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End of the pipe: Plugs have no business there

IF plugging could resolve every imaginable leakage, you will probably know what to do when your kid has a running stomach next time. God forbid, you do. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the way we behave every time there’s a leakage.

Plug it. And, every time it happens we also plug our way out of any lasting solution to the problem itself.

A story is told of how members of the board to our national environmental watchdog, NEMC, once rushed to the scene of leaking pipelines at a textile plant sitting next to a sprawling neighbourhood, where it fouled the air with ominous disease outbreaks.

Fired with a genuine desire to prevent any such real, if only imagined, dangers you could forgive the response of some of the board members who sought immediate closure of the plant, and possibly hold the hapless textile plant owners to account… for the simple reason that we’ve all been told that polluters must be made to pay for the ‘cleanup’ of their own rot, right?

Yet there was a lone voice of reasoned dissent to this apparent consensus: Why not help the polluters resolve their polluting ways, instead?

In the same way a discerning physician would deal with a kid suffering from a running, there was need to ‘diagnose’ and find the cause of leakage at the textile mill.

They call it a production audit in the language of ‘cleaner production’ professionals. From this audit, two factors stuck out like sore fingers, if you’ll forgive my cliché: One, the plant was running on perfectly good machinery but, two, it was being manned by the wrong people, the kind you find everywhere plant owners want to ‘cut corners’ by recruiting the cheapest labour possible.

The plant kissed bye-bye to pollution almost immediately the moment management agreed to employ competent, well trained staff and a few domestic clean-up j obs.

One of these was getting to the source of pollution – which was then traced to the ‘ dying’ department where much of the chemicals were applied without adequate specifications because the technicians were averse to technical specifications because they often argued that “ … we’ve always done it that way … so what can you ‘wasomi’ (academics) tell us… long serving fundis… ? ”

This often reminds me of my favourite fable of a someone who suddenly finds himself in the middle of floating dead bodies downstream; if he does not go find the source upstream there’s no way they could possibly stop more of the bodies from coming down – because they aren’t privy to the source of carnage.

In the story of our polluting textile mill that we cited above, we’re talking about a concept called ‘cleaner production’ championed by Prof Cleophas Migiro, founder of a centre of the same name: the Cleaner Production Centre of Tanz ania (CPCT), one among several pioneering institutions encouraging and assisting factories give society goods the ‘cleaner’ way under sponsorship of the UN Environment Programme ( UNEP).

We now hear that producers of plastic products are no longer talking plastic pollution; instead, they are having a serious rethink about the way it is being produced instead; all the time, we’ve been treated to impassioned pleas about getting rid of plastics from the environment … all because they happen to be ‘persistent’ wherever they’re discarded.

That, in the language of cleaner production gurus, is called “end-of-the-pipe” thinking -- which has failed to provide a lasting solution to plastic pollution; recycling hasn’t helped matter either because the process of ‘reproducing’ waste into useful goods further aggravates the pollution-cycle.

Now, a team of Chemical Engineers at the University of Texas at Austin has developed a new, cost-effective method for synthetically producing a bio-renewable platform chemical called triacetic acid lactone (TAL) that can be used to produce innovative new drugs and sustainable plastics at an industrial scale, as described recently in Proceedings of the N ational A cademy of S ciences.

Led by Hal Alper, a chemical engineering professor in the United States, the team’s new method involves engineering the yeast Y . lipolytica to increase production of TAL, a polyketide, to levels that far exceed current bioproduction methods.

This was accomplished by rewiring metabolism in the yeast through synthetic biology and genetic engineering. Ultimately, the research team increased production capacity tenfold, enabling polyketides to be mass-produced for incorporation into a variety of new applications in industry.

Polyketides are an important class of naturally derived molecules that can be used to make many useful products such as nutritional supplements, specialty polymers, pigments and pharmaceuticals.

Currently, there are more than 20 drugs derived from polyketides on the market. Back home, we aren’t as sophisticated, yet we can help matters if we thought first before reaching out for pugs every time we face leaking pipes.

shanimpinga@ gmail.com 07 12122128

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Author: James Mpinga

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