Mike Hannah says the plastic in our waterways is a stormwater problem, and he’s doing his bit to resolve this one drain at a time. His dedication to the industry over the past 25 years saw him named as the Stormwater Professional of the Year at this year's Water New Zealand conference.
Mike began his career with a civil engineer degree but says he didn’t really want to build bridges or buildings.
“As an 18-year-old I was passionate about the environment, so I got into water.” What that entailed was a job in the drainage department of the Auckland City Council.
“It was 1991 and stormwater was a new thing to be managed. They’d only just started regulating it in Auckland. “In my job I was asked to design stormwater treatment devices – things like filters and swales and so on.
“These were all very good for new developments, but I wanted to know what we should be doing for existing stormwater systems? They were a source of a lot of pollution.
“I saw an opportunity in catchment and an idea was hatched. I was actually at the beach one day with a couple of friends – Brendan, also an engineer, and Greg Yeoman, an architect – and we were throwing ideas around, and from there Enviropod was born.”
The company’s original product was a stormwater drain filter which uses a catch pit insert with mesh screens to filter rubbish, sediment and pollutants entering the storm-drain system.
“We built prototypes and splashed a lot of water around. We stealthy installed them in various drains when no one was watching (when you’re a student you don’t ask permission), and we were amazed at what we pulled out of the stormwater.
“We were blown away by the results and excited by the potential, so decided to get a patent for the Enviropod.
“I left my job and we set up in business. I was 22.
“We got approval for the Enviropod from councils, went to conferences to promote it –in fact I went to the very first Stormwater Conference. While at a conference I met some people from Australia who gave me a heads-up about a tender opportunity in Brisbane which was looking for exactly what we had.
“We put forward the Enviropod and won, and then had to somehow supply 150 units!
“The Brisbane City Council later went on to order a further 600 units, and that was enough to prompt us to set up a company in Australia.”
While Mike and his partners were excited about the success of their catchpit filter, they knew they could improve it and catch more pollutants.
“We found that while councils liked to retrofit our units to existing drains, they weren’t so keen on installing them in new developments. There were also a lot of pollutants to catch that simply couldn’t be seen.
“We met a US company that made an excellent filter that goes with our pod, and this will catch fine particles.”
Mike says working in the field means he knew what pollutants were present in stormwater.
“I knew what the industry wanted and where it was going.”
These days ,Enviropod nestles under the parent company Stormwater360, established in 1996 by Mike and Greg, which offers 15 different stormwater management products.
“We started as me and Greg and a guy cutting up pipe; we now have a highly-skilled team of 30. Our driver is to use technology to get better stormwater outcomes.
“There area lot of regulations around stormwater management, some of which are hard to implement. We are here to make it easy for operators such as councils to meet the rules.
“Our success comes from a deep knowledge of stormwater – we understand what the regulations are trying to achieve and, with that in mind, look at various technologies around the world, then work with them to achieve what is needed here in NewZealand.
“I’m really proud of our team and the people we’ve had come through. They can see the vision and are trying to find and develop new technologies to achieve it.”
Stormwater360’s signature product, the LittaTrap, released five years ago, was developed in response to the global issue of plastic pollution in the ocean. It's designed to prevent plastics and rubbish from entering the drains and contaminating connected streams and oceans and will capture and retain all plastics and gross pollutants over 5mm.
The company was doing well, with most councils around New Zealand embracing their filters. However, things were tougher in Australia, so when the global financial crisis hit in 2007, they sold their Australian operation to the employees there, and consolidated the Kiwi business.
“We made an investment in our business, taking the opportunity to redesign and re-engineer our original product, which we then took to the US, with help from the government and Callaghan Engineering.
“We were inspired by Ikea – we wanted to make a product that could be flat packed and sent around the world.”
The company was still fairly young and had had limited financial backing over the years.While it had been growing, this growth had purely been organic. However, to tackle the US market, a push was required.
“Greg and I headed to the US in 2017. Our company was strong and we had good people working with us.
“We also were completely focused on stormwater, where others were more diverse, so we found we needed to educate them on the particular issues with stormwater.
“The world’s rivers, lakes and oceans are choking with plastic, and 80 percent of this plastic comes from land with the major source being stormwater drains.This makes the plastic pollution problem a stormwater problem.”
Stormwater360 set up in Toronto, as a gateway to North America.
“Canada wanted to take the lead on tackling the plastic pollution problem, so we saw Toronto as an excellent starting point, however, we have found that while their intentions are good, they’re slow to action.”
The company has subsequently also set up in California.
“California doesn’t just talk about things; it does things. “Plastic discharge has been regulated there for the around 10 years now, and theCalifornia State Water Control Board has a zero-trash water quality objective.
“The LittaTrap has been approved by the water board and is one tool to help them reach their objective. Education is another important part of their plan.
“I guess, because of the litigious nature of the US, people are acting.”
Mike describes the company’s LittaTrap project as a for-profit social enterprise.One funded by Stormwater360.
“We’ve put our hearts into it. I don’t know if we would have persevered if it was simply a commercial operation.
“Plastic pollution is a stormwater problem. And not just the responsibility of councils, but anyone with a drain. We’ve made the LittaTrap cheap enough so anyone could buy it – and buy it because they want to, not because they have to.
“My aspirational goal is to have a LittaTrap in every drain. If we did, we’d make a significant dent in the global plastic pollution problem.”
Article by Mary Searle Bell.
Published on Jul 6, 2021