Absorbing a Setback

AbTech's founder couldn't sell his pollution solution to Big Oil. Turns out that big cities need it more

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In 1994, Glenn Rink figured out a way to turn oil slicks into solid sheets that could be easily plucked out of the water. “This is going to save the world,” he remembers thinking shortly after creating AbTech Industries in 1996. The oil companies he pegged as must-have buyers didn’t share his vision. But Rink was convinced that his technology — which makes pollutants permanently adhere to the inner core of an absorbent material — had to have a profitable application somewhere. Today, AbTech, in Scottsdale, Ariz., is a leader in the design and manufacture of products that, under the Smart Sponge brand, trap toxins found in storm-water runoff before they spill into coastal and other bodies of water.

(See pictures of how Abtech operates.)

Storm-water runoff — also called urban runoff or runoff pollution — is rainwater plus everything else it sucks up after hitting the ground: oil and grease from autos, emissions, brake dust, road salts and pathogens from animal waste. “In many U.S. cities, urban runoff far exceeds industrial waste as the main pollutant in local waterways,” says Steve Fleischli, president of the environmental watchdog Waterkeeper Alliance. The growth of AbTech’s revenues — projected to crack $10 million in 2010 — speaks to the growing number of cities eager to address the problem.

They have to. A municipal management plan for storm-water runoff is mandated by the Clean Water Act. Early this year, Urban Stormwater Management in the United States, a report commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recommended a number of ways to manage runoff, including using structural devices, like the kind AbTech produces. “Fixing storm-water runoff is money well spent, but the EPA’s storm-water program is vastly underfunded,” says Claire Welty, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the chair of the committee that wrote the report. Rink is hoping that his merchandise appeals to budget-strapped municipalities. “Compared with building new storm-water treatment plants or upgrading already existing facilities to handle runoff pollution, which would cost in the millions of dollars, our products are very affordable,” he says. The federal stimulus bill could make them even more so.

AbTech’s Ultra-Urban filters — filters installed in catch basins, located internally at drain intakes — are sold in a dozen sizes and cost between a few hundred and a thousand dollars apiece, including the suspension hardware. Comprising about 70% of Rink’s business, AbTech’s Smart Paks — filters that are inserted near the end of the pipes that empty into receiving waters — cost between $100 and $300 each. All Smart Sponge product lines use the same polymer technology. And Rink’s original oil-spill product, now called the Passive Skimmer, is still available.

AbTech’s clients have included more than 100 U.S. cities, such as Los Angeles, Miami, Seattle and Portland, Ore. As part of a $1 million government-funded pilot project, the city of Long Beach, Calif., bought 1,900 filters for more than 500 catch basins. An analysis showed that the filters’ boxes had captured 92,000 lb. (42,000 kg) of contaminants, including debris, sediment, oil, grease and heavy metals, and an additional 25,000 lb. (11,000 kg) of hydrocarbons and oil derivatives, says Tom Leary, the city’s storm-water environmental-compliance officer. Once he gets more funding, Leary plans to buy 10,000 more. “I want them in all 4,000 of the city’s catch basins,” he says.

U.S. cities are not the only municipalities seeking runoff solutions. Rink has shipped products to cities in France, Italy, Switzerland, England and Canada, and he launched a pilot program in Moscow. But he was surprised to receive a call in late 2008 from the Chinese government requesting samples. “Early this year, they inquired about our 40-ft.-container pricing, which can run as much as $800,000,” says Rink. “Two weeks later they asked us for a better price. They said they wanted to do all of Shanghai.” It’s a big, dirty world out there. Someone is going to have to clean it up.

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