Nature can solve it: Hungarian-developed botanic garden can clean world's waste water
An exuberant little forest full of life – it would be hard to say from Organica Water’s botanic gardens that they are actually cleaning wastewater. The technology, finally developed and patented by two Hungarians, uses living organisms, mostly the roots of various plants, but also some snails and fish, to clean communal waste water using much less energy than regular processes. After nine years of operation, the company in 2007 sold its plant manufacturing portfolio and put Organica onto an international path. Co-founder and executive vice president Attila Bodnár tells the Budapest Business Journal about the company’s vision and business prospects.
Q: Why did you decide in 2007 to sell all elements of your portfolio except Organica?
A: We wanted to go international. Previously, when offering turnkey wastewater treatment plants of several types, we were operating as a regular tech company with contractors here in Hungary, which would have been almost impossible to extend across borders. So we decided to focus only on Organica, as this technology should really be widespread globally.
A: I suppose you haven’t visited too many wastewater treatment plants so far, and this is not a coincidence. Why on earth would anyone go to an extremely smelly place where wastewater is treated? Our plants are more like friendly botanic gardens without any smell, so they can be very much integrated into any kind of urban environment. Not to mention that it works more efficiently, meaning that it requires a much smaller territory than regular plants, it has a much smaller carbon footprint, and it is also cheaper to operate. Our vision is to see it as the dominant technology in the upcoming 10-15 years.
Q: Have decision-makers realized Organica’s benefits yet?
A: Well, it is a fact that infrastructural investments – and especially those dealing with water – are usually made only as a must when there is no other choice left. However, it has already become clear that the problem of water cannot be handled without reclaiming it properly. Groundwater is gone and the reservoirs are running dry. It is over: something has to be done. And reclaiming water has so far meant collecting waste water through great infrastructure, bringing it out of the city, which sometimes means up to 80 kilometers, cleaning it there and bringing it back to use it for flushing. The whole process consumes a lot of energy. In contrast, what we offer is to do it locally, use 30% less energy and fit the entire solution in a garden. We had a project, for example, where we installed Organica on the site of an old plant. In a year’s time, the protection zone around it was reduced from 300 meters to 50 meters, and now there are already residential and office buildings and restaurants with a close view of the botanic garden, which otherwise cleans waste water. It is easy to see its significance when considering the value of the land as well. And in countries like China or India, which have a booming economy but also great problems with water supply, our technology might be favored. So, in addition to the United States, we also have offices in India, China and Singapore.
Q: China announced a €100 billion five-year tender for water treatment last year. Can you get something from it?
A: We are to peck at it, we already have five projects on the way, but to be honest, the cultural differences do not make things easier. We have to build so many bridges to understand each other.
Q: The nationalities of your employees ranges from Indian to American. Companies engaged in R&D often say that the knowledge of the Hungarian workforce is not up-to-date even at the moment they graduate from university, and so their training often takes one year at a company, time that passes without the new employee producing. Do you have such experiences?
A: Multinationality appears in our management not only because they might represent a different business approach and know the international markets and trends very much but also because our technology has raised their attention. Our head of sales, an Indian who is very much experienced in water, left his home to come here because he saw Organica as the next big thing in this sector. But our R&D department runs mostly with Hungarian staff. I do not see any problems with their knowledge or their workmanship, but about the Hungarian education system I can clearly state that it kills kids’ creativity and their ability to solve problems. As for me, I do not put much emphasis on the number of degrees one has, as the main thing is the approach to problems and their ability to work in a team. No doubt this could be improved here. We have many interns from American universities like Yale or Harvard, and those young people really have ‘the faith to kill the lion’.
Q: And how do you see the Hungarian R&D system?
A: We have good experiences since we deal with questions that are obviously considered R&D and therefore can still benefit from subsidies.
After receiving his master’s in architecture from the Technical University of Budapest, Attila Bodnár, 58, built and ran successful businesses on the northeast coast of the United States.
He left the position of managing partner of Denker & Bodnar Architects to relocate into Hungary and establish Organica with his childhood friend, chemical engineer and biotechnologist István Kenyeres.
When not working on the reform of wastewater treatment on a global scale, Bodnár enjoys harvesting his fig trees in the garden of his country house near Balaton.
Q: What are the new directions of Organica’s innovation? As your headquarters is at Telki, close to a private hospital, it was rumored that medical wastewater treatment might be the next step.
A: Yes, absolutely. As we see it, Organica technology allows the taking out of such content more effectively. Even if we do not directly focus on removing, say, 50% of the agent of Algopyrin, we achieve nice results.
Q: That sounds good when even drinking water is said to contain hormones and other medical remains. And what is the cleanness data of the water at the end of the Organica process?
A: Well, the appearance of the topic of the cleanness of drinking water is good in itself, but it should finally be regulated instead of only being discussed. As far as I remember, it was spotted in the early ’80s that fish are disappearing from the Rhine despite the several wastewater treatment plants they installed, which made water spectacularly cleaner. Then they found out that there was too much estrogen in the river.
Q: So there is no data?
A: There is: on the one hand, it is a fact that Organica can take out more agents than other technologies at around the same price. However, the quality of the cleaned water is always as required. There are some extremely sensitive cases, for example, some protected mudflats or some rivers where the water you channel in has to be very clean but in some other cases regulations are less strict. But the point is that any degree of cleanness is possible, so the cleanness that Organica provides can be reached through other technologies as well, but probably at a higher price.
Q: It also means that drinking water should come without such things.
A: Of course: this is a fact. And if you go to a store and buy a good filter machine, you will get drinking water of great quality. But most people probably would not spend HUF 60,000 on this at the moment.
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