transforming waste, waste reuse, innovative solutions, renewable resources, sustainable manufacturing

Transforming Waste into Solutions :Top 5 Revolutionary Innovations

Foreword by Ian Thompson, Editor

Waste not, want not! Join host Matt Ferrell as he explores the fascinating transformation of waste into invaluable resources in this enlightening video. We’ll delve into everything from beer leftovers powering batteries, to timber scraps making furniture, highlighting the incredible potential of waste.

Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed innovative companies recycle plastics into practical building products and materials. This encouraging trend presents an opportunity that our governments should wholeheartedly support.

Despite many countries initiating recycling programs, much of the waste collected ends up being shipped overseas and dumped, rather than recycled. It’s crucial that we support companies that create these products and promote further innovation in this area. Imagine a world where our household waste could be 100% recycled at home and converted into energy. It’s a future I hope to see within my lifetime.

In this video, Matt demonstrates how activated carbon from brewery spent grain is repurposed into stable, eco-friendly batteries. Learn how chemists collaborate to convert forestry leftovers into sustainable, glue-free construction solutions. Discover how agricultural and food waste is reinvented into fertilizers, car parts, and biopolymer materials.

Imagine a world where our household waste could be 100% recycled at home and converted into energy.

We’ll also delve into the use of microbial fuel cells to generate electricity from wastewater, and explore the wide-ranging applications of waste-derived products in energy storage, manufacturing, agriculture, and more. Witness the revolutionary innovations driving a paradigm shift in our perception and use of waste.

Join Matt as he reveals the remarkable environmental and economic benefits possible when waste gets a second life. The future is here – where trash becomes treasure and waste management is revolutionized. Together, let’s redefine waste and build a sustainable world!

Over to you, Matt

Transforming Waste into Solutions : Top 5 Revolutionary Innovations

Video Transcript

This video is brought to you by Surfshark. The saying goes that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” and as we speak, researchers around the globe are experimenting with taking this phrase literally. Right now, it’s possible to turn leftovers from brewing beer into batteries and to generate electricity from wastewater.

There’s a lot of projects showing that practically no kind of waste is off-limits…including what our own bodies produce. I mean…there’s no shortage of waste, right? But there’s also no shortage of innovation for reusing it either. So, we’re not onto flying cars quite yet, but how close are we to Mr. Fusion?

Let’s take a look at the top 5 craziest ideas for turning trash into treasure.

I’m Matt Ferrell…welcome to Undecided.

Waste is inevitable, but endless mountains of trash and constant pollution doesn’t need to be. Though a lot of us are used to tossing something as soon as it stops fulfilling its original purpose, or just not seeing value in waste in the first place, we’re in desperate need of a paradigm shift.

You know the drill: there’s microplastics in every nook and cranny on the planet…and according to Our World in Data, when it comes to what we eat, about 6% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions is caused by food lost on its journey to your plate, plus what’s ultimately left uneaten.

That doesn’t include losses during production and harvesting!

This issue isn’t only a matter of maintaining our environment, either. By rethinking waste, we can reduce our dependence on raw materials, which means skirting supply chain issues.

It’s all about creating a “circular economy.” When things are built to last, designed to be maintained for as long as possible, and easy to break down for repurposing, it also means higher quality products and saving money in the long run.

The goal is to avoid the consequences that come with perpetual growth with finite supplies. And so far, scientists are working on solutions that are pretty wild — in more ways than one.

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1: Human waste for fertilizer

We’ll start with what might be the most unlikely (and maybe a little stomach-churning) pitch: human waste fertilizer for food crops. Now, before you wrinkle your nose, keep in mind that turning crap into gold is already feasible, and if you don’t believe me, check out my previous video on processing poop into renewable energy.

In fact, we already use human waste in agriculture. That’s where about a fourth of the biosolids reused in the US end up after leaving wastewater treatment plants.

What researchers have recently studied, though, is the effect of human waste on crops meant specifically for our consumption — in this case, the humble white cabbage. The practice of using human waste as fertilizer isn’t new. It was especially popular during the early 18th century in what is now Tokyo, Japan, and it’s making a big comeback.

As a consequence of the rising cost of chemical fertilizers, sales of the alternative known as shimogoe<!– she-mo / go-a –> have skyrocketed in the city of Tome<!– toe / may –>, ballooning by 160% between March 2022 and March 2023.

But why deal with this crap in the first place, besides the fact that it’s never in short supply? As it stands, finding alternatives to current approaches to fertilization is actually a necessity.

Unfortunately, about 2.1% of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from heavy use of synthetic nitrogen on our crops. This not only comes from the production of the fertilizer, but also from its overuse.

We have a convenient, natural source of nitrogen and phosphorus to fall back on: ourselves. It might seem crude, but human urine can provide the nitrogen and potassium that plants need, while our feces has phosphorus and calcium to offer. Maybe I should have made this the #2 innovation on my list instead of #1.

With this in mind, a team of scientists representing Swiss and German research groups conducted an experiment using human waste as fertilizer between June and October 2019 at the Leibniz <!– lieb / nits –> Institute of Vegetable and Ornamental Crops in Großbeeren<!– gross-beeren–>, Germany. The study compared the effects of two nitrified urine fertilizers, or NUFs.

So, did the human urine accomplish e-NUF to justify its use? Turns out that, to use the researcher’s words, “NUF alone appears to be a promising successful fertilizer substitute in horticultural food production.”

The two NUF products, Aurin <!– Orin –> and C.R.OP., promoted the growth of cabbage yields at a rate similar to vinasse<!– vin-ass –>, which is a byproduct from the sugar and ethanol industry used as a fertilizer.

As for the fecal compost, it didn’t perform as well in terms of yield, but when paired with a NUF, it increased output. The researchers also note that this combination might boost the soil’s carbon content in the long-term, making things more environmentally friendly.

And yes…the cabbages were perfectly edible. The researchers screened for 310 chemical compounds in the fecal compost, including things like pharmaceuticals, insect repellants, and flame retardants. 20 substances were found, with 11 being pharmaceuticals, and their concentrations in both the soil and in the cabbage itself once fully grown were extremely low.

The researchers note that some of the concentrations were so low that you would have to eat half a million heads of cabbage to be exposed to the equivalent of one pill. That’s a lot of cabbage.

You’ll probably find the next innovation a bit more appetizing: beer turned into batteries. Before we get to talking about frosty beverages, there’s something else that we could raise our glasses to … and that’s today’s sponsor, Surfshark.

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So … like I said …

2: Brewing up batteries

You’ll probably find this next innovation a bit more appetizing: beer turned into batteries. Like any other industrial activity, brewing beer results in waste, and an estimated 85% of that waste is composed of brewer’s spent grain, or BSG.

What doesn’t make it into your frosty beverage can still be used. A lot of the time, its final destination is bags of animal feed. But what if we could convert this cheap draff into components for batteries?

After all, carbon is considered one of the best materials for supercapacitors, and activated carbon specifically is highly conductive, stable, and easy to come by. Scientists have investigated the practicality of using a lot of different biomasses as sources of activated carbon to keep material prices down, but BSG hasn’t really been in the spotlight…until now.

BSG is advantageous as a medium because of how much of it we have on tap. Brewers in the European Union churned out about 6.8 billion tons of BSG in 2019, and 1.5 billion of that flowed out of Germany alone. Prost! <!– pr-oh-st –>

This abundance is what inspired a recent study by a team of chemists at Friedrich Schiller University Jena<!– Free-drik She-ler University Yee-nah –> in Germany: a collaboration with Spanish researchers on engineering BSG into carbonaceous materials for energy storage.

The scientists sourced the BSG from Papiermühle, a combination hotel, restaurant, and brewery in Jena<!– Yee-nah –>. Once stocked with more than enough for drinks all around, they found that the boozy activated carbon stored an electric charge at almost double the amount of a similar device using commercial activated carbon. It was also comparably stable relative to other biomass-based types. That’s something to raise a glass to.

3: Bark for glue-free panels

Moving on comes a use for a different kind of grain. Within the timber industry, bark, which makes up roughly 10 to 20% of a tree, is for the most part cast off as a byproduct or simply trashed.

By the time that timber reaches consumers, it’s common for manufactured wood products to use urea-formaldehyde resin as an adhesive. So, chances are that you’ve got the stuff of specimen jars within your cabinets or furniture. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, you can find formaldehyde in pretty much every home.

The levels of formaldehyde inside a house do tend to decrease over time — usually within two years. That’s a long wait for a carcinogen to dissipate. What if we could cut down on waste and avoid the use of formaldehyde at the same time?

As described in a study published early this year, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids<!– call – oids –> and Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany, have accomplished just that.

The research team set out to take advantage of bark’s natural properties and managed to create planks out of it, no smelly glue required. The hot-pressing technique involved in the experiment was actually demonstrated all the way back in 1960, but this is the first time it’s been used to fuse bark together with minimal processing.

The result? In the researcher’s words, “‘pure’ one-component products” that don’t need to be separated at the end of their lifetime.

The pressing process also allows for bark panels to be molded into shapes without damaging them, providing curvature that would otherwise come from making additional cuts. As an added bonus, the roughness of the panels was found to be equivalent to sanded wood, meaning that you could get away with using them without the same sort of extensive treatment you’d have to apply to typical wood products.

These features indicate that the bark panels would be easy to use for interior design, furniture, and packaging. While there are still a few problems that are falling out of the woodwork, such as moisture absorption and swelling, pressed bark panels show some promise.

4: Agricultural waste for construction and car parts

If you’re planning on getting a new car in the future, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that what we typically call “new car smell” stems from volatile organic compounds, or VOCs…and you don’t want to be breathing those in.

The good news is that someday, our factory-fresh vehicles might naturally smell like lemon or pomegranate instead. How? With fruit-derived fascia!

That’s because car dashboard parts, car door trims, and a mold for the truss joints used in construction are all prototypes successfully created out of agricultural waste through the BARBARA project.

BARBARA stands for “Biopolymers with Advanced functionalities foR Building and Automotive paRts processed through Additive manufacturing.” I guess you could say food scraps aren’t the only mouthful here. That’s really stretching it to get that acronym to work.

By the completion of this four-year public-private partnership with the EU, research teams in Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, and Sweden had worked together to synthesize eight new industrial materials for fused filament 3D printing. What makes these materials so special is that they’re made out of byproducts from crops like corn.

As part of the project, researchers partnered with the Italian automobile manufacturer Fiat to produce car parts out of odds and ends you’d otherwise throw onto your compost pile: lemon peel, almond shells, and pomegranate skins. And just like their origins, these biopolymers can have antimicrobial properties…and a fresh scent.

At the end of your car’s life, it’s crushed and shredded. All that plastic from the dash, seats, and other panels, called “fluff,” is then separated from the recyclable metals and sent to the landfill. Theoretically, the BARBARA project’s materials would provide an alternative that’s recyclable, or at least biodegradable.

5: Microbial fuel cells for processing vegetable oil wastewater

While we’ve still got food on the brain, let’s wrap up with our last advancement…in vegetable oil. This one is the most technical of the bunch, so I’ll keep the explanation high-level. Processing vegetable oil generates literal tons of wastewater — about 8 million tons a year during the production of the olive variety, for example.

All these fluids full of grease and fat would wreak havoc on the environment if let loose as-is, so they need extensive treatment to prevent ill effects on wildlife and on humans.

As you might imagine, this requires a lot of energy. But we need our cooking oil, and in the face of increasing demand, scientists have been tinkering with opportunities to multitask by producing renewable energy during wastewater treatment.

One possible path is the use of microbial fuel cells (or MFC). With bacteria as a catalyst, MFCs can convert the chemical energy stored in wastewater goop into electricity. Under normal conditions, microbes free electrons as they break down organic matter, then surrender them to oxygen molecules.

Within an MFC, microbes grow atop an anode in a sealed-off chamber free of oxygen, which leads them to send their electrons to the cathode on the other side, creating current.

As a concept, these bacterial batteries have been around for a long time, with some of the earliest research published in 1911. Despite this, industrial applications of MFCs had yet to exist a full century later. However, we’ve seen a renewed interest in the subject. Several companies have now developed tech that can integrate MFCs into multiple kinds of systems, from biosensors in agriculture to life support in space.

But as you might expect, MFCs produce tiny amounts of power, so scale has been one of the major challenges plaguing their adoption outside the lab. Fortunately, their performance is continuing to improve.

Last December, a team of researchers based in Iran achieved a new milestone by modifying the electrodes within MFCs for vegetable oil wastewater treatment. The team developed an anode catalyst that enhances the power of the fuel cells and also verified that powdered activated carbon sourced from bamboo is a cost-effective alternative to platinum.

Expensive materials have previously hobbled MFCs’ usefulness in treating wastewater, so while this particular development might not sound as exciting as pouring a bottle of canola oil into your gas tank, it’s a promising step in the right direction.

So, would you drive a citrus-scented car with a dash made from upcycled lemon peels? Or charge up your future phone battery made from beer waste?

Jump into the comments and let me know. And I have a big announcement … I’ll be attending the Fully Charge Live event in Vancouver, which runs from September 8 – 10. It’s a phenominal fan event about home energy and EVs, with lots of companies showing off their latest tech, and fun sessions on a wide range of topics. If you want to attend, use my discount code, UNDECIDED, to get 25% off the ticket price. I’ll put a link in the description. And if you do go, be sure to say hi.

And be sure to check out my follow up podcast Still TBD where we’ll be discussing some of your feedback. Thanks to all of my patrons, who get ad free versions of every video and welcome to new supporter+ member Chris Brewer. And thanks to all of you for watching. I’ll see you in the next one

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