E06: Waste to Wonder: The Future of Water Recycling
In this podcast episode we sit down with Greg Johnson, CEO and cofounder of AquiPor Technologies. Greg and cofounder Kevin Kunz created a really innovative surface technology for dealing with stormwater and flooding in a sustainable way.
AquiPor's new material — permeable concrete — does what traditional surfaces can’t. It absorbs water like a sponge but filters out the accompanying pollutants. It’s got a low carbon footprint, unlike traditional cement, and provides a sustainable means to dealing with our need to collect and contain water.
Traditional drainage and water collection systems — or gray infrastructure — just can’t address the impacts of our changing climate, where heavier storms inundate our cities but we have no way of effectively saving the water to stave off drought.
Greg and Kevin’s surface technology is still in the proof-of-concept stage, but it’s generating a ton of buzz in the industry. With its focus on sustainability and innovation, AquiPor is definitely a company to watch — and we think it’s got a game-changing solution.
Tune in to learn more about Greg and Kevin and what's in store for Aquipor.
Water Voice Podcast: https://www.aquipor.com/podcasts/
DJ: You got on our radar via your podcast Water Voice. So for starters, I want to recommend the podcast to our listeners — it's great. I listened to episode 18 yesterday: The philosophical approach to solving big environmental issues.
GJ: That’s a great episode. We got into podcasting as just a side gig. We always have these conversations amongst ourselves and we thought this would be a good way to reference the water and environmental issues we've been thinking about. Plus, it’s fun. That episode you mentioned was great because we had Michael Christian as a guest. He’s an author and is a super smart, high-level thinker.
DJ: I love the way you talk about water issues in the podcast. It's down to earth: everyone can understand what you're talking about. Not an easy thing to do when you’re addressing complex environmental problems.
GJ: Thank you. It’s a challenge, but we’re trying.
DJ: Let's talk about you and your company, AquiPor. What’s your background, and how did you get interested in addressing the issue of wastewater failures?
GJ: When I look back, it doesn't make a lot of sense that I'm in this line of work, because my background is general business. After I finished school I was a corporate salesperson for a few years and then got into real estate — I was helping with commercial development. While doing that I saw that there’s a big issue around managing stormwater, and saw what it was like for real estate developers, at least in our region. Washington State has strict requirements for managing stormwater: Commercial real estate developers must have a stormwater management facility or solution in place for any new property they develop. But at the time, the solutions available were expensive and space-consuming.
DJ: How were you able to pivot and learn about water problems and innovation, especially coming from a real estate background?
GJ: It's a long and strange story, but my interest in environmental issues led me to investigate water problems. Working in real estate, I saw a consistent issue and felt there had to be a better solution. I began researching permeable pavement and discovered that while the technology had been around for a while, it wasn't very effective. Curiosity drove me deeper into the issue, and I realized I wanted to pursue entrepreneurship rather than staying in real estate.
My cofounder, Kevin, was taking an environmental science class at Washington State University, where they discussed the concept of green infrastructure. We realized the issue wasn’t just about stormwater management, it was much bigger than that — a problem of urban flooding and aquifer depletion. We started with the goal of addressing stormwater management, but our focus soon shifted to larger water infrastructure issues. And that's where we find ourselves today, 12 years later, working to find solutions to these pressing challenges.
DJ: How does your solution address the problem?
GJ: I believe there are a few ways to approach this. Currently, a lot of private and government money is being invested in climate mitigation, which focuses on reducing CO2 emissions.
DJ: Yes, we at the GNP are well aware of carbon tunnel vision.
GJ: Reducing CO2 is important, but we also need to invest in climate adaptation. Aquapor's technology can help cities and communities adapt to a changing climate, as extreme weather will become more common. Our permeable concrete replaces impervious surfaces like sidewalks, streets, and parking lots, allowing rainwater to return to the ground naturally, and making cities more absorbent. Additionally, our technology has a very low carbon footprint as it doesn't use cement — which is responsible for 8% of global CO2 emissions.
DJ: What steps need to be taken to modernize water infrastructure in America and make it more resilient to the effects of climate change?
GJ: Our cities should prioritize becoming more permeable, and incorporating more green spaces is a step towards that goal. It's crucial to acknowledge that most cities have relied heavily on gray infrastructure. Gray infrastructure refers to water infrastructure that is not visible — such as underground pipes, tanks, and storm drains that direct water to treatment facilities during rain. People are often unaware of the existence of these systems, which are designed based on outdated data.
For instance, the Atlas 14 data, which represents the average precipitation that cities or regions receive over time, is sometimes based on data from decades ago. This approach to designing infrastructure can be improved by incorporating updated data. Additionally, we need to explore alternative methods for returning water to the ground where it falls. One solution to increased permeability in cities is the implementation of rain gardens and more green spaces.
However, on a larger scale, there needs to be a comprehensive approach to updating infrastructure. For example, Los Angeles County has implemented spreading grounds that divert stormwater to large earthen bowls, allowing the water to infiltrate back into aquifers. More solutions like this can be explored and implemented to help address the issue.
DJ: What stage are you at with this permeable technology?
GJ: We’re still in the proof-of-concept stage after nearly six years of research and development — it’s been an ambitious venture, but we are making progress. We’re seeing a lot of interest from cities and communities in the Western US, like Nevada, Arizona, and California, that have been experiencing drought. They recognize the critical importance of being able to capture and reuse rainwater.
We’re hopeful that the recent attention on this issue will lead to more funding and support for innovative solutions like ours. With the infrastructure bill providing much-needed resources, we’re optimistic about the future of our company and the impact our technology can have on communities across the country.
DJ: Talk about the role technology can play in addressing climate issues.
GJ: With the right combination of people, technology, and capital, we can overcome the challenges we face today. There are already brilliant minds out there working on innovative solutions. We just need the collective will to implement them. Technology plays a crucial role, and I’m optimistic there are already technologies being developed that can solve these problems. But we need to be more progressive — we need to take more risks in order to move forward. In America we’ve become too cautious: We need to think more boldly about the future.
DJ: How will AquiPor help modernize America’s water infrastructure and improve its resilience?
GJ: I don't think it's the silver bullet, but it can play a role in solving some of the challenges we face. For example, in Los Angeles County, 9,000 miles of sidewalks need to be replaced. Instead of just replacing them with traditional concrete, why not use permeable AquiPor material to achieve three goals at once:
- Get water back into the ground.
- Reduce carbon emissions.
- Improve the sidewalks.
I think we should have a seat at the table to discuss these solutions whenever any physical hard surface area in cities needs to be replaced.
DJ: What are the biggest challenges facing implementation?
GJ: Introducing new technology is difficult. Cities tend to stick to the contractors and solutions they already know. That's why we've invested heavily in R&D to bring our permeable AquiPor material to a cost-competitive level with traditional concrete. Our solution offers multiple benefits, including water retention, lower carbon emissions, and improved infrastructure. Convincing decision-makers to adopt new solutions requires a collective will to address larger issues, and a willingness to think more boldly about the future.
DJ: Are you optimistic about the future?
GJ: It can be frustrating. People are often resistant to change. But I’m inspired by the conversations I have with young, innovative entrepreneurs working on solving big challenges in various fields such as water, robotics, aerospace, and critical minerals. It is encouraging to see a growing movement of bright, optimistic individuals with the collective will and intelligence to tackle these issues. It makes me excited for the future.
DJ: What advice do you have for people starting out?
GJ: The journey is a long one. To succeed, you need grit — and a clear understanding of the issue you aim to solve. You will encounter obstacles almost every day, but it's all about mindset. If you view each obstacle as an opportunity to learn and grow, you'll be able to work through the challenges and move forward. Perseverance and unwavering faith in your vision are crucial. Surround yourself with positive, uplifting people, and stay away from negative influences like social media and news. With the right mindset, belief, and support system, you can overcome any obstacle and achieve your goals.
DJ: One of the reasons we created this podcast is to build a community of like-minded people with similar values and goals. It's so important to have a support network when things get tough. It can make all the difference in the world.
GJ: I do think it starts with education and awareness — educating ourselves and others about the issues at hand, the potential solutions, and the impact we can have through our actions. From there, it's about what we do in our own lives. We can reduce our carbon footprint, volunteer for local environmental initiatives, advocate for policy change, support innovative technologies.
We need to be mindful of conservation and the resources we have in our communities. In Spokane, where we have a pristine aquifer, we take small measures to conserve water, like turning off the faucet while brushing our teeth. Or pick up litter while out with your dog or on a walk. These small actions help shift our mindset towards environmental stewardship. At a bigger level, we can make our voices heard by voting and speaking up to our local representatives. We can also vote with our wallets by investing in sustainable companies and products.
Ultimately, being mindful of our actions and the impact they have on the environment is the key to shaping a better tomorrow.
About our host
Dunja Jovanović is the founder of the Ffm platform which is focused on education on sustainable fashion, advocacy, and development of tools that promote and enable environmentally friendly habits among the general public.
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