"When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty,” said noted designer and futurist Buckminster Fuller, whose inventions and ideas took into account natural resource use long before sustainable development became a part of our lexicon. “I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

For Fuller, who passed away in 1983, it was his way of saying form should follow function. In the twenty-first century, function also needs to consider planetary impact. So compiling this set of top eco-design innovations required a reconsideration of the rules that might in the past have applied to so-called groundbreaking design. Conventionally defined, eco-objects are confined to products for the home, and materials and aesthetics are emphasized. What is rarely acknowledged is that we need to lighten our ecological footprint by producing and consuming fewer objects. That’s why our list—which includes electronics, transportation, food, and energy—rewards design that enables us to do more with less.

Each of these ten items rep­resents ideas and innovations that have the potential to radically alter our lives, if they haven’t done so already. Spanning the twentieth century, give or take a decade, this list covers inventions and new uses of resources that play a significant role in inspiring more earth-friendly practices. In choosing each object, we considered the materials used in creating it, its purpose, and the potential impact of the object’s wide-scale adoption.

What about beauty, you ask? It’s not in the eye of the beholder—it’s in the object’s ability to persuade humankind to act differently.

Personal computer

People worldwide can now access reams of information online without traveling to centralized repositories, like universities and libraries. We can also telecommute and conduct meetings via Web-conference, eliminating more nonessential travel. And in the long-term, computers reduce paper usage. While there are serious issues regarding existing e-waste and the materials currently being used to make computers, innovations to evolve this world-altering machine’s life-cycle are well underway. 

Bamboo bicycle

Though the bicycle is hard to beat as a low-carbon, local transportation system, the Earth Institute at Columbia University’s Bamboo Bike Project (in collaboration with Craig Calfee at Calfee Design) has pushed the evolution in bike design: According to their research, bamboo bike parts are cheaper than others; production isn’t factory-friendly, thus helping to support local small-scale manufacturers; and there’s no need to import the fast-growing trees to much of the developing world, as they are already flourishing across the globe. Besides the obvious environmental benefits, those of economics and health give bamboo bicycles added green momentum.  

Urban wind turbines

AeroVironment’s rooftop wind turbine, which the company launched in the test market in late 2007, is designed specifically for cities, where the devices would rotate at much lower wind speeds than conventional wind towers and could be anchored safely atop buildings. They come in a range of models, don’t require a support tower, are easy to install, and offer reduced noise and vibration. AeroVironment is one of several companies exploring new ways to use buildings not only for living and working but also to produce energy. Together, these rooftop turbine manufacturers might someday add to urban skylines in the way that water tanks have made their mark on New York City’s. 

Reusable water bottle

The trend toward bottling water, which started last century, has dangerous environmental consequences. Every day we trash some 30 million plastic water bottles nationwide that could each take a thousand years to decompose. The widespread adoption of reusable, nonplastic water containers would make a huge difference for the environment and might also benefit personal health. As reusable water bottles become increasingly attractive, other choices might emerge. But for now, Swiss manufacturer Sigg deserves credit. Their near-ubiquitous design is extremely durable, lightweight, and lined with a nontoxic material that doesn’t affect taste. And it’s equally comfortable in a backpack headed for the top of a mountain, or appearing at an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.


Sure, it’s not an object in the traditional sense; and yes, it’s hardly a twentieth century invention. But as far as the modern-day green movement goes, tofu, said to originate in ancient China, is a major symbol of both ethical and environmental concerns that engage a growing number of people today. Tofu makes us think of vegetarians, vegans, and the like. It’s a progressive emblem for anyone who has reconsidered the way they eat because of animal treatment or environmental concerns. It’s also undeniably better for the planet than meat. Compared to tofu, meat production takes up approximately 17 times as much land, 26 times as much water, 20 times as many fossil fuels, and 6 times as many chemicals. 

Geodesic dome

Buckminster Fuller’s breakthrough in shelter design, the geodesic dome remains unsurpassed. This überefficient bubble encloses more space while utilizing less energy and material than any other shelter system invented to date, and it increases in stability as it increases in size. The triangle lattice creates a self-bracing framework that gives structural strength while using minimal resources. Montreal’s Biosphère (above) and Disney World’s Epcot Center are among the most iconic examples of these domes, but the triangular framework can also be found in Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower (he was influenced by Fuller), and at playgrounds all over the world. Geodesic jungle gyms, known for their durability, have been around for more than four decades.

Electric car

Here in the US, we’re still hooked on cars. As we inch closer to realizing a mass-market history of electric vehicles, it’s time to honor the Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) of the past. BEVs were among the earliest autos, and before the preeminence of light-and-powerful internal combustion engines, electric cars held many vehicle speed and distance records. Most notable perhaps was the breaking of the 100 km/h (62 mph) speed barrier by Camille Jenatzy on April 29, 1899, in his rocket-like EV named La Jamais Contente. 

Digital camera

Photo processing—equipment, chemicals, transportation to and from the camera store—is not really a major environmental threat. Even so, the digital camera reduces the need for film-related waste while creating unexpected benefits. It places serious citizen-power into the hands of those documenting (then uploading and broadcasting) social, political, and environmental injustice on a local or global scale. The twenty-first century digital camera evolved out of earlier electronic imaging innovations. In August 1981, Sony released its Mavica electronic still camera, the first commercial electronic model. Images were recorded onto a disc and then put into a video reader that was connected to a television monitor or color printer. Even if the early Mavica cannot be considered a true digital camera, it started the megapixel revolution.

Recycled Glass

We have been making use of glass for centuries, but it was Oregon’s Bottle Bill of 1971 that inadvertently kick-started US recycling programs as we know them today. Glass recycling saves used containers that previously would have been sent to landfills, and less energy is used to melt recycled glass than to melt down raw materials. (Recycling also reduces the need for quarrying raw materials, thus saving resources.) Bottles can be converted into jewelry, sand, an asphalt composite, storage vessels, stained glass windows and other works of art, and so much more. Discovering all the uses of glass in a closed-loop fashion speaks to its versatility, and one can hope, a strong cultural preference for it over plastic.

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs)

From whale blubber to paraffin to natural gas to electricity, our need to light the night has produced a steady stream of innovation—all of which, over time, has led to a reduction in our use of resources. Although compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) may offer dramatic energy savings over traditional incandescents, they also contain hazardous materials like mercury. Modern LEDs surpass CFLs in energy efficiency and are free of hazards. And they can achieve better than 100 lumens per watt, meaning this low-powered light is nearly a third brighter than the average fluorescent when using the same power.

Story by Elizabeth Thompson. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Top ten eco innovations for a better planet
Inventions and breakthroughs of the last century that green our lives.