This New Biodegradable Plastic is Made From Cactus

BY Adele Peters 2 MINUTE READ

In a university lab near Guadalajara, Mexico, researchers trim cactus leaves and feed them into a juicer, creating a bright green liquid. When it’s mixed with other natural materials and processed, it undergoes an impressive transformation: The cactus juice becomes a biodegradable plastic.

It’s one experiment to help tackle the world’s plastic problem. Around nineteen billion pounds of plastic ends up in the ocean each year, and as plastic breaks down there and in landfills, it makes its way into the food system; people now eat an annual diet of more than 50,000 pieces of microplastic. Plastic made from cactus wouldn’t necessarily help stop the flow of trash into waterways. But the researchers say that the material biodegrades quickly and is nontoxic if it’s eaten. And unlike plastic made from fossil fuels, the cactus-based plastic is carbon neutral as it breaks down–the carbon dioxide it emits equals the carbon dioxide it took in as a plant as it grew.

The prickly pear cactus used in the experiment, which grows locally, is well suited to become plastic. “The cactus of this species contains a large amount of sugars and gums that favor the formation of the biopolymer,” says Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, a chemical engineering professor at the University of the Valley of Atemajac, who is leading the research.

Cactus also has another advantage over some other plants that are currently used to make plastic. Corn, for example, which is often used to make compostable forks or cups, still has an environmental footprint from the fertilizer and other resources used to grow it. It’s also using land that could be used to grow food. Cactus, which survives in harsh environments with little or no intervention, can grow on land that doesn’t make sense for farming. “It does not require much care for its cultivation and production,” says Pascoe Ortiz.

The resulting material isn’t yet as long-lasting as plastic made from fossil fuels. But it could still be useful in some applications. “We are thinking of products that are disposable, single-use, or that do not need to be durable,” she says. It may also be more biodegradable than other alternatives; corn-based plastic, for example, is unlikely to break down unless it’s in an industrial composting facility, and most consumers still don’t have access to that type of facility. The cactus-based plastic can biodegrade in a backyard composter within a few months.

The researchers are currently working with a company that is interested in bringing the material to market.

About the author: Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company US who focuses on solutions to some of the world’s largest problems, from climate change to homelessness.

Originally published on fastcompany.com


Insects Might Be The Key to Making Lab-Grown Meat Take Off

BY Adele Peters 2 MINUTE READ

Startups selling chips or protein bars made with crickets tout the environmental advantages of insects compared to raising cows or chickens. But the market for insects as food, while growing, is still tiny. A new study suggests that insects could enter mainstream diets another way: through lab-grown cells that could eventually be made into foods like faux shrimp or lobster.

Unlike some startups that are working on creating foods like ultra-realistic, bioreactor-grown chicken nuggets or Wagyu beef from cells, the researchers aren’t trying to re-create insects. But insect cells, they say, are particularly well suited for production, and can be used to make something else. “Wherever we get the best building blocks that are number one, safe, number two, cost-effective, and then three, nutritional, we don’t care [what the source is],” says David Kaplan, a biomedical engineering professor at Tufts University and one of the authors of the paper. “It’s making sure we have the tools that we can start to do this in a really solid, useful, economic way.”

The research lab has a long history of working on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. In other past projects related to robotics, it’s worked with insect cells because the cells are hardy and easy to grow. As interest in cellular agriculture increased, the researchers realised that insects could offer a viable alternative to growing cattle or chicken cells. Mammal cells are tricky to work with, requiring careful regulation of pH, temperature, and nutrients. “The cells need a lot to drive their metabolism – they don’t want variations in the growth conditions or they won’t do well or they’ll die,” Kaplan says. “Insects are completely the opposite.”

Because insect cells don’t need that tight of control to stay alive, and don’t require expensive supplements, they’re cheaper to produce than something like lab-grown beef – and cost is still a major hurdle for bringing this type of food to market. Growing insect cells also leaves a smaller environmental footprint because it uses fewer resources, from water to energy. Part of the premise of lab-grown meat is that it can help solve the climate problems of regular livestock. Growing feed for animals, belching cows, and manure all contribute significant greenhouse gas emissions. But growing mammal cells in a bioreactor also takes a lot of energy, and depending on how it happens, another study suggests it could possibly be even worse for the climate.

Lab-grown insect meat is still far from the plate; researchers need to figure out how to develop the cells into muscle and fat and then combine those into structures like meat. But in theory, they could be used to replicate related creatures like crab and other crustaceans. The protein could also potentially be used as an ingredient in plant-based meat, creating a new hybrid that tastes more like the original. And it’s something that the next wave of startups may begin to develop. “I don’t see how it can be avoided if you’re really interested in bringing the costs down, keeping nutrition high, and so on,” says Kaplan. “I think it’s inevitable.”

About the author: Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world’s largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions programme at UC Berkeley.

Originally published on fastcompany.com


In This Rhino Internet of Things, Rhinos Wear GPS Trackers in Their Horns

BY Adele Peters 2 MINUTE READ

In a sprawling wildlife preserve in Zimbabwe, some of the rhinos roaming the park have sensors embedded in their horns. Three times a day, the trackers send the animals’ GPS locations to solar-powered base stations, which then send the data to rangers through a mobile app.

“Each day, they look at what we call the Google map of rhinos,” says Marion Moreau, head of the Sigfox Foundation, the non-profit arm of Sigfox, a France-based tech company that builds low-power networks for the internet of things (IOT), which designed the sensors as part of a project called Now Rhinos Speak.

Poaching is a major problem for rhinos. In 2018, in South Africa alone, 769 rhinos were killed, or an average of two a day. At the beginning of the 20th century, the global population of the animal was around 500,000; now there are around 28,000. Three species are critically endangered. The last male northern white rhino, a subspecies of the white rhino, died in 2018. Two females are left in Kenya and protected with 24-hour guards.

The preserve in Zimbabwe, and another in Zambia, have been testing prototypes of the Sigfox trackers over the past three years. In Zimbabwe, 49 white and black rhinos have been outfitted with the devices. The system can alert rangers when the animals stray into areas near the borders of the park, where they might be more vulnerable to poaching. It also helps rangers and veterinarians easily find the rhinos on regular patrols.

Older methods of tracking have challenges – traditional radio collars require someone to physically use an antenna and listen for beeps, and the collars themselves (or ankle bracelets) can be problematic for rhinos to wear. Drones can be used to follow wildlife but are expensive, require trained staff to fly, and are limited in how long they can stay in the air. Camera and video technology is also expensive. “These technologies are really not so affordable, and we need a new technology that can be implemented very easily,” says Moreau.

The new trackers are not exactly easy to implant – the rhino needs to be shot with a tranquilliser dart from a helicopter, and then there’s a short window of time for a veterinarian to drill a hole in the horn and insert the inch-long device. But once that process is complete, the trackers can automatically send signals without any extra work, and the technology uses so little power that the small battery inside can continue to work for three years. The technology is more difficult to hack than some alternatives, so poachers can’t access the location data. The device also costs only about R700, a small enough price that parks that haven’t been able to track animals in the past may be able to now.

After three years of testing the prototype, Sigfox is moving into large-scale production this summer. In Kenya, it’s expanding its work at a newly opened conservation technology lab at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where the last northern white rhinos live. And the developers now plan to adapt the technology for other species, which could wear the sensors as part of collars or bracelets. “We want to help other NGOs protecting elephants or tigers or lions,” says Moreau. “I think it would be very promising for these [groups] because they’re waiting for unintrusive, very low-cost devices.”

About the author: Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world’s largest problems, from climate change to homelessness.

Originally published on fastcompany.com


This App Will Help You Declutter Your Piles Of Unused Stuff

BY Adele Peters 3 MINUTE READ

Americans are hoarders: There are now more self-storage facilities in the U.S. than Starbucks and McDonalds combined. Roughly a quarter of garages are too full of stuff to hold a car. The average home has $7,000 worth of unused belongings.

A new app called Stuffstr is designed to help you declutter, whether you’re on a Marie Kondo-inspired purge or just starting to feel guilty about everything you own that’s going to waste.

“Every time an asset is just sitting idly around, something else is getting produced,” says John Atcheson, CEO of Stuffstr. “It’s put out there to do that service that could be handled by the thing that’s sitting in the closet or attic or, god forbid, a self-storage unit somewhere.”

Photo: Flickr user Craig Rohn

Atcheson and cofounder Steve Guttman both used to work at Getaround, a peer-to-peer car-sharing service that addressed a similar problem—most cars sit idle for 22 hours a day. “It’s a ridiculous waste of assets,” Atcheson says. “From that, we began to get an interest in the broader world of wasted assets—things we buy that we really don’t use.”

The app is designed to automatically add online purchases to your personal inventory as soon as you buy them, and products can also be added later. When you realize you’re not using something, with a swipe, the app will give you options to give it away. You can notify family and friends that it’s available, find the nearest place to donate it, or get a recommendation for a service like Give Back Box, which will give you a free shipping label and let you leave donations on your front step.

“The very first thing we’re doing on this is to help people essentially declutter their lives, and do it in a way that avoids landfill and really puts things to good use,” says Atcheson. After researching what people needed—particularly millennials—the startup found that people want to declutter, but also want to do it in a responsible way.

“We talked to a whole bunch of people, and repeatedly got these stories of people who moved from place to place with a pile of things they didn’t want, simply because they couldn’t figure out what to do with it that wasn’t somehow going to just get it off into landfill,” he says. “They wanted so badly to do something good with it that they carried it around with them.”

The app may eventually also help connect people with resale options. At a later point, the startup may also work on trying to help people make more initial use of the things they buy, so objects aren’t just stuffed in a closet until they’re given away.

“You want to be able to maximize the use of an item when someone is owning and using it, but also make them aware of when they’re not using it,” says Atcheson.

For now, they’re focused on helping get products into the hands of someone who’s more likely to use them—or, if they’re worn out, responsibly recycled.

“It’s all about recirculating your things,” he says.

Article, Image and Video Source: www.fastcompany.com