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Sunflowers bring hope – and possible eco-benefits – to New Orleans

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(Read caption) Annual sunflowers are cheerful plants that are liked by people and birds. The seeds can also be turned into biofuel.

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Talk about multitasking -- sunflowers planted on previously blighted vacant lots are providing not just beauty, but it's hoped that they will also be able to remove contaminants from the soil and provide green jobs, plus – as a bonus – the seeds can be harvested and turned into environmentally friendly biofuel.

That's a pretty big order even for such a large plant. But projects planting sunflowers in vacant lots are already under way in New Orleans and Pittsburgh. And expansion to Cleveland may be next.

So far, the nonprofit group that's behind all this, GTECH, has partnered with a number of organizations – including Carnegie Mellon University. Their goals: reclaim vacant land, empower communities, and translate ideas into action.

Will Bradshaw of Green Coast Enterprise, a partner with GTECH in New Orleans' Project Sprout, told Living on Earth that sunflowers were chosen specifically for the project becauset they "create hope. People have a direction connection to them," he said. They remember their grandmothers or other relatives growing sunflowers. And they signal a brighter future.

Scientists aren't necessarily agreed on whether sunflowers can remove lead or other contaminants from soil, so turning sunflower seeds into biofuel seems the most promising green possibility.

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