Tag Archives: sustainable

Sustainable harvesting practices 4,000 years ago still shape shellfish eating today

The custom of only eating wild oysters in months with the letter “r” seems to have been followed for at least 4,000 years, one study finds.

Image credits University of Washington Fishery Sciences Friedman Lab.

The study focused on a large shell ring — essentially, a shellfish waste dump — off Georgia’s coast, analyzing how ancient inhabitants at the site limited their oyster harvest to the non-summer months. Today, such practices are meant to protect people from unappealing oysters and food poisoning. The team measured parasitic snails on the oysters to determine when they were harvested by locals.

Seasonal food

“People have been debating the purpose of these shell rings for a very long time,” said Cannarozzi, the study’s lead author and Florida Museum environmental archaeology collection manager.

“Were they everyday food waste heaps? Temporary communal feasting sites? Or perhaps a combination? Understanding the seasonality of the rings sheds new light on their function.”

Snails known as impressed odostomes (Boonea impressa), are common parasites of oysters. These tiny snails anchor themselves onto a shell and insert a needle-like stylus to feed on the mollusks’ insides. Because the snail has a predictable 12-month life cycle, its length at death offers a reliable estimate of when the oyster host died, the team explains.

The team analyzed oysters and snails from a 230-foot-wide, 4,300-year-old shell ring from the island, comparing them with live oysters and snails. They found that ancient oysters were mostly harvested during late fall, winter, and spring. The authors say this points to human populations thinning or migrating out completely in the summer.

It’s possible that this is one of the earliest examples of sustainable harvesting, Cannarozzi said. In the area of the study, oysters spawn from May to October. It’s possible that not harvesting them in the summer allowed oysters to replenish their numbers and prevent overexploitation.

The team says their approach is very cost-effective and can be used alongside other methods in dating shell specimens in archeological sites. Mapping the history of oysters in a particular area can help us understand the health of the broader coastal ecosystems they were part of.

“It’s important to look at how oysters have lived in their environment over time, especially because they are on the decline worldwide,” Cannarozzi adds. “This type of data can give us good information about their ecology, how other organisms interact with them, the health of oyster populations and, on a grander scale, the health of coastal ecosystems.”

“People have affected the distributions, life cycles and numbers of organisms over time,” Cannarozzi said. “Understanding how people in the past interacted with and influenced their environment can inform our conservation efforts today.”

In preparation for the spawning season, oysters start converting glycogen (i.e. fat stores) into sperm and eggs, making them “soft and rank”, according to Rowan Jacobsen, author of A Geography of Oysters. Warmer waters also tend to carry more bacteria and algae, which can lead to food or shellfish poisoning. Today it’s pretty safe to eat oysters any time of the year due to oyster farming, refrigeration, and food safety practices. However, for fresh-caught oysters, I’d stick with the folk wisdom.

The paper “Seasonal oyster harvesting recorded in a Late Archaic period shell ring” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Bacterial cement.

What is the house of the future going to look like?

How will our homes morph in the future to meet the demands of today?

House.

Image via Pixabay.

Computers are rapidly becoming ubiquitous in many areas of our lives. We’re also becoming more environmentally-conscious, and more technologically-savvy. At the same time, we’re more and more pressed for time in today’s hectic world. Throughout history, our homes have changed to keep pace with our wants, needs, and possibilities, so it’s a pretty safe bet that the home will transform to both meet the requirements of modern life, as well as to take advantage of its advances. But what, exactly, will this transformation involve?

We don’t really know — but we do have some pretty good guesses. Today, let’s take a look at what future homes could be built from, how they’ll handle utilities, how we’ll get around inside them, and how to keep them at a comfortable temperature.

A brick-by-brick analysis

Fans of English architecture, sorry to break it to you, but the tried-and-tested brick’s prospects don’t look so good. Many traditional building materials, from bricks and mortar to steel and cement, release a lot of CO2 during their manufacturing processes. This doesn’t jive very well with our efforts at fighting climate change, however, so they will probably be increasingly phased out of use.

MycoTecture.

This structure was grown from the fungus Ganoderma lucidum.
Image credits Philip Ross.

Instead, why not lay down fungus bricks? Made from dried mycelia, the tangled root-like fibers that grow beneath mushrooms, these are definitely more eco-friendly than traditional bricks. And, they’re good for you too, not just for the environment. They are stronger than concrete, pound for pound, fire-proof, resistant to water and mold, and can be grown into virtually any shape. Philip Ross, an artist and lecturer at Stanford University who spearheaded the development of these mushroom bricks has co-founded MycoWorks, a company that aims to bring the product to markets.

Right now, MycoWorks’s flagship product is a type of fake leather “grown rapidly from mycelium and agricultural byproducts in a carbon-negative process” — so your couch will definitely match the walls. But what is the material like?

“It’s sort of like a plastic that can potentially be used for God knows what,” Ross told Glasstire in an interview.

Cementing eco-friendliness

Bacterial cement.

Image via Eco-Cement.

If bricks just don’t represent you that well, bacteria have got your back (and walls). As part of a European Union-backed project, a company in Madrid has developed a cheaper, sustainable, bacteria-based ‘eco-cement‘. The material starts out as a bacterial mix, which you have to supply with soil and nutrients, then simmer at around 30°C for around three hours. After this initial fermentation process, the bacteria have basically produced limestone (which is a central ingredient of cement). Throw in an armful of sand, industrial cement residue, and rice husk ash and voila — cement!

“Our raw materials are basically all waste. So we don’t have added costs,” said Laura Sánchez Alonso, a mining Engineer and Eco-Cement project coordinator. “For instance, we don’t need to extract and transport the limestone commonly used to produce cement. And we also save the energy costs”

This bacterial approach can shave some 11% off of greenhouse emissions, and 27% off of the production costs of cement. Researchers have yet to determine how many wall-related discussions this cement will spark at your housewarming party, but unofficial estimates say it is ‘a lot’.

Wooden’t you like to live here?

Brock wooden skyscraper.

The wooden Brock skyscraper was constructed ahead of target.
Image credits Acton Ostry Architects, the developeres of the project.

Wood is making a comeback as a building material. It has several very appealing properties: it’s a strong, sustainable material which stores carbon dioxide to boot. It’s also very versatile, and we’re learning to do more and more awesome things with it. If you need steel but want wood, it can do that — just make it superdense. Need windows but all you have are planks? Fret not; transparent wood is stronger than glass and easy to make. From timber skyscrapers to wind turbines, to taller skyscrapers, wood is definitely the most modern ancient building material.

“(As) a building like this becomes a reality, it really paves the way for additional projects across the country, probably throughout North America and throughout the world,” said Lynn Embury-Williams, executive director of the Canadian Wood Council’s Wood Works BC program, who worked on the Brock Commons, a wooden skyscraper student dorm for the University of British Columbia campus.

Insulation

Insulation has a big role to play in making your home energy-efficient. If you’re a sci-fi type of guy, aerogels are right down your alley (and, ideally, up your walls). For the fantasy fans among you, staw might be more palatable — but just as effective.

Heating is cool

Radiator.

Image via Pixabay.

Insulation is just half of the equation — we also want to heat the place up during winter and cool it down in the summer. In other words, we want temperature control. One of the sleekest upcoming systems in this area is a thermal battery developed by the EMPA (the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research). It mixes NaOH (sodium hydroxide, lye) with water to generate heat during cold months. When summer swings by, recharging the battery is as simple as leaving it out in the sun to dry.

Alternatively, if your goal is to stay cool on a budget, this air conditioning unit might spark your fancy. In broad lines, it pushes air through a paper-like membrane to dry it down. Then, this dry air is pumped over metallic plates inside the AC to force water to evaporate at room temperature. Since water needs to absorb energy to turn from a liquid to a gas, this cools down the plates, which in turn cool down the surrounding air. The system also generates about 12 to 15 liters (12.68 to 15.85 quarts) of potable water per day.

Getting around

Elevators.

Image credits Suppadeth Wongyee.

One of the best parts of technology is that it makes life easier and more enjoyable. Getting around the house might not seem like that much of a hassle, but for the elderly or those living with disabilities, it can become quite hard. Stairs are a time-proven feature but are hard to navigate for someone in a wheelchair, for example. Elevators seem like the ideal fix, but let’s be honest — how many of us can afford to install new-age residential elevators? We’re not all French kings, after all.

One British company is touting new-age residential elevators as the ideal solution. Their product is basically a home elevator that can “fit into the corner of a room and ascends through a hole in the ceiling with no lift shaft required,” according to the South China Morning Post.

“You could describe it as a high-end chair lift. People don’t want, in many cases, a chair-lift on their beautiful staircase and they don’t necessarily want a lift; it’s about looking at the lift for the long-term future proofing the property,” said John McSweeney, the company’s founder.

“And unlike a stairlift which is a permanent feature on your staircase, the lift can be sent away when you don’t need it — so it’s never the elephant in the room.”

Water, power, gas

Solar roof.

Image credits Ulrike Leone.

Perhaps the single best way your house can generate its own clean power is with a solar panel roof. When working in tandem with a battery bank, such a roof could, with a bit of luck and help from geography, even make your home energy-independent — or even a net energy contributor to the larger grid. Since it’s clean, relatively cheap and easy to maintain, and quite efficient, I think solar roofs will catch on in the houses of the future. And, if you need to make sure you’re generating as much energy as possible, you can turn your windows into a source of power as well.

Water has always been a little trickier to reliably generate at home. Wells aren’t a realistic option for those of us living in big cities. Even if you own a plot of land big enough to dig said well, groundwater tends to be very polluted underneath cities — so you shouldn’t drink it. But, we have ways to get a drink out of Mother Nature.

This simple, manganese-oxide-coated-sand approach can be used to purify stormwater. The sand particles physically block impurities, while the coating breaks down organic pollutants. The team intended for it to be used on a large scale, to supply displaced communities with clean water aquifers; it can thus easily be turned to the task of supplying ‘placed’ communities with clean water they can then pump out or tap with a well, for example. However, it can probably be adapted to provide clean rainwater for single homes at a time.

Trees are more sustainable than sand, capture CO2, and can also clean your water. By tapping into sapwood’s natural filtration properties, this team of researchers created a simple and elegant water filter. The only thing it can’t filter, the team explains, are viruses.

“Today’s filtration membranes have nanoscale pores that are not something you can manufacture in a garage very easily,” says Rohit Karnik, one of the researchers that developed the filter. “The idea here is that we don’t need to fabricate a membrane, because it’s easily available. You can just take a piece of wood and make a filter out of it.”

So far, so good for all of those who favor a more natural approach — but what if you want to call upon the full brunt of science and precision technology when turning the tap? Graphite may be the filter of choice for you, then. The team behind that filter reports it removes “99% of natural organic matter from water at low pressure,” which is nothing to scoff at.

For potable water, however, I’d recommend going the safe route and doing away with filters completely. Something like a scaled-up Solarball could provide a family with all the drinking water it requires, germ- and contaminants- free.

As far as gas usage goes — just don’t. Use electricity instead.

MIT researchers design forest domes for Mars colonists

A multidisciplinary MIT project promises to offer Mars colonists safe, sustainable, efficient, and comfortable housing. The project won the Mars City Design competition which focuses on creating sustainable habitats for Mars colonists.

The MIT team won first place for urban design with the Redwood Forest, a series of woodsy habitats enclosed in open, public domes that would reside on the Martian surface. Image credits: Valentina Sumini.

The domes can house as many as 50 people, offering them not only a place to sleep but also open space with plants and water coming from Mars’ Northern Plains. Everything will be built upon a network of underground tunnels called roots, which not only connect different domes but also protect colonizers from cosmic radiation, extreme thermal changes, or micrometeorite impacts.

In total, the domes could host a city of 10,000 colonists. The city will “physically and functionally mimic a forest,” as every dome will manage solar energy and water in a tree-like fashion.

“Every tree habitat in Redwood Forest will collect energy from the sun and use it to process and transport the water throughout the tree, and every tree is designed as a water-rich environment. Water fills the soft cells inside the dome providing protection from radiation, helps manage heat loads, and supplies hydroponic farms for growing fish and greens,” says MIT doctoral student George Lordos, who was also involved with the project.

Redwood Forest is filled with domes, or what the team calls tree habitats. Credits: Valentina Sumini.

MIT postdoc Valentina Sumini was the leader of the project. She says that the aim of the project isn’t only to build a functional and sustainable environment, but also one that would be comfortable.

“On Mars, our city will physically and functionally mimic a forest, using local Martian resources such as ice and water, regolith (or soil), and sun to support life. Designing a forest also symbolizes the potential for outward growth as nature spreads across the Martian landscape. Each tree habitat incorporates a branching structural system and an inflated membrane enclosure, anchored by tunneling roots. The design of a habitat can be generated using a computational form-finding and structural optimization workflow developed by the team. The design workflow is parametric, which means that each habitat is unique and contributes to a diverse forest of urban spaces.”

That last part means that similar designs and approaches could also be used for other purposes, including here on Earth. For instance, the tree habitat design could create comfortable working spaces in harsh environments such as the Arctic, barren deserts, or the seafloor. The underground network system could provide easy local transport for electric vehicles, while hydroponic gardening beneath cities could provide fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables with lower land and transportation costs, an idea which is already picking up steam in many cities of the world.

LEGO Group achieves 100% renewable energy 3 years ahead of schedule, builds LEGO-turbine to celebrate

LEGO, one of the world’s most loved companies, just became even more popular after they announced that they are now fully operating on renewable energy, three years before their self-set objective.

A LEGO Wall-e — only fitting for LEGO’s environmental achievement. Image via Pixabay.

The milestone was achieved thanks to the completion of a 258-megawatt offshore wind farm in the Irish Sea.

“We work to leave a positive impact on the planet and I am truly excited about the inauguration of the Burbo Bank Extension wind farm,” said Bali Padda, CEO of the LEGO Group.

In total, LEGO has supported the development of more than 160 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy, but it didn’t come cheap. It took four years and a $6 billion investment, but at the end of the day, it was clearly worth it. In 2016 alone, more than 360-gigawatt hours of energy were used by the LEGO Group, which means that the company is saving a lot of money in the long run in addition to having a positive environmental impact.

It’s always inspiring to see companies assume leadership when it comes to switching to renewables, and even though multinational corporations often have a bad name, LEGO has taken a different route. Aside from going fully renewable and producing all-around awesome things, they’ve invested millions to ditch petroleum-based plastics, celebrated the achievements of female scientists, helped build a worm-brain controlled robot, and constantly refused to build military-themed toys (which yes, we see as a good thing). As they themselves claim on their website, they don’t just focus on toy innovation, but also on the environment and having ethical, transparent practices.

To celebrate and raise awareness, they built a wind turbine from LEGO bricks alone, using 146,000 pieces and achieving a new Guiness World Record. The 7.5-meters tall turbine is a replica of the new 200-meter tall wind turbines of the Burbo Bank Extension wind farm, which helped LEGO achieve their sustainable goal. The new turbines are also the largest in the world.

However, the company announced that it’s not planning to rest on its laurels. They want to continue investing in renewable energy to create a better future for the next generations.

“Together with our partners, we intend to continue investing in renewable energy to help create a better future for the builders of tomorrow,” Mr Padda said.

“We see children as our role models and as we take action in reducing our environmental impact as a company, we will also continue to work to inspire children around the world by engaging them in environmental and social issues,” he concluded.

How a mycologist is making ‘living’ bricks out of mushrooms that are stronger than concrete

mushroom-brick

Credit: Philip Ross.

Philip Ross is an artist and lecturer at Stanford University who focuses on an unlikely sustainable design element: mushrooms. After years of growing mushrooms, Ross has learned that there’s far more than meets the eye to mycelium — the extensive and tangled network of rootlike fibers that grow beneath the ground. According to our fungus expert, when left to dry the mycelium can become an excellent raw material for various constructions. For instance, Ross used the mycelium to fashion bricks out of.

Among its many properties, the mycelium bricks are:

fire resistant

super-strong

actually, the mycelia-bricks are stronger than concrete pound-for-pound

and also water- and mold-resistant

The fungus is grown into brick-shapes directly then is left out to dry. Credit: Ross.

The fungus is grown in the shape of a brick directly and is then left out to dry. Credit: Ross.

The bricks can be stacked to make just about any structure. Credit: Philip Ross.

The bricks can be stacked to make just about any structure. Credit: Philip Ross.

This arched-structure was exhibited at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf as part of the 2009 Eat Art exhibit.

This arched structure was exhibited at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf as part of the 2009 Eat Art exhibit. Credit: Philip Ross.

mushroom bricks

This structure was grown from the fungus Ganoderma lucidum. Credit: Philip Ross.

How Ross makes his mycelia bricks. Credit: Philip Ross.

How Ross makes his mycelia bricks. Credit: Philip Ross.

Bricks teeming with life

Generally, when fungus creeps out on our wet walls, that’s highly undesirable. It looks unhygienic and, well, gross. But Ross is working hard to dispel the aversion most people have around raw mushroom cultures, and the tests he’s run so far suggest mycelia can be an excellent practical construction material, beyond its artistic value.

“I’ve done a ton of engineering tests this past year as part of the patent process to figure out what makes fungi grow stronger or not. And to all accounts it seems like you can use this process in a host of different applications, ranging from the more pedestrian things like furniture or building materials but even up to such far out applications as growing fungal shapes to grow human organs within, or organic batteries or even computers. So it can kind of become a lot of things. It’s sort of like a plastic that can potentially be used for God knows what,” Ross told Glasstire in an interview.

brick structure

Tiny mushrooms sprout from the organic, compostable building material. Credit: Philip Ross.

While you’ll never be able to replace concrete with mycelia at the scale and requirements the industry demands today, mycelia bricks certainly have their niche. Their main practical use is as a substitute for petroleum-based plastics — biomaterials regionally sourced and produced. At some point, Ross hopes to make an entire building that can house 12 to 20 people out of the myco-bricks, likely out of reishi mushroom — a favorite for Ross and colleagues.

Mushrooms — the building material of the future?

What’s more, the mycelia can be grown into any shape. Previously, Ross grew fungal sculptures that have been exhibited in art galleries and museums around the world. He’s even grown furniture like mushroom side tables and lounge chairs.

It’s cheap too — you only need some nutrients and often anything from sawdust to pistachio shells will do. It’s because the mycelia grow together with the feedstock material that Ross is able to turn the mushrooms into any shape. And don’t worry — every building block is baked to kill the organisms, so that if it ever got wet, mushrooms wouldn’t start sprouting again.

Nowadays, after filing for patent, Ross is busy with a startup he co-founded called MycoWorks. The company’s flagship product at the moment is a ‘fake’ leather “grown rapidly from mycelium and agricultural byproducts in a carbon-negative process.”

Mycoleather. Credit: Mycoworks.

Mycoleather. Credit: Mycoworks.

The Christmas tree we made at the ZME Science headquarters last year. Credit: ZME Science.

Simple tips you can follow for a sustainable Christmas

Christmas is the time of year we spend with our loved ones, a relaxing and special time for everyone to get closer and cherish the people in their lives. But Christmas is also a period of massive spending, crowdedness, and waste. Christmas is the most wasteful time of the year in many countries, but small, simple things can go a long way to avoiding that and make your Christmas greener – here are a few of them.

  • Careful with the Christmas tree

The Christmas tree we made at the ZME Science headquarters last year. Credit: ZME Science.

The Christmas tree we made at the ZME Science headquarters last year. Credit: ZME Science.

The Christmas tree is the centerpiece of most homes, but no matter how you look at it, it’s not really sustainable. Some people would recommend buying an artificial tree, but in many ways, artificial trees have an even bigger impact than real trees. In truth, both real and artificial trees have a big impact on the environment, unless you choose a tree with roots and replant it afterward. You could opt for a more creative alternative to a Christmas tree, which could be very fun and will definitely get the conversation going around the dinner table. You can read our full article on Christmas trees here.

  • Eat local, responsibly, and less meat

We waste a lot of food throughout the year, but during Christmas, things get really crazy. Ten million turkeys are eaten every Christmas, most of them coming from a great distance, a process which consumes resources and generates emissions. It’s hard to generate accurate figures, but the average Christmas dinner in the UK for example reportedly travels a combined distance of 49,000 miles. The figure is likely similar or even worse for North America. So the first thing to do is to check for local foods. The second thing to do is to not buy more than you need. I know, I know – it’s Christmas, you’d much rather buy more than you need than less, but try to estimate your needs and buy accordingly. If there are leftovers, they can be eaten the next day or frozen for further consumption.

Meat also deserves a special mention. Meat has long been shown to be less sustainable than other foods. It has a bigger carbon footprint, requires much more water, and comes with a big bunch of emissions – not to mention the moral aspect of eating meat. But meat is also the food of choice for most households on Christmas. So if there’s one small thing you can do to green up your Christmas, eat less meat, it will make a big difference.

  • Ethical presents

We all love Christmas presents, and we all want something special for our loved ones. But every year, thousands and thousands of tonnes arrive from China and other far away lands. Instead, it’s worth buying sturdy, local gifts which support local businesses. Also, it’s worth avoiding gifts that require batteries or other rechargeable parts. The same goes for decorations – local, sturdy decorations are the best way to go.

Image via Pixabay.

What we recommend is gifting experiences more than physical things. Movie or theater tickets, a makeover, or a nice trip can create even more lovely memories.

  • Bags, bags, bags

Christmas shopping is, of course, a big thing, and along with the shoppings, lots of plastic bags are also used. If there’s ever a time to use a reusable bag – that’s Christmas.

  • Recycled wrapping

Wrapping is a surprisingly large source of waste, and recycling the paper is quite significant. Also, you can buy wrapping from recycled paper which is identical to non-recycled one. Britain alone bins 227,000 miles of Christmas paper every year. After all, it’s the gift that matters, not the wrapping.

  • Turn off Christmas lights during the night

This is probably the hardest to do for me. I love Christmas lights! Waking up in the morning and seeing the Christmas lights just makes my day, but they also burn a lot of energy. Switching from regular lights to LEDs also helps a lot and lights that are powered by solar power or rechargeable batteries make it even better.

Image via Pexels.

So, those are just a few ways you can green up your Christmas. It’s perfectly possible to have a beautiful, pleasant celebration, and reduce your environmental impact. If you have any other tips and tricks, feel free to send them our way and we’ll add them!

What is ecotourism and why we need more of it

Ecotourism is a form of sustainable travel that supports the local environment instead of putting more pressure on it and exploiting its resources.

Things are rarely simple, however, and ecotourism is a complex concept. Its importance is growing more and more each year, as more and more people travel farther and farther away. If you care about nature, the environment, and local communities, you should ensure that your travels are carried out sustainably. Here’s how.

A bridge in ecotourism area of Thenmala, Kerala in India – India’s first planned ecotourism destination. Image via Wikipedia.

What is ecotourism anyway?

The problems with ecotourism start right from the definition, as people working in different fields (academic, tourism, policy) tend to prefer somewhat differing approaches.

There are a few definitions which stand out. The one which is generally accepted in most circles is the one from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN):

“Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples.”

Local market in Tanzania. Photo by Rasheed hamis.

Another, simpler and more to the point definition is given by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), which says that ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” In practice, this implies several things.

The first thing it implies is a level of awareness from the tourist. Tourists should be aware of their impact both on the local environment and on the local community and should try, within reasonable limits, to reduce this impact. Furthermore, the tourist should not only try to do as little damage as possible, but also to support the local community whenever this is possible. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the whole experience becomes less pleasant — on the contrary. This appreciation attitude often leads to the traveler enjoying his experience even more.

It’s also important not to be fooled by pleasant words — a vacation isn’t “ecotourism” just because it says so on the label, and many companies will advertise vacations as eco-friendly without actual justification. A recent study found that many such offers aren’t really helping local ecosystems. Ecotourism is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the tourism industry, and tour operators will try to lure clients using eco-advertising.

However, when used properly, ecotourism can make a difference and help species in need.

The Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland’s most popular attractions are visited by loads and loads of people every month. Local authorities are working on ways to ensure the eco-friendliness of these visits. Photo by Dora Meulman.

Looking at things from a wider perspective, it’s also about the size of the groups. You can’t do mass-ecotourism, it’s an oxymoron — ecotourism has to be done in small or medium groups. There is also usually a strong educational component associated with ecotourism, which also helps, but is not mandatory. Common themes in this context are recycling, responsible water consumption, local craftsmanship, and cycling or walking as opposed to driving. A great emphasis is placed on protecting local species, especially threatened species.

Why we need ecotourism

According to the Air Transport Action Group, the world’s airlines carried a total of over 3 billion passengers in 2013, a figure which has steadily increased since. Oxford Economics expects that figure to almost double, reaching 5.9 billion by 2030. All these people are not only emitting huge quantities of CO2 (indirectly) but also putting great pressure on many environments.

There’s no getting around it: as living standards increase globally, tourism is set to grow, and tourism places a substantial burden on ecosystems.

Tourists also require additional infrastructure, such as water treatment plants, sanitation facilities, and lodging. Oftentimes, local communities are not able to sustainably offer these conditions and the results can be devastating. In many parts of Africa for example, large-scale tourism led to the improper disposal of campsite sewage. This, in turn, resulted in the contamination of the nearest river where wildlife, livestock, and people draw drinking water — but that’s just the start of it.

Especially in vulnerable areas, the increase in visitors can lead to significant environmental degradation. Local communities can also be harmed by an influx of tourists as the money influx is rarely directed towards them. Wherever people go, we leave behind garbage – and even if it is left in bins, it can still create a dangerous imbalance. Safaris and animal photographing can scare creatures. Feeding wildlife can teach them bad habits and leave them depending on humans. Even just walking can lead to soil erosion and destruction of animal paths. It can be hard to accept, but everything we do has an impact on wildlife – we should be conscious of this.

Are you riding an elephant? Then you’re probably not doing ecotourism. Being in nature and touching wild animals isn’t helping anyone. Photo by BrokenSphere

Examples abound. In the Antarctic, one of the planet’s most vulnerable areas, it can take hundreds of years for any rubbish to decompose and tourists leave behind plenty of garbage. In Australia, tourists are accelerating the downfall of the Great Barrier Reef, and in Africa, tourism jobs are poorly paid, yet tourism is pushing the prices up – the money isn’t going to the locals, but prices are rising. It can be really easy to make a difference, and giving up on mass-tourism is a much-needed first step.

In this context, ecotourism can make a dramatic difference, removing the environmental impact or, at the very least, reducing it.

The world absolutely needs more ecotourism. It teaches travelers to be more attuned to the pristine areas of the world, it helps educate people, it provides funds for conservation as well as for local communities (often indigenous). Also, because a state of respect and awareness is awakened in the tourist, the quality of his travels is also increased significantly.

The goals of ecotourism

Some people consider the terms ‘ecotourism’ and ‘sustainable tourism’ to be an oxymoron altogether — that you can’t travel in a way that helps the environment. First of all, you have to get from one place to another which almost always means a plane, which burns fossil fuels. Secondly, no matter how much you try, your impact will still be negative. But while that is at least worth considering, it’s taking away from the point. If you’ve decided to travel, you can still do a lot to reduce your impact and at least in some aspects, even make a positive difference. There is always room for improvement. Here’s how.

Traditional pottery in Mexico. Photo by Cameron Nordholm.

As long as these objectives are fulfilled, I’d dare say that ecotourism is successful:

  • Build environmental and cultural awareness. The first step to doing something is by understanding what you should be doing.
  • Minimize impact. If you must, travel by plane. If you can avoid it, try a train instead. Walk or bike instead of driving or at the very least, use public transportation. Respect local resources and don’t waste.
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts. The first one is a given, but the second one is often neglected. Respect the locals, their community and support them and their values.
  • Provide direct financial benefits for conservation. If it’s real ecotourism, much of the money you’re paying will go to conservation.
  • Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people. Buy local, authentic products – they’re higher quality, genuine, and they support the locals. This way, they get much more financial benefits than from mass tourism – even if the number of tourists is much lower.
  • Raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate. This is the trickiest and hardest to accomplish goal. It’s never easy to do, and sometimes it can be even hard to understand what it means.

Ecotourism and greenwashing

Ecotourism is one of the fastest growing sectors of tourism, reporting growths of 10-15% annually worldwide. Unfortunately, this has had many negative consequences – especially for options masquerading as ecotourism which are actually detrimental to the environment.

Tourists at the Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands. Garden tourism, like jungle tourism is not the same as ecotourism – even though you are in nature. Photo by Chuck Szmurlo.

An important fact of eco-friendly travels is avoiding “green” traps.

Some people mistake any form of nature travel with ecotourism. Just because you’re in nature doesn’t mean you’re doing something right – on the contrary, it often means that your impact is high and negative. Things like jungle travel or adventure travel are not eco-friendly and shouldn’t be confused as such even though many touristic operators use buzz words like “green” or “eco-friendly” – this is a clear case of greenwashing.

So, if something is said to be eco-friendly, how can we know when it is or when it’s not? Well, think about the first objective and use your awareness. If the trip involves walking through the jungle, does that walk help nature and locals in any way? If they say the money goes towards conservation, how much is going that way? Is it 1 percent? 10 percent? 70 percent? Ask questions like these before you decide what’s eco-friendly and what’s not. Pay special attention to petting zoos or so-called sanctuaries.

That’s the bottom line, ecotourism should concern three main things:

  1. the wellbeing of the local environment
  2. the wellbeing of the locals
  3. the high-quality experience of the tourist.

It’s a way to make a massive difference and it’s something which I hope more and more people will start doing.

China sees big drop in carbon emissions: “There is no turning back in China’s commitment to a sound eco-system”

This year has been full of encouraging news from China – apparently, they’re committed to their war on pollution, and not only has their coal consumption decreased, but coal consumption has also decoupled from economic growth – that is, their economy is growing even as they use less coal. Now, China’s carbon emissions saw the largest drop in years – an overall growth of 5 percent, authorities declare.

Image via Clean Biz

“In the first half of the year, the growth of investment and production of industries with high energy consumption and emissions noticeably slowed down,” Li said.

This means that China has also used less energy – they’re starting to shift more to an economy based on services, rather than industry. It’s a slow and lengthy process, but there are good signs. Through reform and innovation, the country has redirected its resources towards a more sustainable growth – or so it seems.

“There is no turning back in China’s commitment to a sound eco-system. We have declared war on pollution and earnestly fulfilled international responsibilities,” he said.

The Chinese government has pledged a 40 percent to 45 percent reduction of carbon dioxide intensity by 2020 – a huge drop, especially when you consider that China is responsible for almost a quarter of all the carbon emissions in the world.

 

Glow-in-the-dark roads make debut in Netherlands

They not only look awesome, but they may actually save a lot of power. Light-absorbing glow-in-the-dark road markings have replaced streetlights on a 500m (0.3 mile) stretch of a highway in the Netherlands; this is just a test, and if everything goes alright, then authorities will implement them over longer and longer sections.

Via Studio Roosegaard.

The design was proposed back in 2012, and it went through all the paperwork and approvals to finally hit the road now, mid 2014 – and the Dutch are thrilled. One Netherlands news report said, “It looks like you are driving through a fairytale,” which pretty much sums up this extraordinary project. To me, this is a brilliant example of blending together beauty and efficiency – the glow in the dark strips can save a lot of electricity, compared to traditional road lighting.

Roosegarde studio, the developers of this technology describe themselves as a social design lab for interactive Art, Fashion and Architecture. They’ve developed several interesting and sustainable projects aside for Smart Highways, such as a sustainable dance floor, sensor valley and interactive landscapes. They also developed a smog attracting electrostatic field – basically, a smog vacuum, which they hope to implement in Beijing; however, bureaucracy works against them, especially in China, but also in the Netherlands.

Daan Roosegaarde, the studio’s founder and lead designer, told us:

“One day I was sitting in my car in the Netherlands, and I was amazed by these roads we spend millions on but no one seems to care what they look like and how they behave. I started imagining this Route 66 of the future where technology jumps out of the computer screen and becomes part of us.”

Via Studio Roosegaard.

His vision goes even further, as he imagined weather markings—snowdrops, for instance, appearing when the temperature goes below a certain level. For now however, the strip of highway only includes glow-in-the-dark road markings, created using a photo-luminescent powder integrated into the road paint, developed in conjunction with road construction company Heijmans.

As of now, they have not signed any additional contracts, probably because road developers are waiting to see how the paint does in terms of wear and tear, but I expect them to be expanding quickly, gaining more popularity compared to the energy guzzling street illumination. The paint lasts for 8 hours after it has been exposed to the sun for a day, even in cloudy days.

Roosegaarde believes authorities are too conservatives and too hesitant in implementing these innovative ideas:

“There needs to be a call to ministers all over the world—this is a problem, and we should not accept it,” said Roosegaarde. “We should create labs in the city where we can experiment and explore these kinds of solutions. Like a free zone. We want to do it safely, but just give us a park [for the smog project] and we’ll prove it to you. Be more open.”

If you’re in Netherlands and happen to drive by the section of N329 near Oss, send your photos in – we’ll publish them for sure.

 

 

Germany sells a vision for new generation green toys

Toys made out of recycled materials are of course a great initiative and can teach your kids a lot, while being very cheap and also fun, but Germany is set to show the world that things can get even better – way better. The latest trend in German green toys have solar panels and only work if kids (or adults, let’s face it) remember to insert bright red “energy stones” that power the whole thing.

Germany is one of the world’s leading nations regarding renewable energy iniatiatives, and they’re also in the front line of creating toys and educational materials that would help children understand where energy comes from and raising awareness through play, which is in my opinion, one of the best ways of making sure tomorrow’s generation will understand the tasks they will have to face. The Nurnberg toy fair is stacked with such toys, including doll houses with wind turbines and rainwater catchers and hydroelectric-powered toy cars.

“Energy is the question of the future and we are definitely thinking about this as we move ahead,” said Judith Schweinitz, a spokeswoman for Playmobil, maker of a remarkable solar panel-fitted space station. “It is increasingly being brought into our play concept.”

Currently, green toys (which range from toys made from sustainable materials to the ones I was telling you about) make only a small fraction of the international toy market, but their importance is growing every year. Learning through games is incredibly important and hopefully, more and more parents will understand just how important a simple toy can be, so that twenty years from now, people won’t be making the same mistakes all over again.