Green Element weekly podcast Interview with Nick Addison from Pro Earth Ltd
We are thrilled to be interviewing Nick Addison from Pro Earth Ltd. Pro Earth are specialists in environment protection and conservation through controlling pollution. We design spill control solutions for industry, including construction, airports, railways, mining, catering and manufacturing We also create purification systems that remove heavy metals, hydrocarbons and chemicals from waste water.
Will: So, on today’s podcast, we’re going to be talking to Nick. Nick runs an organization that helps clean up water, it’s a spill kit, it absorbs hydrocarbons, it absorbs heavy metals, all from peat. It does get quite technical, thankfully, he’s incredibly articulate at the way he is able to talk about what it is that they are doing, and I hope you enjoy it. I really enjoyed it and to understand what it is that’s out there and to understand how we can clean up the environment after some of the things that we do, like within the construction industry and building houses, schools, roads and infrastructure. Then to understand that there are products out there that are absolutely helping us grow sustainably as a population, as a culture is awesome to hear, so I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. Thank you very much for joining the Green Element Podcast, I’m really looking forward to listening and understanding more about what it is that you do as an organization and how you are trying to save the world. If you could just let us know what your purpose is and who you work with that would be brilliant, thank you.
Nick: Yeah, for sure. I think that we started Pro Earth when we started to have grandchildren and we were looking around and saying we’re not overly keen on the way the environment is treated. We were speaking to some people that we know that work in construction and they were telling us of the problems that they had during construction on controlling pollution, on the land and especially on the water. So, we started to, Alex, my wife and I, look around at various products that would help prevent contamination during the construction processes, and we found several that could have been core based. Obviously, core based but then we found something in Canada, which was based on stagnant peat moss. We brought it over to the UK and we presented it to the construction industry or one of the environment agency WEM Framework Contractors. It was very different for them because instead of them being an absorbent where pollution sticks the outside of an element, this actually was hollow and drew something inside it and it’s a completely natural product.
So, we presented it to the environment agency who said immediately this is sphagnum peat moss and peat bogs have been decimated over the last 200 years, you may not use it, so we had a bit of an impasse there. We have 280 million acres of peat moss available in Canada, at the moment, we harvest less than 0.2% of it a year and we have a new way of harvesting which is really quite cool. As we approach a peat bog, we take all of the floor off the top of the bog and then we just harvest 50ml underneath it and then we push old floor back onto the top of the bog and that encourages the regrowth of the peat 60 or 70 times faster than normal. The worst we’re harvesting about 0.2 percent of available, we’re regenerating at 15% every year, that’s not my figures either, Canadian Peat Moss Association figures. When we put that to the environment agency, their innovations teams said yeah, actually this is sustainable for industrial purposes not water cultural purposes, it can be used.
So, when we looked at it, we said how on earth does this work because it’s actually drawing hydrocarbons and chemicals that are spilled into its molecular structure and it encapsulates them, and it traps them, and I’ll never be able to lead it out. The really cool thing about this is that it creates a haven from actually occurring microbes that will then break down and recycle hydrocarbon into less or nontoxic substances. So, we’re encouraging bioremediation at the same time as protecting the environment. The next thing that we noticed, of course, was that the sphagnum peat moss, which we have a proprietary way of harvesting and of preparing this product. The one thing it won’t absorb is water which means that it works just as well on water as it doesn’t land. So, if we have the hydrocarbons spilt in the water, we know that by filtering that water through the safes or product, we take all of the hydrocarbon out, the same can be said of most chemicals and heavy metals.
So the big five which is chromium, copper, led, nickel and zinc, we know we can remove from water. So, this made us think, well, this is an ideal way of protecting and preserving the environment during the construction process, but of course now we’re looking at behavioral change. So, we started to talk to the environmental advisors that work for the large construction companies and we found that we had something in common with him and it wasn’t just that we wanted to sell them the product, it was the fact that we wanted to ensure that they reduce the risk of pollution and that we didn’t turn an accident into an incident. So, we’ve started with what we call SEA, which is Site Environmental Awareness, where we go to construction sites and we have a presentation. We talk about how we can take preventative measures to protect the vulnerable areas.
An example would be if you’re working on an industrial estate and you’ve got a lot of plants that are working there and there’s a possibility of spillage or pipe bursts or fuel tank rupture. The first thing that we have is a lot of pot drains, so what we should be doing, we should be looking at protecting the pot drains before anything happens. Therefore, we say the same about a waterway or anywhere where a plant is working all the time. They should all have some kind of spill catching arrangement underneath them at all times so that if there is an accident something is there that prevents pollution to the environment. So, that’s really where we started and we supplied spill control equipment, which is very different from anybody else, things like cross rail to the environment agency framework contracts and the Russian-German new pipeline gas pipeline is going in.
We were looking at not just the spill control and not just the prevention and the way that we address the problems of environmental pollution. We started to find that we could do things with the peat moss that we didn’t realize we could do. For example, in the water industry today, wastewater is changing, wastewater companies or water companies have installed water meters in most of their houses, that encourages people not to use as much water, it’s a good thing. However, of course, when we have a dry spell it actually concentrates the waste and because we use different chemicals to clean ourselves and our clothes, etc. and our diets have changed, we increase the levels of heavy metals, in particular, copper, in the wastewater. This means that as 90% of our wastewater goes back into the rivers, we have to be very careful of the copper content. It’s pretty harmless to humans, but it will kill the mollusks and the fish in the rivers which disturbs the balance of the ecology.
So, what could we do? We found that if we use the wastewater with a high copper content, we could remove that copper from the water just on a very low-tech filtration system. So, all of a sudden we can control the amount of heavy metal pollution that’s in the wastewater before we discharge and we could record those levels so that we know that we’re doing it all the time. The downside to that sort of thing is of course that it lowered the alkalinity of the water which is quite interesting, so you have to rebalance the PH before you discharge. Here’s another thing that because we lower the alkalinity of the water, we now start to address possibly one of the biggest problems the construction industry has and that’s concrete washout water, which is so toxic it cannot be put into foul waste, it needs to be treated and there are various chemical ways of treating it. We have found that if we actually use the product to filter it, again, it’s a low-tech way of filtering, we can rebalance that pH, we can bring it from over 13 back down to a neutral band using only about 60 grams per liter. So, that’s another interesting way that we’re looking to protect the environment, so all the time is filtration.
Will: I’m completely naive to exactly what it is. You talk about peat bogs and you are putting peat bogs into a kind of filtration system. The peat bog is a filter that you’re putting from…
Nick: What we do is when we harvest it, we dry it and we sift it with PH balancing and it becomes quite a fine flaky powder and then what we do is we compress that into bricks or we put it into different products, into a geotextile so it forms a match. It could become a sock or with a pipe in it, which would allow water to filter through, there’re many different products that we can make out of it.
Will: I can totally understand what it is you’re saying now and the peat bogs, you talked about Canada, does it come from Canada or is it from the UK?
Nick: We did not have a sustainable source in the United Kingdom or in Ireland and across Europe. In the 19th and 20th centuries, these peat bogs were decimated by people using the peat as fuel, so we don’t have access to the quantities that they have in Canada. We use the Canadians sphagnum peat moss on the basis of its abundance, it’s there, it’s easy to harvest, it’s great wide-open spaces, we never ever harvest a bog more than once every six years. Everything is put back and controlled, it’s what they call Vera floor standard, but it’s very controlled, the harvesting of the peats so that we have something that is completely sustainable.
Will: How did you get into this? How did you start to understand it, is your background in chemical engineering?
Nick: No. I was working in industrial computing and we were looking at wind turbines and operating wind turbines in very low temperatures. So, you take them out to Utah or somewhere like that and in the winter, it can be minus 40 or something like that or minus 20 and the computers that control the wind turbines don’t like to boot up at that temperature. So, we were looking at putting some sort of pre-heating mechanism within them to bring them up to temperature so that when they went to boot, they didn’t just fall over. I saw some really interesting new wind turbines that the Dutch were building, and I thought it works, really quite an interesting thing. Once you start to look at renewable technologies, it grabbed my enthusiasm and from then talking to people about that sort of thing. The other issues of environmental contamination binges through hydrocarbons and chemicals started to interest me.
It was then that Alex and I thought well there must be something here that we can do, there must be somebody we can talk to, that we can produce something that is going to address the situations that we have. So, that’s when we stumbled across the products that are being harvested and manufactured in Canada and the U.S. We’ve taken it a stage further really because we work with water utilities as well because we’re really conscious of commercial contamination of the wastewater system. It doesn’t matter if you’re making salads or you’re making patisserie or you’re a baker, the contamination of the wastewater supply is something that the utilities are becoming increasingly aware of. Of course, penalizing companies that are producing that waste is their way forward. We believe that actually, we should stop it and it’s okay to have a form of flat trap which collects solidified waste but that doesn’t stop the emulsified fats and dissolved sugars from entering the system and that’s what we’re trying to do.
We’re researching at the present time and trying to develop a system, a very simple, inexpensive system, whereby we can track the emulsified fats and the dissolved sugars, so they don’t enter the wastewater system in the first place. So, that’s what we’re trying to do, trying to solve the problems that exist by stopping them from happening rather than by just saying well, if you’re going to do this then you’re going to pay a fine.
Will: I’m used to be general for the Metropolitan branch for Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management, do you know Simon?
Nick: No, I don’t know them particularly well, no.
Will: They work largely with our app and Atkins and the larger engineering companies and they put on free talk too all the time and they would be fascinated to have you talk. I know that because I’m still on the board for them and if I could pass your details on to them because you would have a load of engineers absolutely salivating over what it is that you’re talking about, having put on so many events over the last God knows how many years and brilliant, thank you. Have you always been interested in sustainability and the environments?
Nick: No, as I say, it’s really the advent of grandchildren and their ability and I suppose our kids, we have five kids between us. They are more aware of their environment than I think I ever was as a young man, and I think in the last year it’s certainly become a hot topic and people are genuinely concerned about how we treat our environment and what we can do to prevent the kind of pollution that we’re talking about. As we said earlier, the single-use plastic is an issue, but when you consider if you spill one liter of oil into water, it will contaminate 1 million liters, it spreads out to a micron thick and it is incredibly damaging. So, we need to stop this happened and there are two issues, one is it is obviously in something like construction, the other reason, of course, is in transportation and how much do we leak from ships either inadvertently or deliberately.
There was a culture some while ago washing your billow stains out while you’re at sea, was on an outgoing tide they used to say. This kind of practice fortunately, is stopping here in the UK, but that doesn’t mean the same everywhere else. I just think there’s a way we may be able to do something to the government, the textile industry because hot and cold dies create an enormous amount of pollution in the subcontinent. In that manufacturing we should be able to reuse the water, we should be able to decontaminate it and use it again. All of this of course is research and development, it all costs money and it is something that we’ve looked at and we’ve done a couple of little trials on it and it works pretty well. But again, it’s the case of how much are we going to need, how would it work, how would we build something that could deal with the literage that this is going to produce.
When we started to take heavy metals out of the water for a waste water company, when we’re doing it at a liter a minute it’s really very effective, but hang on a minute, if we actually now upscale to thousands of liters that we now have to clean, we’ve got to build the machine that’s going to do it. Once it’ll be gravity-fed and it’s going to be low-tech, it’s still going to be there and then because of the size of our treatment works, which are quite small, we’re going to be able to move it around so it’s going to be modular. So, all of these things that have to be designed and built are tricky and all that within a budget. So, we always have to remember that whilst the construction industry is pretty good, it’s getting pretty good with its environmental advisors and they really do know how to protect and guard against pollution now. We have to persuade the people in procurement that actually it’s a price worth paying and that’s behavioral change and that’s a difficult thing to do.
Will: Funny enough, I was talking to another podcast interviewee this morning all about communications and about how we are able to communicate to the wider public, how do we communicate? It’s all very well doing all this stuff but actually, what do we need to put in place and communication is known as, it’s just bad. I don’t know about your opinion but exasperated by the media and the way that they portray certain aspect of environmental.
Nick: It can be, I think some people have different agendas.
Will: Yeah, and vilify the wrong people as well.
Nick: It’s a balance between protecting the environment and progress. Every time you build a railway line or a road or a block of flats, there is an impact on the environment but these utilities we need. We have to build roads, we have to build railways, not specifically any being built the present time but there has to be balance, so a lot of people that are environmentalists would rather have no building but that’s not practical, we have to have a balance.
Will: Yeah, it’s sustainability as a whole, isn’t it? Sustainability, and that’s the way we look at it at Green Element, is sustainability doesn’t stop just at environmental management, it is all incorporating, it’s the whole business. We were talking about the B Corp certification before and that is partly why we went down that route to incorporate sustainability throughout the whole organization in order to be able to help another organization through its sustainability. Where do you see yourself, what would you like to see and how do you think you can influence change in the future? Where do you see you in future years?
Nick: How do we influence change? I think the short answer in one word is persistence, we keep on at people. What we’ve done is introduce what we can SEA, Site Environmental Awareness, is a way forward for us. Whilst we’re a commercial company and we need to make a profit, we also need to establish certain ways of behaving, so we offer a free service to all our customers. We go and we’ll visit site and we sit in the water cabin or outside water cabin and all the site personnel are there, normally when they have their lunch break, and we go through environmental protection, what to be aware of, what to look for. As we become a more diverse Workforce, we have to consider other things like English is not the first language of a lot of people that are working in construction, for example, today.
Therefore, how are we going to make sure that should something happen we can affect and mitigate that spill quickly and efficiently. By talking to people and understanding what their processes are, we can say, okay, we can do certain things to make your lives easier which is what we do. We make sure that things are color-coded rather than just with writing on them, we make sure that everything is manageable. So, for example, health and safety used to say the maximum deadlift for one person was 25 kilos, it now says whatever you’re comfortable with. So, why would we blow something that weighs 25 kilos into something that’s going to control spill, for example? Firstly, because if you do throw 25 kilos in the bag, you’re going to use 25 kilos. Secondly, because it’s going to give you a bit of an injury to the back possibly and we want to make an economy is the third thing.
So, we put smaller size of bags into spill kits so that they’re easily manageable, so that the spill is easily mitigated, and we give this education on site as a severed charge so that we can start to see behavioral change. Once you get the buy-in from the people and we get a tremendous satisfaction from the fact that everybody likes what we’re trying to do know the product because that secondary, but the fact that we’re trying to make their lives easier and protect the environment at the same time. That’s a good way forward, but it’s a lot of work and a lot of traveling and we need to really be educating the environmental advisors so that they can pass this on within their own organizations, they’re invaluable.
Will: Do you have a team of people around the UK advising companies?
Nick: We don’t sell directly to companies, we use distributors and we become part of the PPA or health and safety and environmental arm of a distributor, which there are several to the construction industry. So, we hope that we train our distributed so that they can go out and they can offer the same, they call them toolbox talks, to people on sites. We still go out and do a lot of them, we’ve got five or six this week, I think, fortunately, I like doing them.
Will: It’s putting your ear to the ground, isn’t it? It’s talking to people finding…
Nick: Absolutely. We go to some pretty big construction site, Crossroad is a prime example, but to get the feedback from the people inside, not only to say we really like this and the way that we’re being educated, but all of a sudden sometimes somebody says to you, “You know what, if you did this rather than that, it would make your products better.” Suddenly, as this happened to us with a large Marine construction company, they said, “This doesn’t work, we have a problem with the way that you’ve built something”, it was an absorbent marine bin, “It just doesn’t work for us, it’s full of flaws so deflate it.” We said, “What’s the problem?” They told us what the problem was, and we said, “Okay, we’ll work on it” and we designed and built something which won an innovation award with the Environment Agent, the Exemplar award. We actually now have a product that properly works and as they said, now we’re not paying lip service to environmental conservation, we’re actually doing it, we’re protecting the rivers. So, that’s the great feedback you get from people when they tell you actually, you’re not as clever as you think you are because you should have done it like this. So, it’s a good way to get out and to understand the issues that the people have in the field.
Will: Where do you think some of my listeners should get started if they’re working on a construction site or if they’re in a position where they have influence within the arena that you’re in, what could they do, how could they get started?
Nick: There are certainly environmental consultancies that you can talk to. We obviously are biased to our own product, so we’re not independent at all but we would certainly be happy to talk to anybody who wants any advice on environmental protection without any sort of obligation. Talk to us, we like to talk about being proactive on site, so talk to us by all means, talk to your environmental consultant, but more often than not they have environmental advisors and the environmental advisors have plans and a little bit of structure to it. They will be the same as there’s a health and risk assessment done it will be done for the environment as well and pretty professionally with most of the construction companies that we work with. In fact, almost all of the construction companies we work with they are very proficient at looking after the ecology of the area in which they’re working. It’s difficult and it’s especially more difficult if you’re working near the water, it’s vulnerable.
Will: What’s the one thing you’d like people to do after this podcast? What would you want as an action that’s within sustainability, what would you want people to do?
Nick: I think the thought process has to change. I think the one thing that I would say is just think before you tip that frying pan down the sink, what is the impact going to be? Just think before you throw the can on the floor when you’re walking down the street, just think about the fact that there’s a bin somewhere. Think about your impact on the environment not just for yourself but for your kids and their kids. A little bit more tolerance and a little bit more thought and consideration wouldn’t go amiss.
Will: Yeah, great advice. Thank you so much today, Nick. We will be putting links up to your website and everything on the podcast notes, so thank you very much for your time, it’s been brilliant. It’s been really interesting listening to you, I’ve been dealing with spill kits on a very regular basis in organizations, it’s quite nice to talk to the beginning part, if that makes sense.
Nick: Absolutely. Well, if there’s anything you need just let me know.
Will: Thank you, thank you very much.
Nick: Thanks, Will.
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