Did you know that your morning cup of coffee contributes to six million tonnes of spent coffee grounds going to landfill every year? This does not have to be the fate of your caffeine addiction and there are many opportunities to up-cycle spent coffee grounds into valuable commodities.
From fresh fruit, to roasted bean, to used up grounds, coffee’s chemical composition offers a range of uses beyond making your daily brew.
Potential applications range from biofuels, to health products, and fertiliser for farms or your garden. So why are we throwing this precious product away?
The answer is that processing and production can be more complex than you might imagine – even when we’re talking about simply using coffee grounds in your garden. What’s more, many recycling initiatives to turn waste coffee into valuable commodities are still in their early stages.
You may have noticed that some cafes now offer free spent coffee grounds for customers to take home and use in the garden. In theory, this is a great initiative but the reality is that fresh coffee grounds are high in caffeine, chlorogenic acid and tannins that are beneficial to humans but toxic to plants.
The spent coffee must be detoxified by composting for a minimum of 98 days for plants to benefit from the potassium and nitrogen contained in the roasted beans. Without adequate composting, the benefits are scant (see below). So if you do take some coffee grounds home from your local cafe, make sure you compost them before sprinkling them on the veggie patch.
The good news is that properly composted coffee grounds offer a cheap alternative to agro-industrial fertilisers, potentially helping urban communities become greener and more sustainable. Savvy businesses have begun processing coffee grounds on a commercial scale, turning them into nutrient-rich fertilisers or soil conditioners in convenient pellets for use in the garden.
But why stop there? A potentially even more valuable ingredient is the chlorogenic acid. Although toxic to plants, as mentioned above, chlorogenic acid has potential as a natural health supplement for humans, because of its antioxidant, anticancer and neuroprotective properties.
The whole coffee production process is abundant in chlorogenic acid, particularly in raw coffee beans. Chlorogenic acid conversion efficiency is even better from green coffee pulp, with a 50% recovery rate, compared with 19% for spent coffee grounds.
As undersized and imperfect beans are discarded at this raw stage, many businesses have seized the opportunity to market green coffee extracts as a weight loss product, although more research is needed to confirm this potential.
The list doesn’t end there. Coffee waste can be used to create a diverse list of chemicals, including enzymes and hormones for digestion of common biological compounds and to improve plant growth; and feedstocks for high-end crops such as mushrooms. Coffee oil has even been trialled as a fuel for London buses.
With abundant waste supplies due to the popularity of coffee consumption, by recycling the byproducts, perhaps we can enjoy one of our favourite beverages without too much guilt.
Both techniques use existing genetic material on the reef to breed hardier corals, and do not involve genetic engineering.
But why are such interventions needed? Can’t the reef simply repair itself?
Damage to the reef, so far
Coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017 took its biggest toll on the reef to date, with two-thirds of the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem impacted in these back-to-back events. The consequence was widespread damage.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will dampen coral bleaching risk in the long term, but will not prevent it. Even with strong action to tackle climate change, more warming is locked in.
So while emissions reductions are essential for the future of the reef, other actions are now also needed.
Even in the most optimistic future, reef-building corals need to become more resilient. Continued improvement of water quality, controlling Crown-of-Thorns Starfish, and managing no-take areas will all help.
But continued stress from climate change – in frequency and intensity – increasingly overwhelms the natural resilience despite the best conventional management efforts. Although natural processes of adaptation and acclimation are in play, they are unlikely to be fast enough to keep up with any rate of global warming.
So to boost the reef’s resilience in the face of climate change we need to consider new interventions – and urgently.
That’s why we believe assisted gene flow and assisted evolution could help the reef.
Delaying their development could mean that climate change degrades the reef beyond repair, and before we can save key species.
What is assisted gene flow?
The idea here is to move warm-adapted corals to cooler parts of the reef. Corals in the far north are naturally adapted to 1C to 2C higher summer temperatures than corals further south.
This means there is an opportunity to build resistance to future warming in corals in the south under strong climate change mitigation, or to decades of warming under weaker mitigation.
There is already natural genetic connectivity of coral populations across most of the reef. But the rate of larval flow from the warm north to the south is limited, partly because of the South Equatorial Current that flows west across the Pacific.
The South Equatorial Current splits into the north-flowing Gulf of Papua Current and south-flowing East Australian Current off the coast of north Queensland. This means coral larvae spawned in the warm north are often more likely to stay in the north.
So manually moving some of the northern corals south could help overcome that physical limitation of natural north-to-south larval flow. If enough corals could be moved it could help heat-damaged reefs recover faster with more heat-resistant coral stock.
We could start safe tests at a subset of well-chosen reefs to understand how warm-adapted populations can be spread to reefs further south.
What is assisted evolution?
While assisted gene flow may be effective for southern or recently degraded reefs, it will not be enough or feasible for all reefs or species. Here, we argue that assisted evolution could help.
Assisted evolution is artificial selection on steroids. It combines multiple approaches that target the coral host and its essential microbial symbionts.
These are aimed at producing a hardier coral without the use of genetic engineering. Experiments at the Australian Institute of Marine Science are already making progress, with results yet to be published.
First, evolution of algal symbionts in isolation from the coral host has been fast-tracked to resist higher levels of heat stress. When symbionts are made to reengage with the coral host, benefits to bleaching resistance are still small, but with more work we expect to see a hardier symbiosis.
Secondly, experiments have created new genetic diversity of corals through hybridisation and researchers have selected these artificially for increased climate resilience.
Natural hybridisation happens only occasionally on the reef, so this result gives us new options for climate hardening corals using existing genetic stocks.
The danger of doing nothing?
The right time to start any new intervention is when the risk of inaction is greater than the risk of action.
Assisted gene flow and assisted evolution represent manageable risk because they use genetic material already present on the reef. The interventions speed up naturally occurring processes and do not involve genetic engineering.
These interventions would not introduce or produce new species. Assisted gene flow would simply enhance the natural flow of warm-adapted corals into areas on the reef that desperately need more heat tolerance.
Risk of increasing the spread of diseases may also be low because most parts of the Reef are already interconnected. A full understanding of risks is an area of continued research.
These are just two examples of new tools that could help build climate resilience on the reef. Other interventions are developing and should be put on the table for open discussion.
Social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram could be a rich source of free information for scientists tasked with monitoring the health of coral reefs and other environmental assets, our new research suggests.
Ecosystems are under pressure all over the world, and monitoring their health is crucial. But scientific monitoring is very expensive, requiring a great deal of expertise, sophisticated instruments, and detailed analysis, often in specialised laboratories.
This expense – and the need to educate and engage the public – have helped to fuel the rise of citizen science, in which non-specialist members of the public help to make observations and compile data.
Our research suggests that the wealth of information posted on social media could be tapped in a similar way. Think of it as citizen science by people who don’t even realise they’re citizen scientists.
Smartphones and mobile internet connections have made it much easier for citizens to help gather scientific information. Examples of environmental monitoring apps include WilddogScan, Marine Debris Tracker, OakMapper and Journey North, which monitors the movements of Monarch butterflies.
Meanwhile, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Flickr host vast amounts of information. While not posted explicitly for environmental monitoring, social media posts from a place like the Great Barrier Reef can contain useful information about the health (or otherwise) of the environment there.
Twitter is a good resource for this type of “human sensing”, because data are freely available and the short posts are relatively easy to process. This approach could be particularly promising for popular places that are visited by many people.
In our research project, we downloaded almost 300,000 tweets posted from the Great Barrier Reef between July 1, 2016 and March 17, 2017.
After filtering for relevant keywords such as “fish”, “coral”, “turtle” or “bleach”, we cut this down to 13,344 potentially useful tweets. Some 61% of these tweets had geographic coordinates that allow spatial analysis. The heat map below shows the distribution of our tweets across the region.
Twitter is known as place for sharing instantaneous opinions, perceptions and experiences. It is therefore reasonable to assume that if someone posts a tweet about the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns they are talking about a nearby part of the reef, so we can use the tweet’s geocoordinates as indicators of the broad geographic area to which the post is referring. Images associated with such tweets would help to verify this assumption.
Our analysis provides several interesting insights. First, keyword frequencies highlight what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef are most talked about, including activities such as diving (876 mentions of “dive” or “diving”, and 300 of “scuba”), features such as “beaches” (2,909 times), and favoured species such as “coral” (434) and “turtles” (378).
The tweets also reveal what is not talked about. For example, the word “bleach” appeared in only 94 of our sampled tweets. Furthermore, our results highlighted what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef people are most happy with, for example sailing and snorkelling, and which elements had negative connotations (such as the number of tweets expressing concern about dugong populations).
Casting the net wider
Clearly, this pool of data was large enough to undertake some interesting analysis. But generally speaking, the findings are more reflective of people’s experiences than of specific aspects of the environment’s health.
The quality of tweet information with regard to relevant incidents or changes could, however, be improved over time, for example with the help of a designated hashtag system that invites people to post their specific observations.
Similar alert systems and hashtags have been developed for extreme events and emergency situations, for example by the New South Wales Fire Service.
Tweets also often contain photographs – as do Instagram and Flickr posts – which can carry useful information. An image-based system, particularly in cases where photos carry time and location stamps, would help to address the lack of expertise of the person posting the image, because scientists can analyse and interpret the raw images themselves.
The Great Barrier Reef is, of course, already extensively monitored. But social media monitoring could be particularly beneficial in countries where more professional monitoring is unaffordable. Popular destinations in the Pacific or Southeast Asia, for example, could tap into social media to establish systems that simultaneously track visitors’ experiences as well as the health of the environment.
While it is early days and more proof-of-concept research is needed, the technological possibilities of Big Data, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence will almost certainly make socially shared content a useful data source for a wide range of environmental monitoring in the future.
The underlying issue is the fundamental change in energy solutions. As I pointed out in my previous column, we are moving away from investment by governments and large businesses in big power stations and centralised supply, and towards a distributed, diversified and more complex energy system. As a result, there is a growing focus on “behind the meter” technologies that save, store or produce energy.
What this means is that anyone who does not have access to capital, or is uninformed, disempowered or passive risks being disadvantaged – unless governments act.
The reality is that energy-efficient appliances and buildings, rooftop solar, and increasingly energy storage, are cost-effective. They save households money through energy savings, improved health, and improved performance in comparison with buying grid electricity or gas. But if you can’t buy them, you can’t benefit.
In the past, financial institutions loaned money to governments or big businesses to build power stations and gas supply systems. Now we need mechanisms to give all households and businesses access to loans to fund the new energy system.
Households that cannot meet commercial borrowing criteria, or are disempowered – such as tenants, those under financial stress, or those who are disengaged for other reasons – need help.
Governments have plenty of options.
They can require landlords to upgrade buildings and fixed appliances, or make it attractive for them to do so. Or a bit of both.
They can help the supply chain that upgrades buildings and supplies appliances to do this better, and at lower cost.
They can facilitate the use of emerging technologies and apps to identify faulty and inefficient appliances, then fund their replacement. Repayments can potentially be made using the resulting savings.
They can ban the sale of inefficient appliances by making mandatory performance standards more stringent and widening their coverage.
They can help appliance manufacturers make their products more efficient, and ensure that everyone who buys them know how efficient they are.
To expand on the last suggestion, at present only major household white goods, televisions and computer monitors are required to carry energy labels. If you are buying a commercial fridge, pizza oven, cooker, or stereo system, you are flying blind.
The Finkel Review made it clear that the energy industry will not lead on this. It clearly recommends that energy efficiency is a job for governments, and that they need to accelerate action.
It’s time for governments to get serious about helping everyone to join the energy transition, not just the most affluent.
Cities have always been eco(nomic)cities but rarely eco(logical)cities. Today, growing inequality and environmental degradation undermine the very conditions of life as we have known it. Continuing business and urbanisation as usual will make this problem worse.
But citizens can only so do much. One hope for our cities, identified in my research, is that more and more businesses put ecological and social sustainability at the core of their performance model.
Companies that lead the way
Companies like commercial carpet tile manufacturer Interface Carpets did this a generation ago when it abandoned the linear “take-make-waste” model of production. Instead, it embraced a commitment to eliminating any negative impact on the environment.
With the input of an “eco dream team” made up of pragmatic philosophers and biomimicry experts, the company adopted a visionary plan, “Mission Zero”.
The Interface business was redesigned along circular economy lines to eliminate oil from the production of synthetic carpet tiles. This achievement will be largely completed by Interface’s target year 2020. At the same time, the business has eliminated waste, is powered by 100% renewable energy and uses efficient transportation.
But environmental wellbeing is not all Interface is committed to. Social equity is also a company goal.
Interface’s Netherlands plant is pioneering collaboration with a social enterprise that employs people at a distance from the labour market. This enterprise is organising the cleaning and reuse of carpet tiles, large proportions of which are replaced before their product expiry date.
Interface’s Minto plant, on the outskirts of Sydney, has taken the corporate lead internationally to refashion the “factory as a forest” as part of the new Climate Take Back strategy.
The goal is not only to reduce the negative impact on the environment but to have a positive impact through restorative action. How this will be done is still to be determined, but it is objectives like Mission Zero that have driven innovation in the past.
The Australian social enterprise Soft Landing first established just north of Wollongong provides jobs for people experiencing disadvantage. They disassemble and recycle the materials of mattresses that otherwise get dumped in landfill.
Just like Interface, Soft Landing is exploring new interdependencies between for-profit firms with a commitment to environmental sustainability and for-purpose social enterprise.
Having worked with key industry partners over many years, Soft Landing is co-ordinating a product stewardship scheme that enrols firms in voluntarily adopting sustainability protocols for mattress making and unmaking.
Mattresses are a problem waste stream, and this initiative will help roll out Soft Landing’s innovative “waste to wages” model, significantly reducing landfill while also creating jobs.
A carpet manufacturer and mattress recycler are showing the way toward repairing and restoring the social and environmental fabric, and pushing policy along as they do so. This is jobs and growth in a new register. If they can do it, so can others.
Now for the construction sector…
Now we need the urban building sector to take notice and attend to the context in which carpet and mattresses are housed.
Rather than catering to demand for the cheapest housing that conforms to the most basic of BASIX, we need to see some leadership with housing that truly contributes to environmental and social restoration and repair.
Housing developers could race to the top by experimenting with:
Interface and Soft Landing are successful businesses that show what can happen when commitments to building a better world become central to their brand. If we can’t rely on our politicians to listen to the warnings of the Anthropocene, we can at least turn to ethically attuned business to help make ecological cities a reality.
Working with a reparative ecological approach and a commitment to socio-economic inclusion, everyone can be part of a solution. Overcoming inequality and environmental degradation is key to ensuring that ecocities are not another excuse for business as usual in a new guise.
You can read other articles in the series here. The Ecocity World Summit is being hosted by the University of Melbourne, Western Sydney University, the Victorian government and the City of Melbourne in Melbourne from July 12-14.
The wild storms that lashed eastern Australia earlier this year damaged property and eroded beaches, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage. As sea levels rise, the impact of storms will threaten more and more homes, businesses and services along the coastline.
CSIRO projections suggest that seas may rise by as much 82cm by the end of the century. When added to high tides, and with the influence of winds and associated storms, this can mean inundation by waters as high as a couple of metres.
As a community, we have to start deciding what must be protected, and how and when; where we will let nature take its course; how and if we need to modify the way we live and work near the coast; and so on. Many of these decisions fall largely to local governments.
We have launched a website to help local councils and Australians prepare for a climate change future. CoastAdapt lets you find maps of your local area under future sea-level scenarios, read case studies, and make adaptation plans.
How will sea-level rise affect you?
Using sea-level rise modelling from John Church and his team at CSIRO, CoastAdapt provides sea-level projections for four greenhouse gas scenarios, for individual local government areas. This also provides a set of inundation maps for the selected local government area.
The inundation maps (developed by the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information) show the average projected sea-level rise for a particular climate change scenario, combined with the highest tide. The method provides an approximation of where flooding may occur.
Because water is simply filled onto the map according to elevation, it doesn’t account for things like estuary shapes and water movement, the behaviour of waves and so on.
But both the maps and the sea-level projections are a useful way to start thinking about where risks may lie in any given local government area.
CoastAdapt also looks at what we know about coastal processes in the present day. Understanding these characteristics helps us understand where and why the coast is vulnerable to inundation and erosion.
For instance, sandy coasts are much more vulnerable to erosion than rocky coasts. The information will help decision-makers understand the behaviour of their coasts and their susceptibility to erosion under sea-level rise.
In the small seaside town of Port Fairy in southeast Victoria, for example, an active community group is monitoring the accelerated erosion of dunes on one of their beaches. The council and community have worked together to prioritise protecting dune areas with decommissioned landfill to prevent this rubbish tip being exposed to the beach.
Other councils have already undertaken the process of assessing their risks and drafting adaptation plans.
Low-lying areas in the City of Lake Macquarie already experience occasional flooding from high seas. This is expected to become more common and more severe.
Lake Macquarie Council has successfully worked with the local community to come up with 39 possible management actions, which the community then assessed against social, economic and environmental criteria. The area now has a strategy for dealing with current flooding and for gradually building protection for future sea-level rise.
This approach has engaged community members and given them the opportunity to help decide the future of their community.
What stumps councils and other coastal decision-makers is the scale and complexity of the problem. Each decision-maker needs to have some sense of the risk of future climate change to their interests, then develop plans that will help them to cope or adapt to these risks. Planners and adaptors must navigate uncertainty in where, when and how much change they must consider, and how these changes interact with other issues that must be managed.
To better understand the risk, decision-makers need access to timely, authoritative advice presented in ways and levels that are useful for their needs. This is particularly true for an issue such as climate science, which is technically complex.
Climate projections, particularly at the local level, come with a level of certainty and probability. The further we look into the future, the more extraneous factors are unknown – for example, will global policy succeed in bringing down greenhouse emissions? Or will these keep increasing, which will necessitate planning for worst-case scenarios?
Add to this the questions around legal risk, financing adaptation measures, accommodating community views and so on, and the task is daunting.
That’s the thinking behind CoastAdapt – the first national attempt to create a platform that brings together a range of data, tools and research that have been developing and growing over the last decade. As well as maps and case studies, we’ve also built an adaptation planning framework (Coastal Climate Adaptation Decision Support) and set up an online forum for people to ask questions, exchange ideas and even pose questions to our panel of experts.
The author would like to acknowledge the work of staff of the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility. CoastAdapt is in beta version and is seeking feedback. The final version will be released in early 2017.
When it comes to climate change, do you practice what you preach? While many of us express strong concern about the issue, there tends to be a yawning gap between this concern and many people’s willingness to actually act on it by doing things like using less power or petrol.
Why should we care about this “value-action gap”? Well for one thing, these practices can make a big difference: up to an estimated 20% of household emissions, according to one US study. Things like using housing insulation and public transport, if done on a wide enough scale, can seriously help the world avoid major climate change.
Many might attribute this gap to “cheap talk” – people say they care, but they don’t really. But survey after survey has shown that people are truly aware of the risks of climate change, and that it is a growing source of emotional distress. In Australia, national surveys in 2010 and 2012 showed that public acceptance and concern about climate change has remained very high, and that it is viewed as a genuine threat by many people across different ages, regions and income levels.
A much more disturbing idea is that people’s choices are shaped by their work and social settings, and that people’s lifestyles therefore hold them back from taking action. This is the crux of what the downshifting movement has been telling us about for decades: that your choices are not just yours alone, but are heavily shaped by the environment in which you live, the hours you work and play, and the social norms you embrace.
What time to adapt?
My colleagues and I re-analysed this extensive survey database, and found evidence to support this idea. Working conditions do indeed seem to influence the extent to which people act on their environmental concerns.
After controlling for a range of demographic variables and household income, we found that people who work longer hours tend to have a significantly larger gap between the extent to which they are concerned about the environment, and their actual engagement in environmentally sustainable practices.
It is tempting to attribute this to the effect of income – people who work longer are probably richer as well. But then again, wouldn’t more money make people better able to act on their concerns?
Here’s the catch: while the rich who declare themselves to be concerned about climate change do tend to buy environmentally friendly products, our results show they are also much less much likely to engage in time-consuming practices concerning how their goods are used, such as conserving electricity and fuel.
Our results suggest that policies to improve work-life balance and working conditions may deliver important environmental dividends. When it comes to adapting to climate change, governments and employers would do well to consider how long working hours can get in the way of environmentally sound behaviour.
Currently, millions of dollars are spent every year on public information and engagement campaigns to encourage the voluntary adoption of environmentally sustainable practices. Yet evidence suggests that such campaigns are relatively ineffective, partly because behaviour patterns are “locked” into existing lifestyles.
What’s more, as the economist Clive Spash has pointed out, standard “tax-and-subsidise” measures, such as both the carbon tax and the government’s Direct Action plan, are recognized to be both slow and costly to implement, and run the risk of reducing people’s motivation to take their own voluntary action.
In other words, there is a danger that the more people formally pay for carbon emissions, the less likely they are to do their bit to reduce their own carbon footprint.
Rather than narrowly focusing on taxing and subsidizing our way towards a more sustainable economy, we need to find way in which we can encourage people to act voluntarily on their environmental concerns. Rather than merely raising public awareness about climate change, the real challenge is to ensure that people have the broad capacity to respond to these messages.
Measures to improve work-life balance may help people to adapt their lifestyles so they can act on their environmental concerns.
The daily grind
For those of us caught in the daily balancing act between work and everything else, the advice is simple. Do take that opportunity to go home an hour early – not only are you safeguarding your mental health, you are also encouraging others to lead lifestyles that are more reflective of their values, environmental or otherwise.
Of course, if you go home and decide to burn coal for an extra hour, that’s not true.
But chances are that you, like most people, are concerned about climate change but just haven’t had the time to really think about what exactly you can do about it.
It’s time to change that – and that’s something that governments and employers, by implementing measures which promote a better work-life balance, can help out with too.