Humans are really good at inventing things. We've been improving our lot in life with technological devices and inventive advances for as long as we've been down from the trees. We invented cars because we were tired of having to walk everywhere and came up with the Internet to brighten our days with funny pictures of cats.
Our ever-iterative drive to make things better/faster/cheaper means that we don't have to spend our days running around trying to catch our food. But it also means that our sheer existence is tied to an intangible pile of negative environmental impacts, from the electricity that we use in our homes to the gas that we burn in our cars to the water used to grow and harvest the food that we eat.
If we are to have any hope to transition our society into being a truly sustainable one — meaning no net negative environmental impacts — we are going to need to make a lot of scientific and technological advancements. We need to engineer new ways to create and store energy and figure out how to make plastics that don't stick around for thousands of years.
Science can be a messy process, with a lot of dead ends, loops, and meandering paths along the way. Sometimes it can take years for ideas to be fully appreciated for their value. And on the other hand, some ideas that appear to be brilliant game-changers can wilt in the face of real world conditions. The Internet is particularly good at spreading these ideas.
So we put our snarky hat on and gathered up a few examples of environmental inventions that sounded cool but are actually not that useful.
Chicago-based designer Elie Ahovi is a talented industrial designer with a keen sense for thoughtful form. When her design for futuristic drones tasked with scooping up plastic from the ocean hit the Internet, blogs and online magazine collectively flipped their lids. Popular Science said that the drones "Could Swallow the Great Pacific Garbage Patch" while Fast Company said "If we're going to clean up the ocean, we're going to need some robotic help. These floating trash suckers might just do the trick." A lot of tech and green bloggers imagined giant packs of these plastic-scooping-drones patrolling the oceans of the world, happily leaving clean waters in their wakes. Given enough drones, maybe we could bang out a clean ocean in a decade, two at tops.
It sounds great. It sounds easy. But like most things that sound great and easy, it's too good to be true. These drones will never work as proposed. The ocean is really, really big and most of the plastic polluting it is really, really little. While plastic doesn't decompose (at least on a human-time scale), it does degrade, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces with wear and tear. Eventually it can be almost microscopic, hanging in the water column like so much plankton. How can you possible filter that out of the water without filtering out phytoplankton and other small marine creatures? Elie's design calls for sonar warnings to drive away fish, but that wouldn't work for the smallest creatures.
Even if there was a miraculous way to filter out the plastic from the marine life, you could never filter enough water to make a measurable dent in the problem. Water covers around two-thirds of the Earth's surface, most of that ocean water. There aren't many pockets of water left that aren't impacted by plastic pollution and some well-known concentrations are as large as continents. Cleaning that up with human-scale machinery is like cleaning an Olympic-sized swimming pool with a thimble. Not going to happen.
I have to give credit to 19-year-old Boyan Slat for his focused pursuit of a solution to oceanic plastic pollution. While still in school, he came up with the idea to deploy large networks of booms and processing pods to collect and handle plastic from the water. The booms, as imagined, would be anchored and stretch out across the width of entire garbage gyres, cleaning the plastic as it slowly churned around. Slat presumably got an A for his presentation and managed to score a TEDx talk out of it. He went on to start the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to building his design.
I wish him the best of luck — but I won't be holding my breath for it to work. Again, it's an issue of filtering and size. The ocean is too big and the plastic is too small.
I think that we're going to have to accept that ocean plastic is too big a problem for us to solve and focus on preventing more plastic from getting into the water. Maybe Slat could redesign his concept to catch plastic floating out from a river?
There are a lot of cool-looking solar gadgets on the market today. There are solar panels that you can stick on the back of your cellphone, solar backpacks and even keychain solar panels. When designers Kyohu Song and Boa Oh announced their solar panel design, the greenosphere again lost their collective minds. Because their design could be stuck on a window.
The problem with small solar is scale. Current solar panel technology needs large real estate to crank out any measurable amount of electricity. Kyohu and Oh's window-sticky panel is about the same size as an apple cut in half and would provide a sickly, anemic trickle of electricity. It's pretty, but it won't really work.
This is yet another case of embracing form over function. The Empower chair would generate electricity as it's rocked. The idea is that you could plop down on the Empower, plug in your cellphone, and rock your battery full. What a lovely way to spend some time.
But again, cold hard reality sets in. Humans, for the most part, are not very efficient at generating electricity. We're just too weak, relatively speaking. Things like exercise bikes that generate power and piezoelectric dance floors that convert dance energy into electricity are little more than gimmicks. A rocking chair is not going to be able to generate enough electricity to justify its existence. Until we perfect the human-tapping technology of "The Matrix" movies, human-generated power remains nothing more than a fun design exercise. To be fair, the Empower Chair was an entrant into a greener design competition.
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