Seaweed-based bottles and food-saving filters: The best green innovations for Zero Waste Week

To mark Zero Waste Week (3-7 September), edie has rounded up some of the ground-breaking innovations being explored by companies across the globe as the focus on waste among consumers, politicians and the business community reaches a fever pitch.

The event, founded in 2008 by waste management expert Rachelle Strauss, serves to highlight the scale of the growing waste mountain in the UK and abroad as a growing number of businesses make zero-waste-to landfill pledges to tackle the issue.

The event comes just weeks after the world marked Earth Overshoot Day – the date when humanity consumes more from nature than the planet can renew in a year – on the earliest day to date (1 August). Indeed, it can be argued that the urgency of the need for innovative solutions to traditional cradle-to-grave business models has never been greater.

But solutions which could move the world towards closed-loop waste and resource streams do exist – this is not an unsolvable issue. The onus is now on businesses – particularly those within the customer-facing food and drink and retail sectors – to continue to innovate and to work collaboratively to solve the problem.

With that in mind, edie has rounded-up some of the most innovative solutions which could help cut a range of waste mountains globally – from plastic packaging to e-waste.

Plastic-eating enzymes

Plastic waste has undeniably become a hot topic over the past year. Global plastic production is now more than double what it was two decades ago, with 311 million tonnes recorded in 2014 compared to 150 million tonnes in 1998.

As reported earlier this year, scientists have discovered a potential solution in the form of a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles. Researchers at the University of Portsmouth attempted to study the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but instead inadvertently made the molecule more efficient at breaking down plastics commonly used for drink bottles, which account for around 20% of plastic production.

One improvement to the enzyme being explored is to transplant it into an “extremophile bacteria” that can survive temperatures above the 70C melting point of certain plastics, at which point it can degrade up to 100 times faster. However, researchers note that lifecycle assessments are needed to ensure it doesn’t contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

Closed-loop chewing gum

Around £14bn is spent by consumers on chewing gum globally, but the product is still the second largest form of street litter behind cigarettes. In a bid to tackle the issue while reducing the amount of virgin plastic used to produce and package consumer goods, British designer Anna Bullus has spent more than 10 years creating a value chain for chewing gum.

It starts by placing “Gumdrop” bins around public places, which encourage people to dispose of gum in bright pink bins. As the gum can be used as a synthetic rubber, Anna soon found that it could be used and moulded as a polymer.

The project has already seen products such as shoes, coffee cups and office stationary moulded from the closed-loop polymer. Environmental charity Keep Wales Tidy has since launched bucket and spade sets made from the innovative material. The choice of product was made to highlight not only gum-based litter on streets, but the eight million tonnes of plastic believed to be finding its way into oceans annually.

Dell’s golden e-waste pilot

Electronic waste has the unsavoury honour of being the planet’s fastest-growing waste stream, with the United Nations University (UNU) predicting that global e-waste production will increase by 17% by 2021. One potential solution to the problem comes from Dell, which this year announced an industry pilot aimed at using recycled gold from discarded electronics in new computer motherboards.

Dell will place recycled gold from used electronics into computer motherboards, specifically the Latitude 5285 2-in-1s. The pilot launched this spring and the reclaimed gold process, delivered by Dell’s environmental partner Wistron GreenTech, is said to have a 99% lower environmental impact the traditionally mined gold.

Currently, a little more than 12% of global e-waste is recycled into other products and just 20% of e-waste is documented as being collected and recycled. There’s a huge economic potential attached to the waste, with Americans discarding around $60m in gold silver annually through unwanted phones. 

Food-saving filters

Around one-third of all food produced globally is wasted, and in the UK, this translates to around £700 of wasted food per family annually. Various supermarkets have signed voluntary commitments to tackle the issue, but the thick end of the food waste mountain comes from homes and does not occur at a shop or supply-chain level. Indeed, the latest data from WRAP reveals that consumer waste accounts for a substantial 7.1 million tonnes of Britain’s annual 10.2-million-tonne output.

A stand-out among the string of innovative solutions to the challenge comes from food tech firm It’s Fresh!, which has designed a range of filters that remove ethylene – the ripening hormone in fresh produce – from the air around food products. The technology is already used in leading UK supermarkets including Morrisons, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose.

It’s Fresh! estimates that the technology can prolong the life of fruit by an average of four days, with this timescale expanding to up to ten days for refrigerated cherries. Earlier this year, the firm conducted trials that extended the transit life of bananas by 70 days.

Compostable water bottles

As the Government consults on a deposit-return scheme in England for single-use plastic drinks containers, innovative alternatives to plastic bottles have emerged in recent times, such as Coca Cola’s bio-based solution and Tesco’s water in a can.

Another potential solution that has emerged and could help reduce the 13 billion bottles sold each year in the UK is Agari – a compostable alternative made from seaweed-based agar jelly. Created by researchers at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, the bottle depends on liquid to keep its shape and begins to biodegrade as soon as it is emptied. The team behind the prototype claim it takes around six weeks to completely decompose in a compost bin – around the same as a piece of fruit.

In its current version, the design has some obvious practical challenges, like whether it would actually last – and remain hygienic – on the shelf of a store. The team behind the design are currently looking at ways to make the material more durable and sanitary.

Cradle-to-cradle nappies

The global market for nappies is booming and is set to be worth more than £55bn by 2020 – but biodegradable nappies can take up to 50 years to decompose in landfill sites, while their non-biodegradable counterparts may require 500 years to fully break down.

A team of researchers at Taiwan’s Chung Hua University have created a machine capable of recycling almost 100kg of used nappies per hour using less water than the average toilet. It works by cleaning the nappies in disinfectant before splitting them into plastic, fluff fibres and absorbent material. The used water is then recycled onsite while the clean materials can be sent away for re-incorporation into new household items like plastic bags, sanitary towels and cardboard boxes. If used diapers can be recycled, about 75,000 tonnes of pulp can be reused each year, the University said, meaning nearly 864,000 trees could be saved.

The researchers are now planning to build a larger machine, capable of processing 10 tonnes of nappies each day. If this prototype is successful, it could be rolled out at hospices, care homes, hospitals and nurseries across Taiwan.

Sarah George

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