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The latest ideas and inspiration from around the world
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Nine out of 10 Americans discard food unnecessarily thanks to a nonuniform labeling system that blurs the relationship between food safety and dates listed on food packaging. That’s one of many sobering food-waste facts found in a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, The Dating Game: How Confusing Labels Land Billions of Pounds of Food in the Trash. The report, released last month, looks at the dysfunctional evolution of the current food-dating system, discusses how current practices cause billions of pounds of edible food to be thrown away every year, and proposes three concrete solutions to reducing one of the major sources of food waste in America: 1) make “sell by” dates invisible to the consumer, 2) establish a uniform dating system for consumer use, and 3) improve the use of safe food handling instructions.

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What will the world be like in 2030? Your guess is as good as ours — but the National Intelligence Council’s is probably even better. Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds offers an insightful look at where current trajectories are taking us, along with suggestions as to what we might do to shift them toward a future we desire. Included are discussions of four megatrends (individual empowerment; diffusion of power; demographic patterns; and food, water, energy nexus), six game-changers (crisis-prone global economy, governance gap, potential for increased conflict, wider scope of regional instability, impact of new technologies and role of the United States), and four potential worlds (Stalled Engines, Fusion, Gini-out-of-the-Bottle and Nonstate World).

Among other things, the report predicts growth in global food, water and energy demand by 35, 40 and 50 percent, respectively, noting, “We are not necessarily headed into a world of scarcities, but policymakers and their private sector partners will need to be proactive to avoid such a future.”

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Can a plane fly around the world using only solar energy? Google thinks so. The company recently announced a new partnership with the Switzerland-based long-range aircraft project Solar Impulse. Swiss pioneers Bertand Piccard and Andre Borschberg are the founders, pilots and driving force behind the first airplane that can fly day and night without fuel.

Future360 — an online video network showcasing cleantech innovation — recently produced a video update of the project and this new collaboration. The revolutionary carbon fiber airplane covered with solar panels has the wingspan of a Boeing 747 but only weighs about as much as a small car. After several European flights, Solar Impulse successfully crossed the United States in May 2013 — flying from Moffett Field in Mountain View, Calif., to New York City’s JFK airport over a two-month period. The partnership with Google helps bring Solar Impulse closer to its goal of flying around the world using only solar energy in 2015.

Does this mean we’ll all be flying around in solar-powered airplanes soon? Probably not, but the project is helping advance solar technologies by pushing the boundaries of future applications in the aviation industry and beyond. Photo courtesy of Solar Impulse

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When looking at the environmental problems we face today, the challenges can quickly add up to a seemingly insurmountable pile. Big-picture issues like climate change aside, when you really look closely, everything seems to have a consequence attached to it. What should you do with those inline skates in the basement that are too broken down and beat up to give to the Goodwill? And wouldn’t it be nice if your favorite restaurant would stop using styrofoam to-go containers, so you could enjoy your food without the slight taste of guilt?

Well, the folks at EcoApprentice feel your pain. The site looks to use the popular social tool of crowdsourcing to come up with “EcoSolutions” to “EcoChallenges.” Members post their challenges — often what to do with the byproduct of some business operation — and the site’s social network of students and professionals chimes in with possible solutions. Rewards for chosen ideas range from recognition in helping to solve a problem to sizable cash payments.

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Heavy metals released by industries such as gold mining and battery manufacturing can make water unfit for human consumption. Developed countries have technologies for removing such pollutants from drinking water, but in developing countries the cost of conventional water purification systems is often too high to make them practical.

Now, researchers from Redeemer’s University in Nigeria and the University of Pottsdam in Germany have hit upon a possible economical alternative: papaya seeds mixed with clay. Combining Nigerian kaolinite clay with papaya seeds obtained from local markets and dried in the sun, the scientists were able to produce a “hybrid clay” that successfully filtered lead, cadmium and nickel from contaminated water. Noting that it is easy to make, employs readily accessible materials, and can be used over and over, the team called  the new adsorbent “a highly efficient alternative to activated carbon for water treatment.” Photo by Tatters:) (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Which is more environmentally friendly: purchasing mass-produced small plastic components or making your own using a 3-D printer? Michigan Tech researchers did a life-cycle analysis of the energy inputs for three plastic products — a toy block, a juicer and a water spout — starting with extraction of raw materials and ending with either a final product printed at home or a product shipped from an overseas manufacturer to a U.S. port. They found that, contrary to expectations, producing an object with 3-D manufacturing uses 41 to 64 percent less energy and has a correspondingly smaller carbon footprint  than mass producing and shipping that same object from overseas. Project leader Joshua Pearce notes 3-D printing is cheaper, too — providing even more motivation for foraying into the brave new world of do-it-yourself stuff. Photo by Creative Tools (Flickr | Creative Commons)

Landfill Harmonic  

What do you get when you cross an empty oil can with kitchen utensils? Music, if you live in the slums of Cateura, Paraguay. Go to ensia.us/landfillharmonic to watch a youth orchestra perform with instruments made of trash from the remnants of our throwaway civilization.

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If knowledge is power, global conservation just got a chance to bulk up big-time with the publication of Conservation Biology for All, a top-tier textbook edited by Navjot Sodhi and Paul Ehrlich, published by Oxford University Press and made available as a free download to anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

“If a book could receive a standing ovation — this one is a candidate,” writes a reviewer in the journal Ecology. “Sodhi and Ehrlich have created a comprehensive introduction to conservation biology that is accessible intellectually, and financially, to a broad audience — indeed it is conservation biology for all.”

The content was written by world-renowned conservation leaders, including one chapter on habitat destruction by William Laurance and another on climate change by Thomas Lovejoy. Read a summary and download a PDF or buy a print copy at Mongabay.com. Photo by Lars Veldscholte (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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The world is full of people in need of safe drinking water and sanitation, people engineering solutions, and people who would be glad to help save lives by boosting access to healthful water infrastructure. How to connect them? WaterCredit, a microfinance program, has provided more than 100,000 small loans totaling more than $17.4 million since 2003 to families and communities to bring clean water infrastructure to homes and villages in India, Bangladesh, Kenya and Uganda. The program counts on its high loan repayment record — 99 percent since 2007 — to recycle funds into further projects. Photo by Sustainable Sanitation (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Power generation is taking a green step forward. Street tiles that capture the kinetic energy of footsteps — to power lights, digital signs, Wi-Fi zones and cell phone charging stations — have been installed at the entrance to a London shopping mall, on a plaza in Melbourne and at the finish line of the Paris Marathon, the largest installation to date. The waterproof tiles made by Pavegen are produced from recycled rubber tires and can be installed in new construction or retrofitted into existing floor systems. Pavegen’s founder told National Geographic that he expects economies of scale to bring the price to $50 per tile and hopes to see “thousands of Pavegen tiles permanently embedded in urban areas worldwide, turning cities into power plants.” Article by Monique Dubos; image courtesy of Pavegen

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Larger animals are more energy efficient than smaller ones — a phenomenon known as Kleiber’s Law — and it’s long been assumed that cities follow a similar pattern. A research team led by Boise State economics professor Michail Fragkias recently tested the notion using data on carbon dioxide emissions as a proxy for energy and surprisingly found no energy efficiency economy of scale between big cities and small ones. The discovery suggests potent opportunities for increasing efficiency through strategic growth as cities’ share of global population booms from just over 50 percent today to a projected up to 90 percent in 2100. Photo by Camerons Personal Page (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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For the first time ever, oceanographers have recorded an enormous wave breaking three miles below the ocean’s surface in the South Pacific’s Samoan Passage. Why is this important? These 800-foot tall “skyscraper waves” transport heat, energy, carbon and nutrients around the globe. Where and how they break is important for not only the planet’s climate, but also the accuracy of global climate models. In a study published online this month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, Matthew Alford, an oceanographer at the University of Washington, notes, “Climate models are really sensitive not only to how much turbulence there is in the deep ocean, but to where it is. The primary importance of understanding deep-ocean turbulence is to get the climate models right on long timescales.” Water is surging northward from Antarctica through the Samoan Passage, Alford says, at a rate of 6 million cubic meters of water per second — the equivalent of about 35 Amazon Rivers. With an improved understanding of circulation in the world’s oceans, scientists will be able to fine tune future climate change projections. Photo by MarkTipple (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Bright lights, frequent flights, mounds of plastic cups and food wrappers strewn in their wake — spectator sports offer plenty of room for improvement from a sustainability perspective. But where to start? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new Green Sports Resource Directory offers a stadium full of suggestions for how college and pro facilities, leagues and fans can reduce their environmental footprints while saving money, too.

The online directory offers pep talks on benefits of greening sports as well as calculators for measuring success and links to recognition programs that groups can use to motivate participation in sustainability-boosting activities. A Green Sports Scoreboard and “Success Stories” page provide concrete examples — from one town’s effort to turn a Superfund site into soccer fields to the National Hockey League’s “Hat Tricks for Trees”  initiative to save Brazilian forests — of how teams, stadium owners, communities and others have teamed up to score big benefits for the planet. Photo by Rhys A. (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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For years, says University of California, Irvine, hydrologist Jay Famiglietti, remote sensing of groundwater was regarded in the hydrologic community as “a Holy Grail.” Famiglietti oversees the analysis of priceless data gathered by a pair of NASA satellites. Known as GRACE — for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment — the satellites measure groundwater at various locations beneath Earth’s surface, amazingly, by observing each other, their distance apart and their relative speed. Michael Watkins, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory researcher who helped design the mission with colleagues in Texas and Germany, says GRACE “puts a bathroom scale under the distribution of water on Earth.” The two satellites fly in a low polar orbit 311 miles above the Earth and about 140 miles apart, one behind the other. Because a greater mass exerts a stronger gravitational pull, the lead satellite speeds up ever so slightly when orbiting over a larger mass, such as Mount Everest, and pulls ahead of its follower in space. That slight separation can be measured “unbelievably precisely,” says Watkins, down to the nanometer level. As the satellites circle the Earth they compile a record of gravitational change. This turns out to be mostly a record of the mass of water, because water is constantly changing, whereas rock stays in place. When launched in 2002, GRACE cost NASA $90 million, a low price in an era when research satellites can easily cost a half-billion dollars. A successor, GRACE-FO, is expected to launch in 2017. Article by Kit Stolz; photo courtesy of earthobservatory.nasa.gov

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More and more companies around the world are realizing water shortages pose a business risk. Beverage titan MillerCoors is no exception. The company has long depended on barley growers operating across the arid western United States to provide a staple ingredient in the production of beer. In recent years, reduced snowpack, a changing climate and downstream urban development have combined to limit the amount of water available for irrigation. Working with The Nature Conservancy and Hillside Farm in Silver Creek Valley, Idaho, MillerCoors launched a Showcase Barley Farm in 2011 to model the latest water-saving irrigation technologies. According to Kim Marotta, director of sustainability at MillerCoors, in its first two years of operation the farm has saved 270 million gallons of water while increasing yields and reducing the amount of energy needed to pump water. The system has also gone high-tech with irrigation information being sent directly to the farmers’ smartphones. The next step is to share the knowledge gained through this project and expand these water-saving techniques to other parts of the company’s agricultural supply chain. Photo by freefotouk (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Some 90 percent of S&P Global 100 Index companies consider extreme weather and climate change as business risks, according to “Weathering the Storm: Building Business Resilience to Climate Change,” a new report from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. The report provides an overview of climate change resilience strategies being developed by S&P Global 100 Index companies as well as a detailed description of activities of six diverse businesses: American Water, Bayer, The Hartford Group, National Grid, Rio Tinto and Weyerhaeuser. It also offers recommendations for boosting resilience in changing times. Photo by Avelino Maestas (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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In the coastal village of Topa, in tropical northern Mozambique, it was once customary for men to cast their nets for fish while women tilled the family farms for staple crops cassava and maize. But overfishing and deteriorating reefs have made fish scarce, and erratic rainfall has made farming less reliable. The people of Topa needed a new way of doing business. Enter the Primeras e Segundas Livelihoods Project (P&S). Named for the nearby archipelago, P&S integrates the humanitarian efforts of CARE and the conservation works of the World Wildlife Fund to protect threatened ecosystems in the region while strengthening the human communities that depend on them. Working through P&S, villagers and the government of Mozambique, which owns most of the land, formed a legal association that allows the villagers to maintain a fish farm on the beachfront, alleviating stress on wild fish populations. P&S also trains families to rotate crops and increase nutrient retention, leading to higher yields while reducing the adverse impacts of agriculture on local ecosystems.

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As human population and resource demands soar, some novel approaches to conservation are beginning to emerge. One example is WildAid’s campaign to squelch illegal wildlife trafficking by reducing demand for products derived from endangered species. Shark fin soup is considered a delicacy in China, where that country’s increasing affluence has intensified demand — even at a whopping $100 a bowl. Despite the fact that one-third of shark species are now endangered, each year up to 73 million sharks have their fins hacked off and are left to drown or bleed to death to fulfill demand for the soup. In one WildAid commercial, a shark-filled aquarium surrounds a room full of restaurant patrons with bowls in front of them. The camera pauses on a shark with a bleeding gash, then pans over the diners, their faces contorted in disgust. A narrator’s voice says ominously, “What if you could see how shark fin soup is made?” The diners push away their soup bowls, and Chinese basketball star Yao Ming affirms WildAid’s slogan: “Remember, when the buying stops, the killing can too.” In another arm of the campaign, Chefs Against Shark Fin, Wolfgang Puck and Mario Batali, among others, publicly pledge to refuse shark fin and actively promote alternatives. These and other efforts are credited with a 50 percent decline in demand for shark fin in the past year, according to the Hong Kong–based Shark Fin Trade Merchants Association. Photo courtesy of WildAid

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A surprising encounter with plant roots has led scientists from the United Arab Emirates on a path toward a promising new approach for boosting food production on arid lands. At a Dubai research farm, plant geneticist Nanduri Rao noticed that local bacteria were forming nodules along the roots of legumes, drawing nitrogen from the air and making it available to the plants. Taking a closer look, Rao discovered the bacteria could tolerate salt, acidity and heat, and appeared to thrive even in the presence of heavy metals. Scientists are now exploring whether the microbes might be used in other stressed environments to boost agricultural productivity and soil fertility. Photo by Planetina (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Among the many benefits green roofs and similar urban plantings provide is a quieting effect as leaves absorb sound bouncing off roads, buildings and other hard surfaces. But what arrangement of vegetation works best? A research team from Belgium developed a model that predicts green roofs hold the most opportunity for buffering noise, followed by green façade walls. Best of all? A combination of vegetated screens on roof edges and a green roof or green wall. Photo by GarberDC (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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“Imagine it is 2030, and we now live in a world in which the transition to a just and sustainable post-carbon society has occurred. There is now real hope that runaway climate change will be avoided. How did this happen?” The Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne and the Centre for Policy Development set out to answer this ambitious question in a recently published report outlining large-scale, post-carbon economy transition strategies. The authors begin by striking a hopeful tone, stating, “From Germany to California … the United Kingdom to China, the global momentum for implementation of large scale de-carbonisation strategies is rapidly accelerating.” But they also pull no punches in outlining existing challenges such as climate science denial, the influence of the fossil fuel industry, political paralysis, unsustainable consumption of energy and more. Download the report to see the complete list of solutions for overcoming these political and social challenges. Photo by GianLuu (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Conservationists may soon have a powerful new tool in the fight against illegal fishing. FishNET, developed by the Center for Ocean Solutions, is a Web-based system that relies on crowdsourcing, drone technology and satellites to monitor and report illegal fishing activities across the globe. The platform holds particular promise for parts of the world that currently lack sufficient monitoring and enforcement. According to project founder and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Shah Selbe, “The oceans are at a critical turning point. Our ability to reverse the effects of the last 50 years of accelerated industrial fishing and protect the earth’s last great frontier is within our capabilities.” The technology also has the potential to curb illegal pollution, ecosystem destruction, illegal wildlife trade and other conservation challenges. Photo by WanderingtheWorld (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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For years light-emitting diodes have been seen as a greener alternative to incandescent and fluorescent bulbs. But they come with a cost — both literally and figuratively, since most LEDs are made from rare-earth elements that are expensive and hazardous to extract and process. A team of researchers at the University of Washington has come up with an alternative that’s easier on the eye, the pocketbook and the environment. Using silicon-based nanoparticles derived from sand, the budding entrepreneurs have developed LEDs that more closely mimic natural sunlight for a fraction of the cost of standard LEDs. The future is looking bright — and welcoming — indeed. Photo by samsungtomorrow (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Many fruits, nuts and other food crops depend on pollinating insects for success. Yet modern farms often grow such plants in large monocultures, discouraging the presence of pollinators by reducing the availability of diverse, insect-friendly native vegetation. Looking for a way to make large plantations more welcoming to these beneficial insects, researchers in South Africa added patches of native flowering plants to mango orchards. They found that while mangoes distant from native vegetation showed 47 percent lower pollinator diversity than those near natural settings, mangoes in the orchards with small plots of native plants showed only a 7 percent drop. Not only that, but the orchards with patches of natives produced an extra 1.5 kilograms of fruit per tree — more than making up for the cost of the added plantings. Photo by Malcolm NQ (Flickr | Creative Commons)

Cercopithecus lomamiensis (Lesula)  

Biodiversity seems to be having a tough go of it lately. Many scientists believe we’re in or entering a sixth mass extinction, and given that we discover 15,000 or more new species each year, we’re bound to lose some things we never even knew existed. Still, those 15,000 or so are cause for a renewed sense of awe every year when looking at our planet. Which is exactly how Quentin Wheeler, founding director of the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University, feels. “I don’t know whether to be more astounded by the species discovered each year, or the depths of our ignorance about biodiversity of which we are a part,” he said as the IISE recently announced its annual list of top 10 new species. The list — which includes a new monkey with “human-like eyes,” a butterfly discovered through social media and the world’s smallest vertebrate — not only serves to highlight some of the strangest and most interesting species among us, but also as a sounding bell meant to raise awareness about biodiversity loss.

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