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Circular Economy: Turning Waste into Resources
May09

Circular Economy: Turning Waste into Resources

By Roberta Attanasio We take, we make, we dispose — in this daily process, we deplete irreplaceable natural resources and generate not only massive waste, but also extensive environmental and health hazards. Our current economy — or linear economy — is based on the take-make-dispose approach. However, this approach is not sustainable. We need to ask ourselves a crucial question: how can we generate clean prosperity today, while preserving resources and ecological functions for use by future generations? In other words, how can we build a sustainable economy? The answer is: we can do so by adopting a new approach, one based on the so-called circular economy. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy is one that is restorative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles. In the circular economy, materials and products are reused, repaired, refurbished and recycled. Waste can be turned into resources. The inspiration for the circular economy approach is nature. Waste does not exist in nature, because ecosystems reuse everything that grows in a never-ending cycle of efficiency and purpose. Thus, the circular economy approach is based on an economic system in which no materials are wasted. In such a model, “Instead of selling products, we should retain ownership and sell their use as a service, allowing us to optimize the use of resources. Once we sell the benefits of the products instead of the products themselves, we begin to design for longevity, multiple reuse, and eventual recycling. This requires a new generation of materials as well as innovative development and production processes. In addition, we need to define new business models and redefine the concept of legal ownership and use, public tendering rules, and financing strategies. And we need adaptive logistics and a leadership culture that embraces and rewards the circular economy.” The video below, by the European Commission, is a fascinating tour of different creative approaches that are now being used to move towards a circular economy....

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Cosmetics: A Full Ban on Animal Testing in the European Union Encourages Research on Alternative Methods
Oct13

Cosmetics: A Full Ban on Animal Testing in the European Union Encourages Research on Alternative Methods

By The Editors On March 11, 2013, a full ban of animal testing for cosmetics entered into force in the European Union. In addition, as of March 11, 2013, cosmetics tested on animals cannot be marketed in the European Union. The day of the announcement, the European Commissioner in charge of Health & Consumer Policy, Tonio Borg, stated: “Today’s entry into force of the full marketing ban gives an important signal on the value that Europe attaches to animal welfare. The Commission is committed to continue supporting the development of alternative methods and to engage with third countries to follow our European approach. This is a great opportunity for Europe to set an example of responsible innovation in cosmetics without any compromise on consumer safety.” Because the European legislation requires proof of safety of consumer products on the European markets, alternative methods to animal testing based on the ‘three Rs’ concept (Reduce, Refine and Replace) are highly emphasized for safety and risk assessment. Thus, the European Commission launched a research initiative to fill current gaps in scientific knowledge and accelerate the development of methods that do not require animal testing. The research initiative is dubbed SEURAT-1 (Safety Evaluation Ultimately Replacing Animal Testing) and is supported by the European Commission and by the Cosmetics Europe industry for a total of 50 million EUR (Cosmetics Europe matched the funds made available by the European Commission). The replacement of animal testing for systemic, repeated dose and long term toxicity in humans is a major challenge. This challenge can only be tackled by using an integrated multifaceted platform using an integrated strategy that includes, among others, a systems biology approach, in silico methods and powerful bioinformatic tools. Accordingly, the SEURAT-1 research Initiative is composed of six research projects, which started on January 1, 2011, and will run for a total of five years. These projects will closely cooperate with a common goal and combine the research efforts of over 70 European universities, public research institutes and companies. The six research projects are: SCR&Tox, “Stem Cells for Relevant Efficient Extended and Normalized Toxicology” HeMiBio, “Hepatic Microfluidic Bioreactor” DETECTIVE, “Detection of endpoints and biomarkers of repeated dose toxicity using in vitro systems” COSMOS, “Integrated In Silico Models for the Prediction of Human Repeated Dose Toxicity of COSMetics to Optimise Safety” NOTOX, “Predicting long-term toxic effects using computer models based onsystems characterization of organotypic cultures “ ToxBank, “Supporting Integrated Data Analysis and Servicing of Alternative Testing Methods in Toxicology” The collaboration between these six research projects, the dissemination of results, the cooperation with other international research teams, and the continuous updating on research priorities will be facilitated by the coordination and support action project...

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Nanotechnology: Lycurgus Cup and Sensors
Aug29

Nanotechnology: Lycurgus Cup and Sensors

By Roberta Attanasio Nanotechnology is technology based on extremely small structures, the so-called nanostructures. How small are nanostructures? We’re talking nanoscale – about 1 to 100 nanometers. One nanometer is a billionth of a meter (there are 25,400,000 nanometers in one inch). These are the dimensions of atoms and molecules and, therefore, nanotechnology involves the manipulation of atoms and molecules. How, then, is nanotechnology different from molecular biology (sometimes called the nanoscience of living things), physics, or chemistry? The distinction can be blurred. However, when considering nanotechnology and nanostructures, it is important to take into account that nanostructures are man-made and exhibit special size-dependent properties, in other words properties resulting exclusively from their nanoscale dimensions. Jackie Ying, in a Nature Nanotechnology article (October 2006), gives a clear and simple definition of nanotechnology: “A toolbox that provides nanometer-sized building blocks for the tailoring of new materials, devices and systems.” In the same article, researchers, industrialists and others explain what nanotechnology means to them, providing a variety of perspectives that range from the enthusiastic to the sceptical. Peter Dobson states: “Actually, nanotechnology has been around for over a hundred years. Irving Langmuir was one of the first to truly develop the technology in the General Electric labs in the 1920s and 1930s.” In reality, nanotechnology has been around for centuries. The British Museum is home to the Lycurgus cup, made in Rome in the 4th century AD and known as one of the oldest nanotechnology-based marvels. Gang Logan Liu, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), describes the cup as an “icon for inspiration” – inspiration for innovative applications of nanotechnology. Thus, inspired by the Roman cup and its optical characteristics, Liu and collaborators developed a novel, ultra-sensitive tool for the analysis of chemical compounds, DNA, and proteins. This tool is a colorimetric sensor: it “senses” (detects) the presence of specific molecules and then indicates their presence by changing color. Indeed, the ability to change color is what makes the Lycurgus cup such a marvel. The Lycurgus cup is the only complete example of dichroic glass – glass that changes color when held up to the light. The jade-green cup turns to a glowing translucent red when light is shone through it. This dichroic effect was achieved by including in the glass plasmonic nanoparticles, in this case minutely ground gold and silver dust. Liu and collaborators published their work at the beginning of the year in an article entitled “Colorimetric Plasmon Resonance Imaging Using Nano Lycurgus Cup Arrays”. The article appears in the the scientific journal Advanced Optical Materials and describes their nanoscale Lycurgus cup – a colorimetric device that appears green when light is...

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Quinoa Production Goes Global
Aug17

Quinoa Production Goes Global

By The Editors There are at least two staple foods that The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) would like to see in our future: edible insects and quinoa. While it may take some time to see edible insects on the Western dinner tables, quinoa is already around, well-respected and well-adapted. The FAO has officially declared that the year 2013 be recognized as “The International Year of the Quinoa.” A few days ago (August 12-14) the role that quinoa’s biodiversity and nutritional value plays in providing food security and nutrition and in the eradication of poverty, was discussed at the International Quinoa Research Symposium hosted by Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman, Washington.  The symposium featured presentations from quinoa experts from around the world and included, in addition to discussion and presentations of current research, hands-on demonstrations at area field trials. WSU sponsored the symposium as partial result of funding received in 2012 by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture through the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. The grant will help develop adapted varieties and optimal management practices for quinoa production in diverse environmental conditions. The new acquired knowledge will be disseminated to Extension educators who can educate producers. Indeed, until about 15 years ago, quinoa was practically unknown outside of the Andean region of South America. Now, quinoa is a lucrative export crop and, as you may expect on the basis of FAO and USDA endorsement, is expected to go global.  However, during the symposium, agricultural researchers from different countries, including Egypt, Tibet, Denmark, France, Australia and others, reported not only stories of success but also stories of failures. Many varieties of quinoa only grow well in the cool, dry, highlands of the Andes. Researchers are testing different varieties from the Andean countries to identify some that will grow well in different areas while, at the same time, produce a seed that people like. Because quinoa production is expected to go global, researchers are also finding ways to mass-produce this crop and harvest it with machines — because of the extremely variable maturity periods, quinoa is usually harvested by hand. However, one of the major issues at the moment is that of fairness to the Andean farmers. During the conference, there was discussion of a potential solution: the creation of a special brand from quinoa produced in the Andean region, where indigenous peoples have preserved quinoa as food for present and future generations through ancestral practices of living in harmony with nature. We’re looking forward to this (potential) new brand of Andean “soul food” and we hope this will be one of many...

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Sustainability in Action: Mushrooms Replace Polystyrene Packaging
Jul05

Sustainability in Action: Mushrooms Replace Polystyrene Packaging

By The Editors We’re all familiar with polystyrene, one of the most widely used plastics. Because polystyrene can be easily cast into molds with fine detail, it has a zillion uses and you can find it everywhere. Think of protective packaging products such as packing peanuts (foam peanuts), clamshell containers, CD and DVD cases, lids, bottles, trays and more. Polystyrene is very slow to degrade – it persists in the environment for a long time. Do you remember the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the Plastic Footprint? What can be done to address this global environmental issue? Here we have an example: an innovative idea that becomes mushroom-based packaging, and ….. it’s not just recyclable — it’s compostable! When you see a mushroom, you see the fruiting body of the fungus — the mushroom is actually only a small, visible part of a much larger fungus. The main part of the fungus is underground in the form of mycelium. The mycelium has been described as Earth’s natural Internet and is composed of thread-like filaments called hyphae, which secrete enzymes necessary for breaking down sources of nutrients. The size of a mycelium varies — it can be so minute the naked eye can’t see it or as large as an acre or more. A few years ago, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, at the time students at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, thought of using mycelium as a resin. Their idea led them to found a company, Ecovative. Ecovative’s products can replace materials ranging from petroleum based expanded plastics (like Styrofoam™) to particle board made using carcinogenic formaldehyde. Ecovative’s raw materials come from farms and consist of parts of plants that cannot be used for food or feed. These agricultural materials are blended, cleaned and inoculated with mycelium. After inoculation, the mixture is filled evenly into forms in an automated process. The mycelium grows indoors in about a week without any need for light, watering or petrochemical inputs, and in any needed shape. When the growth necessary to obtain the desired shape is complete, the materials are dehydrated and heated so there will never be any spores or allergen concerns. This is a clear example of sustainable products. A few days ago, we discussed greenwashing. Here, we have the opposite situation – a truly green company that produces natural, renewable and biodegradable products with the potential to effectively decrease the plastic...

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