Coffee bean roads and the Green Wall of Africa: the best green innovations of the week

In a week that will define the future of London as a sustainable city, edie rounds up the latest low-carbon technologies and innovations that could turn the capital from a polluting mega-city to a bastion of the green revolution.

While innovator and electric vehicle lynchpin Elon Musk this week predicted a staggering rise of autonomous vehicles, fashionistas around the globe were being greeted with new sustainability schemes that have caught the eye of celebrities.

So, as stars from Harry Potter and the Wolf of Wall Street throw their weight behind the sustainability movement, edie has once again pulled the best innovation stories of the week into this neat and tidy little green package.

Climbing a plastic mountain out of poverty

As Emma Watson arrived at the Met Gala in a multi-purpose gown made from recycled plastic bottles, the actress served to highlight how plastic could be in the midst of a transformation from villain of the oceans to unexpected hero of the fashion industry – this week saw designer brand G-RAW get in on the act

And this plastic rags-to-riches transformation isn’t just providing a use for the world’s plastic soup, it’s also now set to bring people out of poverty.

Dutch social enterprise Reflow has been working on a 3D printing concept that recycles PET waste by turning it into ethical filament. While these filaments can be found hugging celebrity hips, the collection process is soon to be delivering a living wage for workers out in Africa.

In areas such as Tanzania – where the wage for waste collection can be as little £1 – waste pickers are being encouraged to collect plastic, which can then be recycled and turned into the 3D printing filament. Thirty per cent of the considerable profits made from sales of this high-quality filament will then be passed on to the local pickers, helping to lift them out of the poverty trap, whilst simultaneously establishing a 3D printing ecosystem in the local area.

The filament, which is easily recycled at very low costs, is also enhancing local manufacturing innovations and techniques of local businesses, in a bid to drive a circular economy.

South America turns to volcano power

According to the Inter-American Development Bank, Latin America now sources 55% of its electricity from hydropower, with fossil fuels still accounting for around 40%. But, in an attempt to curb global warming and play their parts in the recently-signed Paris Agreement, both Mexico and Costa Rica are now turning to volcanoes to produce some of their energy.

Geothermal energy concepts – which currently account for just 5% of electricity production in the area – are being explored by the two countries along a string of mountains and active volcanoes in Latin America. Costa Rica, which is aiming to become the first nation in the world to achieve carbon-neutrality, is attempting to harness more than 100 hotspots and volcanoes in country to boost geothermal production.

The benefits of doing so are clear: Geothermal power is not susceptible to the impacts of climate change such as droughts, or to changes in the surface temperature of the Earth. Moreover, the use of geothermal energy is considered extremely clean, with the Geothermal Energy Association claiming that it has the smallest carbon footprint per kilowatt of any generating source.

With worsening droughts on the horizon across South America, perhaps now is the time to fight fire with fire.

Follow the recycled coffee ground road

Some people just can’t start the day without a cup of coffee. It’s human nature and it creates the foundation for a productive day of work that, for us, consists of writing about sustainable bananas, among other things.

Thanks to researchers at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, this metaphor could soon turn into a literal one, after used coffee grounds were converted into sustainable concrete.

The researchers mixed the coffee grounds with industrial waste by-products from the production of steel – a sector which is currently in need of sustainability solutions – and the combustion of coal, to create a sustainable construction material through an advance ‘geopolymerization’ process.

The resulting material could be used to “build 5km of road per year”, according to the researchers, reducing landfill and the demand for virgin quarry materials in the process. 

If coffee-based roads isn’t impressive enough, this initiative is the latest in a flurry of green innovations involving coffee, ranging from biofuel production to carbon capture processes.

The Great Green Wall of Africa

Imagine a nine-mile-wide wall that stretches 4,400 miles across a number of countries in an effort to keep an invasive and destructive phenomenon from spreading. No, this isn’t Donald Trump’s vision for a Mexican-funded wall, rather an innovative new idea from the African Union to build a wall of vegetation which could absorb 250 million tons of carbon and stop the desertification and spread of the Sahara.

The Great Green Wall concept – which would run through 11 countries from Senegal to Djibouti – is up for international discussion at a conferences in Dakar this week, and has already been aided by a $4bn funding pot from countries that attended the historic COP21 talks.

The wall would consist of trees and shrubbery, lined across the Southern border of the Sahara – a region set to be hit by a 3-5C temperature rises by 2050 – to stop the spread of desertification. Already 15% of the trees have been planted in Senegal and Burkina Faso and animals long since absent from the region are beginning to return.

The project is also expected to grow food security for the 20 million people in the Sahel that go hungry every year, and increase the number of ‘green’ jobs available to provide more stable incomes for African women and youth.

Farting ’til the cows come home

Hidden within the depths of a major new report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA), is a mention of farmers doing more to stop the production of methane on farms. The gas, which is 20 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon, is an unfortunate bi-product of cattle herding – mainly through flatulence.

The battle to curb the climate-related effects of ‘cow farts’ has now reached a turning point, as research from the US National Academy of Sciences has unearthed a ground-breaking feed additive which reduces bovine methane production by 30%, without affecting the health of the animal.

The ‘3-NOP’ chemical compound affects methane-producing microorganisms, but not the bacteria that assist bovine digestion. When added to feed, 3-NOP was found to have a similar methane-reducing affect on cattle as has already been proven with sheep.

This feed additive, which has so far been trialled on cows in Spain and the US, could prove vital to the White House’s recommendation to slash methane production in the dairy sector by 25%. The cows that are subjected to the additives also gain the added bonus of becoming literal ‘beefcakes’, as a 12-week study showed that the additive saw cows gain 80% more body weight than cows in conventional control groups.

Photosynthesis and the plant-powered phone

A regular occurrence within edie’s innovation round-ups tends to be the appearance of a smartphone attachment that adds an air of sustainability to the rinse-and-replace market of mobile phones.

This week is no different, after Bioo’s Indiegogo page raised three times the necessary amount to kick-start this mobile phone charger which uses elements of photosynthesis to recharge batteries.

The system is able to take the energy produced in the soil surrounding the roots of the plant and transfer it as electricity. Hidden on top of the $135 plant pot is a USB port disguised as a rock, which charges batteries using elements discharged by the plant as it collects sunlight.

The designers of Bioo at Arkyne Technologies – who were inspired by several studies from NASA for this project – still have three weeks to raise more funds for the roll-out of the concept.

The Innovation Zone at edie Live 2016

Interested in the green innovations above? Come along to the Innovation Zone competition, taking place at the edie Live exhibition later this month.

As a competition specifically designed to promote and support innovation in the sustainability space, the Innovation Zone brings together innovative emerging technologies which are at pre-commercialisation but in the trial stages of development creating a vibrant networking and knowledge transfer hub at edie Live 2016.

The winner of the competition will be announced on the first day of the edie Live exhibition, 17 May. 

Find out more about Innovation Zone here and register to attend edie Live 2016 for free here

Matt Mace

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie