Thursday, September 6, 2012

Reuse, Recycle, Sustain


That seems to be the new buzz word, whether it's in corporate lingo or advertising copy.  What it's really about is survival.  Helping humans to continue to survive while not wrecking the environment in which we live.

One innovative and inventive effort towards sustainability that I came across recently in this TIME Magazine article is the idea of turning bagels into plastic.

Yes, I'm quite sober.

Americans waste about 40% of their food supply by throwing it out.  Now, a biochemical scientist at the City University of Hong Kong has proposed a method to turn all of this thrown away food into one of our most common needs.  A la the article, say you take a mass of baked goods tossed out by Starbucks.  A fungus is then added to the breads and pastries so that chemical bonds can break down.  Sugars and nitrogen compounds are released as the fungi digest the food.  You then add in bacteria to go to work on the sugars.  These bacteria produce succinic acid.

Succinic acid is a key compound in plastics.  We're talking bottles, car parts, packaging, you name it.  Right now, succinic acid is produced in chemical plants and then driven by truck to where it's needed.  That's one big carbon footprint.  Deriving it from a wholly natural source and thereby creating bioplastics, that just makes more sense.  I'm aware that this doesn't take oil, another requirement for plastics, completely out of the equation but it's a start.

One need not go so far to make an effort towards sustainability.  Sure, I'd like to have my own biorefinery to turn my table scraps from dinner into piceous yet sustainable biofuels for my car, but I'm a long way from doing that.  So why not just stick with the dinner portion of the deal?

That's what one professor and several students at my college have done. Tonight on campus, we held a dinner with a focus on sustainability.  Nearly every part of the meal came from local sources, including amazing fruits and vegetables that were fresher than any I've had in a long time.  Imagine that?  Knowing exactly where your food came from.  I've been buying my groceries out of supermarkets for so long that the concept of origin never occurred to me.  What's more, every table scrap was saved and sent to compost.

Like most meals for 40 or more people, this one took a great deal of work on the part of both the students and the professor.  I commend them for it and for their commitment to a healthier environment.   

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