From the fight against plastic pollution to the quest for more sustainable lifestyles, young innovators in Latin America are coming up with bold, groundbreaking ideas that could transform the way we live, and pave the way for a more sustainable planet.
Check out these four innovations “made in” Latin America, and the enthusiastic young leaders behind them.
A treasure inside avocados
Scott Munguía produces bioplastics from avocado seeds. This young Mexican chemical engineer discovered in 2011 that the avocado seed contains a biopolymer similar to the one present in corn, which is used to produce bioplastic. In 2014, he founded Biofase, a company based in Monterrey that commercializes bioplastic products, made of 60 per cent avocado biopolymer and 40 per cent synthetic organic compounds.
The straws and cutlery made from avocado seeds decompose in only 240 days, and there is no need for incineration. This makes them a sustainable alternative for cities or countries that lack incineration facilities in their waste plants.
Biofase’s products have a great manufacturing potential. According to Munguía, 300,000 tonnes of avocado seeds are discarded annually in Mexico, an estimated 20 per cent of the global demand for bioplastics. So far, Biofase reaches 11 countries in Latin America.
Unlike other types of bioplastics, this alternative does not use crops suitable for human consumption—such as corn or cassava. Along with other plastics made from food waste, Biofase’s biopastics could help meet the growing demand for plastics without hampering progress in the fight against hunger.
“Bioplastics must be sustainable. How can you make bioplastic from food? There are so many people starving and there is so much trouble around the cost of corn. It is absurd and out of place […], we should not take food away from people,” Munguía said.
Inty Gronneber with Ichtion turbines. Photo by Inty Gronneber
Turbines to save our oceans
Plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time: it harms marine biodiversity, coastal economies and even human health. Each year, around 13 million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the oceans, the equivalent of a full garbage truck every minute. The largest portion of all this garbage is dumped in rivers of major cities.
Inty Grønneberg, a young Ecuadorian innovator, came up with the idea of developing several types of turbines capable of filtering and collecting plastics from bodies of water, thus preventing them to end up in the oceans.
The turbines designed by Grønneberg, through his company called Ichtion, can collect up to 80 tonnes of plastic from rivers every day. They can be installed on any boat and pick up plastic waste during navigation.
“Hopefully, it will not be necessary to develop new specific infrastructures [where to install the turbines]. Rather, we want to take advantage of the maximum number of existing vessels possible," said Grønneberg.
In November 2018, Grønneberg was recognized as one of the Innovators Under 35 Latin America 2018 of the MIT Technology Review, and this year, he was honored with one of the highest distinctions granted by the Government of Ecuador. He hopes these awards will help him spread the word on his innovation and raise the US$2 million needed to implement the technology in his home country.
Solubag produces plastic bags that dissolve in water in a few minutes. Photo by Solubag
One million plastic bags are consumed every minute worldwide. Most of them end up in landfills or in the oceans. The one-piece polyethylene shopping bag, created in the 1960s, takes up to 500 years to decompose.
So when Roberto Astete and Cristian Olivares, founders of Chilean start-up Solubag, presented a plastic bag which dissolves in water in just a few minutes, they raised many eyebrows. Is it even possible?
"The bag completely dissolves in water, with no harm. You can even drink the water, as it has no chemicals," said Cristian Olivares, the company's commercial manager.
The secret? According to Olivares, Solubags uses limestone instead of oil by-products. That is why they have zero environmental impact compared to other alternatives like oxo-biodegradable bags, which are still made of polyethylene and break into small pieces of toxic plastic.
The chemical formula of Solubags contains polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), a material found by Astete and Olivares while analysing biodegradable detergent capsules.
Their innovation is expected to be widely accepted in Chile, where a ban on plastic bags in large businesses came into force in February 2019. Solubag currently produces in China and is considering installing a factory in Tomé, Chile. "To get to the world, we first need to have a plant in South America," Astete said.
Inhabitants of the Uruguayan House can control the conditions of the rooms from their smartphones. Photo by La Casa Uruguaya
A home for a sustainable lifestyle
Our energy consumption depends directly on the conditions
of ventilation, temperature and light in our homes. If the house is very warm, we will probably use air conditioning. And if it has few windows, we will rely more on artificial lighting.
In the coming years, the construction sector must embrace these variables in order to increase energy efficiency and accelerate climate action. Currently, the buildings sector accounts for a significant 39 per cent of total energy-related CO2 emissions, according to The 2018 Global Status Report.
With this challenge in mind, a group of students, graduates and professors from the ORT University Uruguay created La Casa Uruguaya (The Uruguayan House), a sustainable and intelligent housing project inspired from bioclimatic architecture and equipped with technology that can reduce energy consumption while offering a sustainable and accessible lifestyle.
The living unit consists of a house inside a box, according to the ORT University Uruguay. The insulation prevents heat and cold from entering. It has two ceilings—one on top of the other—and, between the two, moving parts that can be remotely opened or closed in order to regulate indoor temperature. Windows are strategically located to improve lighting.
The house is self-supplied with solar energy, notifies inhabitants of energy misuses, has a water reuse system, and sensors that help to regulate temperature, humidity or lighting. The unit can be installed in only 15 days and costs between US$50,000 and US$90,000.
La Casa Uruguaya won major prizes at the Solar Decathlon Latin America and the Caribbean in 2015, an international academic competition organized by the United States Department of Energy. In 2016, the project received a National Energy Efficiency Award in Uruguay. Currently, the team members market the project in their country and the region.
Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly, from 11 to 15 March 2019, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing towards a sustainable future for our planet.