The Circular Economy: The New Thing?

Recently there’s been a lot of talk about the circular economy (CE) in the news. It’s becoming a bit of a buzzword, but what really is it?

The circular economy recognizes the unsustainability of the current relationship between economics and the environment. We currently live in a linear system. We take natural resources from the earth, we manufacture them into products and then we dispose of the products, usually in landfill.

This system is fine as long as natural resources are unlimited and cheap, but of course we know they’re not. Increasingly, resources are running out. It’s estimated that we have 188 years left before coal runs out and 29 years left before we use up all the silver (TED Talk, 2015). Current population growth and rampant consumerism worsens the issue.

 

In fact, it increasingly looks like we are hurtling towards complete environmental destruction, unsustainably robbing the earth of its natural resources so as to meet our shortsighted demands. This crisis demands new ways of thinking. And this is what the circular economy is all about…

 

Rather than the linear approach, it is of course about circularity. Fundamentally, the aim is to mimic the circularity of natural systems. A plant grows, it dies, it decomposes and then its nutrients fertilise new life; it fits within a larger system where everything is connected. Something created in one area or sector can be used in another. By-products become fuel for the next thing. The very idea of waste is eliminated when design is inspired by nature. The term for it – circular economy – first emerged in the seventies alongside growing environmental movements; it loosely referred to various schools of thought like industrial ecology, cradle-to-cradle design and Stahel’s performance economy.

More recently, the concept has gained ground thanks to the popularity of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has devoted itself to championing circular economic principles. The foundation offers a cohesive definition of the CE, calling it ‘an industrial economy that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design.’ It distils it to three core principles (see below).

CE.png

So, now we can start to understand what the circular economy might look like in practice, not simply hear of abstract ideas about circularity. 

Numerous large corporations are committing to circular economic principles, for example Unilever and Nike. Through Nike's Reuse-a-shoe program and Nike Grind, their old shoes are turned into sports courts or other sports products. Meanwhile, their Flyknit technology which knits shoes rather than cuts them from templates results in 60 percent less waste.

Simply put, from a business perspective the circular economy translates to better, more efficient use of resources. Accenture (2014) calls it the ‘circular advantage’ as companies add significant value to their businesses by going circular. There is an estimated trillion dollar opportunity globally! 

 

 

Sources:

Accenture. 2014. Circular Advantage: innovative business models and technologies to create value in a world without limits to growth

TED talk. 2015. Ellen MacArthur: the surprising thing I learned sailing solo around the world. [online]. Available from: https://www.ted.com/talks/dame_ellen_macarthur_the_surprising_thing_i_learned_sailing_solo_around_the_world 

 

Renewable energy: don’t forget the batteries!

Switching to renewable energy is a no brainer despite what Trump might say. Sadly, however, a persistent problem of intermittency dogs solar and wind power. Of course the sun can’t always shine and the wind can’t always blow. At certain times of the day, too much or too little solar or wind power is produced, either overloading or under-supplying the grid. What’s more, it’s sods law because just as the sun goes down people get home from work, itching to switch on their various electrical appliances. So, there is an obvious mismatch between supply and demand. This is a problem that only batteries seem able to solve. Crucially, batteries enable us to store energy and provide power 24/7. With their help can we even out energy supplies and make solar and wind power viable alternatives to coal and gas. So, please, don’t forget the batteries!

 

Unfortunately for us, the history of the evolution of batteries trails far behind that of wind and solar power. These latter technologies followed a fairly standard diffusion of innovation curve; they started off expensive and exclusive, and then over the years have become increasingly cheap and popular, as production has scaled up. Between 2009 and 2015, the cost of solar panels fell by 61 percent and the cost of wind turbines by 14 percent.

 

Yet, battery technology has been stuck in the same rut since the 1970s in the form of lithium-ion batteries. These batteries can lose as much as 20 percent of their storage capacity after 1,000 charge-discharge cycles and can cost as much as $500/kWh. Clearly, they’re inefficient and expensive, so what’s hindering innovation?  Why the difference in progress?

 

Well, there are numerous rather basic and boring facts about batteries. Their chemical compositions are pretty hazardous, which makes for a particularly long, slow and costly production process. Safety standards and quality assurance are checked and then checked again in a bid to avoid scandals, like Samsung’s exploding phone batteries.

 

Incredibly, it can take over ten years to get batteries ready to be manufactured and scaled up, but most won’t even make it out the lab, falling into the so-called valley of death for innovation trap. If they do make it past here, their costs will only continue to mount. Battery manufacturer, A123 Systems, spent over $300 million on capital expenses alone, and due to an oversupply of manufacturing capacity ended up making a loss on every battery sold; the company eventually went bankrupt.

 

So, it’s a risky business and by no means instantly gratifying.  Unsurprisingly, governments want to play it safe and avoid tricky situations. They don’t want any embarrassing repeats of when the US Department of Energy guaranteed loans to battery companies, who later declared themselves bankrupt.

 

But, what of private investors? Surely the titans of the battery industry, like Panasonic and Samsung, can foot the bill, and have the incentives to do so. Yet, their infrastructures are already set up for lithium-ion batteries. This makes them more inclined to fiddle around the edges and improve things here than to innovate from scratch. Business-as-usual is less risky than entering into the new world of ‘next generation’ battery technologies.

 

So, we’re starting to see how three things – the slowness, riskiness and expensiveness of batteries – are hindering their technological developments. But, these factors ignore the crucial social and cultural factors that influence technological innovation. So far, we’ve been too zoomed in on the nitty-gritty details of the labs and the bureaucracies to notice the wider social currents at play.

 

At the end of the day, we’re all social beings, all of us influenced by the people around us and the general zeitgeist of the time. Really, it’s these factors that drive science and how we think about batteries, which in turn informs their slow developments.  

 

Today, green is the new black. Sustainability is in. People are genuinely concerned about the future health of our planet. And luckily for wind and solar power, they’re the technologies most associated to ‘green’. Sadly for batteries, they’ re perhaps the least. Batteries have been around for too long, and by comparison are too old, slow and uninteresting. They’ve not made any of the exciting developments like underwater wind turbines or solar panelled roads.

 

Everyday there are new articles on wind and solar technologies, raving about their ‘bright future’ and their potential to ‘save the planet’. Someone, somewhere, has cherry picked these positive articles. And they’ve done so because solar and wind technologies are in vogue. A certain kind of glamour surrounds them. They move in the fast lane, endorsed by celebs like Leonardo Dicaprio, who have cult followings on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

 

People like Elon Musk, the famous green entrepreneur of Tesla, have worked hard to make sure eco-friendly = cool. Amongst many other eco-designs, Musk has created a beautiful assortment of solar roof tiles, replacing the current clunky and ugly solar panels.

 

Where there is a buzz there is money, and wind and solar technologies are the pet favourites of governments and billionaires alike. By 2030, China hopes to generate 25 percent of its electricity from wind, while companies like Apple have already bought huge swathes of wind farms in China. Meanwhile, government subsidies are boosting investment via US utilities.  Clearly, the field is lucrative and people are interested. Silicon valley’s ears have pricked up, ensuring that wind and solar technologies are the beneficiaries of plenty of funding for innovation.

 

Whilst solar and wind make technological leaps, the batteries they rely on are left plodding on behind. Without the green buzz surrounding them, interest and funding are limited. They simply aren’t as glamorous or symbolic of ‘green’.

Green Wind Turbine & Solar Energy 

Green Wind Turbine & Solar Energy 

A Standard Lithium-ion Battery

A Standard Lithium-ion Battery

 

There aren’t even enough battery experts in Silicon Valley to suffice. No one wants to work on projects with such a boring status. Equally unappealing is the fact that investing time and money in batteries may only pay off twenty years down the line, if ever. So, people prefer to play it safe. Batteries are not their first point of call.

 

But all of this rather misses the point of science - surely we can see that? Science is about trying new things, taking risks, making mistakes and then refining discoveries; it’s a never-ending process and there are no guarantees. Throughout history, many of the most life changing scientific discoveries have come from ‘boring’ labs that no one paid any attention to, and from outsiders or nutty esoteric professors who were uninterested in money.

 

Ultimately, the history of batteries serves as a warning. We should be wary of getting carried away with the fads and fashions of societies. The green buzz surrounding wind and solar technologies detracts from the ‘boring’ batteries they rely on. Without one we cannot have the other. So, please, let’s not forget this connection and remember the batteries, else we risk our planet’s future!

 

The Environmental Perils of Fashion

As ‘fast fashion’ increasingly consumes us, we need to think seriously about its impacts; the average American discards 70lbs of clothing a year and between 1999 and 2009 textile waste volumes rose by forty percent [1]. In spite of age-old wisdom telling us that quality is better than quantity, it’s hard not to be tempted by the fashion bargains of today. One week you’re watching Kate Moss wear Burberry on the catwalk and the next week you’re wearing the high street version yourself, made possible by quick and cheap manufacturing processes. What’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’ of fashion changes so quickly that we tend to ignore the vast trail of ‘undesirable’ clothes left behind, not thinking about the other options like the reusing, repairing or recycling of old clothes.

http://designtoimprovelife.dk/recycle-sub-sahara/

http://designtoimprovelife.dk/recycle-sub-sahara/

 

As the Kon Mari method gains in popularity, insisting that we ask ourselves the question of whether or not a possession ‘sparks joy’ in us before we are allowed to keep it, an important follow up question comes to mind – what happens to those items not kept?

 

It would be useful if we all knew where our possessions go once we have thrown them out. For clothing, sadly, the answer lies in landfills. 85 percent of post consumer textile waste ends up in landfills, occupying five percent of total landfill space [2]. Anaerobic conditions in landfills cause clothes to break down and release harmful green house gases like methane, while toxic chemicals and dyes from the clothing can leach out of landfills and seep into underground waterways thereby posing a risk to human health.

 

Now what if we go back and re-examine the aforementioned three alternative options to throwing out our old clothes. Reusing, recycling and repairing old clothes are certainly better ways of dealing with post consumer textile waste.

 

Fortunately, there are notable companies forging the way to a better future. For example, Patagonia has long been a leader in corporate social responsibility. Its famous 2011 Don’t Buy This Jacket ad campaign juxtaposed the crazy consumerism of Black Friday and acknowledged the huge environmental costs of making their R2 jackets. The ad concluded that ‘there is much to be done and plenty for us all to do. Don’t buy what you don’t need. Think twice before you buy anything.’

Over the years Patagonia has continued to stick with its sustainability goals and one particular area of focus has been repair. If it’s broke, fix it. On their website Patagonia provides detailed DIY guides of how to repair and care for their products. Their clear and easy to follow guides tell you exactly how to access the inside of their down jackets, how to install a zipper or how to patch their products.

If that wasn’t good enough Patagonia also has ‘Worn Wear’ mobile repair shops, which travel across the globe and offer free repairs for their clothes, including ski wear. The idea being that we should keep our clothes going for as long as possible!

 

So, although we know Patagonia is doing good, what about H & M? Often the most vilified of the high street brands and certainly without the same long-standing sustainability credentials as Patagonia, many question if H&M and ‘fast fashion’ could ever be sustainable, yet H&M is definitely taking steps in the right direction. In 2013 they launched their garment collecting initiative, which seems to be gaining increasing traction. They have done various promos for it and recently offered a 5-pound voucher for every bag of clothes donated. The initiative enables customers to bring in bags of clothes they no longer want, regardless of what brand or condition they are in, and these clothes then go onto be recycled (turned into textile fibres), reused (turned into other products like cleaning clothes), and reworn (sold as second hand clothes).

Back to Old School Style Grocery Shopping?

It seems that to move forward to a more sustainable version of grocery stores we first have to look backwards, back to when our grandparents were spring chickens, pre the Plastic Age. Only then can we begin to see that it's possible for life to go on without so much plastic in the world. In fact, refillable glass jars, tin cans and paper bags will suffice.

 

Plastic has become a symbol of our ‘throwaway’ consumerism. Its properties - cheap, durable and lightweight – make it perfect for single use applications, which are the height of convenience. Half of all the plastics produced worldwide are used for such disposable products. Walk into any grocery store and you will see the proliferation of plastic; salads, fruits and veggies are all wrapped in the stuff. Even wholefoods is guilty, at one point having sold peeled oranges in plastic containers (as if we couldn't peel the oranges ourselves?!). And just when you thought we couldn’t get any lazier, Sobey launched a pre-cut, pitted and halved avocado wrapped in plastic, replacing natures ‘skin’ with a petroleum based equivalent.

The issues associated with plastics are well documented; they choke aquatic life, litter landscapes, and derive from oil. Yet can you imagine life without them? Well, our grandparents certainly could and there is a growing ‘zero waste’ grocery store movement that seeks to return to some of the ideals of our grandparents times. Zero waste grocery stores, or essentially bulk stores, try to eliminate plastic altogether. They go back to the barrels and bins of the pre plastic age, usually with an added modern, sleek aesthetic.

 

Walking down the aisles of these new kinds of grocery stores the products speak for themselves; you can see into the ‘bins’ and the dispensers of honeys, oils, vinegars and grains. Rather than get overwhelmed by too many choices, as is often the case in large supermarkets, these stores tend to simplify things, returning to a more personal or 'artisanal' bond with local grocers as the grocer hand picks a trustworthy few types of rice, pasta, and so on.

 

Across Europe these kinds of stores are multiplying and America is now catching on; NYC is due its first zero waste grocery store – The Fillery – any day now. 

 

These kinds of stores help fight food waste, enabling you to purchase the exact quantity of something you want or need, even if it is only a couple of grams of flour for a chocolate cake you’re making or a pinch of spice for your culinary experiments.  You can fill up your tote bags, your jars, and your burlap sacks exactly how you want.

 

But fundamentally, best of all, these stores are championing ‘precycling’, which stops waste before it even happens, thereby helping to tackle the vast quantities of plastic packaging produced today. 

NYC’s Finest Rooftop Farms - Gotham Greens & Brooklyn Grange

The current situation stands as this, the UN estimates that our population will hit 9.6 billion in 2050, of which 70 percent are predicted to live in cities. This has caused The World Bank to estimate a need for 50 percent greater food production. Such statistics remind us that we need to radically re-think our idea of urban living before our world gets too hot, hungry and crowded. Rather than being solely concrete jungles, cities need to adapt to the pressures of today and become more agriculturally productive. Imagine a skyline where you look up and see green instead of grey. Urban farming and in particular rooftop farming is a good way of doing this.

 

For NYC it’s a match made in heaven; there are an estimated 14,000 acres of unused sunny rooftop spaces, giving the city great urban farming potential. Plants on these rooftops would help purify the city air and add oxygen to the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Already, people are developing their rooftops, but often only for leisure patios; these tend to use dark materials, like wood or tar, that further absorb NYC’s heat, exacerbating the Urban Heat Island effect (the tendency for cities to be hotter than their surrounding rural or suburban areas). On the contrary, green roofs would help keep NYC cooler.

 

Furthermore, by growing produce in the city food miles are cut and the end product is fresher and more nutritious. No more buying apples from China. The planes, ships, trains and trucks required to get your food from A to B are more or less cut from the equation; food grown on NYC’s rooftops is never far from its point of consumption. Consequently, carbon emissions from transport are significantly reduced and you can eat well knowing that your food hasn’t been sat in a refrigerated truck for weeks. (Nb. Fewer food miles does not always indicate eco friendliness, as if the farms use a lot of fertilizers or tractors it might negate any said benefits – yet here this is not the case)

 

Another benefit of rooftop farms is their ability to reconnect New Yorkers with their food. Few know or understand where their food comes from, or how it is grown, or who harvests it. This might seem like common sense to most people, but in reality white fluffy bread rolls are a far cry from the cereal grains they derive from. These green leafy roofs can provide an education for the average New Yorker.

 

This brings us onto our case studies; Brooklyn Grange began in 2010, founded by Ben Flanner, Anastasia Plakias and Gwen Schantz. It is the world’s largest rooftop soil farm, occupying a total of 2.5 acres over two different locations in Brooklyn and Queens. It took six days and 3,000 lbs worth of craning soil onto the roof of a seven-storey building in Brooklyn to complete the first farm. Now, each year the output from both farms is more than 50,000 lbs of organically grown produce; in their first year the company broke even. Since then Brooklyn Grange has gone from strength to strength, creating a commercial apiary and launching a variety of educational workshops and programmes. Check out the time lapses and photographs of the farm below, it really is a surreal setting, who would have guessed such activities were occurring above us?

 

The next case to look at is Gotham Greens, a company with a slightly more new-fangled and techy approach to rooftop farming. Gone are the romantic ideas of hoeing the land and getting mucky and muddy in the process. In is hydroponics; Gotham Greens grows its vegetables and herbs in renewable energy powered hydroponic greenhouses; these don’t require soil, only a nutrient rich solution that is delivered to the plants by irrigation. The water used is recycled and recirculates, thereby preventing waste. Incredibly, only 700 gallons are used per day, which is a tenth of what conventional farming uses; thereby giving hydroponics the title of the most water efficient form of agriculture in the world.

 

The greenhouses are strictly climate controlled, enabling them to grow vegetables all year round and maintain the perfect conditions for good quality growth. Unsurprisingly, the resulting yields are strong, generating 20-30 times more product per acre than conventional field production and thereby avoiding the need to use more of the earth’s limited resources for traditional farming.

 

And finally, if you are lucky enough to live in the trendy Brooklyn area, Gotham greens’ has partnered up with its biggest customer - Wholefoods - in Gowanus.  They have added a 20,000 square foot greenhouse to the rooftop of the grocery chain’s new store, enabling their veg to be harvested and brought down to the shop floor in less than twenty minutes, undoubtedly making it the freshest produce in town.


Sources:

http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/photos/urban-farming/#/earth-day-urban-farming-new-york-rooftop_51631_600x450.jpg

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/04/140429-farming-rooftop-gardening-brooklyn-grange-vegetables-science-food/

http://www.greenroofs.org/index.php/about/greenroofbenefits

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2011/may/19/green-roof-gardens-plants-new-york

http://gothamgreens.com/sustainable-agriculture

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/03/dining/hydroponic-produce-gains-fans-and-flavor.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/19/business/smallbusiness/19sbiz.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/12/nyregion/in-rooftop-farming-new-york-city-emerges-as-a-leader.html

http://www.fastcoexist.com/1681738/this-super-local-brooklyn-whole-foods-will-have-a-20000-square-foot-rooftop-greenhouse

"If The Oceans Die, We Die" Captain Paul Watson

Perhaps you’ve seen images of turtles and fish caught in six-pack rings, or the contents of a dead seabird’s stomach, filled to the gills with plastic trash, whichever it is, the sight of our impact on the ocean is shocking. It is predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, as each year more than nine million tons of plastic enter the sea. 

Due to the ocean’s currents, plastic tends to collect in five major gyres or vortexes; the largest and most famous of which is the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, located in the northern Pacific Ocean and rumoured to be the size of Texas. Here, more disturbing than the conspicuous mass of floating rubbish is the much larger ‘plastic soup’ beneath. This consists of suspended plastic particulates, which have photodegraded and disintegrated into smaller pieces. These pieces begin to resemble zooplankton and other food forms, which are then mistakenly eaten by sea life. In this way, plastic enters the ocean food chain and accumulates at every stage, eventually being ingested by us.

Clearly, we have a problem on our hands, but what if we fundamentally changed the way we viewed it, what if we turned the issue on its head? Instead of seeing plastic in terms of waste, let’s look at it in terms of opportunity; waste plastic is a valuable working material, a gigantic unmined resource that exists. This is how the optimists view it; with a bit of creativity we can transform ‘mess’ into a new product.

The multitalented Pharrell Williams agrees; he is the creative director of Bionic Yarn, a New York based textile company that transforms recycled plastic bottles and recovered ocean plastic into thread like fibres. These fibres are then combined with others, enabling the ‘plastic’ yarn to be developed into a variety of textiles like denim, khaki or canvas.

 

Bionic Yarn has teamed up with various fashion brands; with G-Star RAW it is onto its third line of ‘G-star RAW for the Oceans’ products, which are supported and aided by the environmental group Parley For the Oceans. This fall’s collection is thought to have removed an estimated 10 tons of recycled ocean plastic from the seabed. 


Another company supported by Parley for the Oceans is Adidas, which is in the midst of designing a more eco friendly shoe. Although still in its prototype phase, the shoe will consist of materials derived from illegal or abandoned deep-sea fishing nets; all salvaged by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. So, thankfully, many of the big names in fashion are taking sustainability more seriously! 

Sources:

http://jeanstories.com/the-stories/how-bionic-yarns-tyson-toussant-met-g-star-and-pharrell-and-made-jeans/

http://www.fastcompany.com/3034780/hit-the-ground-running/how-a-clothing-company-successfully-turned-salvaged-trash-into-fashio

http://www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/products_design/jennifer_elks/adidas_weaving_pharrells_bionic_yarn_new_originals_coll

http://www.fastcoexist.com/3048033/adidas-knit-these-sneakers-entirely-from-ocean-plastic-trash#5

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/seealso/2010/07/tech_brief_45.html

http://startupfashion.com/bionic-yarn-sustainable-fabric-recycled-plastic-bottles

http://www.fastcoexist.com/3055681/a-blueprint-for-a-new-plastics-economy-that-eliminates-waste-and-pollution

Eating Insects - Why Not?

For century’s humans have eaten insects, in fact, eighty percent of the world still does.  Markets all over the world, especially in China, boast delicious combinations of fried and crispy bugs. Yet, westerners’ recoil at the mere thought of them. Why? Are we scared of the creepy crawlies? Or perhaps we associate them to death and decay, despite our voracious appetite for other bottom feeders like crabs that tells us otherwise.

Maybe if we knew the environmental benefits of eating bugs we might reconsider. So let’s take a look at Crickets. Not only are crickets made up of 69 percent protein (dry weight), which is more than the equivalent amount found in chicken, steak or pork, but they also require only one-twelfth the amount of feed that cattle do. They reproduce faster and don’t take up as much space as traditional livestock (an estimated one third of the earth’s landmass is used for livestock). Only one gallon of water is required to produce a pound of insect protein, versus nearly two thousand gallons to produce a pound of beef. On top of all this, the usual suspects of our currently exploding population and the rising cost of food gives renewed energy to the need to find a new sustainable protein source.

Now I’m not asking us to drop everything and start chowing down on crunchy cricket legs; there is an easier, more digestible way. This comes in the form of cricket powder, which limits the ick factor. Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz of Exo (as in exoskeleton) discovered this in their dorm room at Brown, when they created their first protein bars from cricket flour. After freezing, roasting and grinding their crickets, they added various other healthy treats – honey, dates, cocoa, almonds etcetera. Exo have now raised over one million dollars in funding and are currently experimenting with other cricket flour based products, so watch this space, it may be cricket flour pizza dough or milkshakes next. 

 


Equally, others are helping to normalise entomophagy, which is the technical term for the consumption of ‘mini-livestock’; the chapulin taco by Jose Andres has risen to fame in Washington DC , a company called 'Ento' champions caterpillar sushi and a bug chef - Zack Lemann - sells fried dragonflies in New Orleans.

The quicker the trend catches on the better. Many of the barriers to entry are simply cultural and with some creative rebranding eating insects could follow in the footsteps of sushi, a food that was quickly normalised throughout the western world.

Sources:

https://www.exoprotein.com/

http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/244611

http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2014-02-03/two-young-entrepreneurs-pitch-cricket-bars-for-the-paleo-crowd

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/crickets-for-lunch

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/08/dining/energy-bars-that-put-a-chirp-in-your-step.html

Future of Farming - Aquaponics?

Unfortunately, for those of you who aren’t up to date on your agricultural terminology, the explanation of aquaponics requires the use of various long and somewhat technical terms. In brief, aquaponics is a system that combines hydroponics and aquaculture. The former is a nutrient rich water based planting system that doesn’t require soil, the latter is the farming of aquatic animals in controlled conditions, usually in tanks.  Together, these two forms of farming – plants and fish – enjoy a symbiotic relationship in the form of ‘aquaponics’.

In Kate Humble's crude terms, ‘you’ve got your fish in your tanks, tilapia – which do well in aquaculture - shitting away merrily, and that water full of nitrates is pumped through vegetable beds. The leafy greens love the nitrates and grow like fury, the vegetables clean the water and back it goes to the fish.”

So, let’s see this in a bit more detail. In aquaponics, the excrement from fish, which would otherwise accumulate and create toxicity in an aquaculture, is used in a hydroponic system to provide nutrients for plants. Nitrifying bacteria that exist in the growing medium convert the ammonia from the fish waste into nitrites and then nitrates.  Subsequently, the plants take up the nitrates and grow, in doing so filtering the water for the fish to live in.  In the best and most sustainable aquaponic systems, the cuttings from the plants are also collected and composted, thus providing food for worms to grow, multiply and subsequently be fed to the fish.

The benefits are numerous. Aquaponics creates a self-sustaining cycle that can produce a variety of different foods in small spaces all year round (i.e. both fish and different types of greens can be grown, rather than simply a monocrop). The system is a closed-loop, which prevents a lot of waste; an estimated 80 to 90 percent less water is required here than in traditional growing methods. 

The next question begs - what are the yields? According to Charlie Price, the founder of Aquaponics UK, 1 kilogram of fish food will produce at least 50 kilograms of vegetables and 0.8 grams of fish.

So, now we’ve got the facts out of the way, let’s have a look at the amazing things people are doing with this technology. Arora and Velez, the same guys that created ‘Back to the Roots’, a grow your own mushroom kit for the home, have created a DIY Aquaponics kit called the Aquafarm. This neat thing can sit on the top of your desk or kitchen counter for the grand total of 60 dollars and it comes with everything that's required except for the fish, which you get a coupon for from the companies partner PETCO. Thereafter you can begin to grow your own basil, wheatgrass and lettuce from the seeds provided, simple as that. 

Of course, perhaps more importantly in the grand scheme of things, there are also people trying to introduce Aquaponics on a larger, more commercial scale. A company called Urban Organic’s has set up an aquaponic farm in an old abandoned brewery in Minnesota and is currently raising 3,200 fish!

Sources:

http://www.fastcoexist.com/1682610/from-mushrooms-to-aquaponics-how-back-to-the-roots-is-taking-over-home-growing#3

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jul/03/kate-humble-aquaponics-answer-food-crisis

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2014/oct/02/aquaponics-a-sustainable-solution-to-food-security

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/18/garden/18aqua.html?_r=0

http://backtotheroots.com/products/watergarden

Aquaponic Gardenind: A Step-By-Step Guide to Raising Vegetables and Fish by Sylvia Bernstein

Waste Coffee Grounds Make For Great Shrooms

Coffee has never been so fashionable, from Hackney to Williamsburg we are inundated with bearded hipsters serving us up some fancy, new fangled coffee; the hilarity of this trend is quickly summarised by an article in the Huffington Post in which a hipster asks "can I get a double upside down mocha macchiato with soy -- low fat, no fat, no lid? Can you make it taste like Christmas too?"

Yet mocking the trend is not my aim, rather the important point is to draw our attention to the immense scale of our global coffee consumption. Many of us rely on that first cup of coffee to get us started in the morning, but do we ever stop to think about the coffee grounds left behind?

According to GroCycle, over 1.6 billion cups of coffee are drunk each day, with the UK responsible for about 80 million of these. In each cup of coffee only about one percent of the coffee biomass ends up in the cup, most of the grounds are leftover and go straight into landfill, adding to the amount of methane gas expelled into the atmosphere.

Thus, there is an incentive to find alternative uses for these waste coffee grounds and luckily this is exactly what people are doing. People are quickly discovering that there are endless possibilities: 

  • Re-worked is a company that produces a hybrid material from 60 percent coffee grounds, creating fashionable furniture with the new material
  • Starbucks is investing in a new lactic acid fermentation technique, which converts coffee grounds into feed for dairy cows
  • The engineer, Dan Belliveau, is creating 'coffee flour' from the cherry pulp of coffee. This flour is gluten free and rich in fibre, thus making a great addition to the healthy baking scene

However, today I want to focus on one particular way of reusing coffee grounds, one that is accessible to all and kills two birds with one stone - reducing waste and creating local food in urban environments.  This is the reusing of leftover coffee grounds to grow edible mushrooms.

It makes total sense. Normally, to grow mushrooms a crucial step is to sterilise the substrate, yet here this is already done by the pasteurisation of the coffee grounds that occurs during the brewing process. Thus, an energy intensive step is forgone.

So, let's look at who is doing what. The afore cited company, Grocycle, has created an urban mushroom farm in the heart of Exeter in a repurposed office building. They have also created grow-your-on-mushroom kits, distributing boxes of recycled coffee grounds mixed with oyster mushroom spores across the UK. Similarly, in the USA, two Berkeley graduates - Alex Velez and Nikhil Arora - have created a DIY mushroom kit; Wholefoods was their first customer with an initial sale of 3.14 pounds. Check out their stylish boxes:

Sources: 

http://www.fastcoexist.com/1679946/back-to-the-roots-two-fun-guys-help-you-grow-your-own-mushrooms

http://grocycle.com/

http://ecowatch.com/2014/10/13/gourmet-mushrooms-coffee-grounds/

Mushrooms: Cultivation, Nutritional Value, Medicinal Effect, and Environmental Impact - by Philip G Miles, Shu-Ting Chang 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0664d46

http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/starbucks-coffee-grounds-milk-japan-mushrooms

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/nov/22/grow-own-oyster-mushrooms

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2015/sep/08/waste-not-want-not-the-art-of-trash-cooking