3 of the biggest environmental problems you can tackle with tech


22 Sep 2017

This article first appeared on Startups.co.uk.

If you’re worried about the environment and the future of our planet then you’re not alone. The planet is facing a lot of challenges right now – from water pollution to loss of biodiversity, deforestation to climate change.

However, environmentally-conscious entrepreneurs are increasingly turning to the power of digital technology to tackle these problems with innovative ideas and products.

Here are three of the biggest issues facing the environment today and just some of the start-ups that are meeting the challenge head on…

Food waste

In the UK we throw away around 7.3 million tonnes of food each year. This is shocking – more than four million people regularly go without as they struggle to put food on the table. As well as the waste of energy, and damage caused by manufacturing and transport to the supermarket shelf, waste food ends up in landfill creating an even greater environmental problem.

LettUs Grow is on a mission to tackle food waste. It aims to bring affordable food growing to the modern city using an innovative aeroponic technology which helps grow the freshest food possible. This soil-free automated way of gardening is currently in the testing stages. Project lead Charlie Guy is using a grant from The Environment Now to develop his product for market: “We’re progressing our prototype into a production-ready beta version which we can take forward for some serious user testing.”

YellowLabel is a start-up at an early stage but with instant appeal to the green-minded consumer. Supermarkets reduce the price of items that have a short shelf life and the majority of stores give these items a ‘yellow label’. The project will advertise these items through a mobile app and users can log on to find any reduced-price food in their local area via a map.

Director Sam Patchitt believes the convenience of an app will help the project succeed: “Our app will let you look into the store. You can be on your phone anywhere, see an item that’s been reduced and go and buy it. You’re reducing food waste and saving yourself some money at the same time.”

Water pollution

Sewers that flood cause rivers, lakes and seas to become polluted, harming fish and other marine species. More than 80% of sewer floods are due to blockages, often caused by fat, oil and other ‘non- flushable’ products such as tampons. This might sound a bit unpleasant – and it is – but digital tech presents a real opportunity to help people understand what not to flush down their loos and sinks.

Pipes Away! has taken on this challenge. Victoria Russell’s start-up is a virtual reality experience which allows users to fully immerse themselves into the pipes of their sewers. Through an interactive game which is fun to play, it raises awareness of sewerage pollution, flooding and the danger posed to marine life by unflushables. “It was inspired by the litter and rubbish thrown up on my local beach, washed up by sewerage systems,” says Russell. “It was making it unsafe for both humans and animals.”

Recycling and sustainability

In the UK we lag some way behind our European neighbours when it comes to recycling. Tech does not have a great track record when it comes to sustainability either, but that is beginning to change with smart ideas from young people for whom digital is part of their DNA.

Filamentive is aiming to improve sustainability in the print industry by developing recycled filaments for use by 3D printing customers. Plastic-based materials don’t have many recyclable options and founder Ravi Toor saw this gap in the market: “I’m hoping the idea will spread organically and prove a viable model/example for the rest of the industry to follow,” he says, “I expect corporates will continue to move towards sustainability too as they need to show themselves as compliant”.

Huxlo is using sustainable materials to construct digitally designed, locally made and community assembled buildings. Digital design allows every building to be designed as code; instantly customised to its site and user, whilst keeping costs low. Architectural designs are publicly shared on their website and use locally sourced, sustainable materials which can be assembled without heavy machinery. “The funding from The Environment Now is helping me build prototypes – actually getting the project in front of people” says Matt Mew, Huxlo’s project lead.

The Environment Now  funds young people’s ideas to tackle energy efficiency, waste reduction and recycling, using the power of tech. Successful applicants get £10,000 to develop their idea over 10 months, as well as mentorship, work experience and insight days with industry professionals. It’s funded by O2 and the National Lottery’s Big Lottery Fund through the Our Bright Future programme, and managed by the National Youth Agency.

If you feel inspired to tackle environmental problems with digital tech, the next deadline for project applications is looming – 14 November . You can find out more and apply for an Environment Now grant of £10,000 here.