15 Innovative Solutions To Our Garbage Problems (You Probably Haven’t Heard Of)

The landfill – and the Western mode of managing waste in general – is garbage (pun intended) and isn’t going to be very feasible in the future.

Especially since population growth is expected to reach 9.6 billion people by 2050. That’s going to be a lot of waste to deal with.

The demand for sustainable waste disposal solutions increases every day, so entrepreneurs, engineers and inventive people everywhere are coming up with new creative ways to tackle our environmental problems.

Below are some of the 15 most creative zero waste solutions you probably haven’t heard about (yet).

1. Plastic Roads

Plastic’s in our oceans, plastic’s in our forests, plastic’s in our…roads?

The day may come when we’ll be driving our (hopefully electric) cars on plastic roads.

Plastic roads, according to the pioneer company KWS, will be made from the plastic waste that’s clogging up our landfills, streams, oceans and generally our entire world.

The plastic will be converted into hollow prefabricated modules, or blocks, that can be lined next to one another like you’re making a line of saltine crackers.

Check out this short video which explains the concept:

All the components of the plastic road have tremendous benefits:

  • Since it’s made from recycled plastic, the roads reduce the amount of plastic litter around the world.
  • Pre-fabricating the road blocks makes construction 4 times faster, according to KWS.
  • Since the roads are hollow, they can temporarily absorb and thereby reduce the amount of floodwaters on top of the road. This increases urban safety and potentially reduces property damage caused by floods.
  • The roads last 3 times longer than regular asphalt roads.
  • If the road is damaged for whatever reason, the damaged block can simply be replaced. No more traffic jams due to road repair.
  • The damaged block can furthermore be recycled and made into a new one.

While there may be some concern over BPA potentially leaking into nearby water systems, the financial, environmental and urban benefits of these roads may simply outweigh the costs.

2. Fly larvae to recycle (organic) trash

While the thought of eating insects can make a person’s stomach churn, insects provide a great ecological service to reducing the immense amount of food waste dumped in landfills each year.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organizationone third of the food produced each year – or about 1.3 billion metric tons of edible food – either spoils or is thrown away.

What most people are not aware of is that organic waste which ends up in landfills is actually a major source of greenhouse gas emission (find out why and how to avoid this in this article).

Spoiled and thrown out food is also a lot of unused fuel. At the same time, humans are cutting down huge areas of land – even the ever more endangered (rain) forests – to grow crop to feed livestock.

This, in turn, competes with crop cultivation for human alimentation, because feeding crop to animals to eventually be able to eat a steak is very inefficient and a huge waste of resources.

And that’s not even talking about the environmental impact of the current meat production process through CO2 and methane emission or the widespread use of fertilizers and pesticides.

Enter: the black soldier fly larva.

Larvae of the black soldier fly
Larvae of the black soldier fly

This particular type of larva is ideal because it has a voracious appetite: about 2.5 pounds of larva can eat through 5 pounds of food waste in 4 hours. That’s eating twice their own weight.

They are a great source of sustainable protein (42%) for aquaculture, pets, as animal feed, and yes – also for humans! 

According to the Smithsonian, larvae from black soldier flies already eat the food waste from about 2,000 restaurants in China. The larvae are great at converting this waste into body mass.

Once the larva are nice and fat, they can be fed to chicken, fish, even turtles.

Using the black soldier fly larva effectively reduces the amount of organic waste rotting in the landfill.

Instead of producing climate-warming greenhouse gases in the process, it can be used to cut the cost of growing and feeding livestock for human consumption.

Maybe the creepy-crawlies aren’t so bad after all.

3. Composting human bodies

soil in hand

What do you want to happen to you after you die? Do you want to be buried in a coffin or cremated? Or do you want your body to be composed for further use, giving new life?

With Recompose, the latter option is possible. Recompose, formerly the Urban Death Project, offers an alternative to cremation and conventional burial practices by gently converting human remains into soil.

In most western societies, death is a somber and touchy subject, and we don’t mean to say that dead humans are waste to the environment. But corpses do take up a lot of space, water and energy to be buried in the stereotypical western tradition.

For example, each year in the U.S., 2.7 million people die and are buried and emit carbon dioxide and particulates into the atmosphere.

Humans are embalmed and take a long time to decompose, so they don’t go back into nature the way organic beings are designed to.

Worse, embalming fluid leaks into groundwater, and further carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere from the manufacturing of caskets, headstones and grave liners.

More people will be born, more people will die. We have to think about Western burial practices more strategically if we want to use our limited usable land more efficiently, economically and ecologically.

For more info, check out Recompose’s website.

4. Building with Glass

glass bottles

So, yes, glass is recyclable. But a large amount of glass isn’t recycled and ends up in the landfill. Which is a problem, because glass will take about 1 million years to break down.

What are we to do with all this glass? Some smart engineers are saying, “Build with it!”

A report from the Journal of Cleaner Production finds that waste glass can be repurposed into building material without needing to remelt it and without requiring much water to produce.

This makes glass recycling much more efficient. As of 2018, conventional glass recycling technologies need glass to be separated into different glass types and to be remelted, which takes a lot of energy.

Instead, mixed broken glass could be remade into a “polymeric glass,” which is functionally and aesthetically equivalent to stone products and can be used as kitchen and bathroom benchtops, floors and wall tiles.

Why cut more stones out of the earth when we could make stone-like products out of our own waste? It’s economically and environmentally smarter.

5. Zero Waste and Package-Free Stores

package free

Nope, they’re not the talk of hippie-dippie dreamers anymore. Zero waste stores are becoming a reality.

They’re exactly what they sound like. In no part of the process – from manufacturing to what the consumer buys in the store – will anything need to be thrown away.

For example, at Package Free Shop, every single one of their products is compostable, recyclable or reusable in some way, even the packaging of their products.

“Wait, packaging! That makes them liars!” you might be crying from behind your computer screen. And, yes, it’s technically true.

However, it’s incredibly hard for companies to completely avoid packaging for their products. Menstrual cups and other sanitation products even legally require packaging.

However, that doesn’t mean that the packaging needs to be made of non-recyclable plastic or other disposable packaging. That’s at the core of package free and zero-waste shops.

At some places, such as The Fillery in NYC, customers bring their own containers and bags, weigh them at the beginning of their shopping trip, fill their containers with food or other products, and pay at the counter.

No plastic bags, no food boxes, no plastic or packaging of any kind.

It’s a smart way for businesses to save money and for consumers to avoid unnecessary trash, especially plastic packaging.

6. Turning waste to energy

Turns out, that banana peel you threw into the trash could be used to power someone’s home.

According to the market analyst Grand View Research, the global economy for turning trash into electricity could reach $37.64 billion by 2020, especially as technology improves to make trash burning more economically and environmentally efficient.

Sweden was one of the first countries to revolutionize this process, and their technology got so good that they ran out of their own trash to burn. They had to import trash from other countries to keep their recycling plants going.

Less than 1% of Sweden’s trash is sent to landfills, and over 50% of Swedish household waste is converted into energy to heat their homes.

Imagine, there might be a day when the landfills stinking up the earth could be used to safely and effectively power homes across the world.

7. Poo power

Along a similar – albeit smellier – vein, fecal matter can be turned to fuel as well.

With as much commercial waste entering landfills, there’s a comparable if not greater amount of organic waste entering sewage systems. This could be an untapped source of renewable energy to fulfill growing energy demands.

UK researchers recently invented a toilet which works without water or electricity, two key services which are not available to a huge part of the population. The toilet is currently being trialed in Ghana, Africa.

What’s amazing about that toilet is that it separates the water from the human waste, which can be used for irrigation, household washing or even as drinking water!

The human waste’s gas is converted into energy and the remaining solids can be used as fuel or fertilizers. Check out this short video to see how it works:

Through this waterless process, the toilets can provide clean sanitation to people who don’t have it – and even provide water and energy as a byproduct.

It’s amazing how most sustainable innovations intersect with societal and economic improvements. The future is ecological.

8. Recycling cigarettes

Smoking’s not only bad for your body, but it’s gross for the environment as well. Cigarettes are the most littered item in the U.S. as well as worldwide, and cigarette butts make up 30 – 40 percent of all collected litter.

cigarette butts

75 percent of smokers report tossing cigarette butts onto the ground or out their car window. Because of this, cities spend somewhere between $3 million and $16 million cleaning up cigarettes.

This clean up is important, as cigarette butts are not biodegradable and leach harmful substances into the environment. Arsenic, for example, is used in rat poison and can kill nearby critters if enough of it washes into streams and rivers. Some animals even eat thrown away cigarette ends, ingesting the harmful effects of tobacco.

Because of this, cigarette cleanup and recycling is tantamount, and companies like TerraCycle are incentivizing individuals to pick up cigarette ends. Volunteers sign up on their website for free, pick up cigarette butts and trash and ship it for free to the company, which removes the waste and ash and repurposes the butts into plastic pallets for reuse.

What’s more, for every pound an individual sends in, TerraCycle donates $1 to the Keep America Beautiful Cigarette Litter Prevention Program. People get to feel good about cleaning up their streets and cleaning up a whole country.

9. Build homes with paper

Having a moisture resistant, strong and highly affordable house may be in everyone’s future.

paper house

ContinuusMaterials, based in Houston, Texas, makes 100 percent upcycled boards from plastic and paper waste. It takes about 30 cartons, say of a large orange juice carton, to make a single 2 by 2 foot ReWall ceiling tile and 400 cartons to make a ½ inch by 4 foot by 8 foot board.

A truckload of ReWall products could prevent almost 300,000 cartons from entering the landfill. What’s more, ReWall is a zero waste, zero water company, so their manufacturing itself is as green as the products they produce.

Fast food restaurants and coffee shops may one day be built with their own cup waste. Schools and day cares house children in their recycled empty milk cartons.

An entire neighborhood may be built with locally collected recycled boards. No longer will waste be waste, but a building material.

10. Never waiting for ketchup

Alright, this one’s a bit off the wall (literally), but just wait a second.

If you eat ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise or any liquid that comes in a container, you know that some of the liquid inevitably ends up sticking to the wall of the container.

It’s annoying when you just keep shaking the bottle, trying to get the last bit out, but it refuses to go. So, so you end up chucking the container into the trash.

Imagine the amount of food waste all the collectively thrown out condiments of the world causes! And imagine all the plastics that can’t be recycled because of the leftover food residue. If only there was a way to get out all the contents of a condiment container out.

Thankfully, condiment sustainability improved tenfold thanks to LiquiGlide technology. Liquids slide around the inside of the container with ease, making sure all the contents exit when you tip the bottle.

Consumers save money by using all the condiments they bought, less food waste winds up in the landfill and the containers themselves won’t be contaminated with food waste and will thus be more easily recycled. It’s a win-win for everyone.

11. Electronics Recycling

That ancient music player you tossed in the trash may seem harmless, but it might be leaking toxic heavy metals into the environment.

As technology steadily becomes more entrenched in our daily lives, electronic waste desperately needs to be dealt with sustainably. Luckily, there’s the Electronic Recycling Association (ERA) working with Canadian recyclers to reduce e-waste entering the environment.

Less mercury, lead, beryllium and cadmium will make their way into water systems and residential areas. ERA, in collaboration with Hi Tech Recyclers, work to recycle TVs, printers and other unusable electronics.

However, recycling electronics comes with the fear that user data may be mined and used to commit identity theft or fraud. Hi Tech Recyclers ensures data protection, as recyclers dismantle, shred and ship electronics to a downstream processor.

ERA and Hi Tech Recyclers can thus help our environment while ensuring such electronic recycling isn’t used for nefarious means.

12. Pulling carbon out of thin air

We know humans are putting too much carbon into the air, but what if we could pull this carbon back out?

Now there’s technology that can pull pure carbon dioxide from the air to be repurposed.

According to Wired, many start-ups are tackling the excess carbon problem with creative carbon sequestration solutions. There are a lot of very different and promising approaches. For example, a Montreal-based company called Carbicrete makes cement free concrete.

Cement is the main ingredient in concrete that causes CO2 emission during its production, so avoiding cement already saves CO2. Furthermore, Carbicrete’s process actually injects CO2 into its product, making it actually a carbon dioxide negative concrete.

Here’s the gist: Carbicrete takes a steel slag, or a complex waste product from steel plants, and mixes it with purified CO2 in an enclosed chamber. The CO2 reacts with the compounds in the steel slag, resulting in a product that behaves like regular concrete.

The carbicrete can be used to construct roads, driveways, buildings, or anything else where concrete is needed. The process currently fixes about 200 kgs of CO2 per day, and the company is hoping to scale up to two tons within the next decade.

Along with concrete, carbon dioxide can be remade into ethanol, ethylene, methanol and the other building blocks of fossil fuel, according to CERT. Maybe one day in the near future, the burning of fossil fuel can be as cyclical as the water cycle.

13. Technology to clean up our oceans

Do you know where to find the biggest garbage dump in the world?

That’s right, it is floating between Hawaii and California, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And great it is indeed – 3 times the size of France, containing 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic:

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

And this is only one of 5 of those garbage patches, which the ocean currents concentrate in certain areas around the world.

If left on its own, the sun, wind and water will break the plastic into ever smaller pieces of microplastic, which will be next to impossible to remove from the ocean.

So it is not only important to stop new trash from getting into our oceans, but we also need to act fast and get the plastic that’s already in there back out of our oceans while we still can – before it becomes invisible microplastic.

But since plastic never actually biodegrades, it will continue to impact our ocean ecosystems, human health and global economies. We put trash into our oceans, so it’s up to us to get the trash out of the ocean.

Probably one of the most promising approaches to tackle this problem is The Ocean Cleanup. Here’s how it works:

How The Ocean Cleanup Technology works

Basically, a 600 meter long floater rides the surface of the water and is pushed by natural ocean currents, wind and waves. The floater’s 3 meter deep skirt catches plastic and stops debris from washing above it or passing below it.

A vessel collects the accumulated plastic regularly, just like a garbage truck. The collected plastic, once back on land, will then be recycled into new products.

Ocean Cleanup’s models show they could clean up 50 percent of the ocean’s plastic in just five years, and 90 percent by 2040, once the system is deployed at full-scale.

On September 2018, the first prototype “System 001”, launched from San Francisco to prove the concept. You can follow its progress and track its position here.

14. Smart meters: reduce household electricity consumption

Research done in Europe found that smart-metering significantly reduces the energy demand of meter users.

The smart meter tells users where electricity is going, allowing users to realize any abnormalities in their electrical usage. On average, smart meter users could reduce their electrical consumption by 5-15 percent.

This may not sound like a lot, but up to 15 percent will make a considerable impact on a household’s electrical usage if more people install and listen to their smart meters.

15. Use fungus for nuclear waste clean-up

The United States produced a horrendous amount of radioactive waste during the Cold War. Much of it wasn’t properly disposed and has been leaking from underground storage tanks into the environment since the 50’s.

Popsci estimates that nearly 800 billion gallons of water and over 2 billion cubic feet of soil have been contaminated by such waste. 


Cleaning up nuclear waste is damaging to humans, but some yeast strains are naturally resistant to extremely radioactive and acidic conditions, according to the journal of Frontiers Microbiology.

These little fungi won’t get rid of the radioactive substances themselves, but could turn the seeping, highly toxic and acidic sludge into less harmful substances or form a biofilm which could act like a seal.

Fungi’s true impact on radioactive waste remains to be seen, but it’s a step in the right direction for tackling waste that was once thought to be permanent.

Conclusion

As concerns for the climate grows, technology and human creativity to overcome sustainability-related issues grow with it.

While it is impossible to predict how things will turn out, those inventions and ideas we just saw definitely give hope and inspire.

Which idea is your favorite?

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