As a species, we have been filling landfills and oceans with non-perishable waste and pumping more and more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere for over a century. And now, finally, the whole world is becoming wiser to the fact that this waste won’t go anywhere without serious intervention.
Some amazing scientists have developed products and machines that will help us treat our planet with more care. Here are 10 lesser-known inventions that could be applied on a larger scale and result in a healthier, happier planet.
10 Green Cell Foam—Biodegradable Packaging
The growing mounds of Styrofoam in our landfills is one of the planet’s most worrying issues. KTM Industries may have the answer. They have created a cornstarch-based material designed to provide an eco-friendly packaging that can be used for almost anything that you might want to mail.
Every day, approximately 1,369 tons of Styrofoam are buried in U.S. landfills. And by volume, Styrofoam products fill up 25 to 30 percent of landfill space around the world. And it takes about seven lifetimes (500 years) to decompose fully. Green Cell Foam, in comparison, takes four months to decompose completely into any compost heap.
Green Cell Foam doesn’t even need to be recycled. They offer “disposal options that go beyond recycling.” It can be put in the compost or safely burned in your barbeque. And it’s entirely water-soluble—which means it will completely disappear before your eyes as soon as water touches it.
The growing mounds of waste that will take centuries to vanish is a serious matter, which (thankfully) means there is a growing interest in creating eco-friendly alternatives to the everyday items that we take for granted.
9 Transparent Solar Cells
Transparent solar cells could be the answer to some of our most crucial environmental concerns. It has been the ambition of multiple researchers to achieve fully transparent solar cells for over a decade. And now, thanks to a groundbreaking discovery by Michigan State University, it’s starting to become a reality.
In their research, they used organic salts that absorb specific invisible wavelengths of light, such as ultraviolet light. Once the light is transformed, the panel’s material moves to its edges, where uniquely designed cells convert the light into electricity.
It’s been said that this technology could even be applied to handheld devices such as tablets and mobile phones. Recently they have developed the technology further to have a 30-year life span. They have also estimated the production costs to be competitive with current solar technologies.
Thanks to these great scientists, a world without fossil fuels is becoming more of a possible reality. There’s a big chance that you could be driving a car in the future that is solely powered by the solar energy it captures in its sunroof and windows. The opportunities for the application of transparent solar cells are practically endless, so fingers crossed that one day they become so widely produced that we won’t ever have to plug in our mobile phones!
8 Glass Bottle Recycling Machine
Back in 2015, DB Breweries created Brewtoleum, the world’s first bio-fuel made solely from the byproducts of beer production. But they didn’t stop there. In 2017, they introduced the “Beer Bottle Sand” initiative, creating machines that crush beer bottles into fine, usable sand in five seconds.
They want to reduce the world’s dependence on beach-derived sand. The company’s PR and Digital manager explains, “Two-thirds of the world’s beaches are retreating as people across the world use non-renewable beach sand for construction, roading, and other uses.” Whether their introduction of these machines was a clever marketing spin or a genuine concern for environmental matters, we have to admit it’s a great way to get rid of your unused bottles.
The machines can be placed in supermarkets and bars so that their customers and fellow beer fans can do their part in reducing their environmental impact while enjoying a cold beer. What’s not to like? They aim to be the country’s most sustainable beer, and to stay true to their word, they are reducing plastic use by 45,275 kilograms (99,814 pounds) and ink usage by 50,000 liters (13,205 gallons). Impressive!
7 Ooho Water—Edible Water Pods
Ooho Water pods by Notpla are one of the world’s first alternatives to water bottles. A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. And more than half a trillion will be sold every year by the end of the decade. Let that sink in. To produce one water bottle, it takes 162 grams (5.7 ounces) of oil and 7 liters (7.39 quarts) of water. This amounts to the release of 100g of carbon dioxide (CO2).
Between 5 and 13 million tons of plastic leak into the world’s oceans each year to be ingested by sea birds, fish, and other organisms. By 2050, the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. So plastic bottles are a serious issue. But the wonderful people at Ooho have developed an innovative alternative.
The little water pods are surrounded by sustainable packaging material combining seaweed and plants. The material’s contents mean that it’s fully biodegradable and edible. “So it will degrade in 4-6 weeks, just like a piece of fruit. Or you can just eat it, making it ideal for on-the-go consumption!”
Sadly the water pods never gained enough momentum to become socially accepted. The company behind Ooho, Notpla, has more recently pivoted into producing environmentally friendly packaging (the same material used on the Ooho). It is an intuitive invention that could have solved more than one problem but didn’t quite get there. Maybe the world wasn’t ready for it yet?
6 Vertical Farming: The Future of Mass Farming
Agricultural practice has been around for over 10,000 years, and our approach to it has changed dramatically over the years, especially so over the last ten years. Vertical farming (also known as vertical hydroponics) has been slowly introduced over the past two decades since Dickson Despommier, a professor at New York’s Columbia University, encouraged the development of the concept among his students.
Generic agriculture farming, as we know, relies on many external factors, the weather being the main one. Therefore we rely on everything working out as planned in order to receive the required amount of crop for the population. The world’s population is expected to go beyond 9 million by 2050, so having a more reliable source of vegetation that can be scaled up (and in any location) could create a more sustainable way to feed the world’s population.
The application of other recently developed technologies such as LED grow lights and computer-assisted systems that can automatically control pH, nutrient levels, and temperature make it incredibly viable for year-long vegetation at a much higher efficiency than that of typical farming.
Scientists have said the large-scale introduction of vertical farming could have a significant positive impact on climate change. Growing food indoors creates an opportunity for returning farmland to its original (ecological) function. This approach to farming vastly reduces land requirement (by 10 to 20 times). Thereby allowing the free land to be used for the regrowth of forests.
5 Plastic-Eating Caterpillars
Plastic-eating caterpillars are more of a discovery than an invention. Nevertheless, these little bugs are certainly worth an honorable mention.
With over 350 million tons of plastic being produced annually worldwide, it’s becoming even more necessary to find a solution to its disposal every year. Since 1950 the world has made more than seven7 billion tons of plastic. That’s more than one ton for every person alive today.
Scientists have claimed to have found an answer to this huge amount of biodegradable plastic waste we are currently sitting on—the plastic-eating caterpillar. So far, there have been over 50 species of microorganisms discovered that are capable of turning plastic into energy.
A particular bacteria, Ideonella sakaiensis, was discovered in 2016 by scientists in Japan outside of a plastic recycling factory. Typically, bacteria consume dead organic matter, but Ideonella sakaiensis has developed a taste for a certain type of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Scientists have found that they produce two digestive enzymes that, once in contact with PET plastic, break down the long molecular chains into shorter chains, which are then processed to release energy for the growth of bacteria.
Currently, the pace at which these microorganisms degrade plastics isn’t at a rate that could impact our plastic pollution problem. However, scientists are researching how they process the plastics and hope to one day replicate or bioengineer these bacteria so that we can solve the global issue once and for all.
4 Avani Eco Shopping Bags
Avani has created a fully biodegradable shopping bag made out of materials that are much kinder to our planet. It is estimated that one trillion plastic grocery bags are consumed each year globally. That’s over half a million tons of plastic. Despite the efforts being made by corporations to reduce and recycle plastics, it is estimated that of the 5.8 million tons of plastic no longer in use, only 9% has been recycled since 1950.
Paper bags are also out of the question; they require four times the amount of energy to manufacture than plastic bags do—not to mention the harmful chemicals used in their production. Therefore, an introduction of fully biodegradable products that are able to totally replace their plastic counterparts will surely be welcomed. The Avani Bio-Cassava bag is a prime example of intuitive product design that uses solely biodegradable materials.
The shopping bags are made out of starch from the cassava root, and the whole bag can completely biodegrade in 180 days. Avani’s alternative to the common grocery bag is certified non-GMO, contains no petroleum, and the ink used for printing is totally eco-friendly.
3 HomeBioGas 2.0
The HomeBioGas 2.0 has been brought to market as a way for the everyday consumer to do their part in reducing the world’s emissions of greenhouse gasses. They had a Kickstarter in 2020, which ended with a very successful campaign. It achieved beyond 600% of its proposed goal.
The Biodigester can manage 6.8 liters (1.5 gallons) of organic waste daily, which creates up to two hours of free cooking gas. It’s a great product that allows individuals to make a considerable impact and become more self-sufficient. If used at full capacity, it saves six tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere every year. The global average of carbon emissions per person every year is four tons.
2 Sieve for Drinkable Seawater
Next is a solution to an age-old problem: a graphene sieve that makes seawater drinkable. A study by UNICEF showed that 884 million people didn’t have safe water to drink in 2017.
This breakthrough was thought up by scientists from the University of Manchester, led by Dr. Rahul Nair. Explaining how the sieve works, he said, “Water molecules can go through individually, but sodium chloride cannot. It always needs the help of the water molecules. The size of the shell of water around the salt is larger than the channel size, so it cannot go through.” They’ve said that their method of water purification is a simple, scalable method that gets rid of 97% of sodium chloride (salt).
Not only would this sieve solve the clean water crisis across the world, but globally there is a growing problem with microplastics. Researchers have discovered that microplastics are major contributors to plastic pollution and are found widely in the environment and even in humans and other animals. So all in all, this incredible intuitive graphene sieve could be a game-changer in many ways.
1 Liter of Light—Recycled Solar Lights
This company describes itself as a “global, grassroots movement committed to providing affordable, sustainable solar light to people with limited or no access to electricity.”
They create a low-cost light tube that refracts sunlight during the day to provide electricity-free lighting. Their aim is to supply the one billion people in the world that suffer from energy poverty with free-to-use lighting for their homes. It works by filling a two-liter bottle with water plus a little bleach (which suppresses algae growth).
It is an open-source technology that is easily put together with readily available materials. They have been recognized by the UN and have already installed over 350,000 bottle lights across 15 countries. The fantastic thing about Liter of Light is that they have created partnerships around the world so that they can send volunteers to teach marginalized communities how to use readily available materials to illuminate their streets and homes.
Overall, this invention (and the grassroots movement that comes with it) is a wonderful approach to reducing electricity dependence, encouraging reuse of “single use” plastics, and most importantly, bringing lighting to marginalized communities.