Three Environmental Innovators Set on Changing the World

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We know — without a doubt — that climate change is happening. But we also have answers, solutions, and new ideas. And we want to share them. So we’re bringing you a set of stories that champion the people, technologies, and movements at the forefront of sustainability.

Krystal Persaud didn’t exactly aspire to make portable solar panels as a career choice; a native of Oakland, New Jersey, she studied product design at Georgia Institute of Technology. “I honestly didn’t really know what design was in high school,” she tells Shondaland. “I actually wanted to be like a fine-arts painter. I’m a first-generation American — my parents are South Asian; I have three other sisters who all work in medicine, and becoming a painter terrified my parents.”

So she landed in product design, a discipline that merges STEM and creative thinking. The program had her learning about manufacturing, plastics, and how to make things people use regularly. “I was always really passionate about sustainability, and about halfway through college I became a little disillusioned just realizing that, as a product designer, I’m probably going to make a lot of garbage. And we were basically being trained to know how to make more things. And I was always pretty critical like, “Should I? Do we need more stuff?”

A class project to design a lamp inspired her to think more broadly. “I ended up making an LED lamp that was powered by the bacteria in the soil,” she says, a feat akin to that old-school make-a-battery-from-a-potato science project. That project sparked an interest in using technology in her work. After graduation in 2010, she spent time working as a toy designer for a tech company but quit in 2019 and founded Grouphug, initially an “activist design collective” of designers and thinkers keen to take on big topics like gun violence, nutrition, and more.

With her sustainability mindset firmly in place, Persaud, a New Yorker for nearly 10 years, realized that if she wanted to buy a place, it probably wouldn’t be a house — maybe an apartment or brownstone. Other areas of sustainability — ditching plastic or quitting meat, for example — have lots of other entry points, but if you’re not a homeowner, getting your energy from solar panels isn’t really an option. Or at least it wasn’t until Persaud started tinkering with a prototype that could hang in a window.

It took about four months, and, after friends saw Persaud’s personal solar panel, she got requests to make more. A Kickstarter in 2019 helped raise $70,000 for materials — and that’s when Shark Tank producers took notice. Persaud would go on to win over Mark Cuban, who infused her company, now renamed Grouphug Solar, with $125,000, and thus her movement for simple, small-living solar power took off.

Persaud’s signature window solar panel can’t quite power a whole apartment, but it can give you enough juice to charge smartphones, devices, and portable power banks, needing about eight to 10 hours of sunlight to get full. If that sounds like a mere novelty, think again.

“Most recently, there’s been a series of blackouts in Texas, and we had a bunch of customers reach out to us and tell us that they were able to keep their phone charged even when they didn’t have power because they had a solar panel,” Persaud says. “That was the best feedback, that we’re really helping people in those situations.” After all, when it comes to taking care of the environment and seeking renewable energy sources, every little bit helps. Persaud’s window solar panels may be small, but they’re mighty. They’re shipping now to 49 of 50 states (come on, North Dakota!) and even making custom shapes for businesses, like the cat-shaped panel the company made for the New York Hall of Science in Queens.

“Seeing the things people throw away, the things that end up in landfills,” she says of her time as a toymaker, “I realized I have an opportunity to design something that can actually help. That’s when I realized design can actually help climate change. With everything I pick, I’m going to try to move in that direction.”

A painful paradox of our prosperous nation is that while so many of us are food insecure (an estimated 35 million Americans had trouble finding food in 2019, according to the Department of Agriculture, a number that’s believed to have doubled as a result of the pandemic), a staggering 30 to 40 percent of the food supply goes to waste. A 2010 study from the USDA equated that to about 133 billion pounds or $161 billion worth of food that ends up in the trash.

For Kyle Fiasconaro, this type of senseless waste was a huge no-no when he was training to be a chef. He cut his proverbial teeth at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a restaurant in Westchester County, New York, that’s considered a pioneering force in the farm-to-table movement.

“At that restaurant, they grind it into your brain that you can’t waste anything,” Fiasconaro says. “If you bring it into the restaurant, it’s either on the plate or it goes to the pigs. So that set the bar pretty high for me.” When he left, Fiasconaro took time off to hike the Appalachian Trail, foraging wild vegetables and food from northern Georgia to Maine. The time in the wilderness prompted a new internal challenge: “I needed to find the biggest problem I could fix.”

Around 2014, he found it in the form of beer.

“I was riding my bike past a brewery in Brooklyn. And one of these breweries had a dumpster outside the brewery. That brewery was next to a Jewish bakery. And you could smell the bread. You could see the grain. And that was the aha moment: I should make something out of this.”

In the process of brewing beer, beer makers boil grains, including barley and wheat, to extract sugars that are converted into alcohol when fermented. But the boiled, high-quality grain is thrown away — sometimes thousands of pounds of it a day. The grain is still perfectly good, and breweries even need help getting rid of it, paying big bucks for dumpsters and other ways to dispose of it.

“So, I got a bag, I picked up some grain that wasn’t in the dumpster from the guys at the brewery, I brought it to the restaurant, and I made a cracker,” Fiasconaro says. Crackers, he figured, are something almost everybody likes and appreciates, and the response from friends and family was enthusiastic. Specialty shops and tea stores followed; the seed for Brewer’s Crackers was planted, and now Fiasconaro is shipping roughly 5,000 cases of crackers a week (and he’s expanded to pita-style chips too.)

“In reality, I don’t have a passion for making crackers,” he says. “I have a passion for fighting food waste. I’m a chef and a cook at heart. So I do a lot of thinking about how to understand people and the best way I can teach people about fighting food waste.”

Fiasconaro, based in Somerville, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, isn’t just reusing materials that would’ve gone to waste either. Besides the water and energy it takes to process, transport, and store food that no one eats, food in landfills produces a large amount of methane gas, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. His crackers, in that sense, help fight food waste and global warming, bite by bite.

“I’m just trying to make the world a better place,” he says. “The point is to have a brand that’s going to be around for like 100 years. Because food waste isn’t a trend. I want to make products that can stick around forever.”

When Donele Wilkins was in her late 20s, she thought her life’s work would be centered around the labor movement.

A native of Detroit, Wilkins had grown up seeing the Motor City’s frontline workers, so vital in putting Americans on wheels, succumb to troubling health conditions and afflictions, and she wanted to do something about it.

“I had a primary interest in Black workers, who traditionally are found to be in the most hazardous, underpaid kind of work,” she says. “I was driven by this idea that we needed to make sure that Black workers and other workers of color had an opportunity to retire and enjoy a healthy retirement. That wasn’t the case then; usually, they stopped working because of some kind of disability, and if they did retire, they didn’t enjoy retirement very long because they died.”

It hit home: Her stepfather, who worked at a Chrysler plant, suffered a massive heart attack while driving, had a car accident, and left her mother a widow with six children. As Wilkins got involved with the labor movement, she got a call from a man who’d become her mentor and, unbeknownst to her at the time, is considered the father of the environmental-justice movement, Bunyan Bryant. This was 1991. He urged her to come to Washington, D.C., for an environmental-justice summit, which ended up becoming a landmark moment in the movement; the meeting yielded a 17-point manifesto of sorts that laid out the defining principles of environmental justice.

Says Wilkins, “The lightbulb went on.” She’d been working on training people to be safer in factories, never considering how the factories themselves in her community were contaminating the air and water, releasing toxins that got people sick. One of the mandates from the summit was for participants to go back into their communities to make change, and that’s exactly what she did. Advertisement – Continue Reading Below

“I really decided I wanted to make a difference, that I was going to dedicate my life to environmental justice, and I’m going to make it better for my people,” Wilkins says. “I was young and naive enough to do it.” She had just turned 30.

The work — meetings in her home, organizing like-minded people — quickly consumed her whole life and opened her eyes more broadly. Wilkins, a proud Christian woman, speaks with the booming passion of a preacher, her voice rising and swelling with the rhythm of a sermon.

“Detroit is a primarily Black city, so I had never sat in a room and had conversations with people in the Native American community, or people who were Latino. I got to meet people who were dealing with military waste and nuclear waste on their reservations. I met people in Chicago who learned that their public-housing projects were built on top of contaminated waste; Latinos in California, where multinational corporations were dumping into the water systems, experiencing weird childbirth outcomes — children disabled, children born missing brains. It just took it to a whole ’nother level. I was like, ‘Oh, god, we don’t know enough about the environmental impacts in places like Detroit.’”

So, Wilkins started researching. She learned that at one point, doing an inventory of contaminated sites in Detroit, officials stopped counting at 20,00 sites. That was the mid-’90s; other estimates had the number about 65,000. Unsurprisingly, the most contaminated sites were where people of color lived. “People made heroes out of folks like Erin Brockovich,” she says, “because when they found out white people’s lives are impacted by contamination, they got moved out of harm’s way. Not so for Black communities. That’s why I do what I do. I believe my children deserve to breathe clean air like anybody else’s. I believe that my children have the right to be at a school building where they’re not having asthma attacks or forced to play on a playground laced with lead, that they have access to clean water and affordable water. These are things needed as human beings.”

She’s now the president and CEO of the Green Door Initiative, an expansive group that does a whole lot of things in four areas: environmental justice, technician training, a youth-education program, and a solar initiative. Its solar program alone includes a plan to install 6,000 solar panels on the roofs of low-income homes, at no cost to the residents.

“Because that’s one of the number-one reasons that people find themselves homeless; they can’t pay their energy costs.” A manufacturing facility is on the way too, and she makes a point to staff the programs with returning vets and formerly incarcerated people. Funding comes from donations and grants, one of which the Green Door Initiative recently received from the Climate Reality project, Al Gore’s initiative.

With that, Wilkins says, the group was able to train a group of young people how to monitor weather patterns, spot heat-island issues, and map geographic systems. With the previous anti-science, business-first administration out of the White House, she’s hopeful for more concrete action on environmental justice, particularly since the Biden administration has pledged to allot 40 percent of federal investments in green jobs to disadvantaged communities and the EPA has appointed its first-ever Black leader, Michael Regan.

But, as you probably already noted, Donele Wilkins is about action not talk. “Black people are good at getting people who we want in office, but what we’re bad at is holding them accountable to an agenda.”

One of her biggest hurdles, though, is making environmental-justice work relevant to people in the community itself. Working-class life often leaves little room for pursuits and concerns outside of everyday survival, but a good deal of Wilkins’ work means making sure people in the community realize that environmental justice is survival.

“I can flow with the researchers and flow in the hood,” she says. “You got to introduce this in real ways. We have to make sure our voices are heard, that we have an opportunity to impact public policy. That’s what environmental justice is about, baby.”

Malcolm Venable is a staff writer at Shondaland.

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