The virgin suicides

The case for ending industries' obsession with untouched materials has never looked so good.

Read time 6min 10sec

It's easy to get carried away with all the things that aren't happening in the environmental space - the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies, faster adoption of renewables, binding reduction targets - there's plenty to gripe about. But this myopic view of the field distorts the true picture, which is packed with inventive ideas.

All across the globe, people are coming up with inspired solutions and sharing them with others, from simple at-home fixes to intricate lab-grown systems. They don't get as much coverage as political debates and climate science scandals, but taken together, they form a compelling picture of a vastly different - and hopeful - future.

These ideas often come without hype or fanfare, quietly getting on with things until they've spread to scores of countries and are turning neat profits - all while minimising impacts on the environment. Many are based on the simple notion of making better use of things already in existence. TerraCycle, for example, partners with manufacturers to run programmes which pay consumers to help collect non-recyclable packaging. These items are then up-cycled or recycled into eco-friendly products, in a process TerraCycle calls “sponsored waste”.

Everything from toothbrushes to chip packets to drink cartons are collected and converted into backpacks, bins, and several hundred other products, and sold in major retailers such as Walmart. With more than 20 million people collecting waste in over 20 countries, billions of “waste” items are making it back onto shelves instead of landfills, and millions of dollars have been donated to schools and charities through these recycling programmes.

Perhaps sitting on a park bench made from discarded cheese plastic doesn't seem like progress, but it does signify an emerging trend to look at everything with a fresh eye, to extend products' shelf life to a second life. What's exciting about this movement is that the possibilities are endless - why not kit out offices with furniture created from fire extinguishers, scrap wood, wine barrels and shampoo bottles. Why not lay down carpets made from the used turf of nearby soccer fields, or erect playgrounds consisting of recycled pens and flip flops. It can - and has - been done.

Nothing is defunct, worthless or wasted, but simply parts for a new creation.

Lezette Engelbrecht

Other enterprising minds are getting creative with the seemingly infinite ways to reuse natural resources and processes. Saltwater greenhouses, for example, take something considered devoid of use, get it to change states, and manage to not only irrigate crops inside the greenhouse, but those surrounding it too. Water is evaporated at the front of the greenhouse to create cool, humid conditions, and a portion of this is condensed into fresh water to sprinkle on veggies inside, or to be piped to surrounding structures.

These greenhouses work a treat in desert areas like Jordan, where proximity to the Red Sea means there's plenty of water, if you can get the salt out of it, with which to create pockets of thriving vegetation. A pilot plant is being built in the Jordanian city of Aqaba, where greenhouse water will be used to grow crops, algae for fuel, and even in nearby concentrating solar power plants, where it'll be heated to create steam for generating electricity. In a self-sustaining loop, this electricity is used to power the greenhouse's pumps and fans, and any extra heat is used to produce drinking water.

Previous generations may have looked at areas of arid land with little fresh water and lots of sunlight as a write-off, but simply re-considering those elements, seeing their potential, and making adjustments to unlock their latent value opens up new worlds of opportunity. Nothing is defunct, worthless or wasted, but simply parts for a new creation.

Another case is that of MIT student Andreas Mershin, who has found a way of producing solar panels by mixing custom chemicals with green plants to create “biophotovoltaics”. According to Mershin, creating a solar cell could soon be as easy as taking a bag of chemicals, mixing it with some organic waste, and painting it on the roof. Imagine the potential this could have in rural areas low on electricity but high on discarded plant material.

No limits

Elsewhere, companies are making hidden information visible, to better equip people when making decisions. Car manufacturers have introduced dashboard apps that reward people for efficient driving, while numerous mobile platforms have emerged to help monitor and reduce energy use. There are also bicycles that map pollution levels and traffic congestion, and allow users to capture energy from cycling and braking for a boost when needed. All examples of simple but highly effective tweaks to existing goods and services, which give them a new layer of function.

Another development that's sparking green innovation is our heightened degree of connection and sharing. The brains behind sustainable living site Practically Green figured that if the social Web could revolutionise the way people act and communicate in other ways, why not in the field of eco-friendly living. Based on the concept of specifications for green buildings, Practically Green offers users online tools to help them track and share their actions and impacts, and ultimately adopt greener lifestyles. It's now being used by tens of thousands of people from various countries to re-consider “the way things are done”.

These are but a snippet of the thousands of ideas breaking moulds and broadening mindsets in their own way. But what's encouraging from just this small sample is the creative approach running through the green innovation space. What may seem like a series of isolated, madcap inventions is in reality indicative of a profound shift in how society will approach the production-consumption cycle.

Often, the predominant message seems to be that we are somehow victim to the dirty economy previous generations have created. And it's not to say we shouldn't be concerned about the very grave problems the world faces. But this negative, blinkered focus also robs the green space of its spirit of adventure, its licence to play and experiment in a way that's neither dry nor punishing. It's not just about recycling goods, but ideas - thoughts about what can work, what will work, and what was never thought possible.

The founder of TerraCycle was a 20-year-old Princeton drop-out who left his studies to begin selling worm poop as fertiliser. It got him to start thinking differently about waste, and soon he was manufacturing this 'plant food' and packaging it in used plastic bottles. There will always be sceptics trying to stifle progress, who say it can't be done, but if you can a build multimillion-dollar business out of a pile of worm poop, well then, anything is possible really.

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