Mike Hannah reckons New Zealand could be responsible for about half a billion pieces of plastic entering the oceans every year.
It's a sobering statistic but, if anyone doubts it, a brief conversation with the passionate and committed Hannah, managing director of stormwater management company Stormwater360, takes care of that.
His company invents and applies products which reduce plastic and other waste heading into our waterways – streams, rivers and seas – by catching the offending matter at drain level through products like the Enviropod and its successor, LittaTrap.
First and foremost, he says, he and his business partner Greg Yeoman, are environmentalists. But Hannah and Yeoman have put their money where their mouths are, actively helping prevent pollution, particularly of the plastic variety.
Asked how much plastic he has detected heading into the waterways in the 22 years Stormwater360 has been around, Hannah instances a Wellington school project Stormwater360 has been involved in, along with environmental educators Mountain to Sea Conservation Trust.
They take local schoolchildren snorkelling in the Island Bay marine reserve and, as well as rays, fish and marine life, the kids see plenty of plastic and other waste. Afterwards, and as part of the school syllabus, the kids are invited to come up with pollution solutions, and as part of the process, emptying LittaTraps set in drains in various local locations and which catch everything from cigarette butts to plastics.
LittaTraps are baskets in the drains, reinforced with battens, which catch waste which would otherwise find its way into the waterways.
"Through that project, we have found, on average, there to be 1600 pieces of plastic per drain per year," says Hannah. "If you extrapolate that one project across the length and breadth of all the catch-pits [drains] in New Zealand, we estimate there is as much as half a billion pieces of plastic going into the waterways.
"That's just little old New Zealand, not a very big country. You can see how the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (the giant conglomeration of plastic waste floating in the sea between Hawaii and California) came about."
Stormwater360 has around 5000 different litter-catching devices throughout Auckland, including LittaTraps at Wynyard Quarter. They've worked with many businesses to reduce waste including Sanford (owners of the Auckland Fish Market), Fonterra, Auckland Transport and supermarket chain Farro Fresh, to name a few.
Now Hannah and Yeoman have uprooted their families and headed to Canada, where they will let their expertise loose on the Great Lakes – the largest body of freshwater in the world, where a similar rubbish problem is growing alarmingly as 10 million kg of plastic enter the lakes from both the US and Canada yearly.
Stormwater360's New Zealand operation – which will continue while Hannah and Yeoman are away – includes a suite of 15 products including green roofs (a living roof ) and rain gardens (designed to cut run-off on sloping areas) but it is their plastic-catching that has really caught the imagination.
Of their move to Canada, probably for two years, Hannah says: "For us to realise our dream and help put an end to this problem, we need to put what we do in front of as many people as possible."
That's where Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) have come in, working closely with Stormwater360 not only to facilitate Callaghan Innovation funding, but to create a plan for export and growth.
"Having an ATEED business advisor has been great," says Hannah, "we couldn't have done it without them, really. Through an ATEED workshop we met [entrepreneur, trainer and business coach] Neil Sayer from export consultancy, Globalise, who is now on our board.
They introduced us to Neil to get some initial training which was co-funded so it's been great.
"They've really helped us grow, not just connecting us to passionate people like Neil, but also in helping us gain belief in ourselves and our skills – and we were young and with no money; what did we know about growing a business?"
ATEED's chief executive Nick Hill says companies like Stormwater360 play an important role in the region's transformation – particularly relevant with their anti-pollution products helping to prepare Auckland's waterfront for the 2021 America's Cup.
"With all eyes turning towards Auckland's waterfront as we draw nearer to hosting the Cup, we want to make sure we're showcasing our stunning harbours and environment in the best possible way. The 2021 America's Cup will not only boost GDP by an anticipated $500 million but will also put our city's innovation and cutting edge technology in the spotlight.
"ATEED works closely with Auckland businesses through central government's Regional Business Partner Network, connecting businesses with the right resources and experts to help them grow and export by facilitating Callaghan Innovation grants and services and New Zealand Trade & Enterprise capability vouchers – crucial in driving business success."*
It was the environment which brought Hannah and Yeoman, friends at university, together – regularly spending leisure hours in great Kiwi outdoors pursuits – fishing, swimming, surfing, camping and diving. Hannah, an engineer with no interest in building bridges or buildings, and Yeoman – an architect – shared a horror of the rubbish finding its way into the waters they played in.
Hannah was working for Auckland Council "learning about how everything on hard surfaces just washes off into streams, rivers and harbours when it rains; it was concerning."
His labours were confined to minimising run-off from new roads and developments – but then came the light-bulb moment that said: "What about all the existing areas?"…and the idea for Stormwater360 was born - a conception that may yet benefit Canada, the US and the Great Lakes.
*ATEED's one-on-one involvement with businesses is designed to help understand issues stifling growth, such as shortage of skills, investment and business capability. Economic intelligence, data and market analysis are gathered to speed up Auckland's shift towards an economy more founded on advanced industries and tradeable sectors.
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