The Eco-Friendly Inventions You Need to Know About
It may seem like every other news headline in your feed features a glum statistic about the well-being of our planet—perhaps it has something to do with our lower-than-ever recycling rates, the accumulation of plastic along global shores, or the rising temperatures of our oceans. Whatever the focus, there's no doubt about it: These concerning stories often leave you feeling disheartened and overwhelmed. There is a silver lining, though. As eco-awareness rises, so does sustainable innovation. From scientists and activists to creative thinkers and doers, more and more minds are set on working towards the same green goal. They're discovering clever ways to combat food waste and ground-breaking swaps for single-use plastics; with their discoveries, it's becoming clearer that the future is, indeed, bright.
Take SALt, for instance, a Philippines-based think tank that found a way to create a light source powered by salt water. Not only are these lamps a greener alternative to conventional kerosene lamps used by local communities, they're promising to be a new, low-impact way to effectively power disaster-struck areas.
When human ingenuity meets up-to-the-minute technology, the results can be revelatory. We get apps that instantly deliver an Oscar-winning movie or our favorite pad Thai, robotic vacuum cleaners that can silently sweep our floors, even when we're not home, and thermostats that know our preferred sleeping temperature. Convenience is a fine goal, of course, but what's even more impressive is when scientists and entrepreneurs couple it with long-term environmental benefits. Learn more about the mind-blowing initiatives designed to preserve and protect the planet. Many are available now or are just on the horizon.
Longer-Lasting Produce: Apeel Sciences
A podcast about food waste and world hunger spurred scientist James Rogers to develop a natural way to prolong the freshness of fruits and vegetables. The solution: "Apeel, a barrier for food, made of food," says Rogers, the CEO of Apeel Sciences. "It's made from materials found in high quantities in the seeds, skins, and pulps of fruits and vegetables; this exceptionally thin extra 'peel' of edible plant material slows down water loss and oxidation."
Rogers's California-based company created a tasteless, odorless, colorless formula that farmers and suppliers can apply to their harvest, certified-organic items included. Apeel Avocados launched in select retailers last year and stores are already seeing an impact. The Midwest chain Harps, for example, reports 65 percent less avocado waste, and a 10 percent increase in sales of the fruit.
Plastic-Free Straws: Hay! Straws
Now that plastic straws are an environmental pariah, the search is on for the most sustainable replacement. Hay! Straws, a San Francisco–based company, is betting on hollow wheat stems, a by-product of the grain. They are compostable, sturdy, and don't get soggy. Plus, they don't involve razing trees (as paper does), or extracting metals and using energy-intensive manufacturing, like stainless steel.
"We were surprised at how simple the solution could be," says cofounder Emma Grose, who did months of fieldwork collecting and sampling the stalks. Today, the straws are in several well-known restaurants, bars, and hotels, including San Francisco's Michelin-starred State Bird Provisions and Four Seasons locales across the country. You can also buy them online from select retailers.
Animal-Free "Leather:" Zoa
Raising livestock creates between 14.5 and 18 percent of the world's human-induced greenhouse-gas emissions while tanning the hides requires enormous amounts of water and produces sizable waste and chemical pollution. New Jersey-based company Modern Meadow, however, has developed a completely animal-free alternative using a specially-designed DNA sequence inserted into yeast cells to create collagen, a protein found in animal skin.The material feels buttery-soft and can be molded into any shape.
In 2017, the company launched Zoa, a biofabricated-materials brand, and one of its prototype shirts was shown at New York City's Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit caught the interest of the fashion, furniture, and automotive industries, which means the material could soon be spotted in coats, couches, and even car seats.
Sustainable Sushi: Ahimi
"Tuna is the most popular fish for sushi worldwide," says San Francisco-based master chef James Corwell, who created Ahimi, a plant-derived substitute for raw tuna.
"According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the populations of prized Pacific bluefins have declined more than 90 percent over the past 50 years." To make a more viable, yet still delicious, alternative, Corwell worked with tomatoes, and fine-tuned a process that enhances their natural umami flavor with soy sauce, sugar, water, and sesame oil.
"The result is a naturally meaty texture that looks and tastes like ahi tuna," he says. Restaurants and consumers concur. Ahimi is available at nearly 50 Whole Foods sushi counters, Blue Sushi Sake Grill restaurants across the country, and at other restaurants.
Packaging You Can Eat: Ooho
Imagine food and drink packaging that's not just biodegradable, but also edible. London-based start-up Skipping Rocks Lab has achieved just that with Ooho, a line of transparent containers for liquids, made from plant and seaweed extracts. The company envisions its product being used for condiment packets, at juice bars, and in place of one of the worst environmental scourges: plastic bottles.
Ooho biodegrades within six weeks in land or water—a drop in the bucket compared to the centuries plastic takes. It's currently being tested by large-scale partners including Selfridges & Co. department stores and the takeout chain Just Eat. At a half-marathon in the U.K. last fall, runners ripped open Ooho water sachets—or popped them in their mouths whole—in the country's first single-use-plastic-free race.
Pollution-Based Art: Air-Ink
Bangalore, India–based Graviky Labs, a spin-off from the MIT Media Lab (a renowned creative think tank), has master-minded a way to turn dirty diesel pollution into ink.
A cylindrical metal unit attaches to exhaust pipes and traps the health-threatening particulate matter, or soot, that's expelled. Pollutants like toxic heavy metals and volatile organic compounds are removed from that gunk, until only a safe carbon-based pigment remains. Graviky makes that pigment into the base for its Air-Ink; one pen’s worth contains 40 to 50 minutes of pollution.
"We're constantly trying to improve the upcycling process," says Graviky cofounder Anirudh Sharma. So far, the company has cleaned 1.6 trillion liters of air (roughly the amount 145 million people breathe in a day) and sent its ink to more than a thousand artists worldwide.
The Future's Water Filter: Lifesaver
Raise a glass: Icon Lifesaver creates portable water bottles with built-in filters that can trap microbiological contaminants—bacteria, viruses, protozoa—found in freshwater sources like lakes and rivers, says product manager Wesley Clarke-Sullivan.
The company has recently partnered with the National Graphene Institute, in Manchester, England, to employ newly developed graphene-sieve technology (which utilizes a carbon-based material that's stronger than steel but thinner than paper). It could catch impurities the size of a single nanometer, including "heavy metals, chemicals, pesticides, and potentially even salt," Clarke-Sullivan says.
Icon hopes to sell these graphene filter cartridges for individual water bottles on its website and via e-retailers including Amazon, by 2021.
Trash Turned "Sand:" DB Exports
DB Exports, a New Zealand brewery, is tackling beach erosion with a machine that pulverizes used beer bottles into sandlike particles in mere seconds. Today, the sand substitute is being used in local construction (as a major ingredient in mortar, plaster, and concrete) and to pave roads and fill golf bunkers. And in the near future, the technology could increasingly offset the need to dredge up sand from the ocean to replenish beaches after severe storms.
Sea-Powered Light: SALt Lamp
An ingenious way to bring power to rural and hurricane-hit island communities, the SALt Lamp is an LED lantern powered by salt water, a conductor of electricity.
Cofounder Aisa Mijeno developed it after spending time with the Butbut tribe in the Philippines, who are disconnected from the power grid and rely heavily on lanterns filled with kerosene, which produces climate-warming black-carbon pollution and particulate matter that can cause serious health issues.
Just one tablespoon of salt in a glass of water each day can power eight hours of light. With proper use, the lantern can run every day for six months. Today, four Philippine communities use them, and Mijeno hopes to help many more. They're available in bulk through SALt's website.