Just Around the Corner: Sustainability Developments to Give You Hope

We’re all yearning for solutions to heal the planet. While these projects aren’t quite ready for prime time, scientists are working hard to create better, more sustainable options.

April 8, 2020

The scientific community is working on practical solutions that can help everyone make a difference. These projects, all well underway, may give you hope that we can heal our planet.

Growing possibilities

Urban farming has been around for years, with sustainability benefits that include less land use and flexible locations, and hydroponic farming.

A newly-appreciated justification for urban farms is their ecological impact. Growing fruit and vegetables in just 10% of a city’s gardens and other urban green spaces could provide 15% of the local population with their “five [fruits-and-veggies] a day” according to research from the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield. “With just 16% of fruit and 53% of vegetables sold in the UK grown domestically, such a move could significantly improve the nation’s food security” the researchers said.

Or, before long, you might have locavore options within arm’s reach. Urban farming isn’t only for consumers’ back yards. Some markets have been growing produce on the roof, including a Whole Foods in downtown Brooklyn. That’s not just a market response to hip foodies’ whims. You might see more hydroponic farming within grocery stores. QFC, a Kroger chain, added mini-farms to two of its supermarkets and will roll out 13 more in stores around Washington and Oregon.

Turning the tide on plastic

Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastics enter our oceans, on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that currently circulate in marine environments. We need to use less plastic – and to do something about the huge amount already in the ecosystem.

Using less plastic is a two-fold problem. One is behavioral – getting consumers to choose non-plastic items. The other is developing new materials that could replace common plastics — from that foam in flower arrangements to straws.

One option may be inspired by the greater wax moth caterpillar. As one of more than 50 known species of “plastivores” — or plastic-eating organisms — scientists are trying to find ways that the caterpillar can help provide us with “a great starting point to model how to effectively biodegrade plastic.” It’s a useful task for critters that formerly were viewed as bee pests that invade beehives and live off the honeycomb.

Another possibility may come from a seaweed-eating microbe. Certain salt-loving microorganisms could eat seaweed and produce biodegradable plastics in a sustainable fashion, say scientists at Tel Aviv University, and they could be sustainably produced in large quantities offshore from non-food sources. This would replace traditional plastics derived from petroleum. While bioplastics are a sustainable alternative made from plant matter as raw material, these scientists propose bioplastics made from low-cost, ideally waste materials.

Packaging the alternatives

You may want to think outside the box, but you still need a box. According to McKinsey, the packaging sector generates $900 billion in annual revenues worldwide. Despite the rise of environmentally conscious consumers and brands, packaging manufacturers have every incentive to keep growing.

So what can be done? At a minimum, it makes sense to make packages easier to recycle – or good enough to eat.

A growing number of innovators and entrepreneurs are trying to make edible packaging and tableware from foods like seaweed, milk proteins, and potato starch, reports EurekaAlert. “New York-based company Loliware is making seaweed- and algae-based straws that feel like plastic for 24 hours after getting wet. Once used, they can be eaten, or they will degrade in the environment within 2 months. Marriott Hotels and alcoholic-beverage firm Pernod Ricard have already started using the straws.” And other groups are working with proteins rather than carbohydrates to make edible packaging. “At the US Department of Agriculture, chemical engineer Peggy Tomasula has made transparent films from the milk protein casein,” according to Chemical and Engineering News.

They aren’t alone. Plenty of researchers and companies are working on new kinds of biodegradable packaging, bottles and other products that break down like compost. Here’s an in-depth list.

It’s easy to become depressed about the state of the planet. But the sincere efforts from devoted scientists, with the help of supportive industries actively working towards a circular economy, should give you more reason to feel hopeful about the state of sustainability.