8 Earth Day trailblazers

Meet the people who are making progress on climate change, saving our oceans, and more.

Earth Day is a commitment to make life better, not just bigger and faster,” wrote the organizers of the very first incarnation, celebrated on April 22, 1970. From determining the "greenest" times for energy use to creating cost-effective techniques to purify water from the sun's rays, here are eight creative scientists and activists who are delivering on that promise.

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  • Anna Schneider and Gavin McCormick

    Anna Schneider and Gavin McCormick

    When you turn on a light switch, your electricity may come from a local windmill or a coal plant from another state. That’s because power grids across the U.S. are set up to use different sources of energy at different times of the day. UC Berkeley scientists Anna Schneider and Gavin McCormick, co-founders of non-profit WattTime, have developed online tools using real-time data from power grids around the country to figure out the "greenest" times for commercial buildings to use those various sources of electricity. They also helped develop electric vehicle charging stations and thermostats that prioritize the use of clean and renewable energy.

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  • Jeff Kirschner

    Jeff Kirschner

    Litterati, an app created by tech entrepreneur Jeff Kirschner, lets users identify and geotag the world’s trash before they dispose of it. Kirschner calls it “crowdsource-cleaning.” So far over 400,000 pieces of litter from more than 100 countries have been photographed and tagged. He hopes to use the data to assist companies and governments in reducing litter. One of Litterati’s biggest wins thus far includes helping the city of San Francisco understand what portion of its litter comes from cigarettes. This led to a doubling of the per-package “litter fee” tax, which now generates annual revenues of $4 million for the city to use towards green initiatives.

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  • Jonathan Rossiter

    Jonathan Rossiter

    Pixar’s earnest robot trash compactor Wall-E now has a real-life counterpart. Jonathan Rossiter, a roboticist at the University of Bristol in the UK, has invented the “Row-bot.” It's a robot that cleans the ocean’s trash by “eating” oil slicks and algae blooms. It then converts that waste into electricity using a microbial fuel cell. What's more, the Row-bot is made of biodegradable materials (jelly, paper, and salts), so it doesn’t have to be removed from the ocean when its job is done. That raises the possibility of sending a fleet of these pollution-fighting robots out to sea.

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  • Shubhendu Sharma

    Shubhendu Sharma

    Roughly 50,000 square miles of forest—or the size of New York state—disappear annually. Shubhendu Sharma hopes to make a small dent in that alarming rate, one forest at a time. His India-based company, Afforestt, creates fast-growing mini-forests using native trees within homes, schools, and factories that improve air quality and increase biodiversity. Since its inception in 2011, the company has created 90 urban forests (totaling some 220,000 trees) across 32 cities and claims it can create 100-year-old forests in 10 years. To speed up the process, Sharma's team identifies what nutrients the soil lacks, adjusts the soil using local agricultural or industrial byproducts (like chicken manure), and plants saplings densely so that the trees are forced to compete for sunlight, which greatly accelerates their growth. 

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  • Deepika Kurup

    Deepika Kurup

    On a family trip to India at age 14, Deepika Kurup witnessed children filling up plastic drinking bottles with dirty roadside water. That shocking sight propelled her to develop a sustainable, cost-effective water purification technology that uses photocatalysts to significantly speed up the time it takes to disinfect water with sunlight, the current water purifying practice used in developing countries. In 2016, the Harvard freshman developed Catalyst for World Water, an organization aimed at bringing her water purification technology around the globe.

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  • Donnel Baird

    Donnel Baird

    Retrofitting an old building to make it more energy efficient isn’t the most obvious investment opportunity. But Donnel Baird, the CEO and co-founder of New York City-based clean tech start-up, BlocPower, hopes to change that. Its Smart Cities online marketplace matches investors with “shovel-ready” retrofit projects, including a Harlem church looking to upgrade its 50-year-old boiler and install LED lighting. Savings from heating and electricity costs (about an estimated $20,000 a year for the Harlem church) are passed on to the investor, creating a win for both parties and the environment.

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  • Bill McKibben

    Bill McKibben

    When The End of Nature by former New Yorker staff writer Bill McKibben came out nearly three decades ago, it was hailed as the first book written for a general audience on climate change. McKibben has since published a dozen more books on the environment and co-founded 350.org, a global grassroots movement aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions that is now active in nearly 200 countries. (The group’s name comes from the belief that 350 parts per million is the “safe” level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; we’re currently at 400 ppm, and that number is rapidly rising). Major initiatives included campaigning to stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

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