DiscoverThe Disruptive Environmentalist
The Disruptive Environmentalist

The Disruptive Environmentalist

Author: Rob Wreglesworth

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Seeking new solutions to big environmental problems: An exploratory podcast shining a light on innovators and thought leaders taking direct actions to tackle environmental issues.


23 Episodes
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We’ve spoken about the issue of plastic waste in a few previous episodes, but the problem of litter extends much beyond that. There are many other materials and items that are used in an increasingly disposable manner and that contribute to this epidemic.The problem of littering extends far beyond the environment. Yes, it has impact on wildlife within the oceans or on land as they ingest non-biodegradable materials or become trapped. But other problems of littering include the cost for a start with £7 million being spent on cleaning up litter every year in just the UK. Then interestingly there is a phenomenon where an increase in littering has been shown to lead to an increase in other negative behaviours in an area. Known as the ‘Broken Windows’ theory it shows that littering and vandalism create an atmosphere of disarray and lawlessness, encouraging greater criminal behaviour.These days though we are seeing an increasing trend towards putting emphasis on the consumer. Even Prince Harry said in a speech recently that using plastic was a ‘dirty habit’. But I would argue that the dirtier habit is from the companies and brands who use and produce the waste in the first place. But those brands and supermarkets seem to be passing the blame onto the consumer and making them make the choice, and they are getting away with it a lot of the time because they seem so powerful and highly funded. However, the innovation I bring you today hopes to change that.Litterati is a mobile app, created by Jeff Kirchner. It started off simply as an instagram hashtag, but it started to grow into a global movement. Jeff then realised he was collecting lots of useful data and perhaps this data could be leveraged to approach brands who were the main litter offenders.In the interview Jeff will share some of the stories of how that is working in the real world and how the power of ‘big data’ can be used for good and not evil for a change. We also talk about how even though littering isn’t neccessarily the biggest environmental issue of our time that the app can be used as a gateway into other issues and a way to engage people on an accessible issue.
We’ve covered the waste plastic problem in previous episodes, it’s not suprising it’s a big issue and its everywhere and we need solutions for the time being because it doesn’t look like any real bans are coming any time soon. Without meaning to get too political at the start of the show plastic bag bans and plastic straw bans are simply token gestures aimed to quieten down the critics, and supermarkets still seem to be putting the emphasis of plastic reduction onto the consumer even though it is they that continue to wrap stuff in it.So we continue to dump the equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute of every day.With an end to single use plastics not looking like it is on the horizon innovative startup companies are starting to think how they can utilise the material in a circular economy way, locking it away in a different product so it doesn’t get into the sea. There’s no denying plastic has a lot of useful properties, it’s strong, it lasts forever, that’s why it is everywhere and why it never disappears.And it’s one of those companies I bring to you today. I speak to Toby McCartney from Scottish based company MacRebur who have found a way to take single use plastics that are destined for incineration or landfill…...or more than likely the ocean, and use it to make roads. As Toby will explain it isn’t a full plastic road, they use it in the mix with traditional materials, but it makes better more durable roads that need less repairs and most importantly locks the plastic away.To be honest a solution that means less potholes probably resonates with more people than saving the planet but that’s another point…..As I mentioned at the start, continuing to use single use plastics at the rate we do and building miles and miles of new roads isn’t really getting to the heart of the problem, we must continue to reduce these impactful habits at the same time. But we need solutions like this from MacRebur in the meantime to limit the damage that we are causing, I like to think of them as temporary solutions but in reality we have a long long way to go.I also want to use this opportunity to state that there seems to be a growing movement against ‘all plastic at all costs’ however we mustn’t forget that it is the single use plastics that are the bigger issue and if you buy something that is made from plastic that lasts a long time and can be recycled at the end, then chances are the environmental impact is a lot lower. Living entirely plastic free can become an identity thing and if you are simply swapping it for other materials with an equally big impact then it’s missing the point.Plastic is a big environmental problem and one that politicians find it harder to argue with than climate change for example, but we must continue to pursue solutions to all environmental problems and not get too excited when we don’t see a plastic straw in a bar…..
The environmental impact of humans reaches all parts of the planet and despite the oceans covering 71% of the earth and us supposedly being land-based creatures, we have managed to have quite a negative effect there too.Fishing for food advanced from a rod and hand net to an industrial operation where now huge nets are trawled through the seas trapping vast quantities fish.According to the UN over ⅓ of the worlds assessed fisheries are currently fished beyond their biological limit. And with the large nets from industrialised fishing there is the issue of bycatch as well, with unwanted fish that are caught in the nets simply thrown away without being eaten.We have also turned to fish farming known as aquaculture where the impacts of nets are reduced, but this comes with other problems as the farms are usually integrated into existing ecosystems leading to pollution and spread of disease.Moving away from eating fish is one solution many point towards, but this ignores the millions of people around the world rely on fishing as a way to make a living. And we can’t ignore the opportunity the oceans provide to feed us. As I already mentioned they cover 71% of the earth and with an increasing population on land, impacts from land use change always an issue with drought and other issues taking their toll. If done in the right way we could reduce the strain put on habitats on land for food production.Todays interview is with Bren Smith, a former fisherman who is pioneering a new way of producing food at sea known as 3D ocean farming. Bren believes that this new way of farming fish can not only reduce impacts from overfishing but restore degraded habitats too. He has more recently set up GreenWave, a non-profit which is bringing the technology to fisherman and creating jobs.In this interview Bren explains his journey of redemption from fisherman to environmental visionary and a bit more about why this technology is so exciting.I went into this interview thinking that 3D ocean farming was a potential solution to overfishing, but it was only after speaking to Bren that I realised it is much more than that and the other benefits that it could bring are exciting. From kelp storing carbon to the reduced impact of food production on land.All this whilst creating jobs for people with a low barrier to entry. This is something that we shouldn’t underestimate as we move away from our current practices, jobs will be lost from fishing or from fossil fuel industries and we need to make sure there are replacement jobs accesible to all.For more info head to www.greenwave.org
Fast fashion focuses on speed and low cost delivering new ‘collections’ of clothing for every season of every year inspired by the latest catwalk looks or celebrity styles.But as we know cheap is usually too good to be true. If the costs are taken off the end product they are passed on to someone or something else, whether that is the people who make them or the environment.Just a few of the environmental impacts of the fashion industry include; growing materials such as cotton, which takes large amounts of land and chemical inputs. The huge amounts of water and toxic chemical use in the manufacturing process, which in turn leads to water pollution. There’s also an issue that we are still unaware of the full impact of and that is microplastics entering the water supply, when they are washed from cheaper clothing containing plastics.Then there’s simple the waste as we toss last years out of fashion rags in the bin and buy the next. One garbage truck of clothes is sent to landfill or burnt every second.So there are a few option here. The first is to buy better quality clothing that lasts longer. The second is buy secondhand. But there may be a third way, and no it isn’t ditching clothes all together and becoming a nudist…..it is circular economy clothing.Rapanui are a clothing company that have always had the environment at the centre of their business, using renewable energy, organic cotton and recycling all the water they use over and over. And the latest idea they have had is the circular economy t-shirt. The idea being that once a t-shirt becomes worn out you send it back to them and they re-use the material to make you a new one and they charge you less, and then once that is worn out you do the same, in theory forever. Massively cutting down many of the environmental impacts of buying new.In this interview I speak to one of the two brothers who founded the business Mark Drake-Knight about the company, the product and the exciting idea of Tee-Mill a platform they created which helps anyone set up a circular economy fashion brand.
Many people think that great ideas and solutions to big problems come from a Eureka moment. Archimedes sitting in a bath or Newton sitting under an apple tree for example. But most of the time the path to finding solutions is long, and expensive. Requiring years of research and development, building on previous ideas and testing things until a breakthrough is finally made.But with a growing number of our environmental problems now in need of solutions more than ever before, we need all the help we can get, in order to design that product or create that process.Biomimicry is the process of looking to nature for ideas and inspiration on how we can solve human problems and design things that better fit in with life on earth. Taking advantage of 3.8 million years of evolution to give us a ‘jump start’ on research and development.This could be anything from how to reduce energy use, processing waste or managing water, taking those lessons learned and applying them to problems in the human design world.In this interview, I speak to Megan Shuknecht who is from the Biomimicry Institute an organisation set up to promote the use of the principles of biomimicry in design and innovation. As Megan will explain, they do this by hosting design challenges, with a launchpad for new businesses and even an award-winning free tool which anyone can access to get inspiration from the natural world.For more information on The Biomimicry Institute head to: https://www.biomimicry.orgFor design challenges: https://www.biomimicry.org/design-challengesAnd for AskNature: www.asknature.org
Although this podcast often focuses on disruptive innovation and technology that is helping tackle environmental problems. I also like to do the occasional episode that focuses on a broader topics and puts the spotlight on individuals or groups leading the way how they are thinking or acting.With the issue of climate change seeming so vast, with so many factors influencing our carbon emissions, many people have started to focus on what they can do as an individual. Because at least we have control over that. It may not have the impact of big policy changes, but once momentum build and more people join in, the positive impacts can collectively be big.And after having one fewer child and ditching the car entirely, research has shown that if you want to make a difference as an individual one of the most effective contributions is to take fewer flights. With one return trip to New York from Europe equalling about ¼ of an average European's total emissions for all other activities over an entire year.But I’m about solutions not just problems, and with cleaner long haul air travel still looking a way off I had to look elsewhere.That is when I came across today’s guest Roger Tyers. Roger is an academic from Southampton University, who is researching issues around climate change. But that isn’t the main reason I got him on the show, the main reason is because he pledged to not fly for at least the next 2 years to set an example. However, there was one issue. His research involved work in China. So with the pledge signed Roger decided to take the train almost 5000 miles through several different countries and across different continents.I wanted to interview him to see how this journey was, how he planned it, what it was like and what did it cost. We also spoke about the wider issue of flying, why it is so cheap, finding fulfillment in flying less often and we also touch on his research as well.As I mentioned in the interview I have done my fair share of air travel over the years and even though I still think disruptive solutions and big scale changes will play a big part in addressing the issue of climate change I think the problem is now so urgent that like Roger says whereas in the past we defined ourselves by what we did, this generation should probably start defining itself by what we don’t do. So although like Roger I’ve also pledged to not fly in 2020. I’m not saying it will be permanent but in future I’ll make sure trips are meaningful, and much less frequent.Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerTyersUK and Instagram: doctorchoochooIf you want to sign the pledge head to: https://www.flightfree.co.uk/ in the UK or in the wider world check out https://noflyclimatesci.org/Here are some useful resources that Roger mentioned in the episode:http://www.thetravelbureau.co.uk/ The travel company who specialise in international train travel and helped me book my trains.https://www.rome2rio.com/ Fascinating site showing the non-flying options that are available around the world (with prices, times, maps and links).http://afreeride.org/ A great website explaining the problem of flying, why it is under-taxed etc, and what policy solutions we ought to pursuehttps://www.flightfree.co.uk/ Go here to join the UK campaign for less flying and read about other non-fliers’ inspirational stories.
he agricultural impacts of farming are vast. And these impacts come in all forms from initial land use change and the loss of habitat and wildlife that comes with that to the impacts of fertilisers and pesticides.Then you have the state of our farm soils which is a massive concern, with every bit of life almost squeezed out of them.So these are some pretty big issues to solve. Behavioural changes will help of course, with a move away from eating as much meat being a big one. But even then we will still have to produce other crops to feed an ever-growing world population set to reach over 10 billion in the coming decades. The reality is if we carry on farming in the way we are doing we are pretty screwed.And you may be saying, just go organic but it isn’t that simple. You see, recent studies have shown that because organic food requires more land on average an overnight switch to organic would mean land use change and potentially even higher carbon emissions.So maybe technology can help us out. Perhaps a new agricultural revolution is required to completely change the way we think about farming and the company I have found are attempting to do just that.Small robots is UK based agri-tech startup that aims to replace large agricultural vehicles with much smaller more precise autonomous robots. Potentially completely changing the way we think about farming from planting crops to monitoring their health to harvesting.This has the potential to have massive positive implication for food production but I’m hoping it could have environmental benefits as well. In this interview, I speak to one of the founders of the company Ben Scott Robinson to find out more and to see if these small robots can help solve some of the environmental problems caused by farming….If you want to follow Small Robots on Twitter: https://twitter.com/smallrobotcoAnd some other resources:Small Robot Company website:– General info on our benefits: https://www.smallrobotcompany.com/why-small– Blog on the soil issues we resolve: https://www.smallrobotcompany.com/blog/2019/4/22/how-can-we-use-robotics-and-artificial-intelligence-to-save-our-soil-earthdayThird party articles:– Feature article on the Guardian website (environment section): https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/20/space-robots-lasers-rise-robot-farmer– A blog on the Pesticide Action Network website focusing on the pesticide issues we resolve: http://www.pan-uk.org/three-small-robots-and-their-quest-to-save-the-world/small-robot-company-waitrose/– Video on BBC News: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-hampshire-46606845/portsmouth-company-designs-three-farming-robots
        Over half the world’s population now live in cities. With the United Nations predicting that figure will rise to a whopping 68% in the coming decades.Existing cities have been constructed in concrete and steel and this has come at a price, and that price is a loss of natural habitats and the wildlife associated with it.Natural vegetation provides many benefits for the environment from CO2 absorption, reducing the effects of harmful pollutants, cooling, flood prevention the list goes on…...problems that they can no longer help with once cleared for a new road or apartment block.And in constructing and expanding cities we don’t just lose these ecosystem services but we increase the environmental problems by having dense concentrations of polluting transport and industry.But how do we solve this problem in existing cities and how do we avoid it becoming a problem in new cities that are due to be constructed in the near future?Well yes we can look to technology to help in some cases, electric cars and better public transport can perhaps help with pollution, but really we need to look back to nature for the solutions. We need to find a way to make our cities greener and full of life once more, and not just human life!Trees are one of the best natural options we can turn to, they provide large carbon sinks, provide shading and cooling and much more besides. Urban Forestry refers to the practice of incorporating and caring for trees within an urban setting, recognising trees as a vital component of our urban infrastructure.  We can plant trees on street sides, within parks and gardens but there is still the problem of the vast areas of land around them dedicated to concrete that fill our modern cities in the form of high rise buildings. Unfortunately, you can’t plant hundreds of trees on a skyscraper………or can you?Well I’d seen renderings and pictures of futuristic cities with buildings covered in trees, and I’ll be honest with you I thought they were still the works of fantasy and that in reality this could never happen…..but I’ve been proved wrong because it has been done.The first vertical forest in the world was designed by Italian architect Stefano Boeri in Milan, completed in 2014. The Bosco Verticale towers are residential apartment blocks…. one of which is over 100m high and most strikingly they are both covered from top to bottom in vegetation. 800 trees, 4,500 shrubs and 15,000 plants make up this urban jungle. The equivalent of 20,000 square metres of forest.So could this be a way to get more natural vegetation into our cities? Imagine a city covered in these towers forming a network of habitats for wildlife. Well before I get carried away I wanted to speak to Stefano to see how after 5 years since the towers were finished, could they really be a blueprint for future cities? Can they be built affordably? What are they actually like to live in?Stefano Boeri is quite an amazing person. Born in 1056, in 1972 when Stefan was 16, Friedensreich Hundertwasser an Austrian artist was wandering the streets of his home town Milan with a tree, preaching a new type of architecture based on the presence of plants and trees. At this same time the teenage Stefano was a teenager involved in protesting about social problems such as unemployment and inequality thinking of environmental problems as typical of the capitalist bourgeoisie.  He would probably have not have imagined that 35 years later the environment would be at the heart of his architecture.Stefano has been an architect since the 1980s. Opening his own practice over 10 years ago in Italy and shortly after another practice in Shanghai, China. And now his work focuses on urban visions always with a focus on the geopolitical and environmental implications of urban phenomena.Stefano is very difficult to get hold of, he is an amazing architect working on many projects, from ongoing projects in existing European cities to constructing brand new green cities in China such as the Nanjing Vertical Forest Project. When I finally tracked him down for a chat, as you will hear, Stefano was on the construction site of an art exhibition in southern Italy where he had transported hundreds of trees that had been destroyed in the vaia storm that devastated northern Italy in October last year to the ancient greek theatre of Syracuse for a performance of Euripide’s tragedy The Trojan Woman.  For this reason you may hear some construction noises going on in the background and I apologise for this but I hope you will enjoy this short chat I had with Stefano and get a feel for the passion he has for trees, vertical forests and urban forestry,
We are all so used to seeing futuristic images of cityscapes, they don’t even really shock us anymore. They’ve been common in sci-fi films for decades with bright neon lights and massive weird shaped skyscrapers everywhere…... And there is one thing that always seems to be present in these imagined scenes and that is flying cars.But here we are in 2019 and all I see when I look out the window are the same old boring ground-based cars. Well, I am now told we may see flying cars or Electric Vertical Take Off and Landing Aircraft to give them their full name, start to appear very soon.But what will these flying cars even look like, how will they function in amongst our current transport network? Are they going to be used for quick journeys around the city or for long distance travel? But most importantly (for this podcast anyway) what are the potential pros and cons for the environment of this technology?We are all too aware of the environmental implications of traditional gasoline cars. In New York, for example, to offset the yearly CO2 emissions for the city from cars you would need to plant trees in an area the size of Manhattan itself. On top of this, you have the other greenhouse gases emissions such as nitrous oxides and other health-damaging particulates to contend with….alongside this we have the issues of short and long-distance air travel with aviation being the fastest growing contributor of any industry to CO2 emissions.Could flying cars really do anything to disrupt this? Well in this episode I will try and find out because today’s guest Akshat Kasliwal was part of a team that published a paper recently titled: Role of flying cars in sustainable mobility. Knowing that flying cars are pretty much an inevitability, with big investment currently going into them, the paper attempts to comprehend how best they can fit into our transport system sustainably and to hopefully guide the space to an environmentally friendly place.I thought interviewing someone from an academic background would help me better to see the pros and perhaps the cons rather than speaking to a company building the vehicles that are obviously going to be all for it…..in the interview we talk about how the technology has evolved, how it works and then, of course, the environmental aspects and results of the study….The full paper is open access: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-09426-0Akshat is also on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kaiserakshat
There are many issues with trust in todays society and around environmental concerns this is no different. How do we know the true impact of products we are buying when they are often assembled from ingredients or parts from all over the world? How do we know that donations actually finds its way to projects on the ground that are making a difference. Blockchain is the technology that hopes to provide that trust and is being heralded by some as the biggest potential technological disruptor since the internet.So this is all very exciting but I still find this new technology hard to get my head around, and can it really provide the answer to all of our problems? I’m approaching this with a slightly skeptical mind, not least because I lost some money after I finally gave in and bought some bitcoins the day before it crashed…..but anyway, I thought about interviewing a company that is utilising the technology already but as I am still not that clued up I decided to head to an academic to get both sides of the story, the potential pros but also any cons.
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