“Mom, can we visit Japan?” my 11-year-old daughter Sadie asked me out of the blue the other day. Thinking about delicious sushi and cool minimalist architecture, I agreed it would make a fun vacation destination.
But Sadie was intrigued by something else: An amazing toilet she’d read about. It had a built-in sink, and when you washed your hands after doing your business, the greywater from the sink was used to fill the toilet tank for the next flush. The sink-toilet combination is one of many toilet innovations popular in Japan (Wikipedia has an entry just on Japanese toilets), and it’s definitely one of the country’s more sustainable. It makes me wonder if it would be possible to simply connect the drain from my bathroom sink into the fill tank of my toilet — I love the idea of being able to cut my water use without losing any convenience!
Like Sadie, I’m often intrigued reading about cool sustainability innovations from other countries. It makes me feel like the world is a little smaller, knowing that wherever you live, the struggles of reducing waste and energy consumption are universal and interconnected. Here are some of the coolest green advances I’ve seen from around the world.
1. A British technology that makes use of end-of-life plastic
In the UK and Spain, the company Plastic Energy uses a chemical process called Thermal Anaerobic Conversion to turn non-recyclable plastic into hydrocarbon fuel. Its plants in Spain can process up to 20 tons of plastic waste each day. Last year the company made news when it provided fuel to power a historic light-aircraft flight that traveled 500 miles, from Sydney to Melbourne, Australia. The trip was intended to prove to airlines and other industries that this plastic-derived fuel could safely be used in place of diesel fuel.
2. A transit station in Sweden heated by human bodies
The 250,000 commuters who pass through Central Station in Stockholm, are unwitting energy sources: Not only do they warm the entire building, but the excess heat energy is captured and transferred via underground water tanks to heat a nearby office building. Sweden’s use of this so-called passive energy extends beyond commercial buildings; residential buildings in Sweden also use the technology, most notably some city-funded high-rise apartment buildings in the Southern city of Växjö. And it turns out that one American icon also uses passive energy: The Mall of America in Minneapolis uses a combination of body heat from shoppers and solar power from skylights to keep its 4.8 million-square-foot building a comfortable 70 degrees.
3. Wearable solar chargers from Japan
Imagine not having to worry about your smartphone running out of power. A Japanese company has developed tiny, lightweight solar cells that could be incorporated into jackets, hats, and other garments so that you can charge your devices on the go.
4. France’s ban on supermarket waste
In 2016, the French government passed a law that supermarkets can no longer throw away edible food. Many supermarkets avoid the possible penalty by partnering with food banks. Along with this law, there are other policies designed to combat food waste: Schools must include food-sustainability education in their curriculum, and companies must report food-waste figures in their environmental reports. Keeping companies accountable goes a long way.
5. Germany’s Green Dot program
A law in Germany, passed in the 1990s, requires manufacturers to be responsible for the disposal or recycling of their packaging waste. The Green Dot on packages shows that the manufacturer has contributed money to a packaging recovery company to finance the recycling of its packaging waste. It’s an incentive for companies to reduce the amount of materials that they use to package their goods. The concept is spreading to North America and might soon be a thing in the United States.
If, as they say, it is indeed a small world, hopefully some of these successful efforts can be made more mainstream in other countries so that we all can benefit from being more sustainable.