COP26: The innovators helping to fight climate change

“Trash wheels” cleaning up waterways, homes powered by computer heat and turning plastic into roads – these are some of the imaginative ways people are doing their bit for the climate crisis.

From tiny forests to less gassy cows – here are some of the innovative changemakers making a positive difference to the planet.

The ‘trash wheel’ cleaning up waterways 

We’re all aware of the horrifying amount of plastic that ends up in the oceans every year. Already, the figure stands at eight million tonnes annually, and if this accelerates, some predict the volume will weigh more than all the fish in the sea by 2050.

In the early Noughties John Kellett, a sailor and engineer from the US city of Baltimore, encountered this plastic a lot more than the average person. Having worked in the city’s harbour for several years, he saw plastic floating in the water on a regular basis. One day, he decided it was high time to do something about it.

Kellett created a prototype “trash wheel”: a rotating device with a conveyor belt to pull rubbish and debris out of the inner harbour before it entered the main bay. The apparatus quickly grabbed the attention of a local nonprofit, who awarded Kellett funding to create a bigger, more effective trash wheel.

The contraption uses a combination of solar and hydroelectric power to turn a waterwheel, which in turn powers a conveyor belt to pull rubbish out of the water and deposit it in a skip. Since the wheel first started turning, it’s collected more than one million plastic bottles, 800,000 plastic bags and 12 million cigarette butts.

After gaining a pair of large googly eyes and a Twitter account, the newly titled Mr Trash Wheel became a local sensation, with 21,000 online followers and a dedicated fanbase.


The tech is soon to be rolled out in areas across the Americas to tackle plastic pollution in rivers and bays before it enters the ocean ecosystem.

Big Ideas to Make Big Changes Zapping methane from the mouths of cows. Illustrations: Matthew Brazier

Zapping methane from the mouths of cows

While CO2 often dominates discussions around greenhouse gases, methane is estimated to be 85 times more damaging to the planet, and difficult to re-capture once emitted.

To address the problem, British firm Zelp realised the answer might be at the primary source of methane emissions: the mouths and nostrils of cows.

The team created a wearable harness for cows which can capture methane and use a catalytic converter to turn it into a combination of CO2 and water vapour. Early results suggest a reduction in methane emissions of up to 32 per cent per cow, presenting a potentially revolutionary solution to the large carbon footprint of the agricultural sector.

Big Ideas to Make Big Changes Turning plastic waste into motorways. Illustrations: Matthew Brazier

Turning plastic waste into motorways

While working with landfill “pickers” in India, Toby McCartney saw workers melting down waste plastics to fill potholes in roads and decided to bring the idea back to the UK. He set up MacRebur and began collecting waste plastics, mixing them with asphalt and using them to build and resurface roads.

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Each mile of road laid with MacRebur’s recycled products is equal in weight to 80,000 plastic bottles or 1.2 million plastic bags. For every one-mile, two-lane road, the carbon emission offset is around 33 tons.

The concept has proved a success, with roads laid down across the UK killing two birds with one stone – recycling waste plastics while lowering emissions associated with building traditional roads.

Big Ideas to Make Big Changes Computer power to heat your home. Illustrations: Matthew Brazier

Computer power to heat your home

When your laptop fan goes into overdrive it’s usually because you’re asking the device to perform a lot of tasks at once, generating heat which is subsequently cooled and ultimately wasted.

But what if, instead of being cooled, the heat generated by millions of computers every day could be harnessed and used to heat your home? It’s a radical idea which an organisation named Thermify believes could end our reliance on fossil fuel-powered boilers.

Though the technology is complex, the idea is simple: Thermify processes computer data on behalf of businesses via small, physical data centres – “heat hubs” – installed in place of gas boilers in people’s homes. Whenever a household needs energy, computer tasks will be sent to their heat hub for processing, generating heat which gets pumped around the home.

The benefits aren’t just in decarbonising home heating, explains Thermify energy lead Garry Felgate. “Normal data processing centres spend 30 per cent of their costs cooling devices down and that heat is wasted,” he says.

“Because we don’t have to [perform cooling] that means we can charge very little for energy. We can reduce the costs for people who have traditionally struggled to afford heating.”

The cost of installation would be similar to a gas boiler, says Felgate, but the price of energy thereafter would likely be much cheaper – and no longer tied to the volatile gas market.

Thermify has just placed an order for 1,000 heat hubs, with the first likely to be installed in a UK home next year. The ambition is to scale up, helping the UK with its target of phasing out gas boilers from 2035, while also, Felgate hopes, “going a long way toward eliminating fuel poverty”.

Tennis court-sized forests in urban areas

From storing carbon dioxide to slowing flooding and boosting biodiversity, the environmental benefits of forests are well-documented. It’s why many nations are now relying on ambitious programmes of tree planting to slow the worst impacts of the climate crisis. With space at a premium in urban areas, mass tree planting has traditionally taken place in remote rural areas, meaning urbanites miss out on all the benefits of being near a forest.

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In 2020, however, the environmental charity Earthwatch flipped the script, helping volunteers in Oxfordshire plant the UK’s first ever “tiny forest”, a tennis court-sized patch of land packed with native trees. 

The idea comes from the Netherlands, where, since 2015, more than 100 tiny forests have been planted in areas where green space might otherwise be lacking. 

The strong involvement of local communities in the planting and maintenance of forests is deliberate, explains Louise Hartley, senior programme manager at Earthwatch Europe. 

This close involvement is intended to foster a sense of ownership over forests, and, it’s hoped, over the natural world more widely. In the Netherlands, “forest schools” use them to teach children about environmental responsibility. The dense planting method encourages much faster maturity of trees than in large planting programmes. This not only means the environmental benefits are reaped faster, but that “local people can track growth of trees they planted really quickly”, says Hartley.

Though Britain’s tiny forests are still in their infancy, studies  show they’re able to sequester up to 250kg of CO2 per year, attract hundreds of animal species and even cool local temperatures. By 2023, Earthwatch Europe hopes to have planted 150 tiny forests in areas across the UK. In the run-up to COP26, Hartley says, they’ll be planting four forests in Glasgow.

While you’re here…

The Big Issue has co-launched a new fund that invests ONLY in companies working to solve the climate crisis and help to create a cleaner, more sustainable world. The focus is on what can be done NOW for future generations. 

In partnership with Aberdeen Standard Investments, the Multi-Asset Climate Solutions (MACS) Fund actively scours the globe for companies that get at least half of their revenue from climate change solutions and other key environmental challenges. Currently, less than five per cent of the world’s companies fit the bill.

From renewable energy and green buildings to electric vehicles and remote working technologies, the fund invests in companies that are enabling the transition to a low carbon economy.

A Climate Advisory Group that includes Nigel Kershaw, Chair of The Big Issue Group, as well as respected environmental, policy and finance experts and climate activists has been established to make sure the fund does what it is supposed to do. It is proof that the fund is not a tokenistic step.

20 per cent of the net revenue goes back into The Big Issue to support its social mission.

To find out more about the MACS Fund go to or

Learn more about further Big Issue work for Future Generations, through John Bird’s Future Generations Bill currently working through Westminster, see


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