The Five Innovations That Shaped Sustainability In 2016

The Guardian

From edible cutlery to drone vaccines, we celebrate the technologies and innovations that promise to advance sustainability efforts in the years ahead
Drones could soon be employed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to help endangered ferret species. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
It’s been a rollercoaster of a year. In the world of sustainability alone, we saw the landmark Paris climate change agreement come into force; learned how rising temperatures in the Arctic are negatively impacting local residents; and watched as the world’s top conservationists mourned the declining state of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
And then, a bombshell: a certain “short-fingered vulgarian” won the US presidential race and called into question everything from America’s basic environmental protection to Nasa’s ongoing climate change research. Corporate America took evasive action, signing a letter telling Donald Trump it is serious about sustainability, while others began unpacking Trump’s emphasis on “clean coal” and what it really means for the future of energy in the US.
But it hasn’t all been doom and gloom. While the rest of the world struggled to come to terms with the aforementioned craziness, innovators, scientists and tech heads worked quietly from the sidelines to come up with solutions. And some succeeded: from a trashcan that sucks up ocean garbage to a drone that delivers vaccines to endangered ferrets, here are our top picks for this year’s best sustainable tech.

A trashcan for the ocean
Peter Ceglinski, left, and Andrew Turton invented the Seabin device, which traps garbage floating around marinas and docks. Photograph: Seabin
It’s no secret that our oceans are turning into swirling garbage dumps. There are some 5.25tn pieces of floating plastic debris in the oceans right now, and it’s estimated that some 8m metric tons of plastic waste enter global waters every year.
Earlier this year, Peter Ceglinski and Andrew Turton, two surfers from Australia, came up with a device they’re calling the Seabin – a kind of submersible garbage can that captures floating trash. Picture a cylinder, with the upper opening just below the surface of the water. An electric pump draws water through the bottom of the cylinder, creating a vortex around the upper edge that pulls in water and floating trash. A bag filter, made of natural material, collects the trash and allows water to pass through.
After raising more than $267,000 in an Indiegogo campaign to help build the device, Ceglinski and Turton are keen to start selling the Seabin to marinas around the world. First stop: Miami, Florida, where Miami Beach’s marinas manager wants to start using the Seabin in 2017 to counter the bags, bottles, paper plates and forks found daily in the water.

A handheld cancer-detecting device
A startup has invented a DNA analyzer that could potentially revolutionize healthcare in the developing world. Photograph: QuantuMDx
Earlier this year, British-based tech firm QuantuMDx developed a new, low-cost diagnostic DNA analyzer the size of a smartphone which is being billed as a “handheld lab”. The device – called Q-Poc – can accurately diagnose everything from cancers to infectious diseases in minutes. Although it is currently in alpha testing stage, the company hopes to get the product in the hands of doctors by early 2018.
Q-Poc runs on a solar-powered battery and it’s designed to read biological samples submitted via a credit card-size cartridge. It can work with a range of sample types: swabs can be used to detect sexually-transmitted infections, while saliva is used to detect tuberculosis. (Tests for other diseases will be added at a later date.) The device uses mobile technology, enabling the test results to be geo-stamped and shared in real time.
The prospect of a speedy diagnosis at a patient’s side is exciting, particularly in countries where access to medical care is a challenge. Subject to regulatory approval by the World Health Organization (WHO), QuantuMDx hopes to initially roll out the Q-Poc unit in South Africa, before expanding to other markets.

Stuff you can eat (instead of throwing it away)
Even if the spoons aren’t eaten, once used, they can decompose in a few days. Photograph: Bakeys
It was a big year for edible everyday items, like cutlery and beer cans. First up, an Indian cutlery company, Bakeys, invented cutlery that you can eat as a way to tackle plastic waste in oceans and landfill. (Welcome to a new geological epoch of trash – scientists are calling it the manmade Anthropocene.)
Plastic cutlery significantly contributes to this problem – estimates suggest the US alone uses 40bn plastic utensils a year. Hence the need for edible versions. Bakeys makes vegan-friendly cutlery from rice, wheat and an ancient grain called sorghum, which was picked because it doesn’t go soggy when immersed in liquid.
The cutlery comes in three flavors: savory (salt and cumin); sweet (sugar); and plain. And, if you’re wondering – it kind of tastes like a dry cracker.
Why not wash down the cutlery with an edible beer holder? Americans are consuming more beer it seems – 67bn beer cans each year, apparently. According to the Brewers Association, this number is expected to grow significantly as craft breweries get more popular.
The problem is that plastic beer can holders pose a threat to fish and marine wildlife when they end up in the ocean. Saltwater Brewery, based in Florida, has come up with a solution: biodegradable, edible beer pack rings made from wheat and barley waste. The rings disintegrate within two hours of being in the ocean, which prevents fish or other sea animals getting stuck. They’re also harmless if ingested by curious fish.
More than 50 craft breweries have already contacted Saltwater expressing an interest in using the edible rings. The brewery is now developing metal molds capable of making 400,000 rings per month and hopes to build a centralized production facility by 2017.

A drone that helps endangered species
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) hope to bombard a ferret habitat in Montana with a vaccine administered via specially designed drones. Photograph: Will Singleton/AP
One of 2016’s most heartwarming stories revolved around a cunning plan by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to bombard a ferret habitat in Montana with a vaccine administered via specially designed drones that can “shoot” pellets in three directions at the same time.
All this in a bid to save the endangered black-footed ferret. The vaccine pellets are actually intended for the prairie dog population inside the habitat at the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge. The ferrets are dependent upon prairie dogs for food and shelter, but a flea-borne disease called sylvatic plague has slowly been killing the prairie dogs off.
The FWS came up with a “glorified gumball machine” to spit out the vaccine pellets. The machine which can be attached to a drone which uses GPS to drop the pellets throughout the habitat. Oh, and if you’re wondering: the FWS said lab tests show that prairie dogs find the bait in the vaccines “delicious”.

Using 3D printers to eliminate plastic waste
A report by a leading markets analyst predicted the 3D printing materials market would grow by nearly 266% over the next five years. Photograph: Alamy 
As we’ve established, humans produce a lot of trash – apparently of the more than 300m tons of plastic produced globally every year, one refuse truck’s worth ends up in our waters, landfills and streets every minute.
One of our favorite stories this year came from India, where a local entrepreneur has set up a production facility at a local rubbish dump, where waste pickers convert high-density polyethylene (HPDE) – mostly used for plastic bottles – into 3D printing filament to eventually be sold to 3D printing companies.
The market for 3D printing filament – the majority of which is made from virgin plastic – is growing rapidly. A recent report predicted the 3D printing materials market will grow by nearly 266% in the next five years.
And, while the market for ethical filament is still relatively small, the greatest potential 3D printing seems to be offering the developing world is employment – there are an estimated 15 million people globally who currently make their living from waste picking, for example.


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