Sustainability in the 6ix

Eco-friendly lifestyles can cut costs that we didn’t know could be cut

Sustainability in the 6ix

The recent influx of attention toward sustainability and environmental awareness has taken social media by storm. Whether it’s Starbucks banning straws — but still wrapping every product in plastic — or Zara deciding to use recycled packaging, everyone seems to be making an effort toward a greener future.

But are they really?

Since the United States pulled out of the Paris Agreement, despite wildfires sweeping the nation and temperatures worldwide standing at a staggering high, the public’s awareness has turned toward climate change.

Those who have been fighting for change for decades finally feel that the urgency of environmental protection is being understood. Yet, regardless of plastic bag bans and boxed water, we have a long way to go before the damage can be stopped and reverted. There are organizations such as Greenpeace Canada, which have been fighting the good fight for years. Their efforts are inarguably genuine, but whether or not all of the corporations that have recently jumped on the green boat have done so selflessly is debatable.

There are a number of companies that have vowed to “go green” and promote eco-friendly practices in a fast-paced capitalist market. For instance, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Tesla are creating conscientious change with energy efficient appliances, reduced carbon emissions, or community recycling.

Often these efforts are still, as other aspects of the companies’ production and distribution are, harmful to the environment. Yet the fact that the urgency of the matter has been instilled in people’s minds, and that people are calling on industries to reduce their carbon footprint and scrutinize their practices, means that the harrowing realization of what we have done is looming.

As bleak as that may sound, it is immensely important for people to, at both a macro and micro level, evaluate their actions. Currently, this wave of environmental awareness has encouraged millennials to make it a point to reduce waste in their homes, buy from sustainable fashion brands, and go vegan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is possibly the most promising development for our futures. They have become, as one might call it, ‘woke.’

While it can be argued that survival instinct is at the stem of these actions, human beings still are not fully aware of the gravity of climate change. Regardless of the countless media campaigns, articles, and research, we find comfort in our minute attempts at sustainability and conservation. Claiming that our survival instincts have finally kicked in is giving humanity too much credit. We need to do more. Even living in a location with a high cost of living, such as Toronto, where the rent prices alone are drowning students, there are affordable ways to live an eco-friendly lifestyle.

As students on a budget, being sustainable can be reasonable, but it is not particularly convenient. We would have to go out of our way to reduce our carbon footprint, although these steps are worth the trouble. Recycling is one the easiest ways to do your part. U of T’s campuses, as well as most apartment complexes, have recycling bins. Instead of being negligent with your waste, make it a point to recycle when possible. Reduce your plastic usage by purchasing cloth bags for groceries and keep a reusable water bottle handy. Another convenient modification students can make to their lifestyles is to buy local. Whether it be perishables or furniture, we don’t often realize the environmental impact of shipping.

What individuals don’t often recognize is that eco-friendly lifestyles often cut extraneous costs. We no longer need to stop and buy bottled water, thrift shopping is much cheaper than purchasing brand new products, and opting for used textbooks or library copies can save hundreds of dollars.

These modifications can be made to your lifestyles and homes, such as using biodegradable plates instead of plastic ones and by using energy efficient power bars. Creating green living spaces is easier than most students presume.

While the vegan trend is still met with reluctance, there are ethical, environmental, and physical benefits to the diet itself. Most of us may not be ready to cut out meat altogether, but understanding where the ingredients are sourced from and choosing to dine at restaurants that utilize free-range local products will not only ease your conscience, but can also push other establishments to do the same.

As a student, living in the 6ix can be daunting and expensive, but sustainability is indeed achievable. It all depends on the effort we are willing to exert.

Our minute actions in which we find solace might also be our saving grace. If everyone were to implement these changes in their daily lives, we could make an impact. It solely depends on if we can grasp how important our actions are within the current climate.

A catalyst for sustainable production

U of T research group develops catalyst that turns carbon dioxide into plastic

A catalyst for sustainable production

Mitigating anthropogenic climate change is a significant issue we face in the twenty-first century. Today, through research and innovation, we are inching closer to a solution.

Recently, a group led by Dr. Ted Sargent, a U of T professor in Electrical & Computer Engineering and the Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology, published a solution to this persistent problem in Nature Catalysis.

The researchers used an electroreduction reaction that converts carbon dioxide (CO₂), the principal greenhouse gas responsible for driving changes in Earth’s climate, into various hydrocarbon products, including ethylene, which is a precursor to most of the plastics omnipresent in our societies today.

The team developed a copper catalyst, which was studied at the Canadian Light Source facility in Saskatchewan.

“Where plants can take carbon dioxide, water, sunlight and make sugars – we take carbon dioxide, water, and renewable energy and make fuels and feedstocks. In this specific project, we found a catalyst that can make ethylene very selectively,” wrote Phil De Luna, U of T PhD student and lead author of the study, in an email to The Varsity.

In this sense, the researchers have developed a method for artificial photosynthesis.

“We were able to track how the material changes during [the] reaction, something that had never been done before with CO2 reduction,” he wrote.

The team’s study is the culmination of a year-long effort to progress research in sustainable materials and long-term energy storage technology and to scale the project from a laboratory setting to a pilot stage.

In fact, the group’s insights and persistence have seen them crowned as one of 23 semi-finalists for the Carbon XPrize — a global competition that rewards $20 million to the team that can best capture and convert CO₂ into a useful product.

There can be potentially huge implications in chemical and manufacturing industries with the adoption of this technology, given that the global demand for polyethylene resins is expected to rise to 99.6 million metric tons in 2018.

According to De Luna, this technology could be used at a commercial scale and aid in sustainable plastic production. Non-biodegradable plastics, like water bottles and packaging, are difficult to recycle, and the only current solution is to burn them, which releases CO₂ into the atmosphere.

“However, [if] we can take waste plastic, burn it, capture the CO2, and then recycle it back into plastics, we can completely close that loop,” wrote De Luna.

Apart from sustainable ethylene production with relatively little waste output, similar technologies can be used to convert CO₂ into a myriad of products based on reaction conditions and the type of catalyst used.

Some of these products include syngas, a precursor to synthetic fuel and biofuels, natural gas, and formic acid that is commonly used in textile manufacturing.

“This is a very active field of research right now,” said De Luna. “Scientists all over the world are trying to find ways to make specific products efficiently, selectively, and cheaply. It’s an incredibly exciting time for this technology.”