In the future, here's how it's going to work: Sidewalks will power streetlights, buildings will eat smog, nuclear plants will run on nuclear waste, and endangered animals will be socially networked. For our 2012 green issue, we've rounded up cutting-edge fixes for some of the world's trickiest environmental problems, and brought them to you.
(And did we mention the eco-friendly $345,000 lab-grown hamburger? Because that's in here too.)
THE PROBLEM: FARMING AND CITIES HAVE LONG BEEN MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE.
THE SOLUTION: TURN THE ONE THING ALL CITIES HAVE A LOT OF — WASTE — INTO SOMETHING THEY CAN USE TO GROW FOOD.
“These are the babies,” John Edel says, pointing to tiny tilapia darting about in one of a row of plastic fish tanks. “These are market-size,” he says, turning to tank two. “And these,” he says, indicating the huge fish in tank three, “are for something else.”
In an abandoned warehouse in a gritty neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, “something else” means waste: nitrite-infused wastewater, to be precise, which will feed plants in nearby growing beds. The plants will absorb the nutrients and produce clean wastewater to be recycled back to their aquatic donors. Turning one thing’s byproducts into another’s sustenance is how Edel hopes to change the way Chicagoans get their food.
Edel’s project, the Plant, is an indoor farming setup that seeks to solve economic, environmental and nutritional problems simultaneously. A former meat-processing factory, the 93,500-square-foot building houses a nonprofit hydroponic farm that produces greens and fish, as well as a number of food-related businesses — including two breweries, a bakery and a for-profit farm — that provide two equally important components: rent money that keeps the nonprofit farm going even if its crops don’t sell, and waste.
The latter, in fact, is why these companies are here. Hand-selected for what they leave behind, the Plant’s tenants all produce refuse that can be used to feed fish, fertilize grow beds or heat the building. Next year the facility will add a $3 million digester, funded largely by state grants, that will convert nearly all leftover material waste (as well as several tons from area food-manufacturing companies) into biogas that will supply electricity to the Plant and possibly enable it to sell some back to the grid.
“We’ll be using about 32 tons of food waste every day,” says Edel. “We’re also creating jobs, about 125, in an economically distressed community that’s seen terrible disinvestment.”
The Plant will also produce, well, plants in a “food desert,” an urban area bereft of grocery stores. And because its crops can grow year round without the hazards of bad weather, insects or outside parasites, Edel’s indoor organic farm is expected to produce approximately eight times as much food per square foot as a traditional farm, which it will sell wholesale to area restaurants.
Edel is documenting his project in hopes that it will be replicated elsewhere. For something that runs on waste, the Plant has one very valuable byproduct, he says: “Everyone wants to latch onto some hope that they can have an effect on global warming, food toxicity, obesity, joblessness. We can provide that.” — CHRISTINA COUCH
THE PROBLEM: THE METHANE THAT COWS, ER, EMIT IS A MAJOR GREENHOUSE GAS.
THE SOLUTION: INVENT A COW-FREE HAMBURGER WITHOUT LOSING THE BEEF.
Growing meat in a dish isn’t a new idea, but Dutch biologist Mark Post is bringing it closer to reality. His first foray into synthesized meat was with pork sausage; now, using stem cells from slaughterhouse meat, he’s working on something with arguably wider appeal — a hamburger. It’ll be a long time before you see man-made ground chuck in stores, though. For one thing, the burger will cost about $345,000 to produce. For another, people tend to be a little iffy on the concept of cultured meat (even if Post does figure out a way to make it look less like ground scallops, as the current version of his burger does). In an interview with the BBC, however, he offered this suggestion for making it more appetizing: “It would be great if someone like Jamie Oliver agreed to cook it for us.” — JENNIFER NALEWICKI
THE PROBLEM: CHEMICAL FERTILIZERS MAKE CROPS GROW, BUT WREAK HAVOC ON EVERYTHING ELSE.
THE SOLUTION: REPLACE THEM WITH ECO-FRIENDLY MICROBES.
A Michigan State University professor has helped devise a cocktail of 30 kinds of microbes that might just put an end to the 180 million tons of chemical fertilizers used every year, as well as the pollution and algae blooms caused by runoff. Called SumaGrow, it locks naturally occurring nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil, protects against disease, slows runoff (thanks to microchannels that the microbes carve into the soil) and can be adapted to a range of products — one of which, a special formulation for pasture grasses called Forage Boost, was Popular Science‘s top pick for green tech innovation last year. — JENNIFER L. JOHNSON
THE PROBLEM: CORAL REEFS ARE BEING DECIMATED.
THE SOLUTION: SHOCK THEM BACK TO LIFE.
As the habitat for a quarter of all marine species, coral reefs are a vital source of food for millions of people; they also protect coastlines from erosion and storm damage. Reef conservation efforts, though, have long fallen short, with scientists advocating various fixes with little success. But beginning in 2000, a technique that uses low-voltage electricity to grow limestone on metal cages has been giving corals new energy and stronger structures on which to grow. The snazzily dubbed “Biorock” process can stimulate coral to grow five times faster, says biochemist Thomas Goreau, who helped develop the technology. “Ours is the only method that accelerates growth and greatly increases resistance to stress,” he says. The results can affect more than just reefs: In the Pemuteran Reef off Bali, the world’s largest electrified coral nursery has revitalized the local economy, too. — DAVID PAGE
THE PROBLEM: THE MIGHTY BLUEFIN TUNA OFTEN FINDS ITSELF ON HOOKS MEANT FOR SMALLER FISH.
THE SOLUTION: USE WEAKER HOOKS.
In trolling the Gulf of Mexico, longline fishermen often haul in more than they bargained for: namely, bluefin tuna. The widely overfished behemoth (averaging 550 pounds, it’s the largest of all tuna) is considered a “species of concern” by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which last year called on the gulf’s longliners to use special hooks that straighten under the bluefin’s weight and allow it to escape. The beauty is, the fish that longliners are actually after, like yellow-fin tuna and swordfish, are typically too light to bend the hook. Possible future beneficiaries of a “weak hook” policy? False killer whales in Hawaii and pilot whales off North Carolina. — JENNIFER L. JOHNSON
THE PROBLEM: ENDANGERED SPECIES ARE HARD TO TRACK.
THE SOLUTION: FOLLOW THEM ON A SOCIAL NETWORKING SITE.
University of Florida researchers have found that the same algorithm that helps sites like Facebook suggest friendships can also help predict the movement of the Everglade snail kite, an endangered bird of prey. Using data about the kites’ observed movements, their models proved markedly more accurate than traditional methods in predicting which pockets of wetlands the birds were likely to frequent.
The old models “overestimated how connected the habitats were,” says study co-author Robert Fletcher. Such errors could be costly, as the ability to move between habitats is key for the birds to avoid extinction. The new findings promise to aid in prioritizing habitats for kite conservation, and might do the same for other imperiled critters, like the Florida panther and spotted owl — a status update that’d be hard not to Like. — SARAH L. STEWART