Horizon scanning: Nine innovations set to shake-up sustainability in 2019

Over the past 12 months, countless innovations which could help businesses and nations deliver on resource and carbon commitments have emerged. Here, edie rounds up nine key products and concepts that could transform sustainability in 2019.

Horizon scanning: Nine innovations set to shake-up sustainability in 2019

While keeping one eye on the present

Following consistent and steady progress towards decarbonisation in 2017, last year was far more turbulent, with ambitious actions juxtaposed with controversial policy moves. While businesses began to set “carbon-negative” goals and plastics action continued to dominate the headlines, policies such as the solar feed-in tariff (FIT) and plug-in electric vehicle (EV) grant were axed.

Through the highs and lows, one constant in 2018 was edie’s green innovations of the week, which showcased promising and potentially revolutionary ideas and devices that could streamline sustainability in the future.

While keeping one eye on the present, edie has scanned the horizons to identify six broad innovation areas that could be set to ignite in 2019.

1) Satellite mapping

As the fruits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution continue to change how the business community interacts with wider society, shoppers are demanding more and more information on where their products come from, how they are made and their impact on the environment.

A recent survey of 3,600 people by The Consumer Goods Forum and social change agency Futerra, for example, found that nine in ten sustainability professionals believe their customers or clients are more interested in CSR and ESG issues than they were five years ago – placing the onus on corporates to adapt in order to retain and enhance public trust. Over the past 12 months, several companies have taken to satellite and other digital mapping innovations to bolster supply chain transparency, and this trend looks set to continue into 2019.  

Marks & Spencer (M&S) has been a leader in this field, using interactive digital mapping to showcase its entire seafood, beef and dairy supply chains as part of its Plan A sustainability strategy. Shortly after launching the map for its seafood in October, the retailer then teamed up with six other clothing brands to co-fund an online tool that allows businesses, investors and customers to track the origin of paper, wood and viscose sourced by corporates.

Elsewhere, the world’s largest palm oil firm has pledged to use satellite tracking and other digital technologies in a bid to eliminate deforestation risks from its supply chains by 2020.

Away from deforestation and overfishing in supply chains, satellite mapping technology also has uses in locating and eliminating energy inefficiencies in buildings, tracking oil spills and preventing illegal shipping.

 2) Edible packaging

More than a year after Blue Planet 2 sparked a wave of plastics awareness among consumers, the UK’s business community is continuing to turn to innovators for a solution to the world’s plastic pollution problem. As corporates rush to make plastic-reduction pledges in a bid to appease customers, innovations to have emerged over the past year range from chewing gum-based polymers, potato waste cutlery and plastics made from food waste.

But with food and drinks packaging at the epicentre of the plastics problem – and with sustainability professionals becoming more aware of potential negative consequences of some fossil-fuel based alternatives – edible packaging is something which has featured several times on the edie website in recent months.

Among the most promising edible packaging innovations of 2018 – which also included wheat-based plates and cornstarch straws – are Oohos. Developed by packaging company Skipping Rocks Lab, Oohos can be eaten, composted or disposed of in normal household bins. Once discarded, they take around six weeks to decompose.

Several businesses – including Lucozade, Selfridges and Just Eat – trialled Oohos for the first time in 2018. And with the on-the-go food and drink sector set to expand rapidly in the coming years, you can expect to see more companies making similar moves in 2019. 

3) Resource-efficient animal feed

With the world’s population widely expected to grow to more than nine billion people by 2050, the pressure is now on agri-food businesses to develop ways of feeding an ever-growing number of people in a more sustainable way.

Meat, seafood and dairy production is arguably the centre of the industry’s problems, accounting for around 15% of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – but this makes it an area where solutions could provide the most impactful change. And with almost half  (45%) of the sector’s emissions accounted for by feed production and processing, innovations in this area are beginning to emerge.

One such solution, from Danish biotech company Novozymes, is an enzyme which, when added to animal feed, enables chickens to absorb more nutrients from less product. The product, called Balancius and intended for broiler chickens, is currently being trialled at more than 40 farms across the US and Latin America.

If the enzyme were to be added to all chicken feed across the two markets, Novozymes estimates that the production of 4.2 million tonnes of CO2e would be avoided every year by 2020. It is now trialing the product on pigs to see if further cost, resource and carbon savings can be gleaned in other meat markets.

Similarly, Dutch company Nutreco recently brought the world’s first industrial-grade salmon feed to be produced without fishmeal – a commercial product made from fish and shellfish which are deemed unfit for human consumption – to the global market.

Since the early 2000s, Nutreco’s parent company Skretting has been working to identify key micronutrients in fishmeal and the role they play in salmon growth and health. After devoting significant resources to this research, the firm was able to develop a nutrient profile for fishmeal, and to replicate this profile using plant-based ingredients. 

4) Vertical farming

Also on the topic of nutrition but away from livestock farming, WWF recently estimated that land use and sustainable agriculture could provide up to 30% of the solutions needed by 2030 to tackle the global climate crisis.

Innovations which could help make the sector more resource-efficient and less carbon-intensive to have emerged over the past year include solar-powered robots for weeding and planting, pig manure tractor fuel and indoor gardens – but a solution which has featured in edie’s roundup time and again is vertical farming.

Vertical farms typically stack several layers of produce on top of each other, minimising runoff and reducing the amount of space needed to grow fresh fruit, vegetables and grains. Because the farms are usually kept either indoors or under a cover, the need for pesticide use is also reduced or eliminated altogether, with most vertical farms equipped with low-carbon heating technologies and energy-efficient LED lighting.

Many innovative vertical farms are also designed to use aeroponics or hydroponics – a growing process which eliminates the use of soil and therefore prevents any soil degradation.

Last year, argitech firm Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS) unveiled Scotland’s first vertical farming facility – and the UK’s largest – in Perthshire. The early results seem promising, with the farm producing yields around 200% higher than a traditional greenhouse of the same size. 

5) Artificial Intelligence

2018 undeniably marked the beginning of a blockchain revolution within the corporate sustainability sphere, with large businesses beginning to use the technology to sell carbon offsets, trade energy and improve supply chain traceability within the first half of the year.

But as our physical world continues to blur with the virtual, the last few months of last year saw a huge uptake in artificial intelligence (AI) platforms among UK businesses, with the technology being utilised for tasks ranging from heating management to transport route calculation.


AI – which is a branch of computer science that utilises intelligent machines to work and react like humans – has been employed by the likes of Google, Global Fishing Watch and the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance for all manner of sustainability actions, from tracking shipments to improving fuel efficiency.

Several utilities are additionally using AI to improve water and energy efficiencies. Anglian Water, for example, claims the technology has increased the solar generation at its ‘pathfinder’ water treatment site in Norfolk by 80%, while United Utilities slashed its energy use by 22% during a three-month AI trial.

Late last year, Google launched a £19m fund for businesses using AI to address environmental and social issues – meaning the technology is only likely to become more widely-used among corporates this year. Indeed, PwC has estimated that the global economy could see a potential contribution of $15.7trn from AI by 2030.

6) Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) charging

The number of electric vehicles (EVs) in the UK rose by more than 50% between 2016-2017, with consumer demand for electrified transport widely expected to have grown further in 2018. And as the EV revolution continues to gather pace in the car sector – with the first fully-electric heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) and vans making their way to market – one technology which has received backing from governments and corporates alike over the past year has been V2G charging.

2018 kicked off with the UK Government launching the first large-scale, UK-based V2G infrastructure trial. Backed by £3m of Government funding and a further £4m from the private sector, the scheme facilitated the installation of 135 chargers nationwide.

Since then, the likes of Nissan, Honda, and EDF Energy have also taken their first steps into the V2G market, with the latter having pledged to install 1,500 chargepoints by 2020 towards the end of 2018.

Car sharing firms, local authorities, utilities and even universities have also backed the technology in recent months, as businesses begin to explore whether they can build the financial and environmental case for using energy storage and flexibility. UPS, for example, is set to incorporate batteries from its end-of-life EVs into its storage and charging network this year as it strives to create its first fully-electric fleet of delivery vans.

7) Hydrogen fuel cells

Also on the topic of transport, 2018 undeniably marked a boon for hydrogen fuel cells. Over the past 12 months, numerous stories emerged which suggested that companies with one eye on the horizon view hydrogen technology as a viable piece of the low-carbon jigsaw puzzle. 

Global brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev), for example, ordered 800 zero-emission, hydrogen-electric semi-trucks last May, while private hire firm Green Tomato Cars took up 50 new Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell electric saloons just days later. In the HGV sector, Nikola Motor recently unveiled plans for its first hydrogen-powered lorry, which is set to be rolled out across Europe by 2023.

Progress towards supporting this technology has been equally swift, with Shell launching its first UK-based hydrogen refuelling facility and the UK Government outlining funding for infrastructure under its Road to Zero strategy. With fuel cell shipments growing by two-thirds in recent years, 2019 could be the year the hydrogen mirrors the EV explosion of the last two years. Indeed, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has already predicted that a “hydrogen revolution” is on the cards for the not-so-distant future.

8) Ocean plastic clean-ups

In tandem with more and more businesses moving to phase-out plastic products and packaging, 2018 saw numerous innovations which could help capture and recycle the 245,000 tons of plastic already floating in oceans and waterways globally come to market.

Among the most promising is non-profit The Ocean Cleanup’s 600-metre-long “floaters”, which sit on the surface of the water and use a tapered three-metre skirt attached below to skim for plastic debris. The device, which is solar-powered and runs autonomously, is designed to collect debris of all sizes – from microplastics to discarded fishing nets.

Elsewhere, plastic-sucking Seabins and bubble barriers created using marine air pumps also proved popular – and on a smaller scale, environmental charity Hubbub received support from Tideway and Starbucks to launch two waste-cleaning boats made from recycled plastics to help clean the Thames last year, with a third vessel set to launch on a nationwide tour in 2019.  

Given that green campaign groups and NGOs often use imagery of marine life caught in plastic debris to illustrate the plastic pollution problem – and that much of the general public will see plastic floating in their nearby rivers and canals on a daily basis – it comes as no surprise that the issue has gained such traction. With the focus on plastic among the public, policymakers and corporates alike showing no sign of petering out, marine plastic clean-ups are likely to prove popular into the coming months.

9) Plastic-free sachet alternatives

Over the past 12 months, a wave of corporate action has kick-started a nationwide phase-out of certain single-use plastic items, including straws, drinks stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds.

Building on this momentum, 2019 could mark the start of increased action around items which are harder to abate – including metallicized pouches, cosmetics tubes and single-use sachets. While sachets are typically used in developed nations only for condiments and sample-sized products, the packaging is a key polluter in developing nations across Africa and Asia, with many families only able to afford commodities such as shampoo, toothpaste, lotion, laundry detergent and condiments in small, cheap packets.

Due to a lack of appropriate recycling infrastructure and the low cost of these sachets, they are rarely collected and instead widely littered or sent to landfill. The scale of the problem in the Philippines has reached a fever-pitch, with the nation estimated to require almost 200 new landfills by 2020 to keep up with the pace of packaging consumption and disposal.

In response to the issue, consumer goods giant Unilever ran its first plastic hackathon in December, awarding the event’s €100,000 prize to a group of innovators who created a sachet-free laundry tablet which requires no packaging. The tablet includes a plant-derived coating that is said to protect each tablet against humidity. Given that such large and influential companies are beginning to invest heavily in plastic-free packaging innovations, 2019 could well mark their time in the sun.

Sarah George

Comments (1)

  1. Clive Bonny says:

    Really good innovations and if I could to add one more which reduces 30% of global carbon emissions and waste it would be zero carbon passiv pod buildings

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