#10 Enhancing Solar Energy & The Toxic-Free Future of Food
"I'm not bald. I shave my head like this for the environment. It reduces the amount of shampoo that winds up in our lakes AND makes me more aerodynamic. So when I'm walking, I burn fewer calories and don't have to eat as much. Which saves the Earth's precious resources. My head's not like this because I'm going bald or something. If I let it grow out it would look like Justin Bieber's— like a blonde helmet. And then I'd get lots of babes. But I choose to be bald and alone… For the planet."
- Josh Rachlis
Food packaging has been scrutinized for years, but the physical waste issues are only a small problem. Per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS if you’re not a chemist, are a group of chemicals that have been used in a wide variety of products, including food packaging, since the 1940’s.
However, it wasn’t until recently that exposure to PFAS have been found to cause health issues like decreased fertility, developmental delays, increased cholesterol, and increased cancer risk among many others. Due to its use in paper and fiber-based products for water resistance, PFAS are widespread in grocery stores and restaurants across the world.
Unfortunately, not only are these chemicals toxic, they also aren’t going anywhere. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFAS breakdown very slowly over time and can persist in the environment for decades.
While governments have been slow to ban them, many organizations are pushing for PFAS to be phased out. Recently, Toxic Free Future’s (TFF) campaign called “Mind the Store” has directly challenged retailers to eliminate PFAS in their products to protect families, communities, and workers.
TFF doesn’t just point out the issues, though; they offer concrete solutions. On their website, TFF offers free guides on how grocery and restaurant chains can phase out PFAS using alternative products.
Maybe it has to do with the results TFF continue to publish where they tested a number of companies’ products for PFAS or maybe it’s out of the goodness of their hearts, but companies are suddenly starting to listen.
According to TFF, 22 retailers have announced steps to reduce and/or eliminate PFAS in their food packaging due to their campaign, including Burger King, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Amazon. While some businesses are slower to phase them out than others, companies like Chipotle and Sweetgreen are leading the charge. In 2020, both restaurants announced plans to completely eliminate their use of PFAS products and completed that goal within a year.
Now, after receiving an “F” on TFF’s report of safe chemical policies for the third consecutive year, Starbucks has joined their contemporaries and announced an aggressive commitment to eliminating PFAS in all of their food packaging materials by the end of 2022.
When it comes to changing company policies from the outside, this win is a huge indication of how powerful public scrutiny and expectations can be. If the juggernaut of coffee can be swayed to revise their practices, who else can?
After years of bad jokes about losing power when it’s cloudy, a group of engineers have found a way for solar panels to generate electricity… at night?
A new study out of the Ginzton Laboratory at Stanford University published a way for solar cells to generate electricity out of thin air. OK, maybe not thin air, but warm air. As the solar panel cools to a temperature below that of the air around it, the cells harvest that difference in temperature to create electricity.
While it is not as fruitful as solar energy production, this “thermoelectric generator” method produces 50 milliwatts per square meter of panel at night.
**Correction: this thermoelectric generator doesn’t produce 1/4 of standard solar cells but 1/800**
This isn’t intended to replace solar energy production, though, but rather to supplement it. Even during the day, thermoelectric energy can still be produced on top of solar to increase total daytime production. With the two methods combined, solar panels will become a continuous power source.
The team’s study released in Applied Physics Letters indicated that the continuous production will “reduc[e] the size or eliminat[e] the requirement for battery storage.” Due to the long service lifetime of these thermoelectric generators, maintenance costs may be lower compared to battery storage, making solar panels even more economical.
The team also thinks this could really benefit those in independent electricity networks without access to the electrical grid. This technology is already able to power LED lights, sensors, or even charge a cell phone at night.
While the engineers are currently working to improve the efficiency and performance, they also intend to make it so existing panels can be retrofitted with the technology. Considering how resource-intensive solar panel production is, retrofitting is very important. Instead of getting rid of obsolete solar panels in favor of more efficient ones, existing solar panels would only need an “update”, making this technology an invaluable and sustainable option.
With summer just around the corner, your air conditioner is probably going to be getting quite a lot of use. One simple way you can reduce your energy consumption (and your energy bill!) is by weatherizing your house/ apartment. Break out that caulk gun and seal up the cracks around your windows. Plus, it may just keep those pesky ants from finding their way inside, too.
For tips on how to weatherize your home, click here:
Our Great National Parks is a new five-part Netflix series that follows former U.S. President Barack Obama as he explores the value of national parks across the globe.