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Weekly Trend: Wastewater Startups Cleaning Up the $600 Billion Industry

What is the first thing that comes to mind when the term “wastewater” comes up? If you are immature, you may be giggling in anticipation with many a raw sewage quip. However, the joke is on you: Not only is wastewater treatment is a very serious, transformative and important topic, it also happens to be a $600-billion dollar industry.

After all, water treatment facilities do not just focus on solid waste management; they also address water pollution from agricultural runoff, for instance, which is just as damaging to watersheds as untreated raw sewage is to human health. Clean water and water conservation are two areas that are key to keeping populations and economies healthy as well as to keeping an economy alive: Around the world, drinking water contamination is still a major cause of disease and mortality.

In developed nations, we have the luxury of well-funded and efficient infrastructure–for instance, D.C.’s award-winning Blue Plains wastewater treatment facility is the largest in the world. Unfortunately, a wastewater treatment facility is prohibitively expensive for emerging economies. Having access to a plant that can manage a city’s wastewater and renew the resource on the spot requires not only a sizeable initial investment, but requires long-term financing that may make investors in emerging economies wary as well. This has also meant that a few, well-established companies have dominated the industry —that is, until recently.

In January, Forbes reported that startups are revolutionizing the wastewater treatment industry, doing what they do best: thinking creatively and outside the box. Among the companies highlighted in the Forbes article, BioGill, a bacteria-based bioreactor that works in a manner opposite to traditional wastewater cleaning systems and therefore is more cost-effective, seems like a great game-changer. Another startup, OptiEnz Sensors, helps monitor organic chemical concentrations in wastewater—anything from petroleum-based hydrocarbons to food-grade chemicals can be monitored on site, which cuts down dramatically on shipping costs to a remote lab location.

Additional, GigaOm introduces readers to Axine Water Technologies, which targets ammonia-based polluters, as well as other compounds, through a portable, modular design—excellent news for places where larger infrastructure or machinery is prohibitive or very outdated. In the article, GigaOm says the Vancouver-based startup’s “technology costs five times less than competitive solutions and is also beneficial because it uses no chemicals and doesn’t produce any sludge.”

Finally, CNN reported last week on another such startup, North Carolina-based Tethis. Tethis has been creating a series of foam-like polymers they call Tethex. When immersed in wastewater, these polymers absorb impurities from water, including arsenic, lead and other toxic salts. Some of the impurities that the polymers absorb have been consistently hard to impossible to remove—or very expensive to do—and their presence in water contributes to shortage problems.

One of the incubators trying to foster this industry, also reported by GigaOm, is a San Francisco startup and non-profit called ImagineH2O, which has been running a yearly competition since its inception in 2007.

Maria Helena Carey

Maria Helena Carey is a freelance writer, photojournalist and blogger in Washington, D.C.