Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Raising the debate of the standard

Think Defence blog is looking at pallets today. He's an even bigger geek than me it seems. He asks us to pause and contemplate the Rigid Intermediate Bulk Container (IBC) for liquids. And he's right to. I can see at least twenty standards and design specifications in this one picture, all of which must be at specific dimensions for roughly the same reasons as shipping containers. Pause a while and marvel at the amount of intellectual effort which has been expended on bringing us this mundane but very necessary device. And the humble and ubiquitous pallet is about to become deeply political.

For all of time they have been the same basic design comprising of timber and steel nails. They are durable, standardised and infinitely recyclable. But they also have a short useful life. Innovation is now moving us towards more durable stackable plastic pallets, more uniform in their fatigue life and stronger through innovative structures. This kills the traditional pallet maker while spawning a whole new area for plastics producers to explore and enhance. Then there is the question of recyclability. End of life uses for timber pallets are famed and many. Not so for the non-biodegradable monoform plastic pallet, which will require its own means of specialist disposal.

And so it is a reminder of how just one design standard that we take for granted can have minor but transformational effects, which is why you would seek consultation on such things.

Interestingly, while the IBC pallet is the product of ISO standards and UNECE regulation, the whole unit is classified as Cargo Transport Units for which there are joint guidelines from the IMO, ILO and UNECE for packing and handling. The ILO's influence of course being the health and safety aspect.

Liquid transportation is always hazardous due to sloshing which can alter the pitch of a ship or change the handling of a vehicle. There are innovations coming into play to minimise this by placing internal walls within the IBC, which again will end up as a universal standard rendering existing units unlawful and obsolete. It does however reduce risks, reduces losses thus reducing insurance, and making goods cheaper for all. This is the thinking behind the latest IMO SOLAS regulations on gross mass of containers so as to improve the stacking order on container ships.

I could go on, but it gives you an idea of the universe of thinking that goes into supply chains from the micro to the macro, from the observed to the largely unobserved. So take a moment to marvel at this otherwise wholly uninteresting thing. Everything around you is regulated and everything is better because of it. But as Christian Friis Bach, Executive Secretary of UNECE remarks today:
"As the UK referendum on Brexit approaches I feel obliged to stand forward and confess. The European Union is often criticized for dealing with ridiculous things such as the shape of cucumbers: banning the curved ones and imposing straight ones on farmers and consumers alike. Well, this story is wrong for three reasons. First and foremost, it is not the European Union that has developed the current standard for cucumbers. It is the UN. Or to be more specific my organization, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). In fact, the European Union does not have a specific cucumber standard but traders can refer to the UNECE standard to meet the EU’s general marketing requirements. Therefore, don’t blame the EU, blame us."
Yet another reason why we do not need the EU and yet more confirmation of the EU's redundancy in regulatory affairs. As we have said from the beginning, the EU is increasingly a rule taker, not a rule maker.

But returning to the rules regarding the packing and handling of cargo, it is interesting to note that it is a tripartite initiative between IMO, ILO and UNECE. While that's nothing new under the sun it is inevitable that we will see ever closer cooperation between these global bodies where they will start to merge.

This is an important development, where agencies start dictating their own agendas which is potentially very dangerous. If all the agencies unite, as the WHO, FAO and Codex have, we have a global government far more terrifying than the EU by way of being massively more influenced by corporates, with us having no seat at the table (thanks to being in the EU), and next to zero transparency.

Getting any information on decision making except from official sources is seriously difficult because it's a woefully under-reported aspect of governance which even the BBC is entirely unaware of. When this referendum is out of the way I will be spending a lot more time looking at this.

In the meantime, be careful who you share this post with. We are told that us Brexiteers are contributing to an atmosphere of contempt and this kind of material could well trigger another brutal slaying. Between this article covering stacking pallets and cucumber regulations and my recent post on aubergine marketing standards we may well see another MP slain before the day is out. I will add a trigger warning next time.

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