A small Canadian business with a unique technology that makes fertilizer while stripping damaging algae-causing nutrients from municipal waste water is on track to double the number of installations it has in service in North America and Europe.
Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies Inc., a private-equity-funded Vancouver-based company that caught the attention of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmental lawyer, started up its seventh facility in Madison, Wis., on Wednesday .
The $3-million unit, connected to the city's Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant, prevents phosphorus from entering waterways. Excess phosphorus in fresh water contributes to the algae growth, which chokes off sunlight and oxygen, destroying aquatic organisms and hurting fish.
That's been a major problem throughout the United States, said Mr. Kennedy, who has been on Ostara's board since 2009. He and his Waterkeeper Alliance affiliates have launched more environmental legal action than any another group in the U.S., patrolling rivers and lakes and demanding that laws to battle pollution are enforced.
The problem is that in recent decades, much of that litigation, about 100 cases, targeted municipal governments that operate treatment plants allowing phosphorus into waterways. Those governments were often forced to sacrifice other services to comply with cleanup orders, Mr. Kennedy said. Meanwhile, many of the established ways of dealing with the problem ended with materials being trucked to landfill sites.
For the son of the slain former U.S. attorney-general and presidential hopeful, the discomfort was even a little political. It is gradually getting relieved by Ostara's technology, known as the Pearl process.
"Eighty per cent of the mayors in these towns are Democrats. I hated calling Democrats – many of them had pictures of my father on their wall – and going in there and telling them, 'I'm going to bankrupt your town.' It was a horrible, horrible experience for me," he said in an interview. "Instead, I can call them up and say, 'I'm about to solve one of your big problems, and make sure you've got money left for education and health care and police protection.' "
Ostara's process was developed at the University of British Columbia. It involves feeding water released by the treatment plant through a reactor that turns phosphorus into crystalline pellets. The resulting product is a slow-release fertilizer used for landscaping and horticultural applications called Crystal Green. The fertilizer is released over time from within the vegetation, which means it isn't washed back into waterways during rains.
A second major benefit for the municipalities that adopt the technology is that they get revenue from their waste water byproduct.
The company has other facilities installed in Saskatoon, Thames in the U.K. and four other U.S. municipalities. It is developing what is expected to be the world's largest nutrient recovery facility with the city of Chicago, slated for completion next year. Ostara is also in discussions with Edmonton and Calgary. The plan is to double the number of units in use over the next two years.
Ostara has about 35 employees and has operated on capital from Grosvenor Estate & Wheatsheaf Investments, Frog Capital and Vantage Point Capital Partners. An initial public offering is one option down the road as more of the $3-million to $5-million units get installed at plants in Canada, the United States and Europe, though there is no hurry, said chief executive officer Phillip Abrary.
"We're taking it a little bit slowly. We don't want to get too ahead of ourselves here. Getting a strong install base here is really helping us to attract others to the technology, Mr. Abrary said. "We plan on deploying in Europe next and in a few years, Asia might be the next market."
"We're closing the loop on this resource issue, from phosphates that would have to be mined to make fertilizer to the water that is now becoming the recipient of all these phosphates we're putting into the environment," Mr. Abrary said. "Ostara kind of has these dual roles to bridge the gap on the waste side and the product side."