"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! 


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.


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!


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:


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