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Scientists and designers are reimagining how our world works in delightfully different and sustainable ways.
The climate crisis is causing us to rethink how we eat, how we dress, and how we consume in general. Thankfully, various clever inventors are addressing this problem by turning to the natural world for sustainable tech solutions. From flood-resistant concrete to shoes made from discarded chewing gum, here are six of our favourite alternative and eco-conscious materials for building a better tomorrow.
Foam polystyrene has long been a popular choice for packaging and insulation because it’s cheap and 95% air.1 But it’s not particularly good for the planet. Polystyrene is made from petroleum, is difficult to recycle, and can take centuries to decompose. However, there’s a neat solution that cinema-goers have been enjoying for years: popcorn. Researchers at Germany’s University of Göttingen have developed a ‘granulated’ popcorn made from the inedible byproducts of cornflake production.2 Using different moulds, the corn can be turned into various packaging materials, including the packing beads used to transport delicate items in the post. When finished with, it can be reused, cut, shredded or composted. The only thing you can’t do, it appears, is eat it.
Yes, you read that right: the first shoe has been made using recycled chewing gum. Sustainability company Gumdrop teamed up with fashion brand Explicit and Amsterdam’s city council. Together they’ve found a fashion-forward fix to the long-standing issue of discarded chewing gum. Their Gumshoe3 has a gum-tec sole, 20% of which is made from gum scraped from the pavements of the Dutch capital. Around 1.5 million kg (3.3 million pounds) of gum finds its way into the city’s streets every year,4 costing millions to clean up. Chewing gum itself is made from synthetic rubber – so, when broken down, it can easily be turned into a recyclable compound that’s ideal for use in sports shoes. Around 250g (0.55 pounds) of gum is used to create the soles for each pair of Gumshoes, which are available in black, red and – of course – bubble gum pink. 500 pairs of Gumshoe were produced and all sold out very quickly.
Did you know that only 12% of the banana plant – namely the fruit we eat – is used? The banana trade is a huge industry, but results in a vast amount of waste. Researchers from UNSW Sydney have developed a smart solution. They’ve turned banana-plantation waste into a packaging material that’s both recyclable and biodegradable.5 This material is made using pseudostems: the layered, fleshy trunk of the plant, which is 90% water. It’s dried out, then milled into a fine powder and treated to extract nanocellulose. This is then turned into a baking paper-like material that can be used to make food packaging or bioplastic bags, depending on the thickness. After use, it breaks down in the earth within six months.
Urban flooding from changing weather patterns is becoming more and more noticeable with each season. A startup called AquiPor has created a material that not only manages stormwater naturally, but also takes a fraction of the carbon to produce compared with standard concrete. AquiPort’s concrete-like material6 is highly permeable, allowing high volumes of rainwater to flow through it. This gets stormwater back into the ground naturally, reducing the threat of our cities flooding, while also filtering out pollutants. And given the colossal carbon footprint of concrete – 8% of global emissions come from the cement industry7 – the company’s paving the way for a greener urban landscape.
Where there’s wine, there’s waste: around 200,000 tonnes of mostly unused material – specifically stems, pulp, seed, and skins – is produced every year by Germany’s wine industry.8 Sustainable designer Katharina Hölz – who hails from Moselle, a part of Germany known for its Riesling – has given a new second life to this by-product. She’s turned this pomace (or treser, in German) into a biodegradable material called Tresta.9 This upcycled residue is made using natural binders, and she uses it to create wine coolers and lamps that are as visually pleasing as they are eco-minded. Different binders can also be used to make other products, such as packaging and soundabsorbing wall tiles, and Tresta can also be used in 3D printing.
We know that probiotic bacteria are good for our gut health. But it’s perhaps less known that they’re beneficial for our skin as well. That’s the idea behind Skin II,10 a clothing collaboration between designer Rosie Broadhead and microbiologist Christopher Callewaert. Our bodies play host to millions of microorganisms which, in our hygiene-obsessed world, are increasingly disrupted by toxic chemicals in the makeup and clothing we wear. To tackle this and promote healthier skin, Broadhead and Callewaert have designed leotard-like garments with probiotic bacteria encapsulated in the fabric. This helps to reduce body odour, promote cell renewal, and improve our immune system. Moisture activates these microbes, which are strategically placed in key areas where you’d typically sweat. The project not only replaces the need for chemical washes in clothing production, but also means you don’t need to wash them as frequently. These are just a few of the forward-thinking, planet-friendly ideas being made a reality. Turning our trash into treasure and taking inspiration from nature could be key to a brighter, greener future.
This article was commissioned as part of 'Our Green Planet'. This is a digital initiative, from BBC Earth in association with The Moondance Foundation, to raise awareness for the beauty and fragility of our planet’s green ecosystems. Discover more here. #OurGreenPlanet.
Featured image © Kriswanto Ginting | Getty Images
1. The cost of polystyrene. 2. Commercial popcorn packaging 3. Gumdrop’s Gumshoe. 4. Chewing gum on Amsterdam’s streets. 5.Turning banana waste into bioplastic 6. AquiPort’s ‘sustainable concrete. 7. Cement product and carbon emissions. 8. Waste produced by the wine industry in Germany. 9. Biodegradable Tresta from wine pomace. 10. Skin II clothing infused with bacteria