According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, if current trends in single-use plastic continue, "there could be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the ocean by 2050." Having spent countless family vacations at the beach since she was a child, product design student Lucy Hughes, now 24, was distraught by the amount of single-use plastic she saw littering the shore and water. So she invented a bioplastic made from fish scales and skin collected at a fish processing plant. The scales and skin are bound together with red algae. For her product, called MarinaTex, Hughes just won a James Dyson Award recognizing ingenious design. From Smithsonian:
The resulting product is strong, flexible and translucent, with a feel similar to plastic sheeting. It biodegrades on its own in four to six weeks, which gives it a major sustainability advantage over traditional bioplastics, most of which require industrial composters to break down. In addition to utilizing materials that would otherwise be thrown away, the production process itself uses little energy, since it doesn’t require hot temperatures. One single Atlantic cod fish produces enough waste for 1,400 MarinaTex bags.
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Next Saturday, Made In Space's Plastic Recycler will be delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) to convert certain waste plastic into feedstock for the company's Additive Manufacturing Facility, a 3D printer operating aboard the ISS (image below). From Made In Space
The Plastic Recycler was developed through a partnership with Brazil-based, Braskem, Americas’ largest thermosplastic resin producer. The partnership adopted Green Plastic, a bio-based resin made from sugarcane, for the printing of tools and spare parts by astronauts. GreenTM polyethylene is made from ethylene derived from sugarcane ethanol.
From Braskem's prior description of the device:
The machine consists of a plastic crushing and extrusion system that produces a filament that can be used by the 3D printer already installed on the ISS. The recycler will allow astronauts to, among other applications, use the Green Polyethylene tools and parts previously fabricated by the 3D printer, as well as other plastic materials already on the ISS that no longer are being used, such as food packaging.
More at Space.com: "Plastic Recycler Will Turn Space Station Trash into 3D Printing Stock"
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Apple has always talked a good game where recycling and environmentalism are concerned. They're quick to point out that they recycle what they can and are always on the hunt for new, sustainable manufacturing practices to adopt. They've got robots named Liam that take old stuff apart to make new stuff! While the company's PR machine is spinning that it's Apple's dream to one day make all of their products out of completely recycled materials, they're presently shitting the bed on the most basic of sustainability practices.
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Apple rejects current industry best practices by forcing the recyclers it works with to shred iPhones and MacBooks so they cannot be repaired or reused—instead, they are turned into tiny shards of metal and glass.
"Materials are manually and mechanically disassembled and shredded into commodity-sized fractions of metals, plastics, and glass," John Yeider, Apple's recycling program manager, wrote under a heading called "Takeback Program Report" in a 2013 report to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. "All hard drives are shredded in confetti-sized pieces. The pieces are then sorted into commodities grade materials. After sorting, the materials are sold and used for production stock in new products. No reuse. No parts harvesting. No resale."
...A document submitted to North Carolina's Department of Environment Quality in September 2016 shows that Apple's must-shred policy hasn't changed in recent years, even as it continues to position itself as a green company: "All of the equipment collected for recycling is manual and mechanically disassembled and shredded.
Yesterday, I saw a demo of the Homebiogas bioreactor: it's essentially an artificial stomach that uses colonies of microbes to digest your home food waste (it can do poop, too, but people tend to be squeamish about this), providing enough clean-burning biogas to cook your next meal, heat your house, or run a generator -- what's left behind is excellent fertilizer.
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Science fiction writer and ecologist Kim Stanley Robinson (previously) writes that we need to "empty half the Earth of its humans" to save the planet -- but not by the Green Left's usual (and potentially genocidal) tactic of reducing our population by 50%.
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Justin Rhodes profiles an urban market gardener who leases other people's residential yards for planting produce, which he harvests and sells up and down the east coast of the United States. He makes over $5,000 a month. Read the rest
There's really nothing not to love about vertical farms -- multi-story hydroponic operations, usually sited in dense urban areas -- they borrow their best tech from the space program, they're water-conserving, they don't have runoff, they're energy efficient, and they're super land-efficient, meaning we don't need to turn forests or wetlands into fields. Read the rest
Greg Greene writes, "Since directing The End of Suburbia in 2004 I've been exploring ways to popularize sustainable and resilient cities.
Playing with notions of urban apocalypse, we're crowdfunding development of Deepcity 2030, a real time strategy game set in a near future of strange beings,
megastorms, and scarcity where energy is as precious as life
itself. The game combines a gritty steampunk aesthetic and off-beat humour with ongoing opportunities for players to demonstrate strategic prowess by inventing possible world futures." I backed it. Read the rest
In an older post that I hadn't seen before, David Shiffman of the Southern Fried Science explains how the ostensible success of "dolphin-safe tuna" has actually led to tuna fishing methods that are a much bigger threat to ocean wildlife — from tuna, themselves, to endangered sea turtles and sharks. Read the rest
The average Iowa farm has the potential to feed 14 people per acre, writes Jon Foley at Ensia. But planted with nothing but corn — and with almost all of that corn going to ethanol production and the feeding of animals — the same land can only feed 3 people per acre. Corn isn't a bad plant. But the corn system is a big problem. Read the rest
Four billion tons of food are grown and raised worldwide every year. About 25% of that goes to waste. Read the rest
I wrote a story about the future of crop science that's printed in the June issue of Popular Science. When I was doing the research, the big question I wanted to ask was this: "How can we take the most important agricultural crops and make them more sustainable and adapted to climate change?"
I suppose there are a lot of ways to define "most important", but I went with the crops that feed the most people. Wheat, rice, and corn account for more than 50% of all the calories consumed on Earth. So those are the plants I looked at. And that's where I ran into a surprise. Scientists had some really interesting, concrete suggestions for how to prepare wheat and rice for a changing world. But with corn, they took a different tack. Basically, the scientists said the best thing to do with corn was use less corn.
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Large yields and high calorie content have made corn the most popular and most heavily subsidized crop in America. That’s an increasingly urgent problem. In 2010, corn production consumed nine million tons of fertilizer and led to greenhouse-gas emissions equivalent to 42 million tons of CO2—and corn isn’t even something we can easily eat. “The digestibility of unprocessed corn to humans isn’t very high,” says Jerry Hatfield, a plant physiologist with the USDA. “We have to put it through processing of some sort, whether that happens in a factory or an animal.” Set those problems aside, and a deal-breaker remains: modern corn is more sensitive to heat than any other major crop, and attempts to create drought- and heat-resistant corn through genetic modification are still unproven.
Ever since researching Before the Lights Go Out, my book on energy in the United States, I've been a little skeptical of the locavore movement. Sure, farmer's markets are a nice way to spend a weekend morning, and a good way to connect with other people from my neighborhood. There are arguments to be made about creating local jobs and contributions to local economies. But I see some holes in the idea, as well—particularly if you expect eating local to go beyond a niche market or a special-occasion thing.
Think about economies of scale—the cost benefits you get for making and moving things in bulk. That works not only for cost (making non-local food often cheaper food), but it also works for energy use. It takes less energy for a factory to can green beans for half the country than it would take for us all to buy green beans and lovingly can them at home. When our energy comes from limited, polluting sources—that discrepancy matters. Plus, you have to think about places like Minnesota, where I live. In winter, local food here would require hothouse farming—something that is extremely unsustainable, as far as energy use is concerned.
Basically, I think there are benefits to local food. And I don't think the problems with local food mean we shouldn't change anything about our food system. But we have to acknowledge that the locavore thing isn't perfect, and maybe isn't as sustainable as we'd like it to be. That's why I like this Grist interview with Pierre Desrochers, a University of Toronto geography professor and author of The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet. Read the rest
Bees need a certain amount of nearby green space in order to find enough pollen to survive. Without that, bees can starve. They can also end up subsisting on a diet of syrup that's about as healthy for them as a diet of burgers and fries would be for you and I. London has had die-offs of bees in the past, when beekeeping got more popular than the city's limited green space could support. Some people are now worried that New York City could be headed toward that problem. (Via Hannah Nordhaus) Read the rest
Between now and 2020, the greatest increases in population growth in the United States are projected to happen in the places that have the biggest problems with fresh water availability. This isn't just a drinking water problem, or even an agriculture problem. It's an energy issue, too. Most of our electricity is made by finding various ways to boil water, producing steam that turns a turbine in an electric generator. In 2000, we used as much fresh water to produce electricity as we used for irrigation—each sector represented 39% of our total water use. (From a poster at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.) Read the rest
The brilliant popular engineering Sustainable Materials - with Both Eyes Open: Future Buildings, Vehicles, Products and Equipment - Made Efficiently and Made with Less New Material has just been released in the USA. I reviewed this book last November, when it came out in the UK. Here's a brief excerpt from then:
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We review a lot of popular science books around here, but Sustainable Materials (like Sustainable Energy) is a popular engineering text, a rare and wonderful kind of book. Sustainable Materials is an engineer's audit of the materials that our world is made of, the processes by which those materials are extracted, refined, used, recycled and disposed of, and the theoretical and practical efficiencies that we could, as a society, realize.
Allwood and Cullen write about engineering with the elegance of the best pop-science writers -- say, James Gleick or Rebecca Skloot -- but while science is never far from their work, their focus is on engineering. They render lucid and comprehensible the processes and calculations needed to make things and improve things, touching on chemistry, physics, materials science, economics and logistics without slowing down or losing the reader.
The authors quickly demonstrate that any effort to improve the sustainability of our materials usage must focus on steel and aluminum, first because of the prominence of these materials in our construction and fabrication, and second because they are characteristic microcosms of our other material usage, and what works for them will be generalizable to other materials.
From there, the book progresses to a fascinating primer on the processes associated with these metals, from ore to finished product and back through recycling, and the history of efficiency gains in these processes, and the theoretical limits on efficiency at each stage.
I'm going to be speaking on Monday, February 20th, at the meeting of the British Columbia Sustainable Energy Association, starting at 7:00 pm. My presentation will focus on the North American electric grid—where it came from, how it works today, and how it affects what we can and can't do in the future. I'll be talking about a lot of the big themes that I cover in my upcoming book, Before the Lights Go Out. Read the rest