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These 5 technologies are set to transform the way we consume everyday products

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These 5 technologies are set to transform the way we consume everyday products

From hamburgers to plastic, new technologies are reinventing the products we consume on a daily basis
Image: REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach

Written by
Gill Cassar Programme Lead, Environment and Sustainability, Global Leadership Fellow, World Economic Forum

Thursday 27 October 2016

Take a look around you. Many of the products you see were made using industrial processes that are at least a century old. That is set to change.

New technologies developed in laboratories around the world are reinventing the materials and processes used to make the goods we consume every day. From plastics to cement, this transition is reducing the environmental footprint of industries, often enhancing the finished product’s usefulness too.

Here are five everyday products that are now being made of extraordinary things:

Compostable Plastics

Plastic is the world’s most versatile material. However it has been designed to last far beyond its shelf life. An average plastic bag gets used for 12 minutes, but takes 500 years to biodegrade. One study showed that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050, unless the industry cleans up its act.

Bioplastics are the result of many years of research into more environmentally friendly yet functional plastic alternatives. Made of biomass from cornstarch to vegetable oil, bioplastics decompose into natural materials that blend harmlessly into the soil and water. One bioplastic, PLA (Polylactide acid) looks indistinguishable from regular plastic and requires just one third of the energy to produce. Ecovative, a biomaterials company, introduces alternatives to petrochemical plastic packaging. Their mushroom-based packing material replaces Styrofoam – and it’s as cheap to make.

Vegetarian meat

The meat industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s cars, planes, trains and ships combined. In addition, meat farms have long been chastised by rights groups for unethical practices in the rearing and culling of farm animals.

Cellular agriculture uses biotechnology instead of animals to produce meat. Stem cells are painlessly extracted from animals and are cultivated in a laboratory. In 2013, the first burger patty was made by Professor Mark Post from Maastricht University at a cost of 250,000 euros. Since then, the technology has improved to the point that a kilogram of meat can be grown for just 60 euros.

Impossible Foods took the technology one step further, producing their Impossible Burger, which contains no beef at all. Available in niche restaurants already, their burger is made from entirely vegetarian ingredients. According to reports, it tastes just as juicy as a regular burger and even bleeds. The molecule that makes meat so tasty is called heme. In this case, it’s made from fermented yeast. The company claims that its burger requires 95% less land, 74% less water and emits 87% fewer greenhouse gases compared with traditional meat farming.

Competition is rife with companies like Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat and SuperMeat racing to get their lab-grown alternatives ready for market. Perfect Day expects to commercialize cow-free dairy products in 2017 that are chemically identical to the real thing, but with no cholesterol and lactose.

The potential is vast. Imagine a piece of steak cultivated and cooked to suit your pallet. Or egg whites that are grown to avoid allergic reactions. Meat infused with a cocktail of antibiotics and growth hormones will be a thing of the past. And the cost of meat will likely have a rapidly declining cost similar to technologies such as solar and wind.

Low-carbon jewelry

Low-carbon jewelry is about to disrupt one of the oldest industries on the planet. I’m not just talking about conflict-free diamonds. This is a revolution set to transform mining houses, precious jewelry traders and retail stores alike.

Let’s start with precious metal sourcing. What if you could certify that the gold, platinum and silver used in jewelry were recycled from e-waste? There are more rare earth metals in landfills than in all known natural reserves yet only 1% of them are recycled. Urban mining refineries like BlueOak get the same amount of metals at a tenth of the energy required by conventional mining houses.

Let’s turn to the precious stones themselves. Diamond mining has a notorious reputation, funding conflicts, producing emissions and destroying pristine environments. What if you could grow your own diamonds from a thin sliver of the real stuff? Diamond Foundry in Silicon Valley has done just that. They are able to make diamonds that are no different from the real thing, but are grown in a lab in a matter of weeks. Using solar credits, the company plans to have a zero carbon footprint.

Carbon negative concrete

One product is so ubiquitous it’s nearly invisible: concrete. It is the second most widely used material on earth after water. The industry accounts for 5% of our global CO2 emissions because the hot limestone required in production releases CO2.

No wonder researchers around the world are looking for ways to improve the carbon footprint of concrete. Dr Richard Riman, of Rutgers University, has struck gold. His cement needs less heat to make, uses less limestone than conventional technologies and absorbs carbon dioxide as it cures and hardens.

The other challenge of concrete is its lifespan. It needs replacing every few decades as it begins to crack and disintegrate.

Microbiologist Hendrik Jonker applied his knowledge of how the body repairs bones to concrete. He invented a self-healing concrete by mixing it with limestone-producing bacteria that survive 200 years without oxygen or food. Once cracks develop, the bacteria feed off water and produce limestone, which effectively seals the fissure.

The combination of low-carbon production, CO2 absorption and lifespan extension will spell a new dawn in construction. For the first time in history, carbon-negative concrete is on the cards.

Electronic paper

At one point, techno-optimists thought e-readers and notebooks would eliminate our need for paper. However, for the first time in 2016, paper book sales increased while e-reader sales declined. The aesthetic pleasure of printed books seems to be enduring, perhaps assisted by the prominence of studies showing how blue light negatively affects our sleep.

Electronic paper is a display device that mimics the look and feel of ordinary ink on paper, but can be reprogrammed to change its content. Unlike the conventional backlit flat panel displays of e-readers that emit light, electronic paper reflects light just like paper. Made of tiny microcapsules filled with particles carrying electric charges, e-paper can show text and images indefinitely without electricity.

So perhaps you can still sit down to your morning newspaper with a cup of tea in hand. The difference is that you won’t need to go down to the store to buy it, you won’t depend on the pulp and paper industry for your news and you’ll have the world’s newspapers and magazines available to you at the click of a button.

Together, these technologies will revolutionize land and resource use. Farms used to graze cattle will be used to cultivate crops used for bioplastics and lab-grown meat, or will return to natural habitat. Animal meat will become a prized delicacy, much the same way Kobe beef is revered today. New electronics like e-paper will be sustainably recycled. The take-make-waste economy of our ancestors will transition to a circular one where inputs become outputs and are recycled back into inputs.

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