Climate Uprise

These Simple Innovations Could Be Game Changers for the Environment

Climate Change is real, so young innovators are taking matters into their own hands to protect their future.
September 25, 2020, 9:19am
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Collage: VICE / Images: Courtesy of subjects

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Studies show that people will likely be more vulnerable to infectious diseases, extreme heat, and malnutrition if the world fails to stop climate change.

Seven million people around the world died of air pollution exposure in 2016 alone. Global warming has also increased wildfires in the United States and melted sea ice in the Arctic. Microplastics are now everywhere, even inside our bodies. A recent study revealed that more than 1,000 tons of microplastics — the equivalent of up to 300 million plastic bottles — are carried around in the atmosphere and contaminate national parks and wilderness areas in the American West through rain and snow each year. Scientists have even detected tiny fragments of plastics in the most isolated areas in the U.S.

But climate change awareness has also improved in recent years, with more people realizing the importance of environmental sustainability and several countries banning single-use plastic. Perhaps one of the groups most active in addressing climate change is the youth. Many millennials and Gen Z are leading a global movement to fight the climate crisis and urging world leaders to take action. They do it through activism and everyday life choices. A 2019 survey from global consulting firm McKinsey & Company showed that 54 percent of Gen Z in Japan were more likely to buy sustainable clothing. Meanwhile, 60 percent of Chinese Gen Z and millennials tried to minimize eating habits that can harm the environment.

Then there are those who use tech and science to innovate and create the tools for change themselves. From ink made out of pollution to plastic from mango peels, below is a roundup of innovations by young people around Asia.

Ink from pollution

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate Anirudh Sharma was inspired to turn carbon pollution into black ink after noticing that his shirt was stained with black particles emitted by vehicles. He thought that if carbon could turn his shirt black, then it should be able to do the same on paper. Sharma’s first prototype was made using candle soot then, upon earning a master’s degree and returning to India in 2014, the then 27-year-old created Air Ink and officially founded the startup Graviky Labs two years later.

Sharma and his colleagues developed a technology called KAALINK, a filtering device that can be fitted into tailpipes, chimneys, or diesel generators. They then collect the carbon from diesel-burning engines and transform it into black ink that can be used in pens.

In 2016, Graviky Labs entered a partnership with Singapore-based brewery Tiger Beer to hold a campaign in Hong Kong and introduce Air Ink to artists around the world. Once they raised $41,076 on Kickstarter in 2017, Graviky Labs started to produce Air Ink in larger quantities. Together with Tiger Beer, they were able to expand the art campaign to London and Berlin in the same year. Participating artists created murals using the ink. Sharma’s team is now interested in revolutionizing the ink and printing industry, which still uses fossil fuels.

Free water refill app

A million plastic bottles are purchased every minute around the world, according to figures obtained by The Guardian in 2017. Many think buying bottled water is more practical than bringing their own bottles, but this mentality only contributes to the world’s plastic waste problem. Less than half of the bottles produced around the world in 2016 were collected and recycled. And of all the waste produced, only 7 percent were turned into a new bottle. The rest piled up in landfills and oceans.

Named the second-highest plastic packaging producer in 2018, many in Japan are now looking for solutions that can reduce bottled water consumption and step up recycling.

Enter MyMizu, a mobile app that helps users find free-refill water stations across Japan. It was developed by 31-year-olds Robin Lewis and Mariko Mctier and launched in September 2019.  The app also lists restaurants, cafes, and other establishments that allow visitors to refill their bottles. Users can add refill points to the MyMizu database themselves.

MyMizu app

MyMizu app. Photo: Courtesy of MyMizu

More than 8,000 stations have been installed in Japan and the app was downloaded over 5,000 times a month after its launch. As of February 2020, MyMizu had almost 20,000 app downloads.

MyMizu's water refill station

MyMizu's water refill station. Photo: Courtesy of MyMizu

“Not buying PET bottles is such a simple step,” Lewis told Japan Times. “It’s the doorway into everything else. So that’s where the education begins.”

MyMizu was initially funded through Kickstarter but financial support has since come in from foundations, corporations, and governments. They also received funding after winning the “Social Impact Prize 2019” from the iF World Design Award.

MyMizu bottle

MyMizu products. Photo: Courtesy of MyMizu

MyMizu is now collaborating with local governments, schools, and universities in Japan to scale up their service. Lewis hopes that someday users can also refill tea and coffee through MyMizu water stations.

Bioplastic from mango peels and seaweed

Mangoes and seaweed are abundant in the islands of the Philippines and Denxybel Montinola, 23, saw this as an opportunity to create bioplastics to help fight climate change.

Denxybel Montinola working on his bioplastic

Denxybel Montinola is working on bioplastic made from mango peels and seaweed. Photo: Courtesy of Denxybel Montinola

“I learned this bioplastic concept when I was just scrolling on Facebook and saw a viral video in which a guy created a bioplastic out of seaweed. And I thought to myself what if I will use my scientific tools and knowledge in biophysics to recreate his invention and take [it] up a notch higher,” Montinola, who showcased his innovation for the first time in 2019, told Cebu Daily News.

The former research intern at the Institute of Biological Chemistry of Academia Sinica in Taiwan combined pectin and carrageenan extracted from mango peels and seaweed to create bioplastics. He said the end product was “more robust and flexible” than conventional plastic. He made sure his bioplastic can dissolve in water, which means it won’t break into tiny particles. This kind of bioplastic could also help reduce mango peel waste in the Philippines.

Plastic from mango peels

Plastic from mango peels. Photo: Courtesy of Denxybel Montinola

Bacteria-powered light bulb

The need for alternative energy sources has become more apparent in recent years, especially in Indonesia. The country’s coal-fired power plants have faced blistering criticism after a documentary film titled Sexy Killers exposed the ugly truth behind the coal industry. The documentary shows the devastating impacts of mining practices on the environment. Coal mining and power plants have killed dozens of lives, polluted the water and air, and destroyed people’s lands.

Three university students in Indonesia’s East Java province were well aware of this problem. In 2015, the now 24-year-old Elok Fitriani Tauziat collaborated with fellow fisheries and marine students, Nur Hasna Fauzziyah and M. Alfian Arifin, to create Biolie, a “living lamp” that can emit light without electricity.

They collected light-producing bacteria from squid and cultured them before encasing in a light bulb. The bulb could reportedly last forever if fed with nutrients from microorganisms and household products like soy sauce, sugar, and fermented vegetables. These lamps produce about 10.68 watts of light and could illuminate a radius of up to 68 meters.

Phone-charging shoes

In 2014, Filipino Angelo Casimiro transformed ordinary footwear into ones that could charge electronics. Unlike other phone-charging shoes with bulky generators, these were made with thin piezo discs that won't hurt the wearer's feet.

Power generating shoes

Phone-charging shoes. Photo: Courtesy of Angelo Casimiro

An electronics and communications engineering student, he glued three piezo discs — components that generate power of up to 26V from pressure — onto a PVC plate and inserted them into his shoe’s insole. After that, he soldered the in-sole generator to a lithium battery from his old powerbank. The battery collects energy from footsteps and can later charge phones and other electronic devices.

A powerbank is soldered to the side of the shoe

A powerbank is attached to the side of a shoe. Photo: Courtesy of Angelo Casimiro

The shoes can fully charge a 400mAh lithium-ion battery after an eight-hour jog. Though the power generated is relatively small, it has the potential to be an alternative power generator that doesn’t pollute the environment. Casimiro said his in-sole generator could help those living in remote areas without electricity.

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