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10 Cool Sustainability Ideas
Productivity

10 Cool Sustainability Ideas

By James Tehrani April 22, 2020

As climate change and environmental sustainability become more pressing each year, many companies are innovating ways to help protect the Earth. We list 10 here that piqued our interest.

LIKE A STONEFISH LYING MOTIONLESS AND DORMANT AT THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN READY TO DEVOUR ITS PREY, enviromental risk can appear suddenly in the most unsuspecting places. Even if a fish passing by senses danger, its life will be over quickly if it waits to move away from the predator hiding in plain sight.

While smaller fish are at risk of being sucked up in a fraction of a second, there are other secondary risks lurking, too.

The stonefish is considered the most venomous fish in the sea. Stepping on its dorsal fin can cause an immense amount of pain. One man who was stung described the feeling to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. like someone is “holding an oxy-acetylene torch on your foot, and then working its way up your whole leg over an hour or so, then smashing your leg with a sledgehammer every 10 seconds.”

That sure sounds painful.

While not every incident can be described this way, there are no shortage of pain points when it comes to environmental risks. The pain hits organizations for sustainability reasons and can hit their pocketbooks when they’re fined for noncompliance.

Climate Change Cometh
There have been heaps of environmental risks that have surfaced in the past few years as climate change becomes better understood.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report showed that the cards are stacked against humanity if people don’t do enough to curb the rise of global temperatures. The dire warning included this passage: “Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C.” The report also states that, without taking significant steps to stop the temperature from rising, the Earth is on pace to reach those projected global warming levels between 2030 and 2052.

Talk about risk.

As with other types of risks, there is and will always be technological advances and innovations designed to mitigate menaces to the environment.

Environmental Accounting and the data that’s collected and used for things like predictive and prescriptive analytics can play an important role in keeping people safe by keeping tabs on all sorts of environmental data to ensure compliance and how sustainability efforts are coming along for the company and, in turn, the community at large.

With climate change and man-made environmental problems galore comes great responsibility—to do something about it. Here is a list of 10 interesting innovations worth keeping an eye on. As always, the products and systems listed here are meant for informational purposes only. They are examples of sustainable technology and innovations and should not be considered Spark recommendations or endorsements; we have not tested or evaluated these items firsthand. To protect the environment and create a safer, more sustainable world, it’s imperative that companies leave no “stonefish” left unturned when it comes to environmental risk mitigation.


1: THE DRONE
RANGER

As the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains, the atmospheric boundary level is the part that touches the Earth. This is where the sun heats the Earth and air begins to rise, so the more greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that are found at this level, the more heat is trapped close to Earth. Not good.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky are turning to unmanned aerial vehicles, aka drones, to sense gases for environmental monitoring. According to an article on Phys.org, the device is designed to measure atmospheric composition.

“I have built a system for fast sampling of the concentration of methane, ammonia and carbon dioxide, while measuring temperature, pressure and relative humidity in the three-dimensional space flown,” said Travis Schuyler, a Ph.D. candidate working on the project, in the Phys.org article. The measurements were then validated by readings from a tether balloon. According to the conclusion in the research paper, “This device can serve as a useful tool to determine weather conditions and quantify trace gas mixing ratios, particularly at sites of greenhouse and toxic gas pollution. Future applications of this device for environmental monitoring should help to constrain the uncertainty of low altitude (<100 m [328 feet]) trace gas measurements without serious safety concerns or extensive costs.” And you thought it was a bad idea to drone on and on. Learn more: tinyurl.com/drone-GHGs.

2: ‘TREE’ BIEN

Trees as we know are important to the planet because they produce oxygen and clean carbon dioxide out of the air. That’s why it’s sobering to see stats like the Earth loses 18.7 million acres of forest per year, and 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and forest degradation, according to the World Wildlife Fund. One British company hopes to change all that through drone technology. By the year 2060, BioCarbon Engineering hopes to plant 500 billion (not a typo) trees by employing drones to do the job. In a news release on the company’s website, it states that two operators using 10 drones can plant 400,000 trees per day. “Aerial planting via helicopters is effective over large areas,” the company states, “but results in much lower survival rates. BioCarbon Engineering’s drone-enabled technology fills the gap, planting seeds with both speed and accuracy across diverse landscapes.” We’ll go there: This is what branching out is all about. Learn more: www.biocarbonengineering.com/.

3: GRAND SAND

A day at the beach can be a relaxing, hedonistic experience, but it can also be quite an annoyance if you can’t find a place to put your towel down because there’s too much trash on the beach. The Surf Rake from H Barber & Sons looks nothing like a rake. It’s a large sand-sifting machine that gets pulled by a tractor on the beach and is designed to pick up debris and beautify the beach. In a video on the Barber site, The Rake, after gobbling up the rubbish, leaves a trail of well-groomed sand in its wake. Pro tip for beach-goers: Clean up your litter so the Surf Rake won’t have to. Learn more: hbarber.com/Cleaners/SurfRake/HowItWorks.html.

4: WITNESS THE BUZZ

“Worldwide bee populations are in decline,” explains an article on the Earth Day Network website. That stings because bees, as we all know, are the perfect pollinators, and humans and animals alike depend on bees to just do their job. There are several reasons why bees are having a rough time, including pesticides, diseases, climate change and more. One Kickstarter campaign aims to help beekeepers keep up with the buzz of their hives via artificial intelligence. The BeePi project is still a work in progress and described as a “multisensor electronic monitoring” system that keeps tabs on beehives to ensure the colony is doing OK. “Our vision,” the campaign website states, “is that in the future significant practical and scientific benefits will come from transforming our beehives into immobile robots that use AI to monitor the health of their bee colonies with multiple sensors, analyze the data, and alert beekeepers of any deviations from the norm.” In other words, don’t make a beeline just yet; this might take a while. Learn more: tinyurl.com/beesandAI.

5: LET IT GROW

While transportation, electricity and industry cause the most greenhouse gases in the United States at about 29%, 28% and 22%, respectively, according the 2017 data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2018 data won’t be available until April 2020, according to an EPA spokesperson), agriculture is also a significant contributor at 9%. No wonder why we’re seeing more robots enter the ag industry, including for growing produce. Iron Ox is one example of a company that makes a robotic farming product. According to the company, “Our hydroponic growing system uses 90% less water over traditional farming while growing 30 times the amount of crops per acre of land.” The indoor growing also allows for pesticide-free produce, which is better for our bellies and our atmosphere. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides and animal waste contribute 30% of total greenhouse gases, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, so tabling pesticide usage in farming sounds like a strategy worth cultivating. Learn more: ironox.com.

6: HYPERSCALE MORE THAN HYPE?

We all know artificial intelligence is becoming a big part of today’s society. The problem is it takes a lot of juice to squeeze out all that information. As ZDNet reported, at a recent conference, Gary Dickerson, the CEO of Applied Materials Inc., which is a supplier for the semiconductor industry, predicted that AI workloads in data centers will consume 10% of global electricity in the next decade. That’s a lot of power. Today, tech giants like Facebook and Amazon are turning to so-called cloud-based “hyperscale” data centers, which are designed to be more energy-efficient than traditional servers. As Technology Review recently reported, “An ongoing shift to hyperscale, along with advances in cooling and other technologies—and the ability to immediately predict and report on leaks—is a big reason new data centers’ energy consumption has been basically canceled out by efficiency improvements over the past few years.” That sounds hyper-helpful for protecting the environment. Learn more: tinyurl.com/hyperscale-AI.

7: VERTICAL VISION

We’ve been hearing about flying cars for years, but with ride-share companies like Uber exploring using electric VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft as soon as 2023 to transport riders, this futuristic technology might be closer than you think. Additionally, these VTOLs might be better for the environment. A recent study that appeared in the journal Nature found that for longer trips over 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) VTOLs emit fewer greenhouse gases than internal combustion engine vehicles. That means, from an environmental standpoint at least, VTOLs could be a better bet for longer distances, but automobiles are still the better choice for shorter rides. “The comparative energy, emissions and time-saving benefits of VTOLs are maximized in areas with high congestion or with geographical barriers, which dictate indirect routing for ground-based transport,” the report added. The future of transportation could be up in the air—but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Learn more: uber.com/us/en/elevate/.

8: READY FOR ROBOTIC RECYCLING?

As we know from the fall 2018 edition of Spark, robots can be found in just about every area of industry. So why should recycling be any different? Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have developed a robot that they say can “detect if an object is paper, metal or plastic.” This is quite an innovation actually because most robots, as we reported last year, do not decipher different materials very easily. In a recent article, MIT reports that the RoCycle was “85 percent accurate at detecting materials when stationary, and 63 percent accurate on an actual simulated conveyor belt. (Its most common error was identifying paper-covered metal tins as paper, which the team says would be improved by adding more sensors along the contact surface.)” With the recycled metal market projected to be a $125 billion industry by 2025, according to a recent study by analyst firm Market Study Report, having a robot that is able to grab the right material and not play the equivalent of “rock-paper-scissor” in the selection process could be a boon for industry. The Market Study Report adds that a “lack of highly competent recycling processes, which can completely recover the metal from scrap, is a main restraint which may hinder the overall recycled metal market.” For now, the RoCycle is a work in progress. The researchers note that the next system will combine tactile and video data to improve accuracy and help differentiate materials. While sorting recycling quicker and more accurately is a welcome innovation, Spark also would like to offer a quick reminder that recycling starts with you. It is estimated that almost 91% of plastic waste alone never gets recycled, and nearly 80% of that waste winds up in landfills or somewhere else in the “natural environment.” With apologies to Bob the Builder: Can we fix it? Yes we can. Learn more: www.csail.mit.edu/news/robots-can-sort-recycling.

9: PEEK AT PLASTICS

We all know that plastic is used for so many purposes, but it is estimated that it could take centuries for the material to completely decompose. Biodegradable plastic is nothing new, and analyst firm Research and Markets even estimates it will be a $10.3 billion market by 2024. However, not all biodegradable plastics are environmentally friendly. Some release toxins into the environment when they break down. One scientist in Mexico might have found a solution: plastic made from the prickly pear cactus. According to the research, the plastic material from the cactus breaks down after a month in soil and just days floating in the water. It’s also not toxic so if an animal does try to make a meal of it, it wouldn’t cause harm, the researcher, Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, told Forbes. Learn more: tinyurl.com/pricklypearplastic.

10: TAKING IT TO THE STREETS

When Walt Disney envisioned his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow—yeah, we mean EPCOT—he likely couldn’t have conceived the sustainability potential that comes from the proposed Sidewalk Labs Waterfront Toronto project. The idea is to create an affordable, inclusive community that cuts greenhouse gases by a projected 89%. How do they plan to do that? By designing energy-efficient buildings, digital management tools to eliminate energy waste and a so-called “thermal grid” that “could provide heating, cooling, and domestic hot water without relying on fossil fuels.” It also would feature a smart disposal chain that uses “pay-as-you-throw” chutes to encourage people in the community to think twice about what they’re throwing away. That concept might go down the tubes fast, but we’ll see. They also plan to introduce a digital stormwater management system that the Sidewalk website says will capture, reuse and, if necessary, treat any contaminated stormwater. If you’re interested in learning more and you’re in the Toronto area, you can check out the proposal at one of the Sidewalk Sunday informational events. Learn more: sidewalktoronto.ca/events/open-hours-307.

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James Tehrani is Spark’s editor-in-chief. He is an award-winning writer based in the Chicago area.

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