Pants that last a century; lightweight folding bikes — this is the year sustainable becomes achievable. Andrew Stone reports.

WILLIE'S BREW

Willie Nelson turned 85 last year. He made a new record called Last Man Standing, and he put out a coffee blend which includes two of his favourite ingredients - a taste of java, and a whiff of pot. Except Willie's Remedy is light on the dope, a step change for Nelson, one of America's celebrated tokers, who already has his own line of weed products called Willie's Reserve.

Superstar Willie Nelson swears by his special brew. Picture / supplied.
Superstar Willie Nelson swears by his special brew. Picture / supplied.

The coffee is made in small batches from coffee beans infused with hemp cannabidoil, or CBD, which doesn't produce the psychotropic effects that THC or tetrahydrocannabol generates. Willie's mix is designed to overcome regulatory hurdles in places which permit hemp products but prohibit marijuana, but is still claimed to deliver health benefits such as pain relief, and reduce stress and anxiety. CBD is finding an audience beyond the old outlaw Nelson, with a health chain in Philadelphia called Fuel adding a few drops to smoothies and Koku, a New York restaurant, sprinkling CBD on soft serves. Nelson thinks it's time the US changed its view of hemp, just as it has shifted ground on dope.

LONG-LIFE TROUSERS

Clothing maker Vollebak's 100 year pants are tough enough to walk through fire. Picture/ supplied.
Clothing maker Vollebak's 100 year pants are tough enough to walk through fire. Picture/ supplied.

A pair of strides last what, five or so years? How does a century sound? That's the promise of adventure clothing maker Vollebak, whose pants are so damn tough, it asserts, you can walk through fire in them. Only spacesuits, the company breathlessly claims, are more technically advanced. Three layers protect the wearer. The top layer repels water and prevents scratches, fire cannot penetrate the middle layer which expands, like an airbag if it gets too hot, and the inner synthetic layer is designed to resist melting or burning. Hardly a high fashion item for the wardrobe, the pants - $960 a pop - are designed for workers in the thick of it but who don't need firefighting kit. Will the 100 year pants go the distance? You may need to bequeath them to find out.

VERY LIGHT BEER

German athletes tried a different track at the Winter Olympics last year - they chugged on non alcoholic beer instead of sports drinks. They had science on their side - a study at the Technical University of Munich found that runners were less likely to develop colds or upper respiratory infections after a race if they drank non alcoholic wheat beer in the weeks leading up to it. This is due to the presence of polyphenols, which have been found to reduce inflammation. Red grapes — the kind you just pop in your mouth — contain polyphenols, as do heart tick oils Such as olive and avocado. Another study found that polyphenols found in red wine can reduce gum disease and tooth decay because they reduce bacteria in the mouth. Non-alcoholic beer sales are rocketing in Germany, where 400 brands sell. Can that wine infused toothpaste be far behind?

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UPCYCLING

A town in Sweden is stamping its mark on the circular economy with a mall entirely dedicated to repaired and recycled products. ReTuna Återbruksgalleria, an odd mix of a municipal recycling depot and shopping precinct in the southern Swedish town of Eskilstuna, invites customers to drop off surplus goods and wander round for something new - or rather given a second life.

Inside ReTuna's recycling mall, where everything has had a previous life. Picture / supplied.
Inside ReTuna's recycling mall, where everything has had a previous life. Picture / supplied.

Staff at ReTuna collect incoming items and send repairable products to workshops for renovation. Fourteen shops in the mall offer second hand furniture, hi fi gear, computers, toys, clothes, bikes, tool and garden gear. Everything for sale in the stores is secondhand. The project diverts stuff away from the waste stream and back into circulation, saving materials and energy. Fifty jobs have been created in the retail and repair part of the enterprise, which has become a hub for artisans and start-ups.

BACK-UP CITIES

About 100km north of Manila, the heaving capital of the Philippines, a city is starting from the ground up, designed to withstand everything that nature can throw at it. New Clark City is where the nation would be run from in the event of Manila succumbing to an earthquake, typhoon or eruption. The country, like New Zealand, sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and endures it's fair share of natural disasters. To ensure New Clark runs smoothly when all round is broken, the design favours citizens over cars, which is bad news for jeepney drivers. Solar power and waste-to-energy principles should mean the show runs efficiently, with lahars or solid volcanic mudflows used as building material instead of concrete. Drainage systems are designed to flush away any floodwaters from tropical storms and the city's elevation should keep it away from rising sea levels. Construction is expected to take 30 years. The country will hope it doesn't get used for a while after that.

FOLDING BIKES

The next step in the e-bike revolution is to pack them down. It is starting to happen with the UK at the front of the pack as commuters warm to the idea of folding their electric cycles into a size small enough to store on the train or tuck under the seat at the pub.

The Hummingbird folding electric bike. Picture /supplied.
The Hummingbird folding electric bike. Picture /supplied.

The world's lightest folding bike is the stylish Hummingbird, which tips the scales at just 11kg yet is said to be good for a 40km commute. That seems a stretch but test reports confirm the machines can go the distance. The bike has a motorsport pedigree, which lends it elegant lines. Being a folding model, its wheels seem absurdly small and the seat stalk unnervingly high but then the bike is pitched at the relatively small pedal-and-pack market. For now it is unashamedly aimed at the high end market, with a hefty $8400 price tag. E-bikes are only going to get more popular, especially as Auckland gets more cycle lanes and commuters warm to the idea of safe, comfortable cycling.

BIG ARSE TOILETS

The name is somewhat crude but the sentiment is sound: a village loo made by a 3-D printer which converts waste into biogas, which in turn drives a power unit that generates electricity. Designed by a Singapore multinational Spark Architects, the unit, which made its debut on World Toilet Day, is printed from a durable mixture of bamboo fibre and gum resin. It comes in several bits: an underground store to contain the gas, and a toilet shell complete with bowl and wash basin.

Spark Architects' 3D-printed Big Arse toilet converts human waste into electricity. Picture /supplied.
Spark Architects' 3D-printed Big Arse toilet converts human waste into electricity. Picture /supplied.

Light enough to travel by drone to remote locations, the setup generates enough gas to run eight dwellings. The name of Spark's toilet underlines a global waste crisis: as many as 800 million people defecate in the open, which poses terrible public health risks. ‪Water.org‬, an NGO, says as many as 1600 people in India die every day from diarrhoea, an illness directly linked to poor sanitation. The bright Spark idea could wipe away a lot of that human misery.

CLOTHES TO RENT

It might alarm the fashion industry but signs of rag trade disruption are unmistakable. The formula is sound: why buy when you can rent, if the deal is sound.

In Europe and North America, millions of customers belong to rentable fashion "libraries." At Lena in Amsterdam, customers earn points to spend on new and vintage clothes, alongside the option to buy. The Swedish library Klädoteket offers lease periods of up to three months – $70 for two items, $130 for four. The US-based service Le Tote invites users to choose from classic or maternity ranges. Rent the Runway, an American giant of the business, has a $240 a month deal for unlimited clothing rentals. It has 9 million members and runs its service from huge warehouses where items are stored and dry cleaned. At the top of the tree, Armarium offers top end designer dresses at four figure rates. The New York business permits minor alterations to their range, and has an Armibot which will digitally dress you in a day. The trend, besides its perfect fit for the sharing economy, appeals to customers' ethical beliefs. Instead of tossing unloved clothes away, renting the wardrobe makes sustainable sense.

LOVE YOUR BEANIE

Buying a beanie from Love your Melon helps good causes. Picture / supplied.
Buying a beanie from Love your Melon helps good causes. Picture / supplied.

Few items of clothing could be as simple as the beanie, the winter wardrobe staple. But the repurposed close-fitting head cover has, at least in the US, become both a fashion accessory and an ethical item through the tireless efforts of a brand called Love Your Melon. The company has raised millions for child cancer, partly on the back of a high-end cashmere range which sells for $130 and a recycled plastic bottle version which runs out at $40. The company has found a way to tie in its big Buy Beanies Fight Cancer billboards in half a million sites by turning the vinyl and polyester sheets into bags sold by ... Love Your Melon. The company's philosophy is that modern social challenges are intertwined - you can't really dwell on one issue, such as child cancer, without thinking about other challenges such as sustainability.

RAIL POWER

Giovanni De Lisi on a stretch of his ecofriendly Greenrail. Photo / supplied.
Giovanni De Lisi on a stretch of his ecofriendly Greenrail. Photo / supplied.

Every year more than 100 million railway sleepers are ripped up and replaced. An Italian startup called Greenrail is on the train towards a sustainable future for the familiar concrete beds, which could mean much lower maintenance costs and the transformation of sedentary rail networks into a clever infrastructure capable of making energy, recording data, and detecting issues with trains. Greenrail's sleepers owe a lot to Giovanni De Lisi, who was a 20-year-old railway worker in Palermo when he had his revolutionary idea in 2005. De Lisi figured that by covering sleepers with plastic and rubber from used tyres, and embedding a solar panel in the wrap, the sleeper would become a power station. The Greenrail system is designed to power the train network, stations, switches and traffic lights, and to send electricity to the general power grid. Each km can sustain 10 households' annual electricity needs.

What's more the rail bed is more durable as the sleepers soak up vibrations, use 35 tonnes of wore tyres per km, and can support heavier loads. All aboard.