Category Archives: Celebrating Eco-Progress

An exercise in positive reinforcement, this series celebrates efforts that companies make towards adopting sustainable practices.

Plastic-Eating Fungus Revisited: Plastic-Fungus Fusion Food

plastic-wasteBack in March 2012, I wrote about some scientists who had discovered a fungus in the jungles of Ecuador, a fungus that can eat plastic.

At the time, I applauded the discovery as an exciting possible solution to the HUGE global problem of plastic waste, but I also expressed some lighthearted caution, imagining a scenario worthy of a sci-fi/action/thriller movie, wherein the fungus mutates, escapes, and feasts on all of the plastic we’re still actually using, plastic we depend on for a great many things.

A scenario I never in a million years would have imagined, however, is one I stumbled upon today, wherein an Austrian design firm, LIVIN, has teamed up with scientists at Utrecht University, to move beyond the fungus eating the plastic, and toward a more holistic-if-unappetizing, food-chain-integrated approach:

Introducing, via GOOD.is’ Jed Oelbaum: The Fungi Mutarium

The device uses fungus in little cups made of agar (a seaweed-based jelly) to digest sterilized plastic, which is metabolized into the fungus, leaving no traces of the original waste. But that’s not even the best part: after the plastic is digested, the agar cups and their resultant contents are completely edible. Yes, that’s right, these fungi actually turn plastic into something you can eat.

Well Jed, maybe that’s something YOU could eat, but I ain’t touching it! Ewwwwww!

(Not entirely incidentally, they call the agar cups “FUs”, which had me wondering whether or not this wasn’t just an elaborate hoax, but my further Googling on the subject seems to point to it being legit.)

Now, something Jed Oelbaum doesn’t explain is why the photos he included seem to suggest that the Fungi Mutarium is apparently meant to be operated wearing nothing but a Soviet-grey nightgown…

fungi-mutarium1

…and the fungus-plastic fusion food is apparently meant to be eaten wearing nothing at all!

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Boggles the mind, doesn’t it?!

But, it gets better, or worse, depending on how you look at it.

The folks at LIVIN have gone so far as to design a line of utensils to be used specifically for the consumption of this product.

And while these guys try to make it sound appetizing…well…ewwww!

Scratch the fungi off the wall of this sensual cutlery and simultaneously mix with the sweet or sour sauce that tops your favorite agar FU.

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The shape of the moon spoon glides along your agar FU to reach even the tiniest fungi fruit bodies on it. It can also be loaded with the delicious agar „meat“.

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Anyway, to see the Fungi Mutarium in action, check out this brief, Stanley Kubrick-esque video presentation:

Buy Local: Holiday Edition

local1I’ve mentioned here several times over the years how much I appreciate my adopted hometown of Bellingham, Washington, for its deep commitment to a local living economy, this idea that the whole community benefits when we choose to support locally-owned businesses. It’s more than a slogan here, as evident by the fact that we have so many local businesses that are thriving.

This wasn’t always the case.

When I first moved to Bellingham in 1993, the downtown area west of Interstate 5 was practically a ghost town. A once-thriving commercial district, in 1988 it was nearly abandoned by businesses, including critical anchor department stores J.C. Penny, Sears, and The Bon Marché (now Macy’s), when the Bellis Fair Mall opened on the other side of I-5, followed by the usual suspect national “big box” chain stores along the same stretch of road, heading north, away from downtown, a road known as the Guide Meridian.

Slowly but surely, however, an unlikely and wonderful thing started to happen.

One-by-one, locally-owned businesses started popping up: restaurants, shops, art galleries, music venues, a farmers market, and even a non-profit independent cinema!

Today, not only is downtown Bellingham thriving thanks to local businesses, but our second largest commercial area west of the freeway, the Historic Fairhaven District, consists almost entirely of locally-owned. In fact, with the exception of a couple of gas stations and banks, the only non-local businesses I can think of downtown and in Fairhaven are Starbucks and Taco Del Mar, and both are headquartered just 90 miles south in Seattle.

Again, this can only happen with a community commitment, whereby some community members choose to invest in starting up businesses, and the rest of the community invests in supporting those businesses.

So, wherever you are, supporting your locally-owned businesses just makes sense on SO many levels. Give it a try!

And, to drive this message home, here’s a fantastic infographic courtesy of Advocates for Independent Business:

holidayshopping_infographic

Eco-Flushing: Revisited

greenflush1Back in August 2011, I posted the first photo you see here, after having discovered this Eco-Flushing For Dummies toilet on the campus where I work.

The placard above the toilet explains:

  • the green flush handle should be pulled up for liquid waste;
  • it should be pressed down for solid waste;
  • it is coated to protect against germs; and
  • “For the system to work, we need your help. Please take a look at the diagram…and push the handle in the direction which best suits your needs. With your assistance, we can do our part to conserve this precious resource.”

At the time, I applauded the toilet and declared it superior to another prominent dual-flush design that, I felt, fails to make it clear what the two buttons are for:

dual

I stand by my assertion that the two-button design is less than informative, but I do have to admit that the Eco-Flushing For Dummies toilet, while ok in a public bathroom setting, perhaps particularly appropriate on a high school or college campus where, you know, education is a thing, it may not be the best, most aesthetically-appealing choice for the home or, let’s say, an elegant restaurant.

Enter John Liow’s Half:

half-toilet

Via Inhabitat:

“Half” is an observation of how suggestive design can more intentionally encourage the use of the water-saving “half flush” function on a dual-flush toilet. The white half is designed to be smooth and inviting while the black half is sharp and offensive, encouraging conscious water usage.

Read more about industrial designer John Liow’s Half and “suggestive design” at Index: Design to Improve Life.

Celebrating Eco-Progress: Starbucks

I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest, 90 miles north of Seattle, for close to 20 years, and in this corner of the world it’s almost unbearably cliché to blog about how much I love coffee.

Suffice to say, despite my February 2011 rant against my state’s coffee fetish

…I LOVE the java!

And, despite my preference for supporting local businesses, I even admit to loving that multinational megacoffeecorporation, Starbucks. (What can I say? I’ve tried many, many coffees from all kinds of roasters, some good, some bad, some ugly, but I always know, when I walk into a Starbucks, that I will like what they serve.)

And while they can certainly be doing more, Starbucks has incorporated sustainable practices in their operations, for years, and today I read about another new initiative, perfect for a new installment in my Celebrating Eco-Progress series.

Via GOOD.is:

Starbucks Is Funding Research That Would Turn Food Waste into Useful Stuff

Who’s got tons of old coffee grounds headed for the trash? Starbucks. And who’s got great ideas for repurposing waste? Scientists. It’s a promising match.

A team of researchers at the City University of Hong Kong are working on a new “biorefinery” that would turn food waste into something useful, and it’s been getting funding from Starbucks Hong Kong, which produces 5,000 tons of spent grounds and bakery waste each year.

According to a press release, the biorefinery (above) uses a mixture of fungi, which excrete enzymes that break down carbohydrates (like the ones in those coffee grounds) into simple sugars, which then go into a fermenter to become succinic acid. That succinic acid can then be used as an ingredient in a wide variety of products, including detergents, bio-plastics, and medicines.

Starbucks has been giving away, free of charge, sacks of spent coffee grounds since 1999, for use in composting, but this new effort is exciting for the decidedly larger positive impact it could have.

Way to go, Starbucks! Keep up the good work!

Celebrating Eco-Progress: Guiness

I confess.

I did not wear green on St. Patrick’s Day.

Nor did I attend any St. Patrick’s Day event.

I ate no corned beef and cabbage, and I raised no pint of Guiness.

But, I did read, much to my environmentalist delight, that Guiness, the legendary Irish brewing company, has made significant commitments to sustainable practices, earning them an installment in my Celebrating Eco-Progress series.

Via the National Resources Defense Council blog:

“Sustainability and enhancing the environment of the Dublin communities has been a core philosophy of the Guinness Company since it was founded,” said Paul Carty, Managing Director at the Guinness Storehouse, the brewery’s large and historic facility at St. James’s Gate in the Irish capital. Last year the Storehouse, now a major tourist attraction hosting a million visitors annually, received a three-star accreditation from Sustainable Travel International for its environmental commitment. (The actual brewing was moved from the old facility in 1988.)

Among the highlights recognized by the award are these:

  • Adoption of environmental performance indicators
  • Measures to reduce waste, chemical use, and energy consumption
  • Use of paper products derived from sustainably managed forests
  • Advanced lighting technology
  • Local food sourcing
  • Locally sourced construction materials
  • Sustainability training for staff

That parenthetical note, that the actual brewing is done at a different facility, does seem a bit of a letdown, and of course the Guiness we drink here in the States necessarily has a regrettably large carbon footprint just for being shipped here.

And yet, as I’ve always said about the companies I feature in Celebrating Eco-Progress, in recognition that every little bit of effort does indeed help, I applaud the measures that have been taken, and I encourage us all to applaud them as well, indicating loud and clear that this is, indeed, a direction their customers would like to see them continue going in.

I’ve written before of my fondness for being down at the pub, having a pint with the lads, so I’m looking forward to, first chance I get, lifting a glass of Guiness stout and drinking it with hope for a sustainable future.

Celebrating Eco-Progress: Sprint

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data for 2009:

  • 141 million: number of mobile devices ready for End-of-Life Management
  • 129 million: number of mobile devices disposed
  • 11.7 million: number of mobile devices collected for recycling

I touched on the E-waste problem in a Celebrating Eco-Progress installment in April 2011, Dell was the recipient of my recognition back then, and today I celebrate considerable and welcome efforts by Sprint to address the environmental impacts of their business.

Via SmartPlanet:

For Sprint, it is no longer enough that some mobile phones and handsets have been vetted for the sustainability of their materials and packaging.

Effective Jan. 1, 2012, the company is now subjecting all of the devices it offers on its wireless services to the environmental sustainability certification process that it has developed with UL Environment.

Sprint pioneered this approach with the Samsung Replenish (pictured at the right). The standard…looks at:

  • The sensitivity of materials used
  • How well the phone manages energy
  • The manufacturing process
  • Packaging
  • The manufacturer’s product stewardship
  • How the product is put together from a design standpoint, so it can be fixed or updated more easily

It is the last item on the list that really stands out to me, since it speaks to one of the primary causes for such high disposal rates.

As I wrote in my older post:

Just think about cellphones for a second. From a profit motive standpoint, the two-year contract was a stroke of brilliance, as it has now become almost standard practice for consumers to replace a perfectly good cellphone every two years just because you can do so and get a new phone at a significant discount. Cellphone manufacturers and carriers figured out that the increase in sales volume from such a dynamic would not only compensate for the discounts they offer for upgrades, but would actually stabilize a market with a predictable life cycle.

While I don’t see an end in sight for two-year contracts tied to upgrades, it will be interesting to see if Sprint’s new practices can achieve their lofty goals:

“By being the first carrier to require all wireless phones to go through the UL Environment certification process, we expect to accelerate adoption of this standard throughout the wireless industry,” said David Owens, vice president of product development for Sprint, in a statement about the new policy.

It remains to be seen if customers will eventually, in larger numbers, fix or upgrade their phones rather than replacing them every two years as a result of actions like Sprint’s, but it certainly is worth a shot!

Keep up the good work, Sprint!

Celebrating Eco-Progress: Facebook

On the surface, it might not seem that a web company like Facebook could be all that damaging to the environment.

After all, they don’t mine or farm or manufacture anything, right? It’s just a website, it’s so intangible, it’s just made up of millions of 0s and 1s buzzing around the globe.

Well, don’t tell that to Greenpeace, who had been rigorously protesting Facebook for their data centers, facilities that consume massive amounts of electricity, most of which had been generated in coal-burning plants.

Today’s Celebrating Eco-Progress installment, however, brings good news (via PC Magazine)

Facebook has announced a partnership with Greenpeace that will see the two organizations improve the social network’s renewable energy efforts.

Few actual details were revealed, but in a joint statement Facebook said that the company would begin enforcing a new policy that would see a shift towards “clean and renewable energy.” This includes continuous research into energy efficiency through its Open Compute Project as well promoting sustainability and efficiency practices alongside Greenpeace.

“Facebook is committed to supporting the development of clean and renewable sources of energy, and our goal is to power all of our operations with clean and renewable energy,” the statement read. “Building on our leadership in energy efficiency (through the Open Compute Project), we are working in partnership with Greenpeace and others to create a world that is highly efficient and powered by clean and renewable energy.”

Greenpeace is not known for falling for political and corporate smoke and mirrors, and so it’s highly significant that Facebook’s sustainability initiatives have met with their approval.

Keep up the good work, Facebook!