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1. inventions & things
2. systems & society
inventions & things
we have seen the future of our things.
more cyclical natural processes, less mining and drilling.
here are some sustainable materials we're tracking, some new, some old, that will soon make up the products we use every day.
hemp is a miracle weed
now that the US government no longer thinks it's marijuana, hemp is poised for growth.
looking past hemp fabrics and oils, there's hempcrete, batteries, and more — all made of pesticide-free, fast-growing hemp!
supercapacitor in batteries
supercapacitors with electrodes made from hemp-based carbon nanosheets have been shown to outperform standard capacitors. in the near future, electric car batteries could be made from hemp!
high-performance car parts
Porsche has outfitted its 718 Cayman GT4 model with the doors and rear wing made of a natural fiber composite that contains hemp and flax. we will soon be able to replace carbon fiber products with hemp!
hempcrete is a hemp-based building material that offers superior ventilation, fire resistance, and temperature regulation. it's not a replacement yet for structural concrete; it's more drywall 2.0.
these stackable chairs are made of natural fiber molded under heat and combined with nontoxic glue. a sustainable, high-design alternative to stackable molded plastic chairs. lots of creative hemp uses to come!
hemp is a phyto-remediator, meaning it can be used to extract toxins such as cadmium, petroleum, and radioactive elements from soil and water. the contaminated hemp can then be safely burned for biofuel.
hemp seeds are nutritious—protein-rich, lots of fiber, vitamin b, magnesium, zinc, iron... expect hemp to move from fringe to more of a staple in our diets as we continue to replace meat and dairy with grains and veggies.
Hemp is a plant that has been grown by humans for its fiber for millennia. Only recently has it come back in fashion in the US, where it’s soaring in year-over-year yield growth. The allure of hemp is that it is very hardy, grows from seed to stalk in about four months, and requires little attention—not even water, in many climates, making it far more sustainable than fiber plants such as cotton. It has a far higher yield per acre than cotton or flax, making its cultivation efficient. It grows basically like a weed, and it’s considered to be a rotation crop that helps replenish nutrients in the soil. That’s why growing organically, without pesticides, is critical—it really doesn’t need them.
It is a variety of the cannabis plant which, if it has a concentration of THC (a controlled substance) above 0.3%, is called marijuana, making it a politically charged plant. Despite being a non-intoxicating variety of cannabis, until 2018 it was labeled a controlled substance by the United States government. With the passage of the Farm Bill in 2018 and its removal from the controlled substance list, domestic production is now permitted (unless states outlaw it, though they still must permit interstate transit). Though the final FDA rules for growing and testing are not expected to be released until 2021, already its cultivation has skyrocketed.
Hemp fiber makes one of the strongest and long-lasting textiles. It is highly absorbent, making it easy to dye, it regulates heat well, and has some natural antibacterial properties. Uses of hemp are expanding from the traditional realms of fabric, paper, rope, animal bedding, and insulation, to more sophisticated building materials, bioremediations, bioplactics, and more!
algae unlocks light
within tiny algae cells lie the building blocks of life.
if we can unlock these processes, the possibilities for sustainable products are endless.
prototype buildings are cropping up across europe using algae as their power source. engineers are exploring bioreactors to reduce carbon footprint, process building waste, and improving the tenant experience.
nourishment & light
algae grows quickly even in the harshest conditions, and makes for a a tasty byproduct once harvested—it is high in protein and rich in nutrients.
turn everything you know about our garments on its head. fabric that is freshwater-free; clothing that reacts to our environment, that changes color with the light, photosynthesizes... spun from algae, watered like a plant, and composted.
art & design
the vibrant colors found in algae, and the various living and inert forms it can be configured into, makes for many inspiring designs that change how we think about home furnishings, accessories, art, and sculpture.
from the foam in our shoe soles to compostable and edible food containers, algae has the potential to replace single-use, toxin-leaching plastic with a natural, healthy, circular replacement, and transform how our things are used and how they perform.
air filtration & sequestration
algae ingests carbon dioxide and spits out oxygen at a far higher rate than plants, raising the potential for algae at an industrial-scale to store carbon or, at a local level, filtering air conditioning units or exhaust pipes.
Algae is a fundamental building block of our planet, and there is so much potential to exploit the natural functions and processes to our human and societal scale. This is capturing the processes that make life possible and imbuing our everyday things with those characteristics. From the cell’s production of energy we get light and heat; from its photosynthesis process we get air filtration. Bioluminescence, carbon sequestration...through biomimicry, there is much that algae can do to make our society more sustainable . It is abundant, it grows quickly, and it produces oxygen as a byproduct—and the edible kinds are very tasty!
Algae has a dark side as well when it’s overconcentrated in an environment. Algae blooms in lakes and rivers are signs of natural imbalance and environmental degradation, but for some designers they also present an opportunity to amass large quantities of algae, dry it out, and use in everything from foam to personal care items.
mycelium has healing powers
mycelium is a futuristic bio-material—a component of fungi—that can be grown quickly and at large scale.
in this humble fungus lies a blueprint for technology that will power our sustainable future.
fed an all-vegetable (cellulose and starch biowaste) diet!
mycelium bricks may not hold as much weight as concrete blocks can, but once heated to a high temperature they are far lighter. but inert bricks are the beginning; imagine living, self-repairing mycelium walls or growing a second story on your house...
mycelium-based materials are starting to replace the mountain of plastic we use every day. a few to name: headphones, surfboards, seat cushions, lint roller.
e-commerce delivery is surging, and against the flood of bubble-wrap and peanut foam chips comes fully compostable form-molded packaging made of mycelium that's set to transform the industry.
from training mycelium to produce poison antidotes to the progress psilocybin has made in the treatment of major depressive disorder, intensive study of fungi, mycelium and otherwise, speaks to the long heritage of its use in medicine.
animal product replacement
vegan leathers on the market are almost always made of plastic. that is changing with mycowork's reishi vegan leather product, which is made from mycelium. up next: meati foods is fermenting mycelium and churning out juicy vegan steaks.
design & art
the past decade has seen an explosion of sculpture and furniture inspired by and made of mycelium. from exquisite lampshades and functional chairs and benches, to gorgeous sculpture and art installations, mycelium is going mainstream in the design world.
Mycelium is the underlying body of the fungus whose flower we know and love as mushrooms. It is a versatile, natural material with a low environmental impact that has the potential to replace plastics and other nonrenewable materials across a variety of uses.
Mycelium, like other bio-materials, is causing engineers to completely rethink how materials are made and what they can do. Instead of manipulating inert materials at a nano scale into other inert things, they are tapping into biological processes that allow materials to retain their bio-characteristics when in industrial use: adaptation, self-regulation, autonomous growth, repair. Processes that we've only dreamed of, such as self-healing walls, may soon be available for commercial use.
The growing process has minimal waste (all organic, compostable matter) and requires little energy—in some cases, production is carbon negative, as mycelia have high rates of carbon capture. Particularly captivating is the potential to use mycelium to process and reuse industrial waste such as from construction, and also remediate polluted landscapes and restore natural habitats. Adding to its appeal is the extremely quick rate of growth—a sheet of mycelium can grow in less than a week.
Scientists and designers have long been captivated by fungi’s yeast-like capacity to process small sugar particles with powerful enzymes and produce the micro structures that undergird the natural world. There are efforts in labs across the globe to crack the mycelium code and unlock powerful, flexible, regenerative industrial materials from fungi. Already, scientists have isolated the point at which the mycelium roots begin assembling the mushroom structure and intervened to control the growth so that instead of mushrooms popping out, a substance can grow and form a board of organic material. With that baseline, designers are busy fine-tuning mycelium recipes that will spit out the vegan, all-natural materials of their heart's desire. We can't wait to see what else they come up with!
biowaste makes trash treasure
the leftover throwaways generated by our global food supply.
if we can unlock their secrets, our things will never be the same.
paper made from agricultural waste that; fiber spun from orange peels appearing in Ferragamo runway shows; vegan leather made of pineapple leaves — all are examples of biowaste transforming the future of fibers.
orange squeezes made from orange peelers; dish scrubs made from walnut shells; food and drink containers; bags made from fish guts; the revolution to replace plastic is only beginning!
of the many forms chitin can take when processes, a luminous, thin sheet produces a material that works well for lampshades or fine jewelry
imagine the walls of our homes and offices made from nothing more complicated than orange peels and grass clippings combined with organic binder. construction materials from waste, preventing waste.
toxic dyes are an environmental scourge and often an afterthought to industrial product design. the nontoxic dyes being processed from leftover organic material—brown from cocoa husks, white from insect shells—promise to revolutionize the way color fills our world
painless, reliable tuberculosis tests made partially from silk and chitin deliver tests through a microneedle patch; nanofiber meshes from chitin and alge that can heal surface wounds and thread organs and tissues — make for a more plastic-free and more humane medical system.
Of all the materials harvested from living organisms, of the silk, latex, and rubber that has been in use for thousands of years, the leftovers that inevitably come from making the products we use — the pits of the fruits, husks of the plants, the shells of the mollusks — hold special promise for future product development as we watch them fill our landfills or tumble into our water supply. The agricultural-industrial supply chain, with its mountains of waste, is an obvious place to start.
One quandary that presents in the world of bioplastics is the use of virgin materials, such as corn, in the making of plastic alternatives. Should we really be planting land- and water-intensive corn and instead of giving it to hungry people make single use plastic replacements which, by the way, aren’t recyclable and difficult to compost? That’s where biowaste, byproducts of plants and organisms that do feed people, gets so interesting. From eggshells, grapeseeds, orange peels, and cocoa husks—whatever is present in the local food supply chain and otherwise dumped anywhere but back into the soil— can be extracted pectin, cellulose, chitin, lactic acid, collagen, gelatin.
Material and product designers are getting creative with the fruit pits from commercial orchards and the clamshells from seafood cleaning facilities. Leftover agave husks, you may ask? Lightweight car parts, weed-killing fertilizer. The best results are the products that take into account the waste product’s individual characteristics—corn cobs and peach pits, for example, are great for cleaning!
Chitin has become a particularly popular material in the burgeoning biowaste design scene. Found in fish scales, crustacean shells, and insect exoskeletons, and a pliable polymer called chitosan when crushed or processed chemically, chitin is producing everything from magnificently beautiful heat-resistant and waterproof jewelry to unusual dyes.
As local supply chains connect industrial organic waste to creative reusers, biowaste is poised to grow and mature, and we can’t wait to see what emerges from the waste pile to change our world.
systems & society
why don't we live in a sustainable world?
++ political lobbying
++ underfunded school systems
++ tax codes
++ racism ...
we can't just sell you things and retire on a faraway island in sustainable bliss.
every part of our society has a role to play in rooting out unsustainability and pushing for structural change.
we explore these aspects here. let's talk @ firstname.lastname@example.org
why are our highway budgets funding new construction and not public transportation?
Because the US is so suburban, many of the roads built will never be paid back by local taxes since low density reduces the number of taxpayers who could share the burden. So when municipalities cover the costs of that new cul-de-sac on the edge of town, they are building a liability, not an investment. So why are we building more roads and sewer systems if we can't afford repair of existing roads?
We need to live in denser environments so we can begin to afford to repair our aging infrastructure. While other countries are building trains that go 200 mph, we are stuck with the bill for 20 year-old highways to nowhere. What we can do now is prioritize. Let's shrink our ten, twelve-lane highways that induce demand and create more traffic, and instead invest massively in in our trains and bus systems.
what will come to replace asphalt, and when?
Asphalt covers more than one third of New York City. New York also has a single-pipe sewer and stormwater system: virtually every time it rains, sewage pipes fill up with runoff rainwater and the system overflows, dumping into its waterways raw, untreated sewage. Instead of rainwater getting absorbed into the ground like it would in a park or forest, for this entire third of the city, rainwater goes into the stormwater discharge system, and as stated, that's also known as the sewer.
Since New York — and many other cities with this issue — is not going to rip up the old sewer system and put in a new one anytime soon, what the city can do instead is eliminate this runoff. Instead of building bioswales — natural areas for water to pool and be absorbed — in outer boroughs, the only places where there is land to do it, let's solve the real problem by replacing asphalt — that nonrenewable material that covers the city in impervious, heat-island-effect-generating material of the past. And while we're doing it, let's put in something more flexible (something that doesn't require a jackhammer to get underneath), biophilic, cooling, and renewable.
what if our suburban grass lawns were turned into organic gardens?
If you add up the acres of suburban grass lawns the total size is 40 million — about the size of New England. Now think of all the pesticides, weed-killers, and fresh water sprinklered on it. Now think of all the better ways that space can be used. What if, instead of going to the supermarket to buy produce from thousands of miles away, for most of the year we walked onto our front lawns and plucked what was fresh from the garden for dinner?
We are so conditioned to thinking of our food system as separate from our everyday, but that's a very recent development in history. This is about reallocating land and creating local food systems that are more diverse and ultimately more ethical.
why does our government still subsidize corn and soy?
In 2016, the US government ave out almost $14b in farm subsidies — 25% of all US farm income — and much of that went to stabilizing the incomes of cash-crop corn and soy farmers. Given that we know 90% of corn and soy goes mostly to feed cattle or gets turned into sugary, processed foods (high fructose corn syrup literally turns off our taste receptors), or becomes ethanol that we soon won't need with electric vehicles, this makes no sense!
This, in turn, makes the price for burgers low, and therefore it makes the price for healthy things like vegetables, ancient grains, and nuts, artificially high — and creating a public health crisis. A more equitable system would consider the social outcomes we want — empowered, small-scale farmers growing nutritious produce for local foodsheds. Let's make our government work for us, instead of the big, corporate interests who need their packaged foods and ground beef to be cheaper than a salad.
why are our 401k options all full of fossil fuel companies?
There's been an explosion of interest in green investments. Environmental, Social, and Governance standards (ESG) have taken the corporate world by storm. But as with all things that can be manipulated, we have fast-food chains who put solar panels on their meat-palaces. It's hard to see through the haze of what's sustainable and what's not, and that makes it challenging if you want your stocks to reflect your values.
While we wait, there are other exciting sustainability-focused investments you can look for. B-corporations are companies that have committed to adhering to higher ethical standards. There are financial instruments, too, that investors can tap into: real estate owners are issuing green bonds tied to building efficiency upgrade projects that lead to expense and emission savings. The success these bonds have seen in the market point to a bright future for green financial products.
financial institutions should halt investments harmful to the environment
It's beyond the pale that banks, insurers, and other players who are complicit in funding the weapons of climate change and environmental degradation advertise their carbon neutral pledge while giving loans or underwriting insurance on oil pipeline or fracking explorations. Or they're funding illegal logging on the other side of the world when they think no one's watching.
In tandem with political action, consumers need to be loud and clear about their values, because these companies can't hide behind their token environmentalism any longer. And if these groups don't change their values, take your business elsewhere. There are plenty of banks that disavow oil and gas investing. There are credit card companies that offset the carbon produced by your purchases. There are some, now, that are even mission-driven. Until we have strong enough regulations in this country, self-policing, partnering with nonprofit watchdog organizations, and public shaming must be our tools to thwart these anti-climate activities.
why doesn't the EPA aggressively enforce toxic chemicals?
Tens of thousands of likely dangerous chemicals are in our drinking water and in our soil and in our air because the government entity charged with regulating our environment refuses to do its job and bows to corporate interests. Many we don't know how they'll react, how our bodies will absorb them. After landmark legislation in 2016 affirming the EPA's right to ban harmful chemicals from use, little has been done since.
So while we wait, we'll have plastics that act like hormones swimming next to our fish. We'll have heavy metals in our air. Toxic cleanups will languish in backlog lists. And with all of the corporate interests that have systematically decimated government oversight, until the counter-campaign can adequately protect and fund the EPA, nothing will change.
where is the united green lobby that can stand up to the oil and gas lobby?
what should leadership in sustainability and climate action look like in the United States? We had Al Gore for truthtalking, we look to Greta for inspiration, and we see the tremendous progress that Green Parties are making across Europe in putting climate on the ballot. So what's it going to take to build a coalition of climate activists to push past climate skeptics and corporate interests and make the call for change loud and unequivocal?
In the US, we have fantastic environmental organizations armed with lawyers ready to file lawsuits to protect our rights. But are we really equipped to organize and amass support to get the Green New Deal off the shelf and into reality?
we export our worst ideas and import none of the good ones
Fortified, isolated, single-family "villa" communities pervade the landscape of Africa and Asia, with the requisite SUVs, big-box stores, and traffic-strewn highways. Meanwhile, talented architects and engineers are building innovative orphanages and health clinics in remote areas of the developing world using local materials, compost waste systems, and water-catchment systems.
Why can't we have compost toilets in our schools in the US? School systems are vastly underfunded; our infrastructure is aging: why don't these learnings find their way back in our buildings in the US where we need them just as much? The more we begin to look at sustainable places for sustainable ideas, the more we will bridge the gap between our homes and the "developing world".
a generation of outsourcing has kept our environmental degradation out of sight and out of mind
Offshoring was not just cheaper because the wages were lower: lesser environmental regulations allowed for irresponsible dumping of toxic dyes, and illegal logging of rainforest and resource extraction. Companies could get what they want, act with impunity, and feign ignorance when bad press inevitably came. Only intrepid investigative journalists brought to light the many abuses wrought on workers and their home countries.
The reckoning has been long and slow, but slowly citizens, nonprofits, and legislators consistently speaking up have not done much to change the status quo. What may ultimately drive "reshoring" is not a moral reckoning about the the environmental and labor hazards wrought, but rather economics and geopolitics. Decades of wage gains in these countries, plus high shipping fees, make the economics less attractive — and there are increasingly fewer places that present cheaper options. But geopolitics and supply chain risks, laid bare during the pandemic, might just be the last straw to make US companies rethink where and how their products are made. If the environment is an afterthought for now, so be it.
why we love the circular economy
The circular economy is a fundamental shift in how individuals, organizations, businesses, and society think about how we use natural resources. The circular economy provides an alternative to the current status quo linear economy, which is based on the “‘take-make-waste’ extractive industrial model” where we take natural resources, transform them through a production process, and use (or not use) the output before throwing it away.
We need a circular economy because we need a systematic reorganization of how our economy operates, how we define value, and how we engage with all the “stuff” that fills our lives. While individual efforts and actions are critical, we can't go on hoping that people will opt for sustainability when there are so many others presented on an equal playing field. We need a system to supplement gaps in education and personal preference, one that makes the default option the better option (for the planet, our communities, and our health).
stop counting carbon, start thinking holistically
Many corporations who dedicate themselves to reducing their environmental impact are equally keen on measuring that reduction in impact for marketing and certification purposes. While it's great so many are working towards this end, it's only the beginning, because we can't get to sustainability by just counting key performance indicators. Doing so would ignore the complexities of sustainability, the interrelation of many disparate things.
Instead of designing sustainability so it can be measured, let's change the paradigm from box-checking to experimentation. Think outside whatever certification metrics you need to measure and listen to the people you're trying to help, observe the place you're trying to save. You'll be overwhelmed at first by all of the real externalities, all of the real metrics you should be tracking. And then let acceptance settle in, because sustainability is difficult but necessary work and it certainly doesn't stop when you hit your arbitrary target.
who gets to tell the story about the environmental degradation of our planet?
whose ideas will we listen to when we decide to stop climate catastrophe?
not everything can be bucketed into neat brackets.
we need to have conversations and we need to listen to people who know what they're talking about.
not just the people everyone else is listening to — the unheard voices, too, the ones saying unpopular but necessary things.
this is our space for long-form, out of-the-box, in-your-face thinking.
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We need a circular economy because we need a systematic reorganization of how our economy operates, how we define value, and how we engage with all the “stuff” in our lives.
have a perspective you'd like to share with the lab? Reach out to us: email@example.com.