1 billion euros in tax revenue to Rome” Yes, Venetia is an economically dynamic region of Italy — it has more economic activity so there is more activity to tax — this seems like more of indicator of an economically successful region.

“Venice would still be in the EU and NATO” Because an independent Venice gets automatic access to two of the most exclusive and powerful clubs in the international system? I think not.

Basically, Venetian Independence is political and economic suicide and should remain as the thought at the bottom of your last Spritz of the night.

I was surprised to find that this Italian Daily ran the following post with such a title: “Venetian Independence No Joke” – the article doesn’t really back that claim:

http://the-view-from-rome.blogautore.repubblica.it/2014/04/06/venetian-independence-no-joke/

This is the problem when wealth, stupidity and power conspire. There’s a lot of stupid people who don’t know what’s good for them. You can’t just quit on your nation because you’re richer — you’re richer because of your nation. I feel that this is a really obvious truism that “the rich” have forgotten in the globally increasingly polarized political-economic environment that separates the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots.’

A look into what links education and the economy

Is France’s stagnant economy due to an education system that is training students to be robots?

Several times during this course we have pointed to how the American Economy’s greatest asset is unparalleled innovation. When Japan was poised to surpass the US by the 90’s they didn’t in part because of demographics and in part because their growth was due to optimizing rather than creating new technologies. US innovation is often attributed to two major factors that are linked: the quality of US higher education and government investment in fundamental science research.

However it may not be simply the quality of Higher Education that is important. Perhaps the style of education is the key variable. A higher education environment that promotes divergent thinking may be measurably better for an economy than one that simply promotes the retention and replication of preexisting knowledge.

For the past 30+ years France has been in a prolonged recession, worsened only by the 2008 global recession. People have attributed France’s historically stagnant economy to a myriad of factors: Poor leadership, inflated bureaucracy, high tax burdens.

Most foreign coverage of French economics I have come across re-iterates these points year after year. These articles are just a sample of what I am talking about:

http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-04-09/france-s-economic-plan-hope-for-miracles

http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21576414-it-weakness-economy-not-political-scandal-most-threatens-french

However, austerity, an economic prescription that ought to address at least a few of these issues seems to have failed to do so.

An argument to explain France’s woes that I had not yet heard, until reading a recent article in the french press, has thought to look at Les Grandes Ecoles as the problem. After all, these elite public universities are a point of considerable national pride as some of the most prestigious institutions in the world.

http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/education/20121025.OBS7128/l-ena-facteur-de-declin-francais.html

This article reports on a book written by Mr. Saby, a graduate of the premier school that trains France’s bureaucrats, the ENA (Ecole Nationale D’Administration | National School of Administration). The article suggests that it is the learning environment within ENA that is the principle cause of France’s decline. Principally the problem identified is the suppresion of innovative, creative and open thought.

I have translated the following descriptions of French Education from the article:

“Pour réussir l’épreuve, pas besoin de réfléchir: vous devez connaître le format et le remplir avec les mots-clés adequats”

To pass the exam, no need to think: you need to know the format and complete it with the correct key words

“En cela ils suivent le conseil que leur a donné un tuteur de l’école s’ils veulent des bonnes notes: apprendre par cœur règlements, directives, décisions de la Commission Européenne et avis du Parlement européen.”

And they [the students] follow the advice to get good grades given to them by a tutor of the school: learn by heart the rules, directives, and decision of the European Commission and Parliament

“La crainte de toute initiative, chez les maîtres comme chez les élèves, la négation de toute libre curiosité, le culte du classement ( Bloch dit « succès ») substitué au goût de la connaissance”

The fear of any initiative, among the professors as well as the students, the refusal of any free curiosity, and a culture of classification have replaced the very taste knowledge.

“On a l’impression à lire Saby qu’à l’ENA, les élèves sont infantilisés, effarouchés, lobotomisés.”

Reading Saby’s book, one gets the impression that ENA students are infantilized, taught to be skittish, and lobotomized [metaphorically].

When I read the descriptions of French Higher Education recounted in the article I recognize similar disturbing traits at USC. Often my fellow Trojans have described USC as “a Disneyland of a university.” Others confess that they feel they are being treated the same way they would in high school. Some students I have spoken to point to the ridiculous lengths to which the university goes to suppress activism on the campus as a suppression of independent thinking.

That being said, while living in Paris I spent 4/6 of my middle school and high-school years following the French National Curriculum. While I can attest that the quality of my education was very high (although an intervening factor here may be that the school I attended is ranked #1) I rarely was asked to create presentations, design experiments, or answer open-ended essay questions. A key reason for wanting to do the IB (International Baccalaureate) diploma for my last two years and attend and American university was not wanting to be stuck in a system that I considered to be mind numbing.

Measuring the Sanctity of Education

Comparing my college experience in the 2010’s with my father’s in the early 1980’s I was shocked that it seemed that the value society places on education and its sanctity has eroded over the years. Then again, much has changed: skyrocketing tuition rates, the explosion of college sports, the national resurgence of Greek life, the decrease of funding for public university systems. Which of these are simply corollaries rather than indicators of the perception that the sanctity of education has become devalued? This past week an article appeared in Slate that drew attention to the staggering contrast between the percentage salary growth of college sports coaches and college professors.

A Chart About College Coach Salaries That Will Make Academics Weep

In economics “prices” communicate value. Salaries are a form of prices that communicate the value of individuals, in this case, at a university. The word “university” comes from a Latin word meaning “the whole.” There is no doubt that the university experience as a whole should encompass educational, social, and athletic elements. I think however there is a problem when the resource allocation does not reflect a balanced whole. Often I’ve heard the complaints that few are the students who go to college for the purpose of learning for the sake of learning. That students prioritize socializing and attending athletic events over academic pursuits. While this indicator alone doesn’t substantiate those complaints it does make me wonder why I often hear people excited about the next party and the next game but almost never about going to their next class. I wonder if a university professor was paid a seven figure salary how amazing their class would be.

Over the Top: the Emergence of Arctic Ocean Trade

The north polar view of the world is not a common perspective, most of us may know it from the white on blue flag of the United Nations. However this view of the world may become increasingly common as the effects of climate change on the Arctic Ocean have opened new opportunities for Arctic trade routes. The opening of these trade routes is of particular interest to certain actors and nations and has the potential to change the face of global trade.

The Polar Paths for Shipping (The Globe and Mail)

A dream of the seventeenth century explorer Henry Hudson, the fabled Northwest Passage over Canada was first navigated in 1906 by the Norwegian Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen, who was also the first explorer to reach the South Pole. The other Arctic Sea route is the Northeast Passage over Russia’s northern coast, more commonly called the Northern Sea Route (NSR), it is a Russian-legislated shipping lane

Scientists predict ice-free summers by the end of the decade and navigable winters by the mid 21st century. Regardless of how one may feel about environmental politics, the question of the polar caps melting is not one of “if” but “when.”

Commercial traffic over the Arctic would most affect the Suez route. Suddenly ports along the Suez route would see much less traffic from China destined to Europe. Singapore, a commercial hub and one of the busiest ports along the route signaled its awareness of this threat by applying for permanent observer status in the Arctic Council, a regional governance institution. Singapore isn’t the only observer nation that seems out of place in Arctic Council. China, France, Germany, India, South Korea, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, and the United Kingdom are also permanent observers. Either as observers or members, nine out of the ten largest economies are in the Arctic Council.

As the Arctic’s pristine environment becomes accessible, commercial shipping is not the only encroaching human activity. Reduced sea ice is making accessible an estimated 30% of the world’s natural gas and 15% of the world’s oil. The combined potentials of Arctic shipping and resource extraction may tilt the scale in favor of developing arctic capabilities and infrastructure over environmental preservation. Professor Lassi Heininen, an expert in Arctic Issues at the University of Lapland, describes this problem as a paradox by which less sea ice means better access, which leads to more human activities which leads to less ice. The loss of sea ice is just one part of the environmental catastrophe unfolding in the Arctic and after speaking with Lassi the question he left for consideration is: “Are we willing to lose the Arctic’s beauty, or do we try to keep it for our grandchildren?”

"Are we willing to lose this?"

“Are we willing to lose the Arctic’s beauty, or do we try to keep it for our grandchildren?”  A baby Polar Bear at Ranua wildlife park in Finland, June 2012 (Photo by the author).

The Russian Federation has already started developing infrastructure to service the Northern Sea Route. Between 2009-2013 maritime traffic has improved from a handful of vessels to several hundred. While most are research vessels several trade voyages have been made. So far Norway and Russia have been the primary navigators, but in the past few years Chinese shipping giant COSCO has turned its eyes northward. This past fall COSCO’s Yong Sheng became the first container-transporting vessel to make a journey from Dailan to Rotterdam via the NSR. Huigen Yang, Director General of the Polar Research Institute of China, announced in 2013 that as much as fifteen percent of China’s maritime trade may travel the route by 2020.

A visual comparison of the Northern Sea Route (Blue) to the Suez Route (Red). The Northern Sea Route is 40%, or 12-15 days shorter than the traditional Suez route. (via wikimedia)

The Arctic region is governed by a combination of international agreements such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) and multilateral governance institution such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO, a UN Agency) and The Arctic Council (AC). The Arctic Council is made up of the eight nations that intersect the Arctic Circle: The United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark by virtue of Greenland. In the past few years the AC has passed agreements on search and rescue and the IMO is finalizing a shipping ‘polar code‘ that is expected to be in place by 2016.

Most data estimates suggest that roughly 90% of mercantile trade is shipped. For China, the potential of arctic routes could represent savings of hundreds of billions of dollars. “Once the new passage is opened, it will change the market pattern of the global shipping industry because it will shorten the maritime distance significantly among the Chinese, European and North American markets,” said Qi Shaobin, a professor at Dalian Maritime University according to China Daily. Not to mention China’s traditional route to European ports passes through pirate infested waters that the Arctic Route would avoid.

Infrastructure is still the key obstacle to the expansion of trans-Arctic trade. There are very few ports in the Arctic and they are fairly underdeveloped. Missing also are extensive maritime charts as well as search and rescue capabilities. While the Arctic Council passed a search and rescue agreement for cooperation between Arctic States, investment in capabilities is still low. Icebreakers are expensive and the largest fleets number in the tens. Additionally maritime laws and insurance standards in the draft of the IMO’s Polar Code need to be adhered to and implemented before any substantial shipping would occur.

So far Russia has been the only player to make significant commitments to development by reopening research stations and arctic ports. Canada has done little aside from accepting a legal framework on paper. Notwithstanding, there has been an increase in maritime activity through Canada’s Arctic waters:

Northwest Passage Transits 1903-2013 (Globe and Mail)

At a meeting in Stockholm with USC students in the summer of 2012, Gustaf Lind, the Swedish ambassador to the Arctic Council, accepted the possibility of Arctic Ocean Trade, but noted, “I don’t think we will see much shipping for quite some time.” Mike Keenan, an economist at the Port of Los Angeles, explains “You need long stretches that are regularly free of sea-ice and right now you don’t have that.”

There is an undeniable economic advantage to Arctic Trade Routes to connect not just China to Europe but China to the East Coast of the United States. Currently the typical shipping time from Shanghai to Rotterdam is twenty-five days, from Shanghai to Los Angeles is thirteen days and then seven days by rail to reach New York. Rotterdam to New York is another nine day sail. However a Northern Sea Route to Rotterdam from Shanghai would shorten the journey to ten days, making a sail from Shanghai to New York via Rotterdam last nineteen days. This number could be even shorter without a stopover but it already is faster than the current path from Shanghai to New York taking rail from Los Angeles. This means that without any time lost with stopovers and putting cargo on rails, the current route to New York from Shanghai is twenty days, an Arctic route would be nineteen days at most.

The Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach are, respectively, the top two busiest ports in North America. As entry points they are currently the fastest way for goods from China to reach consumers in most of the United States. It represents a huge economic asset that handles $260 billion of trade throughout the US. According to Keenan, “3.6 million jobs throughout the U.S. are related to the port’s activities.”

Whether Arctic Sea Routes posed a challenge to the port’s position seems an unlikely prospect for the port to consider in the near future. In addition to the infrastructure problem Keenan noted that “there’s simply too many variables to make any predictions for the port.” In terms of adapting to a changing trade environment “there’s a limit to what [the port] can do if you have a serious time advantage.” Keenan further noted that “the priority should be to focus on climate change and sea level rise” and pointed to the Port’s respectable environmental record and investment in clean technology.

Perhaps it is too early to quantify the effect of Arctic Sea Routes on global shipping but even if there is a long term threat to the Port of Los Angeles the sheer volume of trade between Asia and Los Angeles accounts for over ninety percent of the port’s volume. Mike Keenan asserted “cargo will always come here.”

Over the Top: the Emergence of Arctic Ocean Trade

The north polar view of the world is not a common perspective, most of us may know it from the white on blue flag of the United Nations. However this view of the world may become increasingly common as the effects of climate change on the Arctic Ocean have opened new opportunities for Arctic trade routes. The opening of these trade routes is of particular interest to certain actors and nations and has the potential to change the face of global trade.

The Polar Paths for Shipping (The Globe and Mail)

 

A dream of the seventeenth century explorer, Henry Hudson, the fabled Northwest Passage over Canada was first navigated in 1906 by the Norwegian Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen, who was also the first explorer to reach the South Pole. The other Arctic Sea route is the Northeast Passage over Russia’s northern coast, more commonly called the Northern Sea Route it is a Russian-legislated shipping lane

Scientists predict ice-free summers by the end of the decade and navigable winters by the mid 21st century. Regardless of how one may feel about environmental politics, the question of the polar caps melting is not one of “if” but “when.”

The Russian Federation has already started developing infrastructure to service the Northern Sea Route. Between 2009-2013 maritime traffic has improved from a handful to several hundred. So far Norway and Russia have been the primary navigators but in the past few years Chinese shipping giant COSCO has turned its eyes northward. Huigen Yang, Director General of the Polar Research Institute of China announced in 2013 that as much as fifteen percent of China’s maritime trade may travel the route by 2020.

A visual comparison of the Northern Sea Route (Blue) to the Suez Route (Red). The Northern Sea Route is 40%, or 12-15 days shorter than the traditional Suez route. (via wikimedia)

The Arctic region is governed by a combination of international agreements such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) and multilateral governance institution such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO, a UN Agency) and The Arctic Council (AC). The Arctic Council is made up of the eight nations that intersect the Arctic Circle: The United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark by virtue of Greenland. In the past few years the AC has passed agreements on search and rescue and the IMO is finalizing a shipping ‘polar code‘ that is expected to be in place by 2016.

Most data estimates suggest that roughly 90% of mercantile trade is shipped. For China the potential of arctic routes could represent savings of hundreds of billions of dollars  “Once the new passage is opened, it will change the market pattern of the global shipping industry because it will shorten the maritime distance significantly among the Chinese, European and North American markets,” said Qi Shaobin, a professor at Dalian Maritime University according to China Daily. Not to mention China’s traditional route to European ports passes through pirate infested waters that the Arctic Route would avoid.

Infrastructure is still the key obstacle to the expansion of trans-Arctic trade. So far Russia has been the only player to make significant commitments to development by reopening research stations and arctic ports. Canada has done little aside from accepting a legal framework on paper. Notwithstanding there has been an increase in maritime activity through Canada’s Arctic waters:

Northwest Passage Transits 1903-2013 (Globe and Mail)

At a meeting in Stockholm with USC students in the summer of 2012 Gustaf Lind, the Swedish ambassador to the Arctic Council, accepted the possibility of Arctic Ocean Trade routes but noted “I don’t think we will see much shipping for quite some time.” Mike Keenan, an economist at the Port of Los Angeles, noted “you need long stretches that are regularly free of sea-ice and right now you don’t have that.”

There is an undeniable economic advantage to Arctic Trade Routes to connect not just China to Europe but China to the East Coast of the United States. Currently the typical shipping time from Shanghai to Rotterdam is twenty-five days, from Shanghai to Los Angeles is thirteen days and then seven days by rail to reach New York. Rotterdam to New York is another nine day sail. However a Northern Sea Route to Rotterdam from Shanghai would shorten the journey to ten days making a Sail from Shanghai to New York via Rotterdam last nineteen days. This number could be even shorter without a stopover but it already is faster than the current path from Shanghai to New York taking rail from Los Angeles.

The Port of Los Angeles, which along with the Port of Long Beach is the busiest container port in North America, is currently the fastest way for good from China to reach consumers in most of the United States. It represents a huge economic asset that handles $260 billion of trade throughout the US. According to Keenan “3.6 million jobs throughout the U.S. are related to the port’s activities.”

Whether Arctic Sea Routes posed a challenge to the port’s position seems an unlikely prospect for the port to consider in the near future. In addition to the infrastructure problem Keenan noted that “there’s simply too many variables to make any predictions for the port.” In terms of adapting to a changing trade environment “there’s a limit to what [the port] can do if you have a serious time advantage.” Keenan further noted that “the priority should be to focus on climate change and sea level rise” and pointed to the Port’s respectable environmental record and investment in clean technology.

Perhaps it is too early to quantify the effect of Arctic Sea Routes on global shipping but even if there is a long term threat to the Port of Los Angeles the sheer volume of trade between Asia and Los Angeles accounts for over ninety percent of the port’s volume. Mike Keenan asserted “cargo will always come here.”

 

 

 

23rd St Café

“Until this year I did not feel the recession at all – this is really weird” says Gopal “Paul” Sood.  Paul runs the 23rd St Café in the North University Park neighborhood of Los Angeles and for five out of six years it has been a success. Since August Paul has at had to reduce manpower by more than half to keep his restaurant running “I only have two or three people working here now. Between three and six pm I tell them to go home, take a break, they see their kids after school.” What has changed?

One culprit is that his operating costs have increased. According to Paul “Utility rates have gone up” as well as commodity prices for basic food produce. Energy costs have increased steadily and water will only worsen due to the drought year.  Paul also pointed out that it is harder for small “mom and pop” businesses because “we don’t get the utility tax breaks like the big companies.”

The government has tried to make access to capital easier to stimulate the economy by keeping the federal funds rate near 0%.  If Paul has plans to expand then the question of access to capital through loans becomes relevant except contrary to the capitalist business model of continuous expansion Paul states: “I’m not looking to expand – but bank loans have high interest rates; so I’m holding back to invest.” His response may suggest that government policy meant to help the economy is maladjusted to helping small businesses.

Paul had found that his weekday clientele was down “50-60%” which he saw as the loss of working customers on lunch breaks due to the downsizing and disappearance of small businesses on Washington Blvd a few blocks away. “I know my customers, some were staff at the SEIU Union, I don’t see them anymore.” Paul knows he has a reliable core of customers that are USC students “I’m still busy Friday, Saturday, Sunday from the students still coming but it’s the business and maybe the local schools downsizing.” In fact it’s been a year of downsizing and pay freezes for the L.A. Unified School district.

New competition isn’t a problem either – “we are a neighborhood café not a ‘gourmet’ café,” referring to the “Nature’s Brew” café which opened up last year on S. Union Ave. Asking Paul what changes he might have to make he said “I don’t want to raise prices – when I’ve tried doing specials it doesn’t change the number of people coming in.” On the changing nature of downtown Paul replied that “23rd street is too far to feel the downtown revival…” and on USC’s impact on the neighborhood: “this is a low-income area and USC is creating their own market, only big companies are willing to pay into it” referring to the commercial spaces made available to by new housing constructions and the plans to renovate the University Village. Indeed rent for most of those spaces is in the ballpark of $10 per square foot while rent is about 2$ in older buildings that house local businesses.

The outlook isn’t entirely grim though as social media has been a source of new customers for Paul’s restaurant. “What really helps me are reviews on Yelp, I’m getting tourists from the science center and museums, even people going to LA Live.” Indeed the 23rd St Café gets 4/5 stars on Yelp. For Paul, this success is due to something the franchises don’t have: “I have specialty food – so I have a loyal following.”