10 Fixes For the Planet

If Wes Jackson, founder and president of the Land Institute in Salina, Kans., has one complaint, it's what he calls "our deficit spending of the Earth's ecological capital," from oil and minerals to water and trees. NEWSWEEK asked dozens of thinkers for their solutions, from 300mpg cars to using enormous kites to help pull ships.

1. Zero waste:Recycling paper, plastic and aluminum is a start, but, oh, so 20th century.

Eric Lombardi hates waste. "Landfills are like black holes, where resources go in and never come out," says the executive director of Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit recycler in Boulder, Colo. "As the world's population explodes and its resource base shrinks, we can't afford that." Instead, Lombardi wants manufacturers to make most or all of their products fully recyclable, using materials

designed to be recaptured rather than ending up in junkyards. It's not impossible, as companies like Shaw Carpets and office-furniture maker Steelcase are showing. Both make products with stringent C2C Certification, indicating total recyclability—and 40 other other companies, tapping into the green building trend, are doing the same. "Waste is expensive and inefficient," says Lombardi. "It only appears cheap because the market doesn't send bills to industry for groundwater pollution and resource depletion."

2. LED light bulbs: Never mind the cliché, they really might be a better idea.

Now that we've all dutifully stocked up on compact fluorescents, guess what? A new generation of even better bulbs may be on its way. LED bulbs burn just half the energy, last eight times longer and contain no traces of mercury, as CFLs do. The best of the fledgling bulbs is the Pharox from Lemnis Lighting. While LEDs have long been used for colored digital readouts and traffic signals, manufacturers have had trouble making white LED bulbs that are as strong as incandescents. Truthfully, the Pharox isn't there yet. It produces only as much light as a standard 40-watt bulb, and it's hugely expensive ($39.95 per bulb). On the other hand, it consumes a meager four watts, and a more powerful 60-watt equivalent is coming soon. In November, Lemnis partnered with the Clinton Climate Initiative to help bring the bulb to 40 major cities worldwide.

3. Greener fairways: Not all golf courses are bad for the environment.

When Mark Kuhns arrives at work early in the morning, he is greeted by what he calls "my wildlife symphony"—the chirps and squawks of red-winged blackbirds, bluebirds, tree swallows, goldfinches and red-tailed hawks. That might be normal if he worked in a wildlife reserve, but he doesn't. He's director of grounds at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. Golf courses are infamous for high use of pesticides and water. But Baltusrol is one of 516 U.S. courses (4 percent of the nation's total) that are certified by Audubon International as Audubon sanctuaries. "It takes one to three years to go through the process," says Joellen Zeh, manager of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program. Courses convert an average of 22 acres of turf grass into wildlife habitat along out-of-play and shoreline areas. "That's 22 acres that don't need to be watered, irrigated, fertilized or mowed on a daily or weekly basis," she says. A survey a few years ago found that 82 percent of sanctuary courses reduced their pesticide use, and when they did have to spray, 92 percent used gentler chemicals. At the same time, 99 percent of managers said playing quality was maintained or improved. Now, if Kuhns hears a complaint about, say, the weedy-looking thistles near hole number seven, he points out the goldfinches clinging to the stalks and eating the seeds. He usually makes a convert.

4. Kite sails: The world's oldest form of propulsion may soon return to shipping.

Any idea how far the largest container ships can go on a gallon of fuel? Try 37 feet. That adds up to 2 billion barrels of petroleum a year. "If the shipping industry were a country, it would be No. 7 in carbon emissions," says Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist for Oceana.

That's why some major shippers are hoping to tap wind energy to help pull their vessels along. They're not talking about traditional sails, which would require rebuilding ships' hulls to withstand forces from a mast. Instead, they're thinking of giant kites—as big as 20,000 square feet in area—that could be attached to the bow of a ship. "They look like parasails," says Hirshfield. "They could be a relatively cheap add-on, without designing a whole new ship." Not that industrial-size kites are simple, either. "When you launch a kite in a park, somebody holds the string and someone else launches the kite," says Dave Culp, CEO of KiteShip in Alameda, Calif. "For a giant kite, you need a robotic arm to pick it up in the wind and let go of it. That sounds trivial until you consider the kite is the size of a football field." And if the wind dies suddenly, you can't have the kite crashing into the sea. A German company called SkySails has developed a fully automated system that appears to have solved these problems without requiring skilled sailors to manipulate the kites. SkySails recently completed a test run on a 10,000-ton ship from Germany to Venezuela and back, saving roughly 20 percent on engine power.

5. Plastic solar cells: Lightweight and inexpensive, they could be very practical.

Alan Heeger, professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, loves the traditional solar panels on his roof. "Every day, when the sun comes up, my electricity meter runs backwards, as I sell electricity to the grid," he says. But a system as large as his can cost upwards of $60,000. That's why Heeger is developing so-called plastic solar cells—inexpensive photovoltaic nanochips, 500 times thinner than a human hair. Unlike standard silicon chips, which are synthesized at high temperatures, these cells can self-assemble at room temperature on a flexible plastic film. The film can be bonded to almost any surface, forming a thin coating of solar cells that can be tapped for energy.

Heeger won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing such materials. He went on to co-found a company called Konarka Technologies, which will bring the first small-scale applications to market later this year. Think of handbags coated with flexible solar cells ("as you walk around, it could charge your cell phone") or tents painted with solar cells, for electricity while camping. "The fact that you can fold it or roll it up shows the cells are very lightweight," says Heeger.

But there's a catch. His chips at present convert only about 5 percent of sunlight (versus 15 to 18 percent for standard solar panels)—and only from the visible part of the spectrum. Ted Sargent at the University of Toronto is developing chips that can harvest an additional 4 percent from the infrared portion. With a combination of plastic cells like these, you could start to get close to useful strengths of 10 to 15 percent. When that happens, the impact could be widespread. "There are a billion or more people with no electricity," Heeger says. "A small system, producing less than 100 watts of electricity, would change their lives, giving them light to read and study or power for a radio and a small TV." And there would be no harmful emissions or moving parts to break down.

6. Climate counts: You can vote with your dollars to support green companies.

Gary Hirshberg is constantly looking for ways to make his organic-yogurt company, Stonyfield Farm, even cleaner. He uses no toxic chemicals, has the largest solar array in New Hampshire and converts yogurt waste into a bio-gas that can be burned rather than turning it into sludge. Now Hirshberg is encouraging others to follow his lead.

Last year he launched a nonprofit and Web site called ClimateCounts.org to rank major corporations, from PepsiCo to Microsoft, on the basis of 22 criteria, including measuring their carbon footprint, reducing emissions and supporting progressive climate legislation. The scores, updated annually, are revealing. Stonyfield Farm itself rated only 63 out of a possible 100 points—and it was one of the top scorers. Apple Inc., despite its hip image, pulled a grade of just 2. "We all have a long way to go," says Hirshberg. But he hopes that consumers will put their dollars behind companies that are trying hard to help the environment. "We have to stop treating the Earth as if it were a wholly-owned subsidiary of our economy," he says.

7. The Aptera: A funky new hybrid-electric car gets 300 miles per gallon of gas.

The dirty secret of automakers, says Jib Ellison, CEO of BluSkye Sustainability Consulting, is that most of the energy used by a car comes from moving the vehicle itself, not the people in it. "That's because cars aren't designed to be as aerodynamic as they could be, and because we have this obsession with heavy vehicles, even though there are now lighter materials that are just as safe," he says. But a prototype car from upstart Aptera Motors in Carlsbad, Calif., could help change all that.

The Aptera is not like any vehicle on the road today. It's made with ultra-light (but superstrong) composites, and it has just three wheels to reduce its weight still further. It also has a funky shape—a cross between an insect and a flying saucer—that was designed in the computerized equivalent of a wind tunnel to minimize drag. By next year the car will be available in two models—one hybrid electric and the other purely electric, which can be plugged into any outlet—"even a solar carport," says cofounder Steven Fambro.

Not that a $30,000 two-seater that requires eight hours of recharging will be everyone's ideal car. But Fambro isn't worried. He's presold 1,300 Apteras without spending a dollar on advertising (although he's selling only in California at first to minimize distribution and repair issues). "It's selling itself," he says. "And $100-a-barrel oil doesn't hurt." Are you listening, GM?

8. Stoves for the masses: Inefficient cooking methods are not a trivial problem.

Some 2 billion people in the developing world cook in rudimentary stoves or over open fires. Either way, most of the heat escapes into the air rather than warming the food. Efficient stoves could slash the amount of fuel they use, decreasing emissions and deforestation, too. "A family of five can use three tons of wood a year for cooking," says Columbia University engineer Vijay Modi. "If that family saves one ton of wood per year, that can translate into more than a ton of CO2 saved every year for that family alone." But such stoves have to be cheap, durable and attractive, as well as efficient. A Colorado company called Envirofit International has three new stoves that fit the bill, and the Shell Foundation is investing $25 million to help send 10 million of them to India, Africa and Latin America.

9. New roots for old crops: Perennials could have advantages over annuals.

Modern agriculture, with its nitrogen-based fertilizers, has enabled the Earth's population to swell from 3 billion in 1960 to 6.6 billion today. But agricultural chemicals are contaminating groundwater, and with each plowing and reaping, the world loses millions of tons of fragile topsoil. That's why Wes Jackson's staff at the Land Institute is crossbreeding important crops like corn, wheat, sorghum and sunflowers with wild relatives to create perennials instead of annuals. They are hardier, requiring fewer chemicals, and with the elimination of tilling, he says, "we could take agricultural soil erosion to near zero."

10. Democratize green: Ecofriendly products need to go mainstream.

As long as green products are the exclusive domain of the wealthy, the benefits will be limited. That's why Adam Werbach, global CEO for Saatchi & Saatchi S, is working with major corporations to green their mainstream brands. Take Tide Coldwater, which is formulated to wash clothes best in, well, cold water. "It's a breakthrough product," says Werbach. "If everyone changed from washing laundry in hot water to cold, that alone would meet nearly 8 percent of the United States' Kyoto targets"—that is, if we'd actually signed the protocol.