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Thanks to an Intense Recycling Plan, this Japanese Town Nears 'Zero Waste'

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Though there once was a time when an environmentally conscious consumer had to go out of their way to recycle a glass bottle or cardboard box, those dark days are largely over. It’s not unusual to see separate bins for trash and recyclables on busy city streets, and most municipal waste departments offer curbside collection for paper, plastics, and occasionally even electronics, appliances, or hazardous materials. However, one tiny town in southwestern Japan puts all those efforts to shame. In Kamikatsu, around 2000 residents separate their everyday disposables into 34 distinct categories for recycling, which has resulted in an incredible 80 percent reduction in waste since the innovative system was implemented in 2003. If the trend continues, town officials hope that 2020 will be the landmark year in which it officially becomes “zero-waste.”

The American system of recycling, with its seven types of plastics (only two of which are generally reusable), can be difficult enough for the average consumer to navigate. Kamikatsu’s 34-category scheme is even more complicated, requiring residents not only to identify the difference between polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyetylene (HDPE), but also to separate razors from pens, dirty diapers from sake bottles, and steel cans from the type of styrofoam packaging used to sell raw meat. Of course, this takes place only after separating out all the organic waste, which Kamikatsu residents are required to compost at home—a crucial step that discourages letting anything go to waste in the first place.

Though requiring garbage collectors to regularly pick up nearly three dozen different types of recyclables sounds like an organizational nightmare, Kamikatsu’s leaders have eschewed the problem entirely by requiring residents to deliver the recycling themselves, either to the central waste station or to a few local shops serving as middlemen.

Far from seeing their enhanced environmental responsibilities as an imposition, many residents say they appreciate the encouragement to be more conscious consumers. It was admittedly a struggle for some to adjust to such a complicated new system, which mandated not only that disposed items be distributed into 34 separate receptacles, but that they be thoroughly washed of their remaining contents. This additional step in particular left some 40 percent of poll respondents in 2008 slightly unhappy with the overall waste policy, but the town has come to accept both the pros and cons. As one local woman tells the BBC, “I have to do it every day; it's certainty a bit of work. But it's a good idea to send things back to the earth so I support it.”

Perhaps taking inspiration from the measurable good a more conservationist waste policy has done for their town, Kamikatsu residents have found other ways to turn their trash into treasure. A “circular” shop provides a venue for neighbors to donate unwanted, but still usable, products for others to take freely, and crafty local women have grown skilled at turning old kimonos, flags, and linens into bags, teddy bears, and stylish new garments. In Kamikatsu, what might have been a failed government experiment has become a way of life.

[h/t GOOD]

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Scientists Accidentally Make Plastic-Eating Bacteria Even More Efficient
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In 2016, Japanese researchers discovered a type of bacteria that eats non-biodegradable plastic. The organism, named Ideonella sakaiensis, can break down a thumbnail-sized flake of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the type of plastic used for beverage bottles, in just six weeks. Now, The Guardian reports that an international team of scientists has engineered a mutant version of the plastic-munching bacteria that's 20 percent more efficient.

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the University of Portsmouth in the UK didn't originally set out to produce a super-powered version of the bacteria. Rather, they just wanted a better understanding of how it evolved. PET started appearing in landfills only within the last 80 years, which means that I. sakaiensis must have evolved very recently.

The microbe uses an enzyme called PETase to break down the plastic it consumes. The structure of the enzyme is similar to the one used by some bacteria to digest cutin, a natural protective coating that grows on plants. As the scientists write in their study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they hoped to get a clearer picture of how the new mechanism evolved by tweaking the enzyme in the lab.

What they got instead was a mutant enzyme that degrades plastic even faster than the naturally occurring one. The improvement isn't especially dramatic—the enzyme still takes a few days to start the digestion process—but it shows that I. sakaiensis holds even more potential than previously expected.

"What we've learned is that PETase is not yet fully optimized to degrade PET—and now that we've shown this, it's time to apply the tools of protein engineering and evolution to continue to improve it," study coauthor Gregg Beckham said in a press statement.

The planet's plastic problem is only growing worse. According to a study published in 2017, humans have produced a total of 9 billion tons of plastic in less than a century. Of that number, only 9 percent of it is recycled, 12 percent is incinerated, and 79 percent is sent to landfills. By 2050, scientists predict that we'll have created 13 billion tons of plastic waste.

When left alone, PET takes centuries to break down, but the plastic-eating microbes could be the key to ridding it from the environment in a quick and safe way. The researchers believe that PETase could be turned into super-fast enzymes that thrives in extreme temperatures where plastic softens and become easier to break down. They've already filed a patent for the first mutant version of the enzyme.

[h/t The Guardian]

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Coin-Operated Lamp Drives Home the Cost of Energy Consumption
Moak Studio
Moak Studio

You consume energy every time you switch on a light, and that ends up costing you, your power company, and the planet. This cost is easy to ignore when just a few minutes of light adds only cents to your electric bill, but over time, all that usage adds up. A new conceptual product spotted by Co.Design visualizes our energy consumption in a creative way.

Moak Studio presented their coin-operated Dina lamp at the Promote Design DIN Exhibition for Milan Design Week. To turn it on, users must first insert a medium-sized coin into a slot on the shade, whether it's a nickel, a quarter, or a euro. The coin fills in a gap in the lamp's circuitry, providing the conductive metal needed to light it. After switching the lamp off, users can flip a knob on the base to retrieve their coin.

The Dina lamp isn't meant to solve our global energy problems singlehandedly; rather, it's designed to get people to pause and think about the impact of their daily choices before they make them. But other strategies, like paying people to conserve energy rather than making them pay to use it, may be more effective when it comes to spurring real change.

Dina Lamp from MOAK Studio on Vimeo.

[h/t Co.Design]

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