Waterproof, Breathable, and Toxin-Free

Patagonia is upping its own environmental ante with a $1 million investment in Beyond Surface Technologies, a Swiss company that’s pushing petrochemicals out of the gear closet

Outside Online
April 21, 2015patagonia-fabric-detail

Your ski jacket is full of petrochemicals. Ditto a fair amount of the other clothing in your closet that attains that magical, paradoxical state of being both waterproof and breathable when you’re hiking or biking up a steep ridge in a fierce storm.

Through decades of tweaks and improvements, material scientists and chemists have produced these miracle fabrics through a combination of membranes and finishes. High performance comes at an environmental cost, however, since these substances rely on petrochemical feed stocks. Plus, the use of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in finishes used to create durable water-repellent (DWR) exteriors—a key part of that waterproof-breathable magic that outerwear can attain—has an especially dark side: The chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is a by-product of PFC production, and studies have shown it to cause developmental problems in lab animals. The toxin, which plays a role in many industrial applications, has made its way into the environment, and small amounts are found everywhere, from the blood of polar bears to the blood of most humans.

Today, nearly every major outdoor apparel brand uses PFC-based finishes for waterproof-breathable jackets and pants. The EPA has been working with chemical companies for years to phase out the DWR finish, known as C8, that produces the most PFOA. Most companies are moving to a different DWR, known as C6, but here’s the rub: This alternative falls short in terms of performance, and it still generates trace amounts of PFOA. Plus, it’s still reliant on petrochemical feedstocks.


Visualizing the Stories Data Can Tell

Scientists and technologists are turning numbers about everything from condors to ocean-floor contours into visual representations of environmental issues.

December 16, 2014

ensia_logoWe’re living in an era of Big Data, but too often it’s nothing more than a fire hose of numbers and data sets that most would have difficulty understanding. Increasingly, though, entities such as non-governmental organizations, research institutes, academic journals and, most significantly, the U.S. government, are sharing massive stores of data not just for transparency, but also to encourage others to use the data in helpful, innovative ways.

“Lots of government data has always been available, particularly in the environmental area and science, but it hasn’t always been really accessible or easy to find, or in formats that nonscientists understand,” says Jeanne Holm, who serves as evangelist forData.gov — a growing online repository of data from federal, state and local agencies — as well as chief knowledge architect at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Today, open data and open-source software — computer software that is made publicly available for anyone to use and manipulate in any way — is an important part of the process of translating data into something an engaged citizenry can use to shine a light on a wide range of environmental (and other) issues and point to solutions.

Following are some examples of how academics, programmers, NGOs and others are doing just that.


In California, Laci Videmsky, project director with the Resource Renewal Institute and a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design, is part of a team of designers, hydrologists and developers creating theNew California Water Atlas — a digital upgrade to the California Water Atlas published in 1979 that has been called a “monument of 20th century cartographic publishing.” The vision for the New California Water Atlas, Videmsky says, is as a user’s guide to the state’s hugely complex and overburdened water system. The atlas includes an interactive water-pricing map showing what ratepayers across the state are paying per 100 cubic feet. “We want to provide possible benchmarks for the utilities, so they can see if their pricing is sustainable,” says Videmsky, noting that pricing for water in California is generally low and does not reflect real costs.


Inside the lonely fight against the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of

In 2011, an ecologist released an alarming study showing that tiny clothing fibers could be the biggest source of plastic in our oceans. The bigger problem? No one wanted to hear it.

The Guardian
October 27, 2014


Ecologist Mark Browne knew he’d found something big when, after months of tediously examining sediment along shorelines around the world, he noticed something no one had predicted: fibers. Everywhere. They were tiny and synthetic and he was finding them in the greatest concentration near sewage outflows. In other words, they were coming from us.

In fact, 85% of the human-made material found on the shoreline were microfibers, and matched the types of material, such as nylon and acrylic, used in clothing.

microfiber synthetics
Microfibers found in seawater. Photo: Abby Barrows

It is not news that microplastic – which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines as plastic fragments 5mm or smaller – is ubiquitous in all five major ocean gyres. And numerous studies have shown that small organisms readily ingest microplastics, introducing toxic pollutants to the food chain.

But Browne’s 2011 paper announcing his findings marked a milestone, according to Abigail Barrows, an independent marine research scientist based in Stonington, Maine, who has helped to check for plastic in more than 150 one-liter water samples collected around the world. “He’s fantastic – very well respected” among marine science researchers, says Barrows. “He is a pioneer in microplastics research.”

By sampling wastewater from domestic washing machines, Browne estimated that around 1,900 individual fibers can be rinsed off a single synthetic garment – ending up in our oceans.


What Drones Are Learning from Insects

Large, unmanned aerial vehicles, aka UAVs or drones, look like regular (albeit, menacing) airplanes. But there are also small drones that look like big insects, and they’re being programmed to act like them too. Insectile drones could evolve into useful minions to track, map, and respond to climate change.

Climate Confidential
October 31, 2014

A beetle (Mecynorrhina ugandensis) is saddled with an electronic backpack. (Photo credit: Michel Maharbiz, UC Berkeley)
A beetle (Mecynorrhina ugandensis) is saddled with an electronic backpack. (Photo credit: Michel Maharbiz, UC Berkeley)October 31, 2014

Since the dawn of entomology (more or less), scientists have been pondering the question posed so eloquently in “High Hopes,” a song Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn wrote for the 1959 movie “A Hole in the Head,” starring Frank Sinatra: Just what makes that little old ant think he’ll move that rubber tree plant?

Stephen Pratt, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences, knows the answer as well as anyone. He runs Pratt Lab, where researchers study how insect societies source food, build nests, and generally get along. The very short answer, he said, is that ants use collective, decentralized intelligence to perform complex tasks. It helps that they also lack an instinct for self-preservation and are focused only on actions that advance the group’s missions.

These characteristics have piqued the interest of robotics engineers such as Vijay Kumar, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. He and the researchers in his GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception) lab are developing “swarms” of UAVs that work in concert. These devices take hundreds of measurements each second, calculating their position in relation to each other, working cooperatively toward particular missions, and just as important, avoiding each other despite moving quickly and in tight formations. Kumar and his colleagues are using intel from Pratt’s lab, particularly around how ants communicate and cooperate without any central commander, to make swarming UAVs even more autonomous.


How do you solve a problem like food waste?

Solutions to food waste and loss exist — from better packaging to wireless sensors to behavioral science. How do we make them more prevalent to increase their impact?

January 21, 2014

ensia_logoAround the world, one-third of the food produced for human consumption is not actually consumed, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Despite high demand — even in the United States, one in six individuals lacks food security — perishable food often misses its mark, at epic proportions. Globally, this adds up to 1.3 billion metric tons of uneaten food annually. Not only that, but growing and transporting that food is estimated to produce 3.3 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, making wasted food one of the largest contributors to emissions in the world.

In developing countries, more than 40 percent of this comes by way of “food loss,” meaning food that fails to make the journey from farm to fork due to environmental or logistics issues, such as lack of refrigeration. But in developed nations, more than 40 percent of uneaten food is tossed out after it has reached store shelves, restaurant tables or home kitchens. In many cases, these goods are squandered by retailers or consumers based on sell-by dates, which imply the food is neither sellable nor palatable. The only trouble with sell-by dates is they’re often misleading, according to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, which uncovered an array of inconsistencies and a lack of scientific or regulatory rigor behind the dates.Photo of mouldy strawberriesPhoto ©iStockphoto.com/Aneese

In mid-2013 the British grocery chain Tesco released startling data regarding food loss and waste across its supply chain and in its stores. Up to 68 percent of bagged salad is trashed before being consumed, it found.

Fortunately, food waste is coming to light as a societal and environmental problem in great need of fixing — in the U.S. (where food is the biggest single component of landfills and wasted food is a $165 billion problem) and around the world. Also fortunately, there are a number of solutions — ranging from very low tech to high tech to really no tech at all — that promise to stem the flow of food from farm to the landfill.

Besting Sell-By Dates

In mid-2013 the British grocery chain Tesco released startling data regarding food loss and waste across its supply chain and in its stores. Up to 68 percent of bagged salad is trashed before being consumed, it found. Much of that waste happens in consumer’s homes, where the salad languishes until it spoils. Tesco admits its culpability, though, through running promotions that include two-for-one specials on large bagged salads. Therefore, it is changing its promotions scheme, focusing on smaller portion sizes, and also addressing other procedural fixes, such as putting less fresh food on display, running “mix-and-match” promotions and adjusting bakery output to match demand. In the U.S., Stop and Shop found that less is more when it comes to displaying produce: fewer fruits and veggies being handled on the sales floor means longer lasting, fresher stock in the back room. That helped the $16 billion grocery chain save $100 million annually, starting in 2008.

Raspberries on FreshPaper

Rather than taking sell-by dates as gospel, we consumers can reduce waste inside our homes by relying on our own senses — smelling and inspecting foods to gauge freshness. Proper refrigerator temperature settings and storage will extend the time produce remains fresh and tasty. That said, one low-tech aid can extend those hours or days by two to four times. Called Fresh Paper, each large square sheet is infused with natural antifungal and antibacterial herbs and spices. Kavita Shukla, an Indian American from Boston, developed the patented product based on tea recipes she learned from her grandmother in India, where Shukla accidentally drank some unfiltered water and feared she would contract an illness. The tea kept her well, and inspired Shukla to start experimenting with similar mixes of herbs, following a hunch that they could help keep food fresh. “Most of it was trial and error,” says Shukla, but she eventually landed on a good recipe. Though she originally expected Fresh Paper to take off in the developing world, the product has done very well in the U.S., where Shukla went from hawking Fresh Paper at farmer’s markets in 2011 to selling through the grocery chain Whole Foods. She now ships the product to 35 countries. Plus, for each sheet sold, Shukla donates one sheet to a food bank or other deserving organization.

Building a Better Supply Chain

FreshTec, a California-based start-up founded by grocery industry veterans, has developed a shipping carton and transport system designed to stem food loss while also opening new markets and reducing the energy used to ship and preserve fresh fruits and vegetables. Conventional shipping cartons have ventilation holes designed to allow chilled air to circulate around the product, but this also allows the produce to continue ripening and exposes it to bacteria and pathogens, which contribute to loss. FreshTec’s patented packaging technology, called SmartPac, employs a breathable plastic liner inside a cardboard carton, which is sealed with a plastic lid. It’s part of a growing segment of food packaging using modified atmosphere technology. The liner and plastic lid slow the amount of oxygen entering the carton and also trap some of the CO2 the produce expels, effectively putting it to sleep for up to a month of travel time. This means the produce can be harvested when ripe — rather than pre-ripe, a strategy that allows for a long transport but robs the food of taste and some nutrient value. SmartPac opens the door to transporting produce via ship rather than by more costly and energy-inefficient aircraft. Overall, FreshTec provides more time for produce to reach the market, reducing the likelihood of loss or waste, while offering the added benefit of choosing a lower carbon transportation option.

TempTRIP RFID temperature tags

Near the end of the supply chain, as perishables move from supplier to distribution center to retailer, they are often exposed to non-optimal temperature or humidity inside transport vehicles as they move through a wide range of climates. Often, a retailer has no clue as to whether perishables remained within a safe temperature range before landing on the receiving dock. It only takes a poorly placed pallet or a faulty refrigeration unit to cause some or all of the food to get too warm or cold, subjecting it to an early demise. But increasingly affordable and accurate wireless sensors, from vendors including TempTRIP and Sensitech, mean retailers and distributors can gain unprecedented visibility into the conditions to which produce, meats, dairy and fresh seafood are exposed during transit. Retailers can choose the level of granularity they want — from placing a sensor in each carton or putting one on each pallet or just one inside each refrigerated truck. Upon receipt of a shipment, temperature logs are quickly downloaded from the sensors, showing any suspect temperature variations. This lets the receiver zero in on products that had suboptimal exposures and place those on the sales floor first — maybe even at reduced prices to move them quickly rather than losing them altogether — since they will have a shorter shelf life than the goods kept at the right temperature during transit. The sensors also allow supply chain partners to zero in on problems with refrigeration systems inside trucks and clear up disputes around culpability for premature food spoilage.

Cutting Waste in Commercial Kitchens

LeanPath scale

When it comes to how food is managed in high-volume food service end points, such as hotels, casinos and hospitals, “waste is baked into the process,” says food service entrepreneur Andrew Shakman. But his background at a technology company that worked with the food industry helped him devise a way to change that. In 2003 he founded LeanPath, which now helps more than 150 clients in the food-service industry reduce food waste and lower food costs — generally by 2 to 6 percent. LeanPath quantifies how much food is thrown out in a commercial kitchen due to spoilage, expiration or overproduction, with the goal being to reduce food purchases to match demand. Shakman says the LeanPath approach is based not in number crunching but by tapping into behavioral sciences. A camera linked to a countertop scale documents each portion of food before it enters the garbage bin, giving photographic evidence to, say, a tray of doomed tiramisu. Rather than creating a draconian environment for food-service workers, however, LeanPath turns waste reduction into a sort of competition, using scoreboards that encourage workers to change their practices and allowing managers to analyze the data to understand the underlying causes for waste.

“We use vividness effects” to make an engaging environment, says Shakman. Each time food is wasted, workers and managers can see the equivalent of that food in terms of financial and environmental waste (as water and energy inputs), and then the waste is extrapolated to show what it would add up to if the same amount of food were tossed out each day.  “We make it very dramatic and relatable,” Shakman says. “A worker using the system might realize ‘I just threw away my daily wage!’”

An Opportunity

Even companies unmotivated by the food — and therefore energy and water — savings that these technologies enable are eager to stem the financial losses from trashed product. Yet questions remain in terms of execution.

Jose Alvarez, former CEO of the grocery chain Stop & Shop/Giant-Landover and current lecturer at Harvard Business School, says technologies to improve packaging and shipping visibility have huge potential. “But who is going to pay for the innovations?” he asks. “Consumers won’t. So is it the retailer? The logistics company? The broker? The grower? The costs of these technologies are coming down but they’re not free, and [the supply chain partners] are making very small margins. You need leadership.”

Still, Shakman sees the problem of food loss and waste as a business opportunity; preventing food waste in the U.S. can save $8 billion to $20 billion in the food-service industry, he says. It can touch consumers’ bottom line, as well. Users of Fresh Paper, for example, report household savings of up to $60 per month in grocery bills by using the product to extend shelf life. All told, a combination of technologies in all parts of the supply chain could have dramatic effects environmentally and financially.

Squeezing Cleaner Energy from Coal’s Waste

Coal mine methane could soon transform from problematic waste to valuable fuel

In a Colorado valley where miners have harvested coal for more than a century, a second fuel—methane—escapes from the thick black seams of the Elk Creek mine. A system of boreholes and pipes around the mine funnels methane-rich gas to a modified truck engine. Using a trio of one-megawatt generators, the engine converts this methane to electricity for the local power grid.
Elk Creek is the first methane-to-energy project at a coal mine west of the Mississippi and the largest of its kind nationwide. But coal mines like Elk Creek contribute about 10 percent of methane emissions nationally and 6 percent of methane emissions worldwide, and they continue to release methane long after mining operations have ended. The gas also seeps from swamps, industrial flues, landfills, cattle farms and natural gas operations.

In fact, so much methane enters Earth’s atmosphere each year that globally it is the second largest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide. Methane dissipates more quickly than carbon, but its strength as a greenhouse gas over a 100-year period is more than 20 times that of CO2.

Burning methane can generate energy or useful heat while lessening its climate impact—essentially reducing the gas to a weaker brew of water and carbon dioxide. At Elk Creek, burning just over 670,ooo cubic feet of methane per day—roughly 16 percent of the mine’s total methane emissions—in an internal combustion engine is expected to generate 24 gigawatt hours annually. That’s enough electricity to power roughly 2,000 homes.

Read the full story here.