Festive cheer and a hopeful New Year: Green Innovation update

Caroline Hand takes a seasonal look at some of the latest green innovations.

Dashing through the snow

If you’re heading off for a sleigh ride in the snow you’ll need a warm fur coat; but the problem with most faux furs is that they are made of non-recyclable polymers derived from fossil fuels. Back in the autumn, Stella McCartney launched Koba, a new luxury faux fur which feels like mink. Created in collaboration with the chemicals firm Dupont, Koba is made from a combination of recycled polyester and Dupont’s Sorona plant-based fibres. It is recyclable and has only a third of the carbon footprint of most faux furs.

Toys for the children…

For as long as Santa can remember, young children have cast aside their expensive Christmas toys in favour of the cardboard boxes they came in. Paper manufacturers Smurfit Kappa has capitalised on this well-known trait with their new range of ekolife cardboard toys. These include planes, cars, jigsaws, build-your-own shops and castles. The toys are sturdy, colourful and fully recyclable and should last until the child has outgrown them — unlike many plastic toys which are discarded to landfill shortly after Christmas and can never be recycled.

…and something for Santa’s elves

Who hasn’t felt a twinge of guilt as a huge cardboard box arrives from an online retailer, containing a small but awkwardly-shaped gift? Flexihex, an innovative new form of cardboard packaging, greatly reduces packaging waste by fitting snugly around the item, regardless of its shape. This fully recyclable packaging material has a hexagonal, cellular structure, making it look like a stretchy honeycomb. Highly flexible and expandable, it is at the same time resistant to compression, making it ideal for drinks bottles — though it was originally devised to package surfboards! The manufacturers hope that it will replace single use plastic packaging for a variety of difficult-to-wrap items.

Meat feast?

Christmas is a time to enjoy good food, but many people are cutting down on their meat and dairy consumption in recognition of the scale of greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector. Not only do cattle release methane and occupy land which could be used for food crops; large acreages are given over to growing soy beans for cattle feed. Moreover, soy production and livestock, together with palm oil production, are the worst offenders when it comes to deforestation. NovaPro, a new cattle feed based on rapeseed oil rather than soy, could help to ameliorate these problems. As well as being better for the environment, in trials it improved the cows’ digestive health and gave higher milk yields. Cheering news for everyone who likes a good helping of custard with their Christmas pudding!

Talking of digestion

A net-zero economy needs hydrogen fuel, but it is costly to produce using conventional methods. Australia is pioneering a new technology that converts sewage into hydrogen. Hazer Group has just received funding for an industrial-scale facility that is set to produce 100 tonnes of hydrogen each year. Biogas will be exposed to iron ore while it is heated and pressurised. The resulting products are hydrogen and graphite.

It’s a cracker!

Had enough of trashy cracker novelties that go straight into the bin once Christmas dinner is over? John Lewis and Waitrose have pledged to replace all plastic cracker toys with recyclable metal and paper ones in time for Christmas 2020. Glitter (generally made from plastic) will also disappear, to be replaced by embossed or printed decorations. And if a year is too long to wait for a greener cracker, these stores already offer a refillable cracker which you can fill with your own choice of gifts. Waitrose and John Lewis have also pledged to phase out glitter from their whole range of own-label cards, wrap, crackers, tags, flowers and plants by Christmas 2020.

And for those unwanted gifts…

While consumers welcome the convenience of online shopping, retailers have to bear the cost of returns — which in the UK is estimated to be £20 billion per year for online returns, and £60 billion for all returns. Around 30% of goods bought online are returned, generally because consumers cannot see exactly what they are getting. Of these, 80% are not defective in any way but it is nevertheless difficult for the retailers to resell them.

Ikea is tackling this problem through its share in technology company Optoro. Optoro has created a reverse logistics platform which makes it easier for returns to be sent to those stores which are low in stock, or given to charity.

For consumers, packaging up unwanted gifts to sell online is often too much trouble, so unused appliances just languish at the back of a cupboard. Ideo, a design consultancy, has dreamed up a future service called UseMe/LoseMe which enables unwanted appliances to sell themselves on ebay, automatically texting over their details! Maybe not this Christmas…

Finally, a hopeful prospect for the New Year

Once the festivities are over, business and Government must return to the serious business of cutting carbon emissions to net zero. Our national target of reaching net zero by 2050 will not be achieved without investment in carbon capture and storage, and a switch to hydrogen as fuel. However, we can raise a toast to the renewables and energy storage industries who have made it possible for the UK to switch to green electricity generation on a previously unimaginable scale. It is possible to achieve the net zero target in a shorter time without a significant increase in the cost, because of the huge falls in the costs of wind, solar and batteries — 65% for wind, 80% for solar and batteries.

According to Renewables UK, “As we build the net-zero energy system of the future based on renewables, we’re changing the way we manage the entire network, using a wide variety of extraordinarily innovative storage technologies. The pace of change in the industry is hugely exciting.” The technologies include lithium-ion batteries, gravity based storage, flywheels and dense liquids.

One of the most promising is the Cryobattery developed by Highview Power, which uses renewable energy to cool and liquefy ambient air. At times of higher demand, the liquid air is allowed to evaporate and expand through a turbine, where its latent energy of vaporisation is converted into electric current.

Highview recently announced its plans to build the biggest energy storage plant in Europe at the site of an old power station in Northern England. While lithium-ion batteries can only store energy for up to four hours, the Cryobattery has the potential (in theory) to store it for up to 20 days.

...and a New Year’s resolution

What are the most effective ways for individuals to combat climate change in 2020? A research paper suggests that the top five are:

  • having a smaller family

  • living car free

  • cutting out flights

  • swapping to a plant-based diet

  • buying green energy (no longer a difficult option).

And for those who baulk at such drastic steps, there’s always the option of swapping our plastic-packaged Christmas “smellies” for luxury soap! Have a happy and hopeful holiday.