It took a while, but even the most hardened sceptics now acknowledge the reality of global warming and other damaging human footprints on the planet. So why have so many businesses been slow to embrace the green revolution? Intrepid reporters Liz Heynes, Catherine Kerstjens and Jodie O’Keeffe take a look at nine Australian companies building businesses to save the world.
THE SCENT OF THINGS TO COME
By Jodie O’Keeffe
We know that composting is beneficial for the environment: organic waste breaks down and replenishes the soil with its nutrients, as nature intended. Even the most committed sustainable gardeners, however, can find the process of composting problematic. Conditions inside the compost container must be ideal to generate enough heat to kill pathogens and prevent offensive odours, and sometimes the system goes haywire.
Enter the Aerobin, an Australian-designed composting bin boasting a patented ‘lung’ or aerated core within a sealed, insulated 400 litre bin. The result: higher internal temperatures producing efficient breakdown of waste all year round, even in cooler climates. The bin is sealed, so vermin and pets are shut out, while weeds and seeds germinate inside the bin and perish.
The Aerobin is produced by Global Environment Management (GEM) Australia, a joint venture between Australian company ECompost and MSSL Mauritius, a Sumi Motherson Group Company. ECompost Chariman and GEM board member John Jost says the Aerobin is a proven success.
“I’m madly enthusiastic about this bin. In trials conducted by Swinburne University, the Aerobin was found to be the best performing bin, composting an estimated 3.2 tonnes of household waste and garden waste per year,” he says. With the aeration system ensuring a plentiful supply of oxygen to the decomposing material, odour is reduced and the compost does not need to be turned. First manufactured in March 2006, Jost says demand for the bin is high.
“Sales are strong in Australia and I’m sure it will grow to an international business. Werre also looking at making a smaller bin.”
Jost says the composting process is so efficient the Aerobin servicing his home over the past year has never been emptied. Not only that, he’s “never had a bad smell out of it.”
IT FIRM SWITCHES INTO NEUTRAL
By Jodie O’Keeffe
There are no two ways about it; your business negatively affects the environment. Electricity, telephones, paper, transport – these are the staples of any commercial activity. However, there is plenty you can do to make amends, whatever business you’re in.
National information technology (IT) consulting firm Renewtek recently took up the challenge to combat global warming by becoming the first IT firm to be certified ‘carbon neutral’ under the Australian Government’s Greenhouse Friendly program. Renewtek’ï¿½s CEO Fergus Porter is happy to take a leading role in decreasing IT industry greenhouse gas emissions.
“We spent several months going through the certification process and working with the government to assess our carbon production. We looked at everything we did in the office and also in delivery to our customers, including our electricity and mobile phone use, where we travel and even the class we travelled in,” he says.
The firm creates 2.7 tonnes of greenhouse gases per person per year. Under the Greenhouse Friendly scheme, Renewtek acquires abatement credits from Australian Greenhouse Office approved suppliers equal to the firm’s output. Abatement projects include energy efficiency measures, waste diversion and recycling, capture and flaring of landfill gas, generation of renewable energy and tree planting.
Renewtek has also committed to monitor and report its emissions on an annual basis. Porter hopes to reduce the annual gas emission to less than two tonnes per person over the coming years.
TOIL WITH SOIL
By Liz Heynes
If you think your backyard is a tip, take a look at the bigger picture.
Just one of the nasty by-products of our modern lifestyles is soil and groundwater pollution. Scientists believe that soils contaminated with potentially toxic elements (PTEs) by old ‘dirty’ technologies and fossil fuels are linked with high levels of cancer and other degenerative diseases, because these contaminants find their way into our food and water.
But new biotechnology research by Professor Ravi Naidu from the Co-operative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment & Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) in South Australia is showing that nature itself could hold the key to cleaning up this pollution.
Working with colleagues worldwide, Prof Naidu has been investigating the use of trees, grasses, crops, algae and bacteria to extract, lock up or break down PTEs in our soils and water.
The examples are impressive. As Prof Naidu explains, “Willows are converting urban ‘brownfields’ into safe real estate because of their ability to remove cadmium from soils. And metal-tolerant grasses are being used to cleanse old lead and zinc mine sites in Australia, South Africa and China.”
Elsewhere, other grasses that are rich in silica are being tested for their ability to combat the acidity that is destroying large areas of the world’s crop lands; and naturally occurring and specially treated clays, incorporated into soils, are being used to soak up PTEs and prevent their entry into groundwater or the food chain.
In soils contaminated with toxic metals, special fungi (arbuscular mycorrhizae) are being tested for their ability to tolerate these contaminants through a giant network of filaments they establish underground.
These, and other projects from around the world, are proving that although we have treated nature badly, it hasn’t given up on us quite yet.
By Catherine Kerstjens
Climate Friendly is on a mission to fight emissions. Describing itself as a ‘profit for purpose’ company, the Sydney-based company is helping fight global warming with an online tool that assists people to evaluate their choices and offset their impact on the environment.
Offsetting a return flight from Sydney to Melbourne, which releases 0.45 tonnes of carbon gas, will cost just $9.51. Or you can purchase a climate neutral car certificate that offsets the average car’s greenhouse impact for a cost of $103.58 a year.
“We use our client’s money to build long-term solutions to climate change by funding genuine, sustainable energy projects with undisputed climate benefits,” says Flemming.
“When paired with reducing energy use, offsetting emissions can make a significant contribution and help support the move to clean energy.”
As for the future, Fleming is enthusiastic. “There’s a growing sense of optimism emerging internationally that we can take rapid action to stop climate change and Climate Friendly wants to be a real part of that global effort”.
GREEN LIVING MADE EASY
By Jodie O’Keeffe
It started out like any other home building project. Land was acquired and plans were made. However, when owner Marc Niemes began investigating alternative building methods for a sustainable living environment, he came up against unexpected hurdles.
“Many builders are carpenters by trade and they are comfortable working with wood – leveling the ground, laying a concrete slab and erecting a timber frame,” says Niemes.
To Niemes, this was not ideal. He wanted a more environmentally-friendly way of building his house, using the natural four-metre fall across the building envelope as a feature. Conventional methods were clearly not going to work, so he found another way, using the Housing Industry Association’s GreenSmart principles.
“My entire house is built out of a steel frame. There’s really no wood in the house at all, even the deck out the back is recycled car tyres and wood pulp,” he says. To further protect the environment, Niemes insisted on a multitude of friendly features, including an energy efficient orientation for the house, large eaves, double glazing, solar hot water and heating, heavy insulation, smart wiring and recycled water. The sub-floor area holds 40,000 litres of rain water in tanks and a gravity-fed worm farm removes the need for a local sewerage connection.
“If you really wanted to be an environmentalist, you’d build a mud hut in the ground and you’d all live in one room. The reality is that people’s houses get larger but their families get smaller. So, I have tried to minimise the effect of that on the environment.”
The house project has morphed into a business, with details and metrics on environmental impact offered to suppliers, the industry and the public. RealGreenHome also provides presentations and consulting services for home owners and interested parties.
GREY IS THE NEW GREEN
By Catherine Kerstjens
There’s no grey area when it comes to grey water. With the recent tightening of water restrictions, the need to explore alternative water sources and review our thinking around recycling is at the fore. And that’s where Canberra-based company Perpetual Water comes in.
“The Perpetual Water – Home gives the average household the ability to save and re-use up to 67 percent of their daily water consumption,” says John Grimes, founder of Perpetual Water. “It takes household grey water and produces clear, clean, sterile water, giving households a personal water supply that is restriction free and reduces their impact on the environment.”
What started out as a means of saving his garden, and overcoming trips down the hallway carting buckets of dirty bath water to thirsty plants, has evolved to become a serious venture for Grimes and his team
“The ‘Perpetual Water – Home’ is a fully-automated system that takes water from the bath, shower, hand basins and washing machine and treats this to a Class A standard,” says Grimes.
This water can be used for surface garden irrigation, car washing, toilet flushing and clothes washing.
The system treats water to an extremely high level, using a settling tank and filters to produce water that is crystal clear, odourless and sterile. Installation of the system requires a plumber and an assistant, and both the up front and ongoing costs associated with the system are low. Interest has been shown beyond Australia from overseas parties, particularly in the US and Europe.
The team’s commitment to the environment feeds ongoing R&D and the hope that grey water recycling becomes a standard feature of all future smart housing developments.
Dry times call for smart water solutions, and there something extremely satisfying about harnessing grey to return everything brown into perpetual green.
WHAT LIES BENEATH
By Liz Heynes
If you’ve ever been swept along by the tide or tossed off your surfboard by a 10-footer, you’ll understand the ocean’s power. It’s this energy that got Tim Finnigan, founder and CEO of Sydney-based BioPower Systems, excited about creating new clean-energy systems that use the power of ocean waves and tidal currents, bioWAVE and bioSTREAM.
bioWAVE supplies renewable energy to the grid through lightweight modular systems, anchored to the ocean floor like enormous pieces of seaweed. The 30m-high composite structures, which are benign to marine life, have multiple blades fanning out towards the sea surface. They sway backwards and forwards to capture incident wave energy, and this energy drives an electrical generator that feeds power into the grid.
For water without waves, 18m-long bioSTREAM borrows the motion characteristics of efficient swimming fish, such as sharks and tuna. It uses the energy in a moving tidal stream to push the device’s tail back and forth. The energy in this motion is again fed to the grid through a generator.
Both systems draw on the principle of biomimicry. According to Finnigan, “The BioPower concepts arose from looking at the problems faced by marine life in its attempt to resist ocean forces but exist in harmony with them. Our systems look like plants and sea animals and move in the same manner that they do.”
He sees a bright future for ocean power. “There’s always motion in the ocean, so it’s a continuous energy source, unlike wind power. I believe that wave and tidal power will work with other renewable and clean energy sources to significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”
And wave energy is being proven overseas. The world’s first commercial wave farm, off the coast of Portugal, is set to open this year at a set-up cost of ï¿½8 million.
If Finnigan has his way, Australia will soon follow suit. bioWAVE and bioSTREAM are currently undergoing lab-scale testing and, all going well, they will be ready for market in 2009.
In Australia’s efforts to reduce its carbon emissions, what lies beneath might just hold the key.
THE UNQUENCHABLE SHOWER
By Liz Heynes
Water restrictions in most places around the country mean shorter showers. It’s all about water timers and ‘one-song showers’ – or is it? If you crave a long, hot shower without the guilt, Victorian based Quench Showers might have the answer.
As Managing Director and founder Brian Gay explains, world-first Quench Showers recirculate water to minimize the amount of water running down the drain. The system comes complete as a shower cubicle, and can save up to 82 percent in water usage in the home.
Showering using Gay’s system involves a two-step process. First, take one to two minutes to wash yourself as usual (taking about 10 to 20L of water). Once the soapy water has disappeared down the drain, push down the drain cover and allow the reservoir to fill (it takes around 4L).
The shower then recirculates this water continuously for as long as you like. The water is filtered, pressurized and heated to a user-defined temperature, set by a control panel.
And if you’re committed to saving energy as well as water, the Quench system can be hooked up to solar panels to heat the hot-water supply during normal shower mode (an electrical heating element boosts the water temperature during recirculation mode). If you haven’t gone solar, Quench can take around 10 percent off your power bill when compared to traditional electric hot-water services.
Gay comments that it’s early days for Quench in the marketplace. “We have a number of potential clients interested in the system in Australia, and we’re currently putting Quench through North American and European electrical approvals. We hope to offer it for sale in these regions by May 2007.”
Also in the pipeline are additional Quench models with a custom-design tiled, glass or marbled wall shower enclosure; a model with a bathtub; and grey-water treatment systems.
By Catherine Kerstjens
Melbourne based company Solar Systems has harnessed the sun’s potential to establish itself as the world leader in high-concentration solar photovoltaic applications.
It is introducing the global community to the viability of solar electricity generation through its innovative use of solar cells – producing power through its stations that is not only cost effective but also offers an alternative source of electricity that produces zero greenhouse gas emissions.
Following successful implementation of their commercial solar power stations technology in three remote communities in the Northern Territory (recognised through the Engineers Australia’s 2005 Excellence Award), Solar Systems has secured federal and state government grants to the tune of $125 million to help fund a $420 million solar power project to be built in north-west Victoria.
“This is a new generation of solar technology,” says John Lasich, company founder. “The secret is to be able to make a solar power module work about 1,500 times harder than your typical solar panels. If you can do this at high efficiency using low-cost materials, you have the recipe for an infinite supply of clean energy at an affordable price. This new power station will demonstrate these principles and produce the most affordable solar energy yet generated.”
In basic terms, the technology works by beaming sunlight from mirror collectors, or ‘heliostats’, to the solar modules, which convert the concentrated light directly into megawatts of power. It has the capability to concentrate the sun by 500 times onto the solar cells for ultra high power output.
And with Australia estimated to be less than 5 percent of the world market in this new international industry, Solar Systems is perfectly positioned to catch some rays and let all of us bask in its sunny prospects.