Seven new ideas and technologies that point the way to embed the green economy in everyday life. It is the future…
TV monitors that roll up for storage, wallpaper that lights a room, video displays embedded in clothing. All this may be possible with stretchable, bendable OLEDs – organic light-emitting diodes. OLEDs are made of organic light-emitting molecules, thinly layered between two conductors, which emit light when an electric current is passed through. Paper-thin, more energy-efficient than LCDs and producing higher quality images, OLEDs are already used in high-end TV screens, billboards, light-generating wallpaper and electronic gadgets. They are more eco-friendly to produce than LEDs or fluorescents as they require less energy-intensive processing and don’t need such toxic chemicals as lead or mercury, and they are less expensive to make. If researchers succeed in current efforts to create more flexible OLEDs, the possibilities are endless, including embedded biomedical devices that can move and stretch along with human tissue.
Mushroom death suit
Even after death, we pollute: the embalming process uses toxic chemicals, and cremation requires large amounts of energy. Even buried corpses release toxins accumulated over a lifetime into the environment. MIT-based artist and designer Jae Rhim Lee wants to make corpse disposal greener with mushrooms – famous for their ability to break down everything from organic materials through oil to plastics, pesticides and other pollutants. She’s experimented with various burial suits embedded with mycelium spores, which would accelerate the process of decomposition and help remediate the toxins stored in our bodies. She hasn’t yet found the right fungus for the job but, with the help of scientists, she is cultivating certain mushroom species known to break down environmental toxins to adapt to eating human body tissue.
Bricks from bottles
The world has too many plastic bottles and not enough affordable eco-friendly construction materials. No surprise, then, that in the last decade bricks made from plastic bottles have boomed. In Nigeria, sand-packed bottles are stacked on a concrete foundation and bound with mud, while in post-earthquake Haiti, they are filled with rubble and rubbish and used to rebuild homes. Bottles filled with mud or sand are said to be more durable than brick, they are not brittle and so can absorb shock loads, and they save on the energy and materials required to produce brick and concrete. Perhaps next, bottle makers should design specifically for after-use – as beer brewer Alfred Heineken did in 1963 with his prescient World Bottle, abbreviated to WOBO, a glass beer bottle that acts as an interlocking brick. Only 60,000 were made and they are now a collector’s item.
Documents in, loo roll out
We religiously recycle office paper, then buy recycled lavatory paper. A Japanese company skips the middleman with a machine that shreds paper, dissolves it in water and forms it into toilet paper. It takes 40 sheets of office paper to make a roll, and each roll costs about 10 cents – saving money as well as reducing waste and transport costs. With a massive price tag of $100,000, the machine – called White Goat – isn’t suitable for homes or small offices, but it could prove efficient in such settings as recycling centres and supermarkets, where students could shred a few term papers and go home with practically free loo roll – or at universities or big office buildings, which generate large quantities of waste paper. And if it catches on, it should get cheaper.
What to do about plastic waste? We can certainly produce less, but we can also recycle it as fuel. The process of thermal denaturing converts plastics back into oil, but has been inaccessible to most consumers. Now a Japanese inventor, Akinori Ito, has created a safe, easy-to-use tabletop machine that converts three kinds of common plastic – polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene – into oil. The Blest machine melts plastic into oil without burning it, avoiding CO2 emissions and toxic fumes. Every kilo of plastic generates a litre of oil, which can be used directly in generators or stoves, or refined into petrol. The machine is portable, so fuel can be generated from plastic waste anywhere. It may prove most useful in countries where plastic litter is a problem, helping people to reclaim pollution as valuable fuel.
Sustainable materials company Ecovative is literally growing materials to replace everything from petroleum-based foam packaging to particle or cardboard. It is using mycelium – the thread-like fungal networks that comprise the roots of mushrooms. Low-value agricultural by-products like seed husks and plant stalks are inoculated with mycelium, packed into packaging moulds and left in the dark. In just one week, the mycelium digests the feedstock and binds it like glue, creating a rigid material that can have various textures and densities, depending on the processes used. Best of all, it can be home-composted at the end of its useful life. Ecovative is also further developing this technique, hoping to pioneer new sustainable materials for clothing, scientific equipment and more.
In Tanzania, smallholder farmers either traditionally shell maize by hand to remove the corn from the husk, or have to pay for mechanical shelling. Seeking a bridge technology, social entrepreneur Jodie Wu developed a bicycle-mounted, bicycle-run maize sheller. Realizing that smallholder farmers wouldn’t require a normal maize-shelling machine for long enough per season to warrant investing in one, she designed one that could attach to a functional bicycle and worked on pedal power. Jodie hopes to pioneer a new economy with bike-mounted gadgets: equipped with a sheller and bike-mounted cell-phone charger, young entrepreneurs have the tools to start a business. In the off-season, they can use the bike as a taxi or courier service, and Jodie’s enterprise, Global Cycle Solutions, is developing more mountable gadgets such as a rice-thresher.