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heating homes with poo
Illustration: Tim Easly

Heating homes with poo, insect meal kits and an AI recycling robot: six bright ideas to save the planet

Who knew human poo could be so useful?

Written by
Kate Lloyd
,
Isabelle Aron
&
Chiara Wilkinson
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We explore the game-changing ideas to save the world that are happening right here in London

The plan to heat the city’s homes with poo

Is sustainable power a shit idea? Yes! No, really. A new scheme from Thames Water and Kingston Council involves tapping excess heat from the sewage treatment process to power homes. The first scheme of its kind in England, it’s currently in the process of getting funding, but if successful, it will provide a green way of heating new homes in Kingston’s Cambridge Road Estate. It would then be rolled out more widely in Kingston town centre. Could the whole capital one day be turbocharged by turds? We can only dream…

The driverless pods that might actually become reality

Ah, commuting. Who doesn’t love a slow trundle through traffic on a bus? And what about inhaling those sweet exhaust fumes? Mmm… poison. Start-up Urban.MASS is developing a network of driverless electric pods that could offer a solution to rush-hour traffic (and the global-heating and air pollution it contributes to). A cross between a minicab service and a public transport network, the pods will run individually via on-demand ride-hailing apps during off-peak times and then join together to make trains on busy roads. It’s being trialled at Locomotion railway museum in Shildon in 2025 before being rolled out to Bristol, Liverpool, Cambridge, Cardiff and Oxford. We’ll have to wait a bit for it to come to London. Until then, there’s always bikes.

recycleye
Illustration: Tim Easly

The AI robot that’s revolutionising recycling

Peter Hedley, chief technology officer at Recycleye, explains how it created a robot to sort recycling from rubbish

‘Everything you touch will eventually end up in the waste industry, whether it’s rubbish or recycling. So, we thought: What if we could use artificial intelligence to make recycling more efficient? Recycleye is a robot that scans rubbish on conveyor belts in sorting facilities, using smart algorithms to identify what’s recyclable and what’s not, in a similar way to the human eye. The robot makes a decision to keep the item in recycling or not. There’s been a 99 percent drop in the amount of recyclable material exported from the UK – we typically send it to China to sort out, but they’ve banned that, so we have to deal with it at home. We don’t have the infrastructure to do it, so there’s huge potential with this technology. Once, the robot found a €100 note. Another time, a cat wandered into the facility from the street. It found a warm spot on the belt and our system detected it. Luckily, the plant wasn’t running and no cats were harmed.’

The first plastic that actually biodegrades

What if plastic was recyclable and biodegradable? Enter: Lyfecycle, the world’s first self-destructing plastic. Created by the scientists at Polymateria, the technology adds different chemicals to plastic during manufacturing. Then comes the really clever bit: the additives help break down the plastic, turning it into a wax that can be digested by bacteria and fungi. The aim is to make ‘fugitive plastic’ – the stuff that gets abandoned in places like parks, beaches and rivers – less harmful to the earth.

yum bug
Photograph: Gobinder Jhitta

The meal kit made with creepy crawlies

Tofu shmofu: the next big meat replacement is… insects. Don’t fancy foraging in an ants’ nest for dinner? Yum Bug is an insect-focused meal-kit company set up by Londoners Aaron Thomas and Leo Taylor, who want to make eating insects mainstream. To make the prospect of chomping on bugs more appealing, they’ve created actually tasty-sounding meals. Smoky barbecue cricket tacos, anyone?

The companies putting your old tech to use

1. Trade in your old devices at tech recirculation service Spring’s recycling pods, which are at Co-ops all over London. They’ll get repaired, refurbished, reused or recycled and you’ll get cold, hard cash in return.

2. Dodgy toaster? Broken speaker? Head to one of social enterprise The Restart Project’s workshops which teach people to repair broken devices. You might leave with a new skill and a functioning toaster.

3. Your smashed iPhone might be no good to you, but not-for-profit company Tech-Takeback can find a use for it. Check its website for details of its events where you can donate old laptops, tablets, smartphones and desktop PCs. 

Meet the eco-innovators making our city greener.

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