Last reviewed 29 January 2019

In their latest review of environmental innovations, Tim and Caroline Hand look at smart bins, carbon dioxide (CO2) batteries, cryptocurrency heat, fish and chip fuel, preservative stickers and a potato-based wood substitute.

Smart bin

For many, the task of sorting recyclables from non-recyclables can be extremely irksome, leading some to simply throw everything into the rubbish bin, harming the environment in the process. However, Polish company Bin-e has taken steps to solve this problem by creating an intelligent bin that sorts through waste with the aid of an artificial intelligence (AI) platform. The bin sorts card, paper, glass, metals and plastics into their appropriate compartments by means of data processing, camera-led object recognition and weight measurement. The waste is then compressed by the bin, which uses a fill control sensor to notify waste disposal services when one of its compartments is full. This use of data is intended to enable waste transports to reduce their CO2 emissions. Bin-e has designed its product with office environments in mind, though it is planning to develop another model for use in the home. The bin is very user-friendly and can send information to its owner regarding its operations in real time, in order to increase efficiency. Having passed the prototype stage, the bin has secured investment and is available for purchase. Definitely not a rubbish idea.

CO2 batteries

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) offers the possibility of reducing CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, the process is extremely costly, requiring approximately 30% of the energy of a power plant using the process. However, a group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), led by Betar Gallant, have potentially found a solution to this problem. By converting waste CO2 into an electrolyte by bonding it with an amine-based solution, the researchers were able to use it to power a battery, using the CO2 in a liquid state to eliminate the previous need for a metal catalyst. The aforementioned catalysts are expensive and produce reactions that are difficult to control. Furthermore, the recycled amines produced by the battery system were capable of being reloaded with additional CO2. However, improvements are still required; the battery system is limited to 10 charge-discharge cycles (the average lithium-ion battery can last for around 500), and the researchers have acknowledged that it will take years before the batteries will be ready for everyday use. Nevertheless, the fact that carbon-capturing amines have been used to power a battery for the first time represents a significant step forward, and similar steps could see us powering towards a greener future.

Cryptocurrency heat

The process of cryptocurrency mining, in which cryptocurrency transactions are verified and placed on a digital ledger, can be very harmful to the environment. According to one estimate, bitcoin mining is already using the same amount of power as the entire country of Ireland. However, Heatmine (a cryptocurrency mining company based in Canada), is taking steps to reduce its impact on the environment by harvesting the waste heat generated when their machines run and mine bitcoin. The company initially used this energy to heat its own water, before connecting mining machines to the heating systems of businesses, private homes and greenhouses. Users have reported that their heating bills have fallen by up to 100%, and Heatmine claims that one of their machines is capable of producing 75,000 BTU of heat an hour, enough to heat 300 square metres for an entire day. Furthermore, Heatmine has announced its hopes that Canada’s heating systems will be transformed by this innovation within the next five years. Given the fact that a recent study has projected that the industry could potentially cause a 2 degrees Celsius rise in global warming over the next 15 years, this efficient innovation certainly warms the heart.

Fish and chip fuel

A report issued by the European Parliament in 2015 indicates that the international shipping industry could be responsible for 17% of global CO2 emissions by 2050 if left unregulated. However, two innovations have recently emerged that could help ensure that this never occurs. Firstly, cruise firm Hurtigen is planning to trial a new fuel made from liquefied organic waste, which has been christened liquefied biogas (LBG). Dead fish, which have been wasted from the animal feed and fishing industries, are combined with other forms of organic waste and processed into a liquid oil, which is then heated into a gaseous state, and stored in canisters to await combustion. This fishy fuel will soon be used throughout Hurtigen’s fleet. In a similar vein, The GoodShipping Programme, a non-profit organisation, has created a new fuel from waste vegetable oil, which is hydrogenated until it is transformed into a form of diesel. This fuel produces considerably less sulphur dioxide, particulates and CO2 than fossil fuel alternatives when burned, and was successfully tested in September on a small shipping vessel. If these innovations prove successful on a larger scale, we’ll have concrete proof that fish and chips aren’t always bad for you.

Preservative stickers

If the thought of fast food has left you feeling a little queasy, here’s a healthier alternative — Zhafri Zainudin, founder of Malaysian start-up company Stixfresh, has developed a special sticker that can preserve the life of fresh fruit. These stickers are coated with a mixture of beeswax and sodium chlorine, which can provide fruit with up to 14 additional days of freshness. This is accomplished by removing ethylene (the ripening hormone) from the air surrounding the produce, which slows the ripening process. The sticker is also capable of keeping mould at bay. Furthermore, the ingredients used in the sticker are 100% natural, and the sticker itself is edible, reducing the possibility of waste. Initially tested on mangoes, these stickers can be used on a variety of different fruits, such as apples, avocados and pears. Stixfresh is moving towards expansion, having recently launched in the US, and is also intending to develop a sticker for use on vegetables and berries. Considering the fact that approximately one-third of the food produced across the globe is currently wasted, translating into a £700 annual loss for the average UK family, this innovation can undoubtedly be considered a breath of fresh air.

Potato-based wood substitute

The humble potato has many uses. You can boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew… and now they’re being used as a sustainable alternative to wood by inventor Rowan Minkley. By pulping and pressing scraps of industrial potato waste, Minkley has created Chip[s] Board, a sheet material that is as strong as medium-density fibreboard (MDF), but without the toxic chemicals and resins contained within the latter. It can be used to make building materials and flatpack furniture and can also be transformed into fertiliser after industrial composting. The project has already received some notable endorsements; Minkley was awarded £15,000 by the Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub, and McCain’s has started to provide Chip[s] Board with its industrial waste. Chip[s] Board has expressed its desire to keep its products within the circular economy and is eager to reduce the amount of MDF that is sent to landfill or incinerated (currently 30 million tonnes a year). It could also help to reduce deforestation, which has recently reached record levels in Brazil, with 7900km2 deforested between August 2017 and July 2018. It’s good to see that sustainable innovations are still being produced even when the chips are down.