We are at the tail end of another difficult year and, we're sure we speak for everyone when we say, we are exhausted! Bad news has dominated our televisions and our newsfeeds, with pandemic and climate stories exacerbating a general feeling of overwhelm. But among all the negativity there have also been some incredible stories of nature's resilience, scientific breakthroughs and people coming together to make their communities a better place to live.
This year single-use plastics were banned all around Australia, the Tokyo Olympics went circular, the world's most endangered turtle got a new lease on life and researchers found a way to make building materials from food waste. Join us in celebrating these — and many more — good things that happened this year as we wrap the best positive environment news stories of 2021.
1. Microrecycling legend Veena Sahajwalla named NSW Australian of the Year
Scientist, engineer and inventor, Professor Veena Sahajwalla, received the NSW Australian of the Year award in recognition of her groundbreaking research. Veena is the founding Director of the University of New South Wales' Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology. Through her work, she is recovering and reforming 'waste' materials into new products.
2. NSW, WA, VIC and QLD ban single-use plastics
Nearly all of Australia's states and territories moved to ban single-use plastics this year with NSW, Western Australia, Victoria and Queensland joining South Australia and the ACT by outlawing problematic plastics. Across Australia plastic bags, cutlery, straws, plates, containers and more have been banned.
3. The Tokyo Olympics embrace the circular economy
With medals made from e-waste and podiums made from recycled plastics, the Tokyo Olympics were the greenest yet. The organising committee set a goal of reusing or recycling 99 per cent of goods procured for the event and 65 per cent of waste generated during its operation.
The gold, silver and bronze medals awarded during the games (all 5,000 of them) were made from electronic waste. A total of 6.2 million used electronic devices were collected by organisers to recover the gold, silver and bronze needed to make the medals.
The podiums were also made from post-consumer plastic waste. The 24.5 tonnes of plastic waste collected to create the podiums was donated by households, retailers and 113 schools across Japan. All podiums were also recycled back into product packaging after the Games.
4. Scientists turn food scraps into study construction materials
A team of researchers from the University of Tokyo found a novel new use for food waste: building stuff out of it. Pulverised seaweed, cabbage leaves and orange, onion and pumpkin skins were transformed into sturdy building materials by scientists from the university's Institute of Industrial Science. The research produced a material three times stronger than concrete!
5. A group of high school girls are converting an old Range Rover into an electric vehicle
Young women in Bendigo are learning how to build an electric vehicle (EV) as part of a new project that's upcycling automotive waste, supporting community uptake of EVs and encouraging girls to pursue careers in STEM.
The project was set up by Bendigo Tech School Director Graeme Wiggins with the support of the community and aims to inspire young women to explore careers in engineering, advanced manufacturing, the automotive industry and other STEM fields.
6. British Airways flight powered by used cooking oil
British Airways ran its first flight on by recycled cooking oil this year. The London to Glasgow flight was partly powered by a sustainable fuel made with used cooking oil. The combined use of this fuel and an optimal flight path meant the trip emitted 62 per cent less CO2 than the same journey would have ten years ago. These measures, alongside use of electrified airport vehicles and new and more efficient planes, meant the airline also offset the CO2 produced by the trip, making the flight carbon-neutral.
7. Bacteria used to turn microplastics into a recyclable blob
Bacteria are single-celled organisms found almost everywhere on Earth and their natural tendency to group together on surfaces and form a sticky slime known as 'biofilm' is being harnessed by scientists to remove microplastics from water.
A team of researchers from Hong Kong Polytechnic University are testing biofilm nets as a way of removing microplastics from polluted water. The research team developed sticky bacteria nets that capture microplastics and form a blob-like structure that can be removed from the water. They then perform some more magic to detach the microplastics from the net using something called a biofilm-dispersal gene, leaving behind a collection of microplastics for recycling.
8. World's most endangered turtle could have a future after female discovered in Vietnam
Here's a love story for the ages: a female Swinhoe's softshell turtle has been discovered in the placid waters of Dong Mo lake, Vietnam. She joins only one other known living Swinhoe's softshell turtle — a male located at the Suzhou zoo in China. Together, these two turtles could bring their species back from the brink of extinction.
9. Breakthrough in ocean cleanup technology as device hauls thousands of kilograms of waste from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch — the largest accumulation of ocean plastic on the planet — could soon be cleaned up thanks to a new device capable of collecting thousands of kilos of waste per trip.
Called System 002, and nicknamed 'Jenny', the device is the result of years of research by The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit that develops technologies to tackle ocean pollution. It is essentially a giant barrier that floats on the water's surface, using currents to capture plastic while allowing marine life to pass below.
This year the device hauled 9,000 kilograms of waste from the ocean in a single trip, passing its final testing phase and showing large scale ocean cleanup is within reach.
10. Food waste powers 3,000 homes in Perth
Food scraps from local restaurants and supermarkets is powering thousands of homes in Perth's City of Cockburn. A bio-energy plant opened in 2016 is now producing enough electricity from food waste to power its own operations and 3,000 nearby homes. The giant 'mechanical stomach' eats food waste and farts out methane gas that produces electricity for local homes.
Thank you for being part of the positive environment news community in 2021, here's to a great 2022 for people and the planet!