The Scottish Islands Where Electricity Is Being Made From the Ocean’s Tides

Courtesy Orbital Marine Power
Courtesy Orbital Marine Power

The cutting edge of renewable energy may be in a place you least expect it—a rugged archipelago off the northern coast of mainland Scotland.

Home to about 22,000 people, the Orkney Islands are a stunning landscape known for having charming villages, ancient Neolithic structures, sheer cliffs, and churning seas. A collection of about 70 islands roughly 10 miles from the mainland, Orkney straddles the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean and, as a result, is home to incredibly strong tides, making it a prime place to harness energy from the sea.

This shouldn’t be surprising—the Orkney Islands have been at the forefront of renewable energy for years. The world’s first grid-connected wind turbine was tested in Orkney in 1951. For more than 15 years, the islands were home to the world’s largest wind turbine. In 2014, the islands produced 104 percent of their needed power through renewable energy sources. And today, they are home to the European Marine Energy Centre, or EMEC, a facility that tests the viability of tide-based energy technologies.

Since its inception more than a decade ago, EMEC has helped install at least 30 different prototypes in Orkney’s waters, from a submerged Archimedes Screw to an underwater kite. According to the Orkney Renewable Energy Forum, there are “more grid-connected ocean energy devices tested in Orkney than at any other single site in the world.”

Most recently, a new prototype has been making a huge splash. This year it was announced that a newly installed tidal energy turbine called the SR2000—which resembles a yellow submarine bobbing on the current—generated an eye-popping three gigawatt-hours of electricity. “[T]hat’s more power generated in 12 months from this single turbine than the entire wave and tidal energy sector has done in Scotland in the 12 years preceding the launch of this turbine,” says Andrew Scott, CEO of Scotrenewables Tidal Power (now Orbital Marine Power), according to the BBC. As the network explains, the single device “can typically generate 7 percent of Orkney’s electricity, but at points has been able to power more than a quarter of the area’s homes.”

And it can do more than create energy from the motion of the ocean—it’s capable of helping produce hydrogen fuel, too. Earlier this year, electricity created by the SR2000 was fed into an electrolyzer and used to split water molecules into their component parts of oxygen and hydrogen. Plans are to use this hydrogen in fuel cells, which can become a supplemental power source for ferries docking in Orkney.

While all of the Orkney generators feed their electricity into the UK’s grid, there are hopes to introduce the technology to other parts of Great Britain's waters—the UK government estimates that wave and tidal energy have the potential to supply 20 percent of the country’s electricity needs.

8 Surprising Facts and Misconceptions About Recycling

iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz
iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

If you pat yourself on the back for just remembering to separate the recycling or haul that big blue bin to the curb each week, you're not alone. Despite the strides we appear to be making toward eco-consciousness as a country, we have a long way to go in helping the Earth, as evidenced by our complicated relationship with recycling. These facts about the most prevalent of the three Rs will make you pause the next time you throw anything away.

1. The United States's recycling rate is low—really low.

Figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show that America recycles about 34.7 percent of the garbage it produces. (The world's top recyclers—Germany, Austria, Wales, and South Korea—report a rate between 52 and 56 percent.) But Mitch Hedlund, founder and Executive Director of the organization Recycle Across America isn't even sure the recycling rate often quoted is accurate because there is so much junk mixed in with actual recyclables.

Recycle Across America is currently working to encourage the use of standardized labels for recycling bins to eliminate the confusion over what actually belongs in these receptacles. "If the U.S. gets the recycling number up to 75 percent, which we believe is completely possible once the confusion (over what to place in the bins) is removed, it will be the CO2 equivalent of removing 50 million cars from the roads each year in the U.S. and it will create 1.5 million permanent new jobs in the U.S. (net)."

2. Proper recycling can result in monetary savings.

Businessman stepping on green squares with recycling symbols
iStock.com/Rawpixel

While Hedlund admits the idea of providing universal labels clearly stating what should be placed in the bins is a simple one, it's making a serious impact on those who have jumped on the bandwagon. "Many schools are seeing dramatic increases in their recycling levels since using the society-wide standardized labels on their recycling bins," she says. "For instance, in the pilot program at Culver City schools in Los Angeles [County], their recycling levels doubled when they started using the standardized labels and the materials they were collecting in their recycling bins were so much less contaminated with garbage." Another story, she says, is that "as a result of a donation from Kiehls (who makes a donation to Recycle Across America each April in the sum of $50,000), all of the schools in the San Diego Unified School District and San Diego County started using the standardized labels. San Diego Unified School District reduced their landfill hauling fees by about $200,000 (net) in the first year."

3. Recent changes from China have severely impacted the recycling industry.

Until 2018, China took 40 percent of the United States's recycled paper, plastic, and metal. But in January of that year, China imposed strict new rules on the levels of contamination (think food or other garbage mixed in with the recyclables) it's willing to accept—standards American cities are largely unable to meet. Because of that, and a lack of suitable destinations closer to home, many cities have been forced to incinerate or stockpile recyclables until they can find a better solution.

4. Only 9 percent of plastic is recycled in the U.S.

The nation recycles less than 10 percent of its plastic, compared to 67 percent for paper materials, 34 percent for metals, and 26 percent for glass. And China's restrictions have especially affected plastic—while exports of scrap plastic to China were valued at more than $300 million in 2015, they amounted to $7.6 million in the first quarter of 2018, down 90 percent from the year before.

5. Clothing can be recycled, but it rarely is.

Clothing at a garage sale
iStock.com/alexeys

Unfortunately, most curbside haulers don't accept textiles, and America has a serious problem with old clothes ending up in the trash. In 2019, the nation is on track to throw away more than 35 billion pounds of textiles, according to the Council for Textile Recycling—almost double the number from 1999. On the plus side, some cities have set up drop-off points for unwanted clothes, and there are a variety of ways to sell or donate unwanted items. Some brands, including Eileen Fisher and Patagonia, have also introduced buy-back programs for their items.

6. Aluminum is the world's most-recycled packaging product.

Crushed aluminum cans
iStock.com/hroe

Nearly 70 percent of aluminum cans are recycled internationally, according to Novelis, a leader in rolled aluminum products and recycled aluminum. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable without degrading, meaning it can be reused in a way completely different from what it was in its previous life, or recast into its original form. Not only is aluminum the world's most-recycled product, it's also the most profitable and the most energy-efficient. Using recycled aluminum instead of virgin materials saves about 95% of the energy, compared to 60% for paper and 34% for glass [PDF].

7. That soda can you're drinking from could find its way back to you more quickly than you think.

According to Novelis's research, an aluminum can that is recycled can be back on a grocery store shelf within 60 days [PDF]. That's a seriously speedy turnaround.

8. Scrap recycling is big business.

While the words scrap recycling might have you humming the Sanford & Son theme song, it's far from being a junkyard industry. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), in 2017 U.S. scrap recyclers processed more than 130 million tons of scrap metal, paper, plastic, glass, textiles, and more—material that was sold back to industrial consumers in the U.S. and around the world, generating close to $18 billion in export sales. All told, scrap recycling was a $117 billion industry in 2017 [PDF].

This list first ran in 2015 and was updated by Mental Floss staff in 2019.

Celebrate Earth Day With 7 Eco-Friendly Fashion Options That Won't Pollute the Planet

iStock.com/lolostock
iStock.com/lolostock

Fashion is one of Earth’s most resource-intensive, environment-polluting industries. Manufacturing clothing requires vast quantities of water, international transport, and labor—and after all that, clothes regularly get thrown away after just a few months or years. (In part because recycling fabric into new textiles is very difficult.)

But that doesn’t mean that you need to become a nudist in order to save the Earth. There are plenty of clothing companies that take their environmental impact very seriously, using recycled and organic materials and trying to minimize the carbon footprint of their supply chain and manufacturing process. This Earth Day, take a look at some of the clothing that allows you to feel good about looking good.

1. Ralph Lauren Earth Polo

While it’s easier to find eco-friendly clothing at outdoor and sporting retailers, some mainstream fashion companies are getting in on the trend, too. Ralph Lauren just launched its first polo shirt made of recycled material—the Earth Polo. Available for both men and women in four different colors, the shirts are made with fabric derived from plastic bottles. Though they look nearly identical to the company’s regular styles, each Earth Polo is made from approximately 12 recycled plastic bottles. And to reduce water pollution, the colored fabrics are dyed with a process that requires no water.

Buy it from Ralph Lauren for men and women for $90.

2. Madewell Second Wave Swimwear

Madewell launched its first sustainable swimwear line in February 2019, meaning that you can feel a little less guilty about ocean trash while frolicking at the beach. Made from recycled plastic bottles, Second Wave swimsuits are available in two-piece or one-piece designs in a variety of colors and patterns. According to the company, the one-piece suits incorporate material from eight used plastic bottles, while its separates are each made from two plastic bottles. (In other words, if you want to save the environment, cover up!) We like the simplicity of this $80 red one-piece suit, but there are plenty of options to choose from starting at $45 per piece. Sizes run from XX small to 3X.

Buy it at Madewell for $45 and up.

3. PrAna Shirts

The California-based clothing company prAna is all about sustainability, from its materials to its manufacturing to the composting program at its headquarters. It makes pieces with organic and recycled materials and participates in fair trade and bluesign certification. You can filter items in its online store based on whether it’s made with recycled content, and there’s a lot to choose from, whether you’re looking for something to wear to the office, the beach, or yoga class. The Iselle t-shirt line for women is made with 92 percent recycled polyester and 8 percent hemp (which requires fewer pesticides and less water to produce than cotton), and comes in short-sleeve (left), long-sleeve, and tank designs. For men, the Transverse line of shirts is made with 95 percent recycled polyester and 5 percent hemp. There are also dressier options—the Merger button-down shirts (right) are made with 44 percent recycled polyester, 53 percent hemp, and 3 percent spandex.

Buy it from prAna.

4. Patagonia Stretch Rainshadow Jacket

A navy blue Patagonia jacket
Patagonia, Backcountry.com

Patagonia’s Rainshadow jackets are designed to keep you dry but cool during summer showers or while you’re working hard. The latest version of the design—which is fully waterproof but still breathable—is made with ECONYL, a recycled nylon made from discarded materials like abandoned fishing nets. ECONYL’s manufacturer estimates that the material reduces the climate change-related impact of nylon by up to 80 percent compared to new construction made from oil.

Buy it from Backcountry.com for men and women for $200.

5. Mammut Convey Recycled Down Jacket

Down-filled jackets are a reliable way to stay toasty during the cold months, but you may worry about the impact your outdoor adventures have on the ducks and geese that serve as the source for your jacket’s filling. Many outdoor retailers are switching to recycled down, which repurposes down from used bedding, cushions, and other items that would otherwise end up in the landfill. Mammut’s Convey is one of the best puffy jackets for cold weather, according to Popular Mechanics, and its 700 fill down comes from recycled sources.

Buy it from Mammut for men and women for $200.

6. Decathlon Fleece

Decathlon, a French mega-retailer that’s essentially the IKEA of sporting goods, makes a number of jackets, shirts, and pants using recycled polyester and other eco-friendly materials. (It’s also dedicated to reducing any unnecessary packaging.) The company just launched its first U.S. store in the Bay Area, and is rolling out its online store nationwide. If you’re looking for gear made with recycled materials, head to the fleece department—it its lightweight Forclaz 50 fleece jackets are made with 100 percent recycled polyester. The company also manufactures plenty of warm-weather gear with recycled materials, too, like its TREK 500 t-shirts (available for men and women) and flip-flops, all made with a majority, if not 100 percent, recycled materials. Oh, and did we mention that everything is dirt cheap?

Buy Forclaz 50 fleece jackets from Decathlon for both men and women for $5.

7. Pacsafe ECONYL Backpack

Recycled fabric isn’t just for clothing. A number of retailers also use sustainable textiles to make accessories. Pacsafe, which makes secure bags designed to keep your stuff from getting snatched while you’re traveling, makes a line of anti-theft bags designed with ECONYL regenerated nylon. The carry-on backpack has all the same security features as the company’s other products—cut-resistant straps and fabric, locking clips and zippers, and more—but it’s made with recycled materials. And all the profits from the line go to the Turtle Fund, the company’s conservation effort aimed at helping endangered sea turtles.

Buy it from Pacsafe for $130.

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