Imagine you’re looking out of your home window on the street. You see a few discarded coffee cups—pieces of trash—blowing around past a streetlamp.

Nothing you haven’t seen before—it’s an unfortunate but mundane image. Just trash. Just a street.

But what if it wasn’t? What if these products in this scene were capable of so much more?

What if that glass you peered through was solar glass that generated electricity? And what if those coffee cups you saw were fully compostable, embedded with tree and wildflower seeds? What if that street lamp was powered by microalgae, capable of eating enormous amounts of carbon dioxide?

Sound idealistic? Actually, these 3 products are some of the most exciting new sustainable tech items already in prototype form:

1. Disposable Coffee Cups With Seeds

A small start-up called Reduce. Reuse. Grow has produced first generation seed-embedded coffee cups and to-go containers in an effort to turn highly popular disposable items into planting mechanisms.

The California-based company is headed by Alex Henige, a landscape architect student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “Instead of poisoning our landscapes by growing our landfills,” said Henige, “we can grow our communities by planting this waste to later create sustainable food forests in the heart of communities.”

According to the site, the company is currently testing seeds’ germination periods, heat exposure limits (experienced both during the paper pressing process and in holding hot beverages) and decomposition time for the cups themselves.

At this time, this project is being tested in few small markets in California, but if the idea is successful, it may likely be rolled out to other cities and regions across the nation, as well.

2. Glass Powered by the Sun

Solar panels on your home? That’s so 2014. Try clear solar panels on your windows.

Solar glass is currently being developed by several different laboratories, including Stanford University and privately-owned Oxford PV, a British solar tech company.

Thin-film solar is made possible by using perovskite, a common calcium-based mineral that is relatively simple to create in a lab. The introduction of perovskite to the solar PV market a few years ago changed the game tremendously in terms of efficiency and cost.

By discovering the capability to produce transparent perovskite photons, researchers can not only apply the energy-producing film to glass, they can also use the perovskite in tandem with silicon-based solar panels to increase panel efficiency by up to fifty percent.

3. Microalgae-Powered Street Lamps

A streetlamp that can eat CO2? That’s possible, with this new prototype.

Developed by Fermentalg CEO & Founder Pierre Calleja, the microalgae lamps (that can also be used indoors) are designed to provide lighting while at the same time removing an estimated 2,000 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere annually. The lamp works by using energy sourced from the microalgae’s photosynthesis process. This sourced energy is stored in the lamp’s internal battery, then used at night when the light is needed, meaning that streetlamps would be self-powered and completely off-the-grid.

Prototypes of this lamp are currently being tested in Bordeaux, France. Fermentalg is in the process of forging partnerships with other companies to integrate their lamps into building design and use.

What’s It Going to Take to Make These Products Real?

For the most part, the current obstacles to all three of these products are funding and innovation. Although prototypes are available for seed-containing coffee cups and solar windows, efficiency and cost-effectiveness are still complex problems—but stay tuned for future developments.

In an effort to crowdsource funding and brainstorming, Reduce.Reuse.Grow. welcomes ideas from site visitors—check out their website’s Discussions page to share your thoughts. You can also consider participating in the company’s Kickstarter campaign, as a way to show support.

And as for the microalgae lamps (and other quirky yet interesting innovations like it) their biggest hurdle might be a simple lack of the public’s imagination. Let’s face it: products like this are removed from what we’re used to, even though they may be just what we need to tackle some of our most pressing environmental problems. Projects like these encourage us to dream big, and to share our support, so that we can one day see these prototypes become reality.


Meagan Braganca is a freelance writer, environmental activist, and presenter on sustainable living and climate change. She lives with her family in the Baltimore area. Follow her on twitter @mbraganca, and like her Facebook page “Global Citizens for a Livable Climate” for the latest updates on climate change issues.