Sustainable Development Impact
Climate change, sustainability, and respect for the environment are more and more present in people's minds and discussions. Individuals, states and industries each have their part to play, and it is essential to act now, or it will be too late. Indeed, as it has been doing so for 30 years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)1 warns once again that the next few years will be critical to change our trajectory. In this context, it is in our everyday life, but also as iGEMers and future scientists, that we must participate in this essential effort.
The new generation, aware of the legacy of a planetary climate derailing slowly but surely, is beginning to speak up. These reflections have very quickly put us on the track of a project aiming to reduce our impact on the environment as much as possible, by focusing on the construction industry, which accounts for “36% of final energy use and 39% of energy and process-related carbon dioxide emission in 2018 the world’s carbon emissions2, 11% of which comes from manufacturing building materials (steel, concrete, glass)”.
About our project
The environmental burden of the construction industry will not be reduced without very sustained efforts, as we expect the building stock to double by 20502. It explains the urgency to provide clean solutions and innovations to take up the challenge that we are facing. We chose to focus on the issue of insulation and the advances that could be done in this regard. In Switzerland,more than ⅔ of energetic consumption is attributed to space heating3 (the inhabited area takes 7.5% of the country's space). Moreover, the EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) estimates that homeowners can save an average of 15% on heating and cooling costs (or an average of 11% on total energy costs) by air sealing their homes and adding insulation in attics, floors over crawl spaces etc.4.
Insulation is essential for energy savings, but currently it is done at the expense of the environment. In 2015, less than 1% of the insulation in Swiss residential buildings (2000t out of ~275000t of insulation materials) were recycled (>1%)5! It is precisely the implementation of the 3Rs approach (reducing, reusing and recycling) that is a crucial framework to reduce the carbon footprint and environmental impact of the insulation sector, and the construction industry more globally6
Everywhere in Europe, after an extremely hot summer marked by historical fires and droughts , we are preparing for a freezing winter, due to an energy shortage caused by the actual geopolitical situation. Energy shortage may become a reality, and a well insulated household will be both more comfortable and less expensive.
Our project HESTIA combines two materials together to obtain the insulation material of the future: cellulose aerogel and recombinant proteins. Made from renewable sources (agricultural waste or synthetically produced cellulose), its modularity and its recyclability make our product a candidate to help the transition of the industry towards more sustainable solutions. Moreover, the International Energy Agency (IEA) recommends that we increase the rate of energy renovations and the level of energy efficiency in existing buildings, which falls exactly under the scope of our cellulose aerogel insulation product, designed to be easily applied in renovation processes (see the Entrepreneurship page).
To guide us in our project (see the Description page), we were inspired by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development7, set in 2015 by the United Nations. The 17 goals of the Agenda specifically address poverty, malnutrition, equal access to health care, water, or education, as well as respect for the environment, and the living beings that inhabit it. The three goals we have targeted precisely can be found in the Targeted SDGs paragraph. We are rapidly approaching 2030, and there is still so much to do !
However, we would like to emphasise that technology is not a solution for everything: it comes at a cost, and as Michka Mélo, a representative of EPFL Sustainability unit, put it: “sustainability-speaking, the best product is the one not produced”. As consumers in today’s world, it is important to make use of critical thinking against greenwashing performed by certain actors and think about our own behaviour, by reconsidering our consumption habits. According to the IPCC report (D1)1, a common (accelerated and equitable) mobilisation to mitigate the effects of climate change, caused by our anthropogenic activities, is essential for sustainable development. Sobriety and efficiency should be the words of the decade, and industries, individuals, states, should all contribute to this effort, essential for our survival.
HESTIA aims to contribute to the sustainable insulation of buildings, and to bring this way of thinking to the whole building industry, known for its high inertia.
According to de Lorenzo et. al8, "the SDG will inevitably require the application of [...] biotechnology on a global scale". We proved during the development of project HESTIA that an insulation product could be manufactured using synthetic biology. The next step is the implementation of synthetic biology techniques requiring less energy, and aerogel production more efficient and also less energivore. Those are challenges for the upcoming years.
We targeted early on during our project the three following SDGs:
Goal 9 : Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
Through our vision of synthetic biology, we want to show that it is possible (and even necessary) to produce modular and highly efficient building materials in a sustainable way.
We tackle this goal via target 9.49 which aims to “upgrade infrastructure and retrofit industries to make them sustainable, with increased resource-use efficiency and greater adoption of clean and environmentally sound technologies and industrial processes, with all countries taking action in accordance with their respective capabilities”. We bring proof of concept that synthetic biology is able to provide innovative, modular solutions with a reduced impact on the environment, with high efficiency results.
Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
We must make cities healthier, more resilient and sustainable. Indeed, cities occupy 3% of Earth’s land but account for between 60 and 80% of energy consumption, and 75% of carbon emission ! We tackle this goal with our cellulose insulation : being a highly efficient insulative material, it would allow the cities to become more sustainable, as we would like to offer a novel vision of modularity and use of renewable sources via synthetic biology to be applied in the construction industry. As said above, the building stock is expected to double by 20502, and major improvements need to be made.
Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production
Our product, made from cellulose (the most abundant biopolymer on Earth10) and coated by proteins, thus found in nature, is made of materials not considered dangerous for our health. We realised, after our interview with Michka Mélo that we could produce cellulose from two different processes ! Either synthetically produced, or in a circular way, via agricultural waste to efficiently use resources !
We tackled Goal 12 via the targets 12.211 “By 2030, achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources” and 12.412 which aims to “achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimise their adverse impacts on human health and the environment” (which was to be done by 2020, but not reached yet, so we continue working on it)
We are conscious that for the moment, our solution only benefits economically developed and ecologically aware regions. On a long term basis, the method and use of synthetic biology could expand into the globe as it becomes a more common trend in the construction sector as a whole.
As time passes, we could and should develop cheaper ways of producing HESTIA to allow it to become an affordable and sustainable insulation solution, both for renovation and the insulation of new buildings. Improving circularity via the systematic use of agricultural waste as a source of cellulose could be accompanied by innovation techniques in mass production of aerogel, to provide at a lower cost an excellent aerogel.
Experts contacted in respect to SDGs
Along our reflections as a team, we engaged with different experts related to SDGs and sustainability more globally. You will find below who they are, and what they brought to our project :
Type: Profesionnal support for SDG-related projects
Type: Sustainability consulting and support
Type: Advisor for students on Sustainability projects and careers
In summary, when choosing the topic and developing the proof of concept of our improved cellulose insulation, we considered its sustainable aspect and its reduced impact for the planet than current alternatives. Guided by our reflection on SDGs, we had exchanges with the head of the SDG Accelerator and experts in SGDs. It allowed us to come closer, at least in intention, to an efficient insulation material with a reduced impact on the environment, both in terms of the raw materials used, and in terms of the applications according to the life span. Hence, we believe our project covers three SGDs. Altogether, it was a very enriching experience that brought a complex but necessary facet to our project.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction 2019
Analysis of energy consumption by specific use
Methodology for Estimated Energy Savings from Cost-Effective Air Sealing and Insulating
A framework for sustainable and circular system design: Development and application on thermal insulation materialsResources, Conservation and Recycling, vol. 154, pp. 104631
Carbon footprint management: A review of construction industryCleaner Engineering and Technology, vol. 9, pp. 100531
2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
The power of synthetic biology for bioproduction, remediation and pollution controlEMBO reports, vol. 19, no. 4
SDG Indicator 9.4.1
Cellulose: Fascinating Biopolymer and Sustainable Raw MaterialAngewandte Chemie International Edition, vol. 44, no. 22, pp. 3358-3393
SDG Target 12.2
SDG Indicator 12.4.1
SDG Accelerator Geneva Tsinghua Initiative
Sustainability Office of the Life Science Section of EPFL