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21 things we learned in 2021

Illustration: Rachel Sender

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All year round, the 5 team scours the world for the smartest sustainable solutions, the most passionate people and the most inspiring ideas. We’re always making discoveries that surprise us – here are a few of our favourites from the past twelve months.

1.  You don’t need to throw away any part of a carrot, cauliflower or apple.

You can eat the whole thing. With a little help from our friends at Espigoladors, 5 came up with the recipes that prove it.

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2.  Going without plastic for a week is hard.

5’s correspondent Richard Walker gave it a go. But he hadn’t reckoned with the fruit sellers of Amsterdam.

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3.  Forgotten food-growing skills are being kept alive in a Swedish ecovillage.

5 travelled to the island of Gotland to get to know the eco pioneers experimenting with a more sustainable way to live.

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The village pioneering a more sustainable life. Photo: Ken Hermann

4.  Lost fishing nets are a great material for making bikinis.

We love the bold, bright designs of Copenhagen Cartel, which turns nets into swimwear, helping get harmful waste out of the ocean.

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5.  Towns are turning car-free travel into a giant game.

Experiments in the UK show that you can get more people to pick healthier, greener travel options by letting them compete for points and prizes. Everyone’s a winner!

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6.  We’re all going to be eating a lot more seaweed soon.

It turns out that seaweed’s sustainability credentials are pretty amazing. And it tastes kind of good. It’s now on its way to a dinner table near you.

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7.  People all over the world are teaching themselves to recycle plastic.

From Reykjavik to Rio, the 80,000-strong Precious Plastic community is sharing the tools and techniques to turn waste into gold.

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Plastic recyclers at work in Iceland. Photo: Plastplan

8.  You know the way you never really see the beauty of the place you’re from… until you leave and come back? The Swedes have a word for it.

It’s hemmablindhet – home-blindness. And people are learning to overcome it, with the help of nature tourism projects that celebrate the wonders on our doorsteps.

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9.  Microphones hidden in trees are helping to stop illegal logging in rainforests.

Solar-powered sensors and transmitters listen out for the sound of trucks and chainsaws, so enforcers can respond swiftly when the forest is under threat.

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10.  You can make nutritious food out of thin air.

OK, so you also need some special bacteria to get started, and some pretty serious equipment. Then you can extract carbon dioxide and water from the air and use it to grow sustainable protein. The company doing it are now building their first factory in Finland.

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The world’s most sustainable source of protein? Photo: Solar Foods

11.  Mending your clothes is cool again.

If you don’t believe us, check out our gallery from members of the Fixing Fashion community.

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12.  You can make useful stuff out of used coffee grounds.

It seems obvious once you start thinking about it: only a tiny proportion of the coffee beans we use, actually end up in the cup. 5 met the startup finding uses for the stuff we put in the bin.

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13.  Your pension may be funding environmental harm – but you can change that.

It’s easier than you think to get your pension investments moved to a clean, green fund (or if your provider can’t do it, move to another).

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14.  Lynx, eagles, bison and bears are returning to areas that have been left to nature.

Numerous species are coming back to areas where they haven’t been seen in decades, thanks to rewilding.

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European bison – back in Romania. Photo: Stefano Untherthiner / Wild Wonders of Europe

15.  You can dye textiles sustainably using algae.

It’s the planet-friendly way to colour fabrics, developed by a former fashion industry insider who was shocked by the impact of conventional dying methods.

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16.  Instead of adding to plastic waste, there’s a bottle that reduces it x 1000.

For every reusable Ocean Bottle bought, the makers recycle one thousand plastic bottles.

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17.  Tiny forests are springing up in big cities everywhere.

Take a space the size of a tennis court, and you can grow a tiny forest. Designed to be dense and fast-growing, it’s a haven for nature – in the heart of your town.

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18.  People are being sent on virtual trips to space to jolt them into caring for the planet.

5 met the ex-astronaut who’s sharing the view he saw of the Earth from above, in the hope of convincing them to take better care of it.

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The view only astronauts get to see. Until now. Photo: NASA

19.  There’s an AirBnB for gardens.

Lots of us would love to have outdoor space, but don’t. Others have outdoor space that we don’t get a chance to appreciate. That’s where a new app called AllotMe comes in.

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20.  You can brew awesome beer from leftover bread.

A UK brewery called Toast is doing just that. (Another startup we met is making eco-plastic from brewing waste – we should probably introduce them to each other.)

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21.  The solutions to climate change are right here.

It’s easy to start feeling hopeless about our changing climate. The good news is, we know how to fix it.

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