Original image

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

Original image

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]

Original image
11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
Original image

In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

Original image
Switzerland Flushes $1.8 Million in Gold Down the Sewer Every Year
Original image

Switzerland has some pretty valuable sewer systems. As Bloomberg reports, scientists have discovered around $1.8 million worth of gold in the country's wastewater, along with $1.7 million worth of silver.

Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology examined sewage sludge and effluents, or discharged liquid waste, from 64 water treatment plants and major Swiss rivers. They did this to assess the concentrations of various trace elements, which are "increasingly widely used in the high-tech and medical sectors," the scientists explained in a press statement. "While the ultimate fate of the various elements has been little studied to date, a large proportion is known to enter wastewater."

The study, which was recently published online in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, revealed that around 94 pounds of gold makes its way through Switzerland's sewage system each year, along with 6600 pounds of silver and high concentrations of rare metals like gadolinium and niobium. For the most part, these metals don't harm the environment, researchers say.

With gold and silver quite literally flowing through their sewers, is there any way that Switzerland could turn their wastewater into wealth? Scientists are skeptical: "The recovery of metals from wastewater or sludge is scarcely worthwhile at present, either financially or in terms of the amounts which could be extracted," the release explains.

However, in the southern canton of Ticino, which is home to several gold refineries, the "concentrations of gold in sewage sludge are sufficiently high for recovery to be potentially worthwhile," they conclude.

Switzerland is famous for its chocolate, watches, and mountains, but it's also home to major gold refineries. On average, around 70 percent of the world's gold passes through Switzerland every year—and judging from the looks of it, much of it goes down the drain. As for the sewer silver, it's a byproduct of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, which is a cornerstone of Switzerland's economy.

[h/t Bloomberg]


More from mental floss studios