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Brewing a real response to climate change

Brewing a real response to climate change

Innovative leaders in the beer industry are serving up true sustainability along with your brew.

Farming in the age of climate change is an uncertain proposition, as the hop growers in Washington’s Yakima Valley can attest. As weather patterns alter, the farmers who grow 40% of the world’s hop supply are battling one crisis after another. Violent windstorms toppled their hop trellises just before the 2020 harvest. (A similar gale drove the December 2021 fire that ripped through the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado.) An unprecedented heat dome scorched their crop during the summer of 2021. And wildfires during the autumn of 2020 ruined still more hops.

Over the past two years, these issues have played out across the beer industry supply chain. “The Colorado wildfires made the water unusable for our brewery,” says Katie Wallace, New Belgium Brewing’s director of social and environmental impact. “We also had the worst barley crop in farmers’ lifetimes due to extreme heat, and limited hop supplies because of the smoke taint. There were major supply chain disruptions during extreme weather events, like the deep freeze in February, that shut down deliveries of supplies critical to brewing and stalled production.” New Belgium’s R&D specialist Dave Glor echoes Wallace: “From fruit juices to barley, everything was impacted.”

But even as climate change batters their business, New Belgium and others in the beer industry are leading the way in adapting, offering a case study on environmental action that has real, measurable impact.

A case study in concrete action

Based in Fort Collins, Colorado, New Belgium Brewing wanted consumers to experience the flavor of climate change – so their flagship brand, Fat Tire, released “Torched Earth,” a limited-release ale incorporating smoke-tainted, drought-parched ingredients. It tasted terrible. “Being able to communicate the reality of what climate change would do to beer is really important,” says New Belgium’s Wallace. “Because if we don’t take action, it’s going to get worse.”

Fat Tire also made waves throughout the beer world in 2020, when they announced that their popular amber ale was certified carbon neutral – the first beer in the United States to achieve that status. But these initiatives are just the tips of the (rapidly melting) iceberg. The brewery is doing deep work at all levels to become as sustainable as possible, undertaking a broad portfolio of actions that consumers can see and measure.

At their peak, the solar panels atop New Belgium’s Fort Collins Packaging Hall make enough electricity to power the canning and bottling lines. Fat Tire

The effort started with a comprehensive carbon accounting process – a critical analysis of how much is emitted by the business, and where. From there, Fat Tire began buying high-quality carbon offsets for the emissions outside of their direct control, like transportation. Fat Tire’s efforts will pave the way for similar programs across all New Belgium beers, putting the business on the path to complete carbon neutrality by 2030. 

New Belgium Brewing also played a crucial role in lobbying the city council of Fort Collins to transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2030. Wallace says other companies shouldn’t hesitate to do the same. “Sometimes companies feel like they need to have their own carbon accounting in place first, but this is the low hanging fruit,” she says. “Companies should go talk to whoever leads their local utility about moving to renewables. It’s an action they can take now! Companies don’t have to have perfect internal sustainability before asking for that.”

Wallace also highlights the role of larger companies in the fight against climate change: “70% of our emissions come from 100 companies,” she says. “It’s concerning. We can break our backs over here as a medium-size business, but we need the bigger companies to do the work too.” To that end, New Belgium and Fat Tire launched a “Last Call for Climate” initiative, highlighting the sustainability efforts of Fortune 500 companies, along with Twitter links for consumers to call them out or praise them based on their sustainability plans.

New Belgium’s other actions include developing beverage company sustainability standards and launching a carbon-neutral brewery toolkit for their competitors to download and use — free of charge.

For 2022 and beyond, the company has bold goals. “We just rolled out a supplier engagement program, partnering with our suppliers to understand our climate goals,” says Wallace. “Our success will rely on them heavily.” Other items on the agenda include implementing recommendations from the energy engineer New Belgium hired to review their 2030 net-zero plan, continuing to work with their internal carbon-neutral task force, and engaging with New Belgium’s banking and insurance providers.” They have so much influence in what gets funded in the world,” Wallace says.

A ripple effect

New Belgium’s work has also paved the way for other beer companies to take action. Chase O’Malley, from Sunday Beer Co., says, “When New Belgium announced in 2020 that they had made one of their beers carbon neutral, it was the first I had heard of another brewery doing it on that scale. That was really inspiring to us.” Sunday Beer Co. quickly followed suit, making their signature lager carbon neutral, and pooling with other small businesses to purchase offsets through the non-profit Carbon Neutral. Future beers made by the company will also be carbon neutral. The brewery has now switched to fully recyclable packaging, and is reassessing the supply chain for their non-beverage merchandise. “None of us believe that buying offsets is how we’re going to solve the climate crisis,” says O’Malley. “Paying someone else not to emit is not going to solve the problem. But putting the climate first in our business decisions is the first step.”

New Belgium has also inspired Colorado-based Upslope Brewing Company. “We had been on the hunt for a free, comprehensive accounting tool for a while,” says Elizabeth Waters, who oversees sustainability efforts at Upslope. “We were thrilled when New Belgium released their carbon toolkit. It’s user-friendly and specific to the beer industry.” Upslope plans to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030, and is on track to achieve zero-waste by 2025.

Other major players in the beer world are following suit: Wallace says other large craft breweries using New Belgium’s toolkit are on track to announce their carbon-neutral plans soon. And the Yakima Valley hop farmers are doing their part, too – from implementing carbon sequestration practices and more efficient energy and water use to commissioning a first-of-its-kind lifecycle study of hops carbon footprint.

Consumers care

The response from consumers has proven that concrete climate action leads to sales. Kendall Jones, a journalist and the founder of the Washington Beer Blog, sees the trend growing. “A lot of craft beer drinkers are putting sustainability at the forefront,” he says. “One of the reasons the audience for craft beer is growing is that people who make decisions based on sustainability are seeing it as the more sustainable choice.”

New Belgium’s Katie Wallace sees this trend borne out in the data – consumer perceptions of Fat Tire have ticked sharply upwards since the ale became carbon neutral, and other data bears out the trend. “We see a lot of support from our customers around our sustainability work,” she says. “According to our Nielsen data, 84% of customers believe it’s important for a beer to be carbon neutral.”

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Winemakers must pay close attention to their soil, the rain, the heat, and the sunlight. But rodents like gophers and mice can wreak havoc on a vineyard. Rather than turning to rodenticides to deter pests, graduate students at Humboldt State University in California are testing a more natural approach by using owls.

Other brewers are seeing the same positive response. “As we’ve grown our sustainability program, an increasing number of our stakeholders have been reaching out with questions and interest in partnering,” says Elizabeth Waters from Upslope Brewing Company. O’Malley from Sunday Beer Co. also sees the impact. “We’ve received incredibly positive feedback,” he says.

Wallace says collective action is the next step in the journey. “There have been many times when we have collectively invested in our shared wellbeing,” she says. “Many of the systems we depend on today came from protecting our shared prosperity during a time of threat, like the Great Depression or World War II. Right now, the biggest threat is climate change. It’s time to come together and make sure we’re addressing that.”

As the consumer response shows, taking concrete steps in the battle against climate change can also be good business practice. This bolsters the leaders in the beer industry who are taking a stance that other sectors would do well to emulate. As O’Malley of Sunday Beer Co. puts it: “The crisis is here. We can’t just take incremental steps — we need to leap forward as an industry. Our product is so tied to agriculture and the realities of our environment. Why shouldn’t the beer industry lead the way on these bigger goals and issues?”


Grist Creative

What Are Solar Trees, and Could They Replace Solar Panels?

What Are Solar Trees, and Could They Replace Solar Panels?

At first glance, solar trees might seem impractical — more art than function when compared to the best solar panels. But solar trees offer a few surprising benefits over their ground-mounted counterparts

Did you know that the shape of airplane wings were designed to mimic the sloped wing tips of eagles? That the ridges on whales’ fins that create an aerodynamic flow in water inspired the shape of the modern wind turbine? That termites drilling holes in their mounds to cool down in the desert summers influenced a method for designing more energy-efficient buildings?

Biomimicry has long been one of my favorite growing areas of science and sustainability — emulating models, systems or elements of nature to solve complex human problems. After all, mother nature has been around a lot longer than humans; she has a lot to teach us. So, as a specialist focused on solar energy, I’ve often wondered what nature can teach us about how to capture our power from the sun. Enter solar trees. 

What Are Solar Trees? 

A solar tree is a device resembling a tree in shape, but with photovoltaic (PV) panels in place of its crown. The “leaves” of the tree capture solar energy and convert it to electricity, with branches funneling that electricity down through a trunk and into a central battery within. In essence, they provide the same benefits as solar panels, but they use only a fraction of the surface area necessary for an array of solar panels.       

Solar trees are not a new invention, but they’re enjoying a rising popularity. Most of our readers may recognize the most iconic solar trees in Singapore’s stunning Gardens By the Bay, as seen in productions like Crazy Rich Asians and The Bachelor.

As they exist today, more solar trees raise public awareness around sustainability than are used to generate residential or commercial power. What’s more, the trees are still perceived as “futuristic,” but it might be time we start shifting our mindset about these inventions by incorporating them into our vision of what sustainability looks like in practice. Here’s why:

Benefits of Solar Trees

At first glance, solar trees might seem impractical — more art than function when compared to the best solar panels. But solar trees offer a few surprising benefits over their ground-mounted counterparts, including:

  • Solar trees preserve land: Since solar trees are vertically integrated, they require significantly less land than solar farms. The same logic would apply to a high-rise being able to fit more residents than a one-story house. Plus, because of their greater heights, the panels may receive more sunlight than a ground-mounted or roof-mounted arrangement would.
  • They can provide habitat for rare flora and fauna: Solar trees like those in Singapore’s Gardens By the Bay are large enough to host tropical flowers, vines and plants on its trunk and branches. These valuable habitats provide homes for plants and animals, protecting biodiversity in urban areas. 
  • Solar trees require little maintenance: Besides cleaning debris off the solar panels every now and then, solar trees are standalone electrical units requiring little to no maintenance.
  • The trees cool heat islands: By creating shade in urban environments, solar trees reduce the amount of thermal energy that is reflected off of urban surfaces like asphalt, concrete and brick. This can combat the most deadly effects of climate change within cities.
  • They increase awareness of clean energy: The striking structures are immediate attention-getters, conveying a message of creativity, resourcefulness, humility and the need to incorporate sustainability into everyday life. We see similar art installations at work across the world, such as the Terra pavilion in Dubai.

Solar Trees Vs. Solar Panels

We mentioned that solar trees serve essentially the same purpose as solar panels but require a much smaller footprint to do so. But are there any other significant differences outside the trees’ widespread adoption? Let’s dig in.


Solar panel efficiency is a measure of how much energy is produced relative to the amount of sunlight that strikes the panels. So, to compare a standard solar array and solar trees in terms of efficiency, we’d need to know the specs of the solar cells used within the tree. 

However, when it comes to space efficiency, trees take the crown. This solar tree in West Bengal, India produces enough energy to power five homes in the U.S. Solar trees in Lynn Haven, Florida are capable of powering six to seven homes. Instead of using an entire roof to produce this electricity, the trees do so using only a few square feet of ground space. 


Since solar trees are still rare in the U.S., the average installation cost is high. According to top solar tree company Spotlight Solar advertises total pricing to be $40,000 to $80,000. Based on current average solar costs, you could buy a 15-kW to 30-kW solar panel system (for context, the average home needs a system between 5 kW and 10 kW). 

Of course, the complexity and size of the solar tree will influence the final price. Until solar trees reach the commercial mainstream, demand will limit their widespread availability. 

Storage and Distribution

Solar trees are used to produce electricity that will be used onsite. Storing and distributing the energy generated by the trees (like solar farms and power plants do) would require larger solar batteries and complex systems of transmission.


While solar panels are used primarily on rooftops or mounted on the ground, solar trees offer a different type of utility. In addition to energy, they provide shade and whimsy while taking up minimal surface area. A creative mind could find endless uses for these trees: shade for city sidewalks, parking lots, playgrounds, backyards and more. This brings us to…

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What if solar panels weren’t just on the roof?


In an interview, famed astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson explained that we already have flying cars, in a way, because tunnels and overpasses allow cars to access the third dimension. By that logic, India has invented ‘flying solar panels,’ which are being suspended above irrigation canals to cut down on the evaporation of precious water droplets by providing shade from the sun’s evaporating heat.

The Future of Solar Trees

The metallic, modern look of solar trees might turn off the average reader, but keep in mind that as the technology improves, investment flows and demand increases, they’ll become much more similar in appearance to real trees or other plants. This modern mimicry will allow us to blend the trees into our forests, yards, coastlines, parks and cities. 

Apart from residential applications, here are a few of our favorite ideas for the uses of solar trees:

  • Shade along highways or agricultural areas
  • Artistic installations in public parks, outdoor malls and gardens
  • Energy sources for carports and parking lots

Solar trees may still be a few years from the mainstream, but relative to other solar panel alternatives like solar roads, they offer a lot more practical value. The efficiency and versatility of the trees make them ideal for cities and densely populated areas, making us think they will be commonplace sooner than you might expect. 

Looking to “Plant” a Solar Tree?

The options are still somewhat limited, but there are a number of organizations that can install solar trees throughout the U.S. We’d recommend starting with these companies:


Smartflower offers stunning designs of solar devices in the shapes of trees and sunflowers, with solar petals tracking, opening and closing with the sun for optimal energy conversion. We’re talking about premiere trees here. Each tree has an output of 2.5 kW at peak power, which is about half the power production of a small home rooftop solar system. 

Smartflower solar flower on lawn with two people and dog playing Frisbee
Courtesy Smartflower

Spotlight Solar

North Carolina-based Spotlight Solar produces models of several different types of solar trees. With flexible configurations, accessory options, efficient panels and quick assembly, Spotlight Solar’s trees serve as great options for public parks, carports and walkways.

Spotlight Solar solar tree models diagram
Courtesy Spotlight Solar

Beam Global

Founded in 2006, Beam Global (formerly Envision Solar) produces patented infrastructure products for the electrification of transportation. The San Diego-based company offers solar trees and solar carports as electric vehicle charging stations.

Beam solar trees shading parking spots
Courtesy Beam


Karsten Neumeister at EcoWatch

These windows are see-through solar panels

These windows are see-through solar panels

What if solar panels weren’t just on the roof?

In a recently built office building in Boulder, Colorado, there are solar panels on the roof. But the building also has one of the world’s first installations of solar-window technology—transparent panels that look like ordinary windows, but also invisibly generate energy.

“When you think about the commercial market, you can imagine big skyscrapers becoming vertical solar farms,” says Susan Stone, CEO of Ubiquitous Energy, the startup developing the technology, which is based on work that began at MIT. “You make that glass surface, which isn’t traditionally available for electricity generation.” Solar windows can also be used to replace ordinary windows in homes.

Boulder Commons, Colorado [Photo: © 2022 Ubiquitous Energy]

The technology works by capturing only part of the solar spectrum. “We actually let the visible light that our eyes can see pass right through our material,” says Miles Barr, cofounder and chief technology officer. “And that makes it look invisible to us.” Because typical solar panels absorb the full spectrum—making them appear black—the solar windows capture about a third less energy. But since they can be used in areas where regular solar panels can’t, they can help add to the supply of renewable energy.

Boulder Commons, Colorado [Photo: © 2022 Ubiquitous Energy]

The windows, with two panes of glass that are sealed together, have wires that can be connected either directly to something next to the window—such as a light or electronic blinds—or connected to a battery in the building or back into the electric grid.

Boulder Commons, Colorado [Photo: © 2022 Ubiquitous Energy]

The startup has spent several years developing the materials, including semiconductors that can selectively capture infrared and ultraviolet light, and ensuring that the product matches the performance and quality of nonsolar windows. Right now, at its pilot production facility in Redwood City, California, the company is making small window panels that have been installed in a handful of pilot locations, including the office building in Colorado. But it’s also preparing for larger-scale manufacturing, and developing processes to make the windows that can run on current window-manufacturing lines. “We’re bringing a disruptive product to market,” says Stone. “And we’re intentionally doing that without disrupting the supply chain.”

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Michigan State University [Photo: © 2022 Ubiquitous Energy]

Andersen Corporation, the international window manufacturer, is one of the startup’s investors and participating in a recent $3o million Series B funding round. “Anderson led the industry in transitioning to insulated-glass units and pioneered the use of low-E coatings, all of which improved dramatically the energy performance of our windows, and both have now become an industry standard,” says Karl Halling, treasurer of Andersen Corp. “Andersen really sees this investment in this technology as a continuation of that legacy.”

As manufacturing scales up, Ubiquitous Energy expects the windows to be around 30% more expensive than conventional windows. But if the windows can replace standard glass, the impact could be significant. The company has estimated that there are 20 billion square feet of glass installed around the world annually, and if all of it was producing power, it would result in a 10% decrease in global emissions. “When you think about the impact that this can have,” says Stone, “it’s huge.”


Adele Peters at Fast Company

England’s farmers to be paid to rewild land

England’s farmers to be paid to rewild land

Nature recovery schemes are part of post-Brexit subsidies overhaul, but eco campaigners are sceptical

Farmers in England will be given taxpayers’ cash to rewild their land, under plans for large-scale nature recovery projects announced by the government. These will lead to vast tracts of land being newly managed to conserve species, provide habitats for wildlife and restore health to rivers and streams.

Bids are being invited for 10-15 pilot projects, each covering at least 500 hectares and up to 5,000 hectares, to a total of approximately 10,000 hectares in the first two-year phase – about 10 times the size of Richmond Park in London. These pilots could involve full rewilding or other forms of management that focus on species recovery and wildlife habitats.

Rare fauna such as sand lizards, water voles and curlews will be targeted, with the aim of improving the status of about half of the most threatened species in England.

The exact funding has not been disclosed, as bids will be compared to determine value for money before a final decision on which should go ahead is made this summer. However, the total amount available for such schemes is expected to reach £700m to £800m a year by 2028. By 2042, the government aims to have up to 300,000 hectares of England covered by such “landscape recovery” projects – an area roughly the size of Lancashire.

Ministers also plan to offer English farmers payments for “local nature recovery”. The smaller-scale actions taken on their farms could include planting more trees, restoring peatlands or wetlands and leaving space for wildlife habitats. These payments, which will be revealed later this year, should also reach up to £800m a year by 2028.

George Eustice, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, said the aim was for wildlife and nature protection to run alongside food production as a matter of course for most farmers. He is expected to tell farmers at the Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday: “We want to see profitable farm businesses producing nutritious food and underpinning a growing rural economy, where nature is recovering and people have better access to it. Through our new schemes, we are going to work with farmers and land managers to halt the decline in species, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, increase woodland, improve water and air quality and create more space for nature.”

As well as the two new schemes – landscape recovery and local nature recovery – farmers will also be able to apply for payments to help them protect their soil and take other basic environmental protection measures, under plans announced last year. Funding for these measures will also reach about £800m a year, as part of the post-Brexit overhaul of the £2.4bn-a-year farming subsidies into a system of “public money for public goods”. This means farmers are paid for making environmental improvements, rather than the amount of land they farm.

Water vole
The water vole is one of the rare species to be helped by the schemes. Photograph: Mark Smith/Alamy

Green campaigners were sceptical over whether the new payments would be enough to meet the government’s aim of halting the loss of wild species abundance and managing 30% of land for the good of nature by 2030, as well as ensuring that farmers help to solve the climate crisis rather than add to it. The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and National Trust charities said detail on how the schemes would work was still lacking.

Craig Bennett, the chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “The real test of this agricultural transition is not whether it is a little bit better or moderately better than what came before, but whether it will be enough to deliver on [the government’s targets]. Anything less than that means that this historic opportunity will have been wasted. While we’re hearing the right noises from the government, the devil will be in the detail and the detail is still not published nearly six years after the EU referendum.”

The schemes would fail unless more was done to help farmers move away from intensive practices, said Jo Lewis, the policy and strategy director at the Soil Association. This could include the introduction of ambitious targets for reducing pesticide and fertiliser use.

“These schemes won’t work in isolation. They risk failure if they are forced to compete with mounting commercial pressures that encourage more intensive farming and cheap food production, for which the environment and our health ultimately pay the price,” she said.

Though some are benefiting from high grain prices, many farmers are facing a difficult outlook, with rising input costs, plummeting exports due to Brexit red tape, and potential new competition from prospective importers after post-Brexit trade deals.

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The rangers will manage the first wild bison to roam in the UK for thousands of years. Photograph: Tom Gibbs and Donovan Wright


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Martin Lines, the UK chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said that farmers who already take environmental measures were “left in limbo” before the schemes start in 2024. “Government has been running similar environmental stewardship schemes voluntarily for farmers for 20 or 30 years, yet we still have seen huge declines in wildlife. We need these schemes to be bolder and more ambitious, not just delivering more of the same with minor improvements,” he said.

Tenant farmers, who work on about a third of farmed land in the UK, are concerned over how they can access the new schemes. They also fear that their landlords may take advantage of large-scale rewilding to remove their tenancies.

George Dunn, of the Tenant Farmers Association, said: “It is alarming that, after at least three years of discussions with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, it has no clear plan for access to these schemes by tenant farmers. [Current payments] are being removed while we have a vague commitment for further work to be undertaken on how tenants, and those who use common land, can access schemes. It does feel like we are pushing water uphill.”

Mark Tufnell, the president of the Country Land and Business Association, which represents 28,000 farmers, landowners and rural businesses, said: “The government must also ensure that policy changes look towards domestic food production and security. Britain is already at the forefront of agricultural innovation and animal welfare standards, and we must do more to make certain that our great produce is supported here and abroad. We need to guarantee that profitable agriculture remains a core part of the rural economy and feeds the nation sustainably.”


Fiona Harvey at The Guardian

Breakthrough in separating plastic waste: Machines can now distinguish 12 different types of plastic

Breakthrough in separating plastic waste: Machines can now distinguish 12 different types of plastic

In contrast to common perceptions, plastic is in no way near one material. Rather, it is a combination of many materials (polymers) with different chemical compounds and additives such as pigments or fibers, depending on its use. It is very difficult to tell the difference between different types of plastics, and this is what makes it difficult to separate and recycle them.

In collaboration with Vestforbrænding, Dansk Affaldsminimering Aps, and PLASTIX, researchers from the Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering at Aarhus University have now developed a new camera technology that can see the difference between 12 different types of plastics (PE, PP, PET, PS, PVC, PVDF, POM, PEEK, ABS, PMMA, PC and PA12). Together, these constitute the vast majority of household plastic types.

The technology makes it possible to separate plastics based on a purer chemical composition than is possible today, and this opens up for completely new opportunities to recycle plastics. The technology has been tested at pilot scale and is planned to be implemented at PLASTIX and Dansk Affaldsminimering Aps in spring 2022.

“With this technology, we can now see the difference between all types of consumer plastics and several high-performance plastics. We can even see the difference between plastics that consist of the same chemical building blocks, but which are structured slightly differently. We use a hyperspectral camera in the infrared area, and machine learning to analyze and categorize the type of plastic directly on the conveyor belt. The plastic can then be separated into different types. It’s a breakthrough that will have a huge impact on all plastics separation,” says Associate Professor Mogens Hinge, who is heading the project at Aarhus University.

The study has been published in the scientific journal Vibrational Spectroscopy.

Plastics are currently separated using near-infrared technology (NIR) or via density tests (floats/sinks in water). These methods can separate certain plastic fractions (for example PE, PP, and PET), but not with the same accuracy as the new technology, and therefore not with the chemical purity in the composition, and this is vital for becoming able to increase the recycling rate of waste plastic.

“The technology we’ve developed in collaboration with the university is nothing short of a breakthrough for our ability to recycle plastics. We look forward to installing the technology in our processing hall and starting in earnest on the long journey towards 100% utilization of waste plastic,” says Hans Axel Kristensen, CEO of PLASTIX.

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The Dutch studio’s limited-edition collection titled The Elements, showcasing wave-like 3D encoded beach furniture, is digitally manufactured from 80 per cent recycled plastic.


The LEGO Group today unveiled a prototype LEGO® brick made from recycled plastic, the latest step in its journey to make LEGO products from sustainable materials.

Plastic must be at least 96% pure by polymer type to be recycled in conventional industry. This means that the plastic has to be separated to an almost pure product in terms of chemical composition.

“Using the new technology, we are now a big step along the way,” says Associate Professor Mogens Hinge, who stresses that the technology is continuously being developed and that data indicates it may be possible to differentiate even further between polymer types and additives before long.

The hyper-spectral camera technology has been developed via cross-disciplinary collaboration, including BSc and MSc engineering students and researchers at the Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering at Aarhus University as well as experts from the participating companies.

The research is part of Denmark’s Re-Plast project. The project is headed by the Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering at Aarhus University. Other participants are the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Aarhus University, Vestforbrænding, Dansk Affaldsminimering and PLASTIX.


Aarhus University via Tech Xplore

Scotland missed 100% clean electricity consumption in 2020 by only 1.4%

Scotland missed 100% clean electricity consumption in 2020 by only 1.4%

In 2011, Scotland set a target of reaching 100% clean electricity consumption in 2020. And last year, the country almost reached its target – 98.6% of gross electricity consumption came from renewable sources, according to the Scottish government’s December energy statement.

Scotland, which is working to achieve net zero by 2045 – a legally binding target – has one of the most ambitious climate targets in the world.

The BBC notes:

In 2019, Scotland met 90.1% of its equivalent electricity consumption from renewables, according to Scottish government figures.

The 100% target was set in 2011, when renewable technologies generated just 37% of national demand.

Here are Scotland’s energy targets, and what the country has achieved to date:

Energy targetsLatestTarget
Overall renewable energy target: total Scottish energy consumption from renewables25.4% in 202050% by 2030
Renewable electricity target: gross electricity consumption from renewables98.6% in 2020100% by 2020
Renewable heat target: non-electrical heat demand from renewables6.3% in 202011% by 2020
Energy consumption target: Reduction in total energy consumption from 2005-07Down 14.4% in 202012% by 2020
Energy productivity target: percentage change in gross value added achieved from the input of 1 gigawatt hour of energy from 2015Down 5.9% in 2020Up 30% in 2030
Source: Scottish government

61.8% of all electricity generated in Scotland in 2020 was from clean energy sources. There was a 1.9 TWh increase in clean electricity generated in 2020 compared to 2019, mainly from wind and hydro.

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An electric vehicle charging point which uses tidal energy has started operations, providing road users on an island north of mainland Scotland with a new, renewable option for running their cars.


Over the last 50 years, two-thirds of the world’s wildlife has been lost. Around 40 per cent of plant species are threatened with extinction and scientists say we may be losing them faster than they can find, name and study them.

Cabinet secretary for net zero, energy and transport Michael Matheson said:

Scotland is leading the way internationally with our commitment to be net zero by 2045. This statement shows we are continuing to make good progress with the equivalent of 98.6% of gross electricity consumption being from renewable sources in 2020, which is up from 89.8% in 2019.

Whilst we do have many challenges ahead of us if we are going to meet our ambitious targets, we have laid the groundwork in 2021 for Scotland to take important leaps forward towards net zero.


Michelle Lewis at Electrek

Scientists created biodegradable food packaging that will eliminate harmful bacteria build-up in foods

Scientists created biodegradable food packaging that will eliminate harmful bacteria build-up in foods

Recently, scientists at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the US have developed bacteria-killing biodegradable food packaging that addresses two major concerns of the food industry today – food waste and eco-friendliness.

Using this packaging can help keep food items stay fresh for a long period without getting spoiled.

In one experiment, the team wrapped fresh strawberries in the new packaging and compared their freshness against strawberries packaged in conventional plastic boxes.

The strawberries stay fresh for seven days before developing mold in the new packaging, while the strawberries that were kept inside the plastic boxes went only four days before turning moldy.

The packaging is made from a corn protein called Zein, starch, and other naturally derived compounds. 

These materials were infused with a cocktail of natural antimicrobial compounds such as the oil from citric acid, and thyme. Unlike regular plastics, these materials are biodegradable.

When the material detects any rise in enzymes and humidity levels from harmful bacteria in the food, the fibers will release a tiny amount of antimicrobial compounds that will eliminate those bacteria. Thus keeping the food fresh.

Dangerous microbes such as E. Coli and listeria from the foods are the major cause of food poisoning, intestinal tract, and diarrhea. 

The antimicrobial compounds contained in this packaging can kill these bacteria and common fungi that cause foods to turn bad quickly.

So, this packaging will ensure increased food safety too.

Scientists created biodegradable food packaging that will eliminate harmful bacteria build-up in foods
New biodegradable food packaging that will eliminate harmful bacteria build-up in foods

“Food safety and waste have become a major societal challenge of our times with immense public health and economic impact which compromises food security,” said Professor Philip Demokritou, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Health at Harvard Chan School.

One of the most efficient ways to enhance food safety and reduce spoilage and waste is to develop efficient biodegradable non-toxic food packaging materials,” he added.

According to Professor Mary Chan, the director of NTU’s Centre for Antimicrobial Bioengineering, this packaging can be used for holding food items like fruits, vegetables, fish, raw meat, and other ready-to-eat meals.

“Vegetables are a source of wastage because even if they are refrigerated, they will continue to respire, leading to spoilage after a week or two,” said Professor Mary Chan. 

“With the anti-microbial packaging, there is a chance to extend their shelf life… and also make the vegetables and fruits look fresh with time,” she said. 

Multiple benefits

Even if this new packaging material is in its development phase, the researchers behind the packaging are already excited about what their invention could do for the food industry.

First of all, the packaging directly addresses the problem of food waste, with an extra two or three days of shelf life potentially offering both businesses and consumers the opportunity to save money and food.

In addition to this, the packaging is also praised as a strong alternative to plastic boxes, bags, and cartons because it is biodegradable – especially when used in scales.

As it stands, the world’s climate and pollution problems are heavily contributed by the use of plastics, including plastics used to package and transport food.

Scientists created biodegradable food packaging that will eliminate harmful bacteria build-up in foods
Traditional plastic is harmful to the environment

As per the university’s statement, 55 percent of Singapore’s household waste is made up of plastic and one-third of it comes from food packaging.

As such, it’s pretty obvious that the new material could help to alleviate some of the problems associated with food packaging today.

It was even more impressive to note that these compounds were released only when necessary – a feature that minimizes the risk of antimicrobials being consumed by consumers.

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“The smart release of antimicrobials only when bacteria or high humidity is present provides protection only when needed, thus minimizing the use of chemicals and preserving the natural composition of foods packaged,” said Mary Chan, director of the NTU Center for Antimicrobial Bioengineering.

“This invention would serve as a better option for packaging in the food industry,” said Professor Mary Chan.

Their research has been published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

This bacteria-killing biodegradable food packaging development is a part of NTU’s 2025 Strategic plan to promote sustainable food and technological solutions.

They’re also currently working on developing other ways of creating biopolymer-based smart food packaging materials, with food safety and quality retention the main goal.

This is a promising development, and one of hopefully many more alternatives to regular plastic packaging. However, it may be a while before their creation becomes commercially available.


whats good today

New York hopes to avoid the worst of climate change with their resiliency plan

New York hopes to avoid the worst of climate change with their resiliency plan

One of the most populated cities in the US is preparing for what may now be inevitable: submersion. New York city has started a huge climate resiliency project to try and avoid the mistakes of the past and protect itself against the extreme weather of the future.

The economic hub of the US is highly vulnerable to climate change. With 836km of coastline, experts fear that sea levels will rise by 20-75 cm by 2050. This increase could put some New York underwater, particularly the island of Manhattan.

With a population of 8.5 million people, 2012’s Hurricane Sandy and Storms Ida and Henri this summer caused billions of dollars of damage to America’s largest city as well as over 50 deaths.

With its unique geographical position, the ‘Big Apple’ is extremely vulnerable to bad weather and has recently adopted a climate resilience plan costing $20 billion (€17.7 billion) to try and preempt future storms.

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Greenland’s ice sheet, the biggest ice sheet in the world behind Antarctica, has melted so much in the past decade that global sea levels rose by 1 centimeter, and trends predict sea levels can rise nearly a foot higher by the end of the century.

One of the projects is trying to protect the many residents of Manhattan. The East Side Coastal Resiliency Project aims to protect 110,000 New Yorkers on Manhattan’s East Side, from Montgomery Street up to East 25th Street.

As part of the $1.45 billion (€1.3 billion) project, work has started in southeast Manhattan to erect an integrated 4km system of raised parkland, floodwalls, berms and movable floodgates to create a continuous line of protection against sea-level rises and the growing threat of stronger, more severe coastal storms worsened by climate change.

“This project will keep New Yorkers safe from coastal storms and rising seas for decades to come, while also investing in amenities and improving access to public spaces on the East Side of Manhattan,” says the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Climate Resiliency, Jainey Bavishi.

Manhattan will also be replanting thousands of trees around the construction site and improving underground systems for sewers.


Doloresz Katanich at Euronews.Green

This fabric is hailed as ‘eco-friendly.’ The rainforest tells a different story.

This fabric is hailed as ‘eco-friendly.’ The rainforest tells a different story.

Vast swaths of forest in Indonesia were chopped down through the early 2000s to make way for plantations for the production of viscose rayon and other goods.

NORTH KALIMANTAN, Indonesia — Jonni Spedika stared at the neat rows of trees and clenched his jaw. To an outsider, it may look like a serene patch of forest. To Spedika and his fellow villagers, it represents a grave threat. 

“This shouldn’t be allowed,” said Spedika, the former chief of one of the main villages here. 

Borneo ironwood and other tropical hardwood trees have long blanketed this rugged island in Indonesia. Large numbers of wild pigs, a main food source for the local people, roamed the rainforest near their homes. The trees stood undisturbed, nourishing the soil below and consuming large amounts of the carbon dioxide that fuels climate change.  

Jonni Spedika
Jonni Spedika, a local villager in North Kalimantan where a forest concession is operating in the surrounding area.NBC News

But the trees irking Spedika on that day in October were not old ironwoods or tallow nuts. They were eucalyptus trees recently planted by the wood supply company, PT. Adindo Hutani Lestari, and they represent the decline of one of the world’s most important rainforest systems, experts say. 

Adindo and its competitors have long operated in the region. For years, they cut down large swaths of ancient trees to make way for tree plantations. The wood is transported to mills, where it is dissolved into pulp and spun into a breathable fabric that has become ubiquitous across the U.S.: viscose rayon. 

Viscose rayon is used in clothing ranging from couture dresses to t-shirts to sportswear. It has been touted as eco-friendly because it comes from a renewable resource: trees.

But it is also among the products that have driven the destruction of rainforest in Indonesia. The plantations built on the cleared land create a continuous supply of new wood or goods like palm oil, often from a single species of tree.

The plantations blend into the surrounding forest. But experts say they also dry out the land and increase the risk of fires as well as destroy the natural habitat of a diverse array of plants and animals. 

“This is like them stealing our seas,” said Spedika, who noted that the pigs and other animals he used to hunt had disappeared.

Ruth DeFries, professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University in New York, said tree plantations are highly disruptive to areas of biodiverse rainforest. 

“A plantation of a single kind of tree is a very, very different ecosystem than rainforest with millions of species,” said DeFries, who has done research in Indonesia.

“One of the most beautiful times I had there was shadowing someone who was doing research on orangutans,” she added. “Seeing that their habitat is being destroyed — it’s just heartbreaking.”

Deforestation in a place like Indonesia also has broader impacts. An acre of tree farm doesn’t absorb nearly as much carbon dioxide as an acre of rainforest.

study published in the journal Nature Communications in 2018 found that each hectare of rainforest converted to palm oil plantations in Indonesia results in 174 lost tons of carbon, and most of it ends up in the air as carbon dioxide. 

“Converting rainforest into tree plantations is not a one-to-one tradeoff,” said Gillian Galford, a climate scientist at the University of Vermont who was not involved in the study. “Deforestation like we’ve seen in southeast Asia is one of the number one contributors to climate change.” 

A truck loaded with wood in North Kalimantan.
A truck loaded with wood in North Kalimantan. NBC News

A range of industries have fueled the carving up of tropical forest in Indonesia, which has the third largest area of rainforest in the world behind the Amazon and Congo Basin. 

Since the 1960s, palm oil, paper and coffee companies have chopped down massive swaths of forest that are home to endangered species such as Sumatran orangutans and tigers.   

The environmental destruction and the role of big business largely stayed under the radar until the late 1990s. Over the last decade, pressure campaigns have led companies to look more closely at their supply chains and take steps to limit the degradation in tropical rainforests.

The measures have produced results. Indonesia’s deforestation rate last year dropped to its lowest level since the government began tracking it in 1990. 

Overall, the country lost about 115,000 hectares of forest cover (about 400 square miles) in 2020, according to the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

That amounts to an area about the size of Los Angeles, but it represents a 75 percent drop from 2019. The economic slowdown from the Covid-19 pandemic is believed to be a major factor in the sharp decline, but the deforestation rate has been steadily decreasing since 2015, according to government figures. 

Some environmental groups estimated that the country lost far more forest cover in 2020, but they don’t dispute that deforestation has decreased over the last five years. 

Indonesia had the highest deforestation rate in the world in the early 2000s.

Since 2000, the country has lost approximately 13 million hectares [50,000 square miles] of natural forest cover — an area the size of Alabama — according to an analysis by the nonprofit Auriga and other local environmental groups. The vast majority was fueled by palm oil and other agriculture such as coffee, but pulpwood plantations have also replaced large sections of rainforest. 

Even though the rate of rainforest destruction has slowed, environmentalists worry that the demand for pulpwood, which is harvested for the production of paper and viscose, will fuel the clearing of more forestland.

“For years to come, I’m most worried about pulpwood,” said Timer Manurung, director of Auriga.

Forest in North Kalimantan, Indonesia.
Forest in North Kalimantan, Indonesia.NBC News

‘Large-scale deforestation’

Viscose, the fiber derived from the cellulose in wood, is a key component in everyday products such as baby wipes and face masks. When it is turned into a fabric, it’s referred to as viscose rayon.

Viscose rayon was first created more than 100 years ago. Cheaper and more durable than silk, the plant-based fabric is marketed in fashion circles as being sustainable and biodegradable. It has surged in popularity in recent years, growing into a multi-billion industry.

A sample of viscose rayon, artificial silk, made in 1898, at the Science Museum in London.
A sample of viscose rayon, artificial silk, made in 1898, at the Science Museum in London.Science & Society Picture Library / SSPL via Getty Images

But some of the major companies in the viscose supply chain have drawn criticism for contributing to the destruction of rainforest in southeast Asia. 

Asia Pacific Resources International Holding (known as APRIL Group), the second largest pulp and paper company in Indonesia, has long faced accusations of engaging in deforestation. It sources wood from several suppliers, including Adindo, which controls land on the Indonesian island of Kalimantan (also known as Borneo).

In June 2015, APRIL pledged to stop harvesting natural forest. The announcement, which came on the heels of similar pledges from some of its competitors, was praised by environmental groups. 

The company has made significant progress in its efforts to limit deforestation. But some of APRIL’s suppliers, including Adindo, have been accused of clearing out intact rainforest since the company made its commitment.

In October 2020, a coalition of environmental groups released a report about deforestation on Adindo’s land based on satellite imagery and land-cover classification maps produced by the Indonesian government.

The report alleged that nearly 7,300 hectares [28 square miles] of natural forest was cleared within Adindo’s concession between June 2015 and August 31, 2020. Half of the deforestation occurred in areas that Adindo had designated as “high conservation value” forest, according to the report. On-the-ground reporting and drone footage were also used to make the determinations, according to Manurung, who was one of the lead authors.

APRIL denied the allegations at the time, saying no deforestation occurred in the areas cited in the report. APRIL said the land cleared on Adindo’s concession was located in designated plantation areas, none of which included “high conservation value” forest areas. 

APRIL also previously denied the allegations that other suppliers cleared standing forest since June 2015.

Edward Boyda, a physicist who co-founded the environmental research group Earthrise, was asked by NBC News to analyze deforestation on roughly 4,200 square miles of land controlled by wood suppliers to APRIL on Kalimantan.

Using NASA and commercial satellite imagery, Boyda concluded that an estimated 30 square miles [7,700 hectares] of intact forest had been cleared on that land since late 2015. He described the 30 square miles as a conservative estimate. 

Boyda says the imagery tells a story that begins with a contiguous green canopy and transforms into a growing patch of brown — what he calls “burn scars” from trees that have been felled and cleared. He says the time-lapse images show uniform rows of plantation trees cropping up. 

A sequence of satellite images appears to show rainforest in 2015, cleared on the PT. Fajar Surya Swadaya concession in 2016 and the growth of plantation trees in 2017. According to Ed Boyda at Earthrise, the sequence shows the loss of 200 acres, part of an 11 square mile stretch of rainforest apparently cleared. The company is a supplier to APRIL.
A sequence of satellite images appears to show rainforest in 2015, cleared on the PT. Fajar Surya Swadaya concession in 2016 and the growth of plantation trees in 2017. According to Ed Boyda at Earthrise, the sequence shows the loss of 200 acres, part of an 11 square mile stretch of rainforest apparently cleared. The company is a supplier to APRIL.Airbus DS / Earthrise; 2017 CNES

“You’ve gone from one of the most biodiverse places in the world to what’s essentially like a biological desert,” Boyda said in an interview from Norway, describing the change from rainforest to tree plantation. 

APRIL Group disputed that its suppliers cut down sections of intact rainforest. 

In a statement, the company said its analysis showed that the vast majority of the lost tree cover cited by Boyda represents the harvesting of trees on existing plantations. 

“These are clearly not activities involving the deforestation of intact forest but are, in fact, linked to the normal legal plantation harvesting and replanting, and small scale community agriculture,” the company said. 

APRIL Group noted that the amount of alleged deforestation on non-plantation land, 1,400 hectares [5 square miles], represents less than 0.1 percent of all of the land controlled by its suppliers on Kalimantan. 

 APRIL added that the tree cover loss detected on the 1,400 hectares consists of a mix of areas that have been “encroached or damaged by third parties” and is in some cases a result of errors in the “remote sensing algorithm” due to local conditions such as cloud and haze.

Satellite images from 2015 and 2018 show the expansion of a tree plantation on the Adindo concession. According to Ed Boyda at Earthrise, the sequence shows the loss of a square mile of rainforest.
Satellite images from 2015 and 2018 show the expansion of a tree plantation on the Adindo concession. According to Ed Boyda at Earthrise, the sequence shows the loss of a square mile of rainforest.Airbus DS / Earthrise

“Our company takes any allegation of illegal land cover change very seriously and investigates all cases that we identify or are brought to our attention,” APRIL Group said. “If an illegal activity is confirmed, we ensure that this is rapidly halted and reported to the appropriate authorities.”

The company also said it has met 81 percent of its commitment to conserve or protect one hectare of natural forest for every hectare of its plantation. “For us, production and conservation are mutually dependent where one enables the other,” APRIL Group said. 

Last November, APRIL sent a letter to the Forest Stewardship Council, the world’s top industry certification program, acknowledging the “potential environmental and social harms” of its past operations dating back to 1993.

APRIL has been prohibited from using the council’s trademark to market its paper and pulp products since 2013 when it withdrew from certification. The company said it was withdrawing over concerns about FSC policy after three environmental groups filed a complaint accusing APRIL of “engaging in large-scale deforestation” in Indonesia. 

The company has been seeking to be reinstated for several years. The process is ongoing, according to the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC.

APRIL is managed by Royal Golden Eagle, a Singapore-based conglomerate that manages paper, palm oil and viscose businesses. 

APRIL ships the wood from Kalimantan for processing on the nearby island of Sumatra, then to a facility in China operated by another company managed by Royal Golden Eagle, Sateri, where it is made into viscose. The resulting material resembles puffy cotton.  

Sateri sends viscose to factories around the world that have supplied clothes to a host of major brands, including Adidas, Abercrombie & Fitch and H&M, according to an NBC News review of corporate disclosures. Sateri also sends viscose to U.S. facilities that produce baby, face and disinfecting wipes.

H&M and Adidas are among several major retailers that have come under pressure from NGO groups like Changing Markets for their use of viscose linked to forest destruction.

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H&M said its manufacturing suppliers used to source material from Sateri, but the brand doesn’t “currently have any indirect business relationship with Sateri.”

Representatives for Adidas declined to comment. Abercrombie & Fitch did not respond to a request for comment. 

Adidas and H&M were among 12 brands that joined a consortium last year dedicated to selling clothing made from recycled textile waste. The group, dubbed the “New Cotton Project,” is funded by the European Union.

In a statement, Sateri said it takes steps to ensure that its wood suppliers engage in “no deforestation or exploitation.” 

“Regarding our dissolving pulp supplier APRIL, we reject suggestions that they have in any way ‘walked back’ on any of their sustainability commitments, including their steadfast commitment to no deforestation,” the statement said.

Royal Golden Eagle said it has “full confidence in the sustainability policies and commitments pursued by APRIL Group and Sateri.”

Not all viscose is derived from tree plantations in and around tropical rainforests. There are also pulpwood plantations for viscose away from rainforests in places like South Africa and the Czech Republic.

Some companies have stopped using viscose altogether. 

Dana Davis, the vice president of sustainability for the designer Mara Hoffman, said the company took a hard look at the source of its fabrics in 2015. Hoffman decided to move away from sourcing viscose rayon and use a different material instead, lyocell. Although it comes from trees, more than 99 percent of the solvent can be reused, and Davis said the company has a clearer picture of where the wood comes from. 

“The last thing we want to be doing is sourcing from endangered forests,” Davis said.

‘We cannot fight back’

Jonni Spedika hardly knows anything about viscose rayon but he talks in great detail about how the destruction of the rainforest has changed his life. And he doesn’t mince his words. 

Spedika lives in the village of Tetaban, one of the main communities of the Indigenous Dayak people, with his wife and 5-year-old daughter.

Jonni Spedika
Jonni Spedika. NBC News

There was a time when he could venture 500 meters into the forest outside his home and hunt wild pigs and other animals with relative ease. But nowadays, Spedika said he can walk 5 kilometers [3 miles] into the forest and not encounter a single animal. 

“It’s become very difficult for us to find any animals to hunt,” said Spedika, who runs a small chicken and vegetable farm to help feed his family.

Adindo, the wood supplier, controls an area around Spedika’s village that spans 190,000 hectares [700 square miles] of what used to be pristine rainforest. 

Hendrik Siregar, a researcher with the Auriga environmental watchdog group, said people who buy clothing in the U.S. should be mindful of the impacts in places like Indonesia. 

Hendrik Siregar
Hendrik Siregar, a researcher with the Auriga environmental watchdog group.NBC News

“Perhaps this will cause a debate about this material that is said to be environmentally-friendly,” Siregar said. “What’s clear is that we don’t see it as being environmentally-friendly because it continues to increase the amount of wood being chopped down.”

Adindo did not respond to requests for comment. 

Spedika said the climate around his village has changed along with the surrounding forest — it’s drier and hotter due to the reduced tree cover, and both floods and fires occur more often. 

“We cannot fight back,” Spedika said. “Because they have the permits, this area became theirs. We can only resign to our fate.”


Andrew W. Lehren, Didi Martinez, Anna Schecter and Rich Schapiro at NBC News

The ingenious living bridges of India

The ingenious living bridges of India

For centuries, indigenous groups in north-east India have crafted intricate bridges from living fig trees. Now this ancient skill is making its way to European cities.

When monsoon clouds bring pelting rains to the village of Tyrna, Shailinda Syiemlieh takes the nearest bridge to reach the opposite bank of a gushing stream. The bridge is no ordinary structure made of concrete and metal. Instead, it is composed of a single giant fig tree that sits by the riverbank, and the support that Syiemlieh walks over is a mishmash of aerial roots tightly knotted and woven together. The bridge is not only a part of the landscape, it is helping to support its ecosystem at the same time.

Tyrna lies just above the plains of Bangladesh in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya, which hosts hundreds of these bridges. For centuries, they have helped the indigenous Khasi and Jaintia communities to cross swelling rivers in monsoons. “Our ancestors were so clever,” says Syiemlieh, “When they couldn’t cross rivers, they made Jingkieng Jri – the living root bridges.”

Meghalaya hosts some of the wettest locations on Earth. The village Mawsynram, the world’s rainiest place, receives an annual rainfall of 11,871mm (39ft) – that would be enough to submerge a typical three-storey house if deluged all at once. Nearby Sohra comes second, averaging 11,430mm (37.5ft). From June to September, monsoon winds sweep north from the Bay of Bengal, passing over the humid plains of Bangladesh. When these air currents meet the hilly terrain of Meghalaya, they break open – and torrential rains begin.

When monsoon downpours periodically isolated the remote villages of Syiemlieh’s ancestors from nearby towns, they trained living aerial roots of Indian rubber fig tree (Ficus elastica) to form a bridge across flooding rivers.

Researchers consider these living root bridges as an example of indigenous climate resilience. Aside from the connectivity they provide, these bridges attract tourists and help local people earn an income. Meanwhile, as researchers have found, they have regenerative effects on the surrounding environment. Scientists hope this concept of indigenous living architecture can help modern cities adapt better to climate change.

The trees are important not just for crossing rivers, but they hold a revered place in Khasi culture (Credit: Alamy)

Building these bridges takes decades of work. It begins with planting a sapling of Ficus elastica – a tree that grows abundantly in the subtropical terrain of Meghalaya – in a good crossing place along the riverbank. First the trees develop large buttressing roots and then, after about a decade, the maturing trees sprout secondary aerial roots from further up. These aerial roots have a degree of elasticity, and tend to join and grow together to form stable structures.

In a method perfected over centuries, the Khasi bridge builders weave aerial roots onto a bamboo or another wooden scaffolding, wheedle them across the river and finally implant them on the opposite bank. Over time, the roots shorten, thicken and produce offshoots called daughter roots, which are also trained over the river. The builders intertwine these roots with one another or with branches and trunks of the same or another fig tree. They merge by a process called anastomosis – where branching systems like leaf vessels, tendrils and aerial roots naturally fuse together – and weave into a dense frame-like structure. Sometimes, the Khasi builders use stones to cover the gaps in root structures. This network of roots matures over time to bear loads; some bridges can hold up to 50 people at once.

The generations that follow the initial bridge builders continue the maintenance of the bridge. While only one single person may maintain small bridges, most require the collective effort of families or the entire village – sometimes several villages. This process of care and development down the generations can last for centuries, with some bridges dating from 600 years ago

As well as being a regenerative form of architecture, living root bridges grow stronger with time, self-repairing and becoming more robust as they age. “When it rains heavily, small cement bridges wash away and steel bridges tend to rust, but living root bridges withstand the rains,” says Syiemlieh.

When it rains heavily, small cement bridges wash away and steel bridges tend to rust, but living root bridges withstand the rains.

Shailinda Syiemlieh

“People came to realise that root bridges are much more durable than modern alternatives, and they cost absolutely nothing. So villagers now repair root bridges they had abandoned in the forest valleys.”

This resurgence in interest in root bridges is in part thanks to the efforts of Morningstar Khongthaw, a native from Rangthylliang village, who founded the Living Bridge Foundation. Khongthaw and his team create awareness about root bridges, repair and maintain old bridges while also constructing new ones.

The living root bridges of north-east India have become famous as a tourist attraction - but they could also inspire European urban architecture (Credit: Getty Images)
The living root bridges of north-east India have become famous as a tourist attraction – but they could also inspire European urban architecture (Credit: Getty Images)

Unlike conventional bridges, root bridges are also central to their surroundings. Apart from producing their own building material, the trees absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide over their lifetimes. They help stabilise the soil and prevent landslides. Conventional bridges can disrupt the soil layers, but roots can anchor different soil structures which helps protect against soil erosion, says Ferdinand Ludwig, professor for green technologies in landscape architecture at the Technical University of Munich, who has been studying the bridges for 13 years.

This is true of many trees, but Ficus elastica plays a particularly important role in its ecosystem, says Salvador Lyngdoh, a local to Meghalaya and a scientist at the Biodiversity Institute of India, whose work focuses on conservation in the Himalayas. Fig trees are framework species that promote biodiversity around them: moss grows on them, squirrels live in their branches, birds nest within their canopy, and they support insects that help with pollination. The act of turning these trees into bridges can also help animals to thrive in their habitat, says Lyngdoh. Bark deer and clouded leopards are known to use root bridges to move from one part of the forest to another.

Root bridges may not be able to outperform the conventional kind in every sense, Lyngdoh notes. A conventional bridge can bear more weight, for example. “But root bridges are much more useful to a large sphere of natural species than the modern bridges we have,” he says. “The living root bridge is a mosaic that’s embedded within the forest. Species do not differentiate between the bridge and natural forest.”

This form of indigenous architecture has fascinated scientists like the Technical University of Munich’s Ludwig, for the potential to learn from them to make buildings and spaces in other parts of the world greener.

Ludwig sees these bridges as an example of not just sustainable development, which minimises the damage and degradation of natural systems, but of regenerative development. The latter attempts to reverse degradation and improve the health of the ecosystem. But understanding the living root bridges is not an easy process.

“There’s no one way to build these bridges,” says Ludwig. “How these roots are pulled, tied and woven together differ from builder to builder. None of the bridges looks similar.”

The lack of historical written information on the bridges has also been a challenge in researching them. Until the British colonial period in the 19th Century, native Khasi inhabitants in Meghalaya didn’t have a written script, as the Khasi way of life is passed down through oral histories. This has meant that documented information on the bridges is sparse.

The fig tree is uniquely adaptable to making root bridges, but other species can also be used to integrate into architecture, such as the London plane tree (Credit: Alamy)
The fig tree is uniquely adaptable to making root bridges, but other species can also be used to integrate into architecture, such as the London plane tree (Credit: Alamy)

So Ludwig’s team turned to conversations with Khasi bridge builders and digital tools to understand the bridge-building techniques. They started with mapping the complicated shapes of roots and built digital skeletons of the bridges; next, they used photogrammetry – recording, surveying and interpreting root bridges using photographs – to document the bridges and construct 3D models using them.

With this information, Ludwig’s team began designing a roof for a summer kitchen using a pavilion of trees, inspired by the root bridges.

“[Conventionally], when we construct a bridge or a building, we have a plan – we know what it’s going to look like,” says Ludwig. “But this isn’t possible with living architecture. Khasi people know this; they are extremely clever in how they constantly analyse and interact with tree growth, and accordingly adapt to the conditions.” Whenever a new root pops up, Khasi builders find a new way to integrate it into the structure.

But in Europe, with its very different climate, using Ficus elastica wasn’t a viable option, so they had to make compromises, choosing instead Platanus hispanica, the London plane tree. “That’s not all. The Khasi have incredible knowledge because they live in nature, and are deeply coupled with the ecosystems. We are not,” says Ludwig. So his team used digital tools to mimic this process and to settle on a geometry that allowed for weaving twigs together into a roof. The team constantly trims and prunes the trees to encourage them to grow to keep the trees thinner.

“We are learning how to react to plant growth in Europe: humans plant trees, trees grow, humans react, trees react again,” Ludwig says. “This way of interacting with nature is essential for a sustainable and regenerative future.”

The Double Decker Root Bridge of Meghalaya is now famous, drawing tourists from around the world (Credit: Alamy)
The Double Decker Root Bridge of Meghalaya is now famous, drawing tourists from around the world (Credit: Alamy)

Ludwig hopes that living architecture can contribute to improving the outer wellbeing of residents in cities. Integrating trees in buildings, bridges, and parks will help bring nature into crowded areas. “The idea is not to copy the bridges, but to borrow the elements of this indigenous engineering and try to understand how we can adapt it in our urban environments,” says Ludwig.

Julia Watson, architect and assistant professor at Columbia University, whose work revolves around nature-based technologies of indigenous knowledge, says part of this is changing the way we see trees.

“Instead of viewing trees in cities as passive elements, we can view them as active infrastructures, to expand the ecosystem services trees provide in the urban context,” she says. For instance, trees can reduce the effect of urban heat islands (where concrete structures absorb heat and keep cities warmer) and lower outdoor ambient temperature, Watson notes.

The Ficus elastica provides potential that goes far beyond bridges, Watson says. These trees needn’t be an add-on to a building, but an integral part of its façade or roof.

In Meghalaya, the Khasi’s practice of bioengineering takes integration of the trees with their surroundings one step further, bringing people together as well as the ecosystem. The bridges, Lyngdoh says, promote community life and create reverence within the society when people come together to build, maintain and repair the bridges.

The young bridges being trained today won’t be traversed by those who are tending to them now, but by generations to come. “The community doesn’t think of today. It’s a selfless act. It’s a conservation philosophy,” says Lyngdoh. He sees this selflessness as a sacred element that pulls the community together and protects the ecosystem. 

As well as being a part of Khasi culture, the root bridges have always brought economic benefits to the community. In the past, a network of bridges connected villages with nearby cities, providing a pathway for locals to transport and sell betel nut and broom grass. Today, there is also the tourism economy they bring, says Syiemlieh.

About 3,500 steps below Syiemlieh’s home village of Tyrna is the Double Decker Root Bridge that connects the two banks of the Umshiang River. When water levels rose high, Khasi villagers trained additional roots of the same fig tree across the river higher above the water, creating a second bridge over the first.

Today, it’s a major tourist attraction. As tourists began flocking, homestays opened. Locals built campsites and guided visitors through the hilly jungle. Makeshift stalls stacked up everything from crisp packets to bottled drinks. In March, when Syiemlieh visited Laitkynsew, a village just south of Tyrna, she saw locals pull, twist and weave aerial roots of a fig tree on bamboo scaffolding to build a triple bridge – two layers run parallel to each another as in the double-decker bridge, while a third root layer is slanted across the river bank. “Maybe they thought that three layers can attract more tourists,” says Syiemlieh.

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Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach (2000)


While travel stopped and the world locked down, in the dazzling blue waters of Thailand’s idyllic Phi Phi islands, a gentle renaissance was under way.

Mass tourism had brought the archipelago, immortalised in Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach”, to the brink of ecological catastrophe. Now Thailand hopes to make Phi Phi the standard-bearer for a new, more sustainable model of tourism as the country reopens to visitors after the long covid shutdown.

Tourism comes with concerns, Syiemlieh says. Aside from the empty crisp packets and bottles, some root bridges see crowds of hundreds at a time as tourists clamber for selfies, potentially overburdening the trees. But locals are already planning different models of sustainable tourism.

Khongthaw, for example, is building a museum and a learning centre to educate tourists about living root bridges and other infrastructure made of Ficus elastica, such as canopies and tunnels in the deep jungles, and ladder-like structures, which farmers would use to climb up and down rock ledges on the way to Meghalaya’s fertile plains for cultivation.

Although still in its infancy outside Meghalaya, Watson hopes that architecture inspired by the living root bridges could come to play a fundamental role in cities – bringing with it benefits for urban air, soil and wildlife. “Living infrastructure can support incredible biodiversity and species, not just humans,” Watson says. “We need that biodiversity to survive.”


Zinara Rathnayake at Future Planet