Plastic-fighting bubbles and AI-powered bins: The best green innovations of the week

A number of eye-catching and potentially transformational innovations have emerged that could help businesses and nations accelerate the transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient economy. Here, edie rounds-up six of the best.

In the wake of a new PwC report revealing that the UK is leading the rest of the G20 nations in transitioning towards a low-carbon future by decoupling emissions from economic growth, UK-based sustainability professionals have undeniably had cause for celebration this week.

But the report also served to highlight the gap between the actions of businesses and nations and the pace of decarbonisation required if the world is to meet the aims of the Paris Agreement.

When striving to meet pressing climate targets, it is always worth looking at the green innovations of today that could become mainstream in the coming months and years. With this in mind, this week’s round-up covers a variety of ideas, concepts, products and systems that could help nations and businesses accelerate sustainability commitments.

Plastic-fighting bubbles

With the war on plastics showing no sign of slowing down, innovations designed to tackle the eight million tonnes of plastic finding its way into oceans annually are emerging at breakneck speed. Perhaps most notably, non-profit The Ocean Cleanup this summer deployed a 600-metre-long solar-powered device designed to collect debris of all sizes from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Another potential solution to the plastics problem comes from Dutch startup The Great Bubble Barrier, which has created a marine air pump that traps debris before it leaves rivers and canals. The pump is set up on the river or canal bed, where it is fed with highly pressurised air. The air then rises from a series of vents along the tubing, creating a barrier of bubbles that is strong enough to trap plastics but weak enough to allow fish and ships to pass through.

Once the plastics are trapped, they are directed to the edge of the water so they can be removed for recycling. The Great Bubble Barrier carried out its first full-scale trial of the technology along a 200-metre-long stretch of the River IJssel last year. This week, it received €500,000 in funding from The Green Challenge to scale up its operations.

A closed-loop model for packaging

On the topic of plastics, packaging is arguably at the epicentre of the business-led plastic phase-outs which are beginning to take shape across the globe. A number of big-name brands have moved to use sugarcane-based bags, for example, while others have replaced all their packaging with card and paper alternatives.

However, Finnish startup RePack has gone one step further in creating a circular system which encourages customers to reuse their mailing bags. The company produces a range of fully recyclable mailing bags which encourages consumers to send them back in exchange for a discount on their next purchase – and is currently reporting a 60% return rate.

Once the mailing bags are collected, they are checked for quality and cleaned before being sent back to retailers for reuse. At the end of their life – which typically lasts 20 uses – the bags can be recycled, with new bags then produced by NGO Social Workers Association.

RePack has been running since 2011, but this week gained recognition from the John Lewis Partnership, which will now assess the feasibility of using its services for online orders.

FSC-certified fashion

Sustainable fashion has proved to be something of a hot topic this year, with innovations such as Reebok’s plant-based shoes and Thread’s recycled bottle backpack coming to market in recent months. In a further move to drive circularity within the fashion industry, chemical company Eastman has created a new kind of yarn made from 100% sustainably sourced wood pulp.

Called Naia, the fabric is produced using entirely closed-loop methods, with all solvents used in the manufacturing and dying process captured for reuse. Meanwhile, textile remnants are collected for recycling, reuse or sale, while wastewater is treated using a bioactive processing plant before being returned to local rivers.

The wood pulp sourced to create the fabric comes from 100% FSC or PEFC-certified sources, according to Eastman. The US-based firm claims that the fabric has a “silky” feel and that it can be washed along with other garments, releasing no plastic microfibres into the water stream in the process. 

Wearable energy generators

Although the adoption of kinetic power is still in its infancy, a number of technologies which combine renewable energy generation with fitness have emerged in recent times, such as SportsArt’s range of kinetic power treadmills, bikes and cross-trainers.

Following this trend, researchers at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Utah have created a wearable generator that harvests energy generated from movement. The device is about the same size as a regular wrist watch and can produce enough electricity to run a personal health monitoring system, provided that the wearer undertakes an hour or more of physical activity each day.

The team behind the prototype, which is made using a crystal material that is able to produce an electric current, believe it could eliminate the need for disposable batteries in fitness tracking devices. The researchers plan to investigate ways of doubling the device’s power output before upscaling production.

AI-powered bins

As the debate around whether the UK should introduce one recycling system across all local authorities amid apparent customer confusion surrounding labelling rolls on, one company has developed a solution which would eliminate the need for customers to read or understand recycling labels.

Polish startup Bin-e recently launched a bin which uses an artificial intelligence (AI) platform to sort recyclable items from non-recyclable rubbish. The device uses weight measurement, data processing and camera-led object recognition to compartmentalise glass, plastics, metals and card and paper, before compacting the contents of each of its compartments prior to waste collection.

Bin-e designed the device with office-based situations in mind and claims it will boost recycling rates while lowering waste collection frequencies – therefore cutting both costs and carbon emissions. The product is already on the market, with each bin costing around $5,800.

Vehicle-based air filters

With the World Health Organisation estimating that seven million people die every year as a result of exposure to airborne contaminants, the need to act on air pollution has never been clearer. Indeed, the UK’s polluted air was declared a “public health emergency” by MPs in 2016, with many urban areas having exceeded their annual air pollution limits just one week into 2018, largely due to road transport.

With this in mind, Danish firm Airlabs has developed a filtration system which removes airborne pollutants from the air inside vehicles. Called airbubbl, the nano-filter-based technology claims to remove gases including CO2 and nitrous oxide (NOx). During trials, the removal rate averaged 95% across all pollutants.

The device is set to come to the market later this month after Airlabs received a $4m investment from holding firm SGO. The company previously fitted its filtration technology at three bus stop sites in central London as part of a campaign by The Body Shop and more recently installed a unit in Stella McCartney’s new Bond Street store.

Sarah George

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