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Generation Y-NOT!

By: Jill McGrady-Steed, Ph.D.

Generation Y (Gen Y) comprises more than half the world’s population and includes anyone born from 1980 to 2000. No other generation has seen technology progress faster (Case in point: the internet, Google, iPods, and the domination of social media). As a Gen X-er who recently rejoined a workplace full of Gen Y-ers, I would characterize this generation as remarkably bright, extremely adaptable, and revolutionary in the ways they interact. With all of the technological experience they gained in their formative years, Gen Y-ers have a unique perspective. If you want them to do something, get out of their way and let them improve the process.

From an environmental perspective, most Gen Y-ers were born to baby boomer parents who founded the environmental movement when eco-consciousness was becoming the norm. They have conserved and recycled since they were in diapers, and grew up during the climate crisis. They watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in the classroom and understand social issues underlying the sustainability concept. It only makes sense that this generation is shaping the future of green technology by creating new ideas that will lead to a more sustainable future. Notable are a few creative solutions that address critical environmental problems.

The US produces $20 billion of Styrofoam annually, which ends up in landfills for the next 500 years. What if there was a bio-degradable version of Styrofoam?

Mycelium – the “root” of mushrooms used to form a natural Styrofoam alternative.
Image courtesy of Mike Potts Photography.

While trying to invent eco-friendly glue, Eben Bayer recalled a sticky white substance—mycelium, the root of a mushroom—that grows on wood chips and strongly adheres them together. This inspired him to think about using the mycelium as a resin. He and his classmate, Gavin McIntyre, began experimenting with the wet, rubbery fungus. They found it was strong enough to bind together a range of agricultural farming by-products like cornhusks. When baked with these materials, it produces a fireproof, waterproof, Styrofoam-like solid substance. The material decomposes after a month buried in soil, in contrast to polystyrene that sits in landfills for up to 500 years.

The EcoCradle wine shipper – Ecovative Design’s compostable packaging made from local agricultural waste and mushroom mycelium.
Image courtesy of Bloomberg Businessweek.

In 2007, Bayer and McIntyre co-founded Ecovative Design, a company that sells biodegradable alternatives to materials like Styrofoam. Soon they were growing packaging for industry giants like Steelcase and Dell. An added ecological benefit to their product is that it can be made out of many different kinds of agricultural waste. In China it can be manufactured from rice husks, and in Northern Europe it can be made from wheat husks. The versatility and the clear environmental benefits of this material make it an ideal alternative to plastic and Styrofoam packaging. Bayer hopes the mushroom materials will eventually replace plastics in everything from car bumpers to surfboards and flip-flops. Check out Eben Bayer’s Ted Talk to learn more about how fungi can be used to replace Styrofoam.

While Bayer and McIntyre’s unique products are being integrated by green companies to proactively reduce trash in landfills, other Gen Y-ers are thinking about unique ways to reduce the movement of trash into our oceans. Veolia, a France-based environmental firm, challenged students to come up with ways to tackle one of  the ocean’s biggest problems— the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gigantic vortex of marine debris that formed as a result of marine pollution gathered by oceanic currents.  In response, design students Elie Ahovi, Adrien Lafebvre, and others conceived the Marine Drone, an autonomous electric vehicle that would tow a plastic-trapping net surrounded by a circular buoy to collect plastic garbage from the ocean’s surface layers.

Left: The Marine Drone – an innovative, semi-autonomous underwater drone to clean up ocean pollution.
Right: After 2 weeks underwater, the Marine Drone returns to a nearby flagship to collect plastic and recharge. Images courtesy of Elie Ahovi.

The Marine Drone would discourage sea-life from entering its jaws via a sonic transmitter and would communicate with other drones using sonar. The Marine Drone could stay underwater for two weeks, collecting garbage, plastic shards, and entire plastic bottles. As its batteries drained, it would return to a nearby flagship, where the plastic would be emptied and recycled.  In addition to cleaning the oceans, the Marine Drone could yield profits for companies seeking to reduce petroleum use by recycling plastics. It is unclear how effective this concept would be and whether it would create another form of pollution (underwater noise), but it is certainly an innovative step in the right direction.

Another innovative concept is the piezoelectric transducer (wireless charger) invented by 22-year-old, University of Pennsylvania student, Meredith Perry. Sparked by forgetting her power cord in class, she figured there should be a way to wirelessly recharge devices, much like Wi-Fi for electricity.  Although it had been previously attempted, Perry is the first to utilize an ultrasound transmitter and a converter adaptor to store and convert ultrasound into electricity. The design for Perry’s piezoelectric transducer uses ultrasound waves to vibrate piezocrystals, causing them to move back and forth to generate an electric current.

uBeam transmits ultrasound energy to wirelessly charge multiple gadgets.
Image courtesy of Bitshare.com

Concept design for uBeam’s wireless multi-device charger.Image courtesy of Bitshare.com

With initial funding from her dad, Perry forged ahead despite having no electrical engineering background with the exception of what she read online. With classmate Nora Dweck, Perry founded UBeam, named after the device. The invention is still in the proof of concept stage, but it has gathered attention and investment from Silicon Valley firms because of its applicability for any small wireless gadget. Ubeam uses an ultrasound frequency in the upper limit of human hearing, which is safe for humans.

The Forbes’ 30 under 30 future leaders list recently acknowledged Perry’s innovation and she was a demonstrator at D, an industry meeting that brings together the most forward thinking, innovative people in the digital world. Check out Perry’s inspirational Ted Talk on the way new innovations come about.

“If you want to know what the world will look like in the near future, just watch your kids.” This is the claim of author Donald Tapscott, who wrote Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, and surveyed more than 11,000 Gen Y-ers to investigate how the ’net generation’ is changing the world. Working with Gen Y-ers has renewed my confidence that the world’s problems may just be solved through innovation rather than regulation. Society is exceeding what our planet can handle in terms of waste, pollution, and consumption. It’s going to take innovation at the intersection of disciplines and radical solutions like mushroom materials and ocean roombas, to figure out a way to live sustainably.

References

Ecovative Mushroom Packaging
Mushroom Packaging
– Ecovative Design: How Its Made

Marine Drone
– Stowe Boyd. Elie Ahovi Imagines An Affordable Way To Get Plastic From The Oceans
– Pappagallo, Linda. Marine Drones Wanted to Rid the Gulf Seas of Plastic. Green Prophet. July 9, 2012.
– Tuvie. Marine Drone Concept Collects Plastic Waste To Clean the Ocean.

uBeam
– Mohit, A. Don’t Say I Beam – Say uBeam. Technorati. September 9, 2011.
– Noguchi, Yuki. Young Entrepreneur Has A Better Idea. Now What? NPR. August 23, 2011.

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