In the future we might paint our homes with dead Christmas trees

Lots of folks celebrate Christmas by stashing their presents under the same reusable plastic and aluminum wire Christmas tree every winter: it's a thoughtful, cost-efficient way to cut down on the amount of post holiday garbage that winds up in wood chippers or the local dump every year.

However, a lot of people still like to kick it old school with a cut-from-its-roots-and-left-to-slowly-die-in-a-pot-of-water conifer. They smell and look amazing...for a while. Once the presents have been unwrapped and the tree begins to brown, out the door it goes. Upwards of 30 million Americans wind up tossing out these Yuletide corpses every year. Happily, it looks like a scientist has sorted out a the means for making better use of these discarded trees once folks are finished getting their holly-jolly on with them.

The process involves breaking down a chemical called lignocellulose in needles of dead pine trees into a useful substance that could be used to make paint or artificial sweeteners and other wicked useful products.

From Futurism:

Lignocellulose is ugly. No, really. Its chemical structure makes it difficult to use for biomass energy, and it serves little industrial purpose. Sheffield PhD student Cynthia Kartey’s work has focused on examining ways to make use of this material, and now she may be on to something.

Using heat and glycerol, Kartey was able to break down the pine needles into two components, one of which was made mostly of materials like glucose, acetic acid and phenol. All three have uses in other industries — glucose is used to make food sweeteners, phenol is used in products like mouthwash, and acetic acid for making adhesives, vinegar, and even paint.

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Impressive upcycling of a CVS receipt

As we know, the absurdly long CVS receipts are due to the rise of data mining and target marketing. A fellow from Lakewood, Ohio recently Tweeted his ingenious upcycling of one of those ridiculous receipts. From News 5 Cleveland:

Andrew said he got the idea quite on accident – he bought a few items (less than 10, he said) from the Rocky River CVS, then laid the receipt out on his bedroom floor to take a picture of it to send to his friends.

He came back later and actually thought the receipt was one of the blinds that had fallen on the floor. “…they’re cheap blinds so they fall off pretty often,” he said in a chat with News 5.

“…and when I realized it was actually the receipt, I thought it would be funny to see if it fit in the window, and it happened to fit perfectly,” he said.

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National Geographic's plastics issue is a huge wake-up call

This video accompanies National Geographic's terrific reporting on the global plastic waste crisis. it shows how America became a plastic-addicted throwaway culture, and how the earth is now paying for humanity's short-sighted sin. Read the rest

UK's indie music fests vow to end plastic bottles and straws at events

The Association of Independent Festivals plans to take a step in the right direction on single-use plastic items with their Drastic on Plastic initiative. Read the rest

Scientists accidentally engineer enzyme to eat plastic waste

Researchers "accidentally" engineered a natural enzyme found in a Japanese waste recycling plant to eat plastic waste. According to the scientists from the UK's University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the enzyme, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, degrades polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the material used to make plastic bottles and other crap. The photo above is an electron microscope image of the enzyme degrading PET plastic.

"We hoped to determine (the enzyme's) structure to aid in protein engineering, but we ended up going a step further and accidentally engineered an enzyme with improved performance at breaking down these plastics," NREL's lead researcher Gregg Beckham told CNN. From the University of Portsmouth:

“Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception,” Professor McGeehan said.

“Although the improvement is modest, this unanticipated discovery suggests that there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics.”

"Engineering a plastic-eating enzyme" (UOP) Read the rest

Man recreates TSA's $47,400 "head this way" app in 10 minutes

TSA guards at airports had a new weapon in their arsenal in 2014: tablets that they held up to randomly direct travelers into different lines. According to the TSA's documentation, they spent $47k developing the app that did this. In this YouTube video, Chris Pacia develops a clone of the app in a few minutes.

The implication is that the TSA is astoundingly wasteful: Kevin Burke's FOIA request reveals a total spend of up to $336k to develop and distribute the related software, and about $1m more for the actual devices and training. Use of the app was discontinued by the TSA in any case.

You know, I've been thinking about it a while, and while they obviously have travelers' safety and best interests at heart, after seeing TSA guards ostentatiously standing with their arrow apps and "swiping" travelers this way and that, I'm beginning to suspect – forgive me! – that this whole deal might have had more to do with the appearance of security than the real thing. Crazy, right? And that in the absence of any real objectives, expertise or oversight, these guys are easily taken to the cleaners by opportunistic contractors. Someone should figure out a snappy phrase to describe this "theater of security" and do something about it. [via r/PoliticalVideos] Read the rest

Mini-documentary about the world's largest e-waste dump

Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana is the world's largest dump for electronic waste from all over the globe. Meet the teenagers who tend it in this short film, Regolith, directed by Sam Goldwater. Read the rest

Meet "Big Trash"

Over the long run, keeping stuff like tree limbs and compostable waste out of landfills is good for cities. There's only so much space in a landfill and getting more land is extremely expensive. So why haven't more cities hopped on the curbside composting bandwagon, or at least banned yard waste from landfills? There's probably a lot of factors that go into those decisions, but one, apparently, is the influence of large, private companies that handle waste collection and see the diversion of re-usable waste as a detriment to their income. (Via Chris Tackett) Read the rest

Behind the scenes of a city: Trash in L.A.

The video, made by Mae Ryan for Los Angeles public radio KPCC, traces trash from a burger lunch to its ultimate fate in a landfill. It reminds me of those great, old Sesame Street videos where you got to see what goes on inside crayon factories and peanut butter processing plants. Which is to say that it is awesome.

The process you see here, though, is L.A.-centric, which started me wondering: How much does the trash system differ from one place to another in the United States?

Over the last couple years, as I researched my book on the electric system, I spent a lot of time learning about how different infrastructures developed in this country. If there's one thing I've picked up it's the simple lesson that these systems—which we are utterly dependent upon—were seldom designed. Instead, the infrastructures we use today are often the result of something more akin to evolution ... or to a house that's been remodeled and upgraded by five or six different owners. Watching this video it occurred to me that there's no reason to think that the trash system in place in L.A. has all that much in common with the one in Minneapolis. In fact, it could well be completely different from the trash system in San Francisco.

I'd love to see more videos showing the same story in different places. Know of any others you can point me toward?

Suggested by maeryan on Submitterator

Video Link

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Exploding manure terrorizes America's hog farms

The manure pits on pig farms across the United States have been invaded by a mysterious foam—at Ars Technica, Brandon Keim describes it as "a gelatinous goop that resembles melted brown Nerf". It's probably the byproduct of some kind of biological process, though nobody knows exactly what. The larger problem, though, is that the foam is rather explosive. Read the rest

Heat your home with data

Server farms generate so much heat that they have to run air conditioning year round. That requires energy, which costs money and tends to mean burning more fossil fuels. Meanwhile, in winter, a lot of houses are cold. The people who live there have to turn on the heat, which costs money and tends to mean burning more fossil fuels.

So here's an idea: Why not distribute the hardware from a server farm, putting heat-producing equipment in houses that actually need the heat?

If a home has a broadband Internet connection, it can serve as a micro data center. One, two or three cabinets filled with servers could be installed where the furnace sits and connected with the existing circulation fan and ductwork. Each cabinet could have slots for, say, 40 motherboards — each one counting as a server. In the coldest climate, about 110 motherboards could keep a home as toasty as a conventional furnace does.

The rest of the year, the servers would still run, but the heat generated would be vented to the outside, as harmless as a clothes dryer’s. The researchers suggest that only if the local temperature reached 95 degrees or above would the machines need to be shut down to avoid overheating. (Of course, adding a new outside vent on the side of the house could give some homeowners pause.)

According to the researchers’ calculations, a conventional data center must invest about $400 a year to run each server, or about $16,000 for a cabinet filled with 40 of them.

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