Paige Peters: Turning Raw Sewage into a Multi-Million-Dollar Business – EP. 156

About This Episode:

Paige Peters is the founder and CTO of Rapid Radicals, a company that is able to treat wastewater much faster than traditional methods.

She developed this technology to tackle the massive problem of the over 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater that go into our lakes, oceans, and rivers each year.

What’s worse? When it rains, these outdated systems flood and overflow, causing massive damage. She’s built a thriving business solving a problem no one else wanted to solve.

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3:51 – “Broadly speaking, the problem, I’ll focus on that in the States here, is that every year, 850 billion gallons of untreated sewage go into, are discharged into, our lakes and rivers due to sewer overflows that occur during intense storm events. And these storm events are only getting more intense and more frequent, with increasing concerns around climate change, increasing urbanization, population growth. But 850 billion gallons is equivalent to 170,000 Mississippi rivers filled with poop water. So we like to say, ‘If you’ve ever wondered how much a shit ton is, well, that’s it.’ And it’s a problem that’s getting worse because we haven’t been adequately investing in our infrastructure because it’s something that’s really hard for people to understand. It’s hard to get your head around it.”

5:40 – “There is a way in which nature heals herself. So we put sewage out into a waterway, it will ultimately either be diluted, be broken down by organisms, microorganisms in the water, it’ll wash away from shore to where it’s no longer really a problem for human interaction. That will happen. And we usually say 24 to 72 hours, depending on how bad the storm is. In Wisconsin, we just had a sewer overflow here in Milwaukee, not necessarily because, and it’s really not as much of an infrastructure or a sewerage district mismanagement as it is the fact that everything is changing. So the overflow that we had two weeks ago here was because it’s February, it was February, and we also had snow melt and the ground is frozen. So the ground’s not taking up water like it used to or like it normally would during a springtime when the ground is thawed.”

6:35 – “I work with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District on the work that we do… and they’re a great advocate for the work that we’re doing in helping them meet their goal of these zero sewer overflows and zero basement backups. But they still treat about 99.2% of all the water that exists within our sewer area. So that’s, it’s just demonstrating that so much water. It’s bigger than what we can fathom. And we just have an infrastructure that people don’t want rates to go up but unfortunately, we’re getting to a point where you have to be a lot more accountable than you were in the past, especially if you want to recreate in the water, if you want to go surfing after it rains. I live about ten minutes’ walk to Lake Michigan. We love going to the beach with our dog. If it rains, we just wait. So it heals itself but it’s not going to get better without some serious intervention.”

11:44 – “There’s such a huge socio-economic impact of sewer overflows. The communities that are often impacted by it are in downtown regions, are in impoverished regions within the city. So if they have a basement back up or if there’s sewage in the rivers near them, which may be a recreational space for them, it’s much harder for those communities to bounce back. So there’s a socio-economic side of it. There’s this neglect of infrastructure that could be related to that. It’s just so much bigger than just designing technology and pipes. I often say technology is the easiest part of solving the problem and I found myself smack dab working on a problem that truly technology is the easiest part and it’s all the other sides of it that that need to come together.”

17:23 – “I’ve been given a lot of opportunity in my life. It’s important for me to take that and solve a big problem with it and not trying to find a problem to solve so that I can feel useful. But understanding the problems that exist. Understand the problems that exist, and then matching my skill set with the problems that exist so that we can solve them.”

18:00 – “I find the things that I’m really passionate about. So travel, international development, wastewater engineering, wastewater infrastructure, and then I get to expose myself to it more and work on that skill. And the more time I spend on it, the better I get at it, and the better I get at it, the more fun I have doing it, so I spend more time on it, so I get better at it. So I find this cycle that works for me. And I have also then developed this passion for trying to create those opportunities for other people who work for me or around me or who are contracted to do work for our company, students I work with. Just trying to find that ability or that cycle that makes sense for them.”

21:48 – “The technologies that we utilized, one of them is sort of known within the space of wet weather treatment, which is, it’s called chemically enhanced primary treatment. So you knock out solids that are in wastewater really quickly. And we know if we could combine that with another known technology called advanced oxidation processes, which is the development of – bear with me – which is the development of something called the hydroxyl radical, which is the strongest oxidant known to science…the hydroxyl radical, but that’s where rapid radicals came from: we rapidly produce radicals.”

23:17 – “Conventional wastewater treatment has for over 100 years been a biological process and it works really well. But it takes at least six hours because it’s bugs. Bugs move slowly. Microorganisms are amazing. It’s fascinating what they can do to break down organics, to convert nutrients. It’s an incredible process, but it’s not a process particularly compatible with a large rush of water during a storm event, because they can’t really eat any faster. And if we bypass the biological, then we miss out on some of that really good treatment that happens. And that’s not a process we really want to be implemented regularly. So again, we’re taking advantage of these known technologies, combining them in a way that’s never been done before, making them better in a way that is practical to the industry. And then the effluent or the outcome, the water quality that leaves our treatment system meets Clean Water Act permit requirements.”

28:29 – “That’s one idea. Is that it’s essentially that it’s an end of pipe system. Where that pipe opens up into a body of water. We can build a small footprint treatment system. We could also look at it from what we would consider a sewer shut approach. So like the whole service area and you would essentially take maybe five of these outfalls, back them up a little bit behind the river, gather them into one sort of decentralized wastewater treatment facility, and then you’re solving a bigger problem. And you’re also may be able to take up a little bit more space. But every city is different. So we’re solving a problem that is unique to the geography, to the demographics of the city, the economic situation of the city, which for me is fascinating because it means we just have to take all that into account from a business model perspective, it gets challenging, because it’s unique per customer, if you would. But that’s how it has to be. That’s how we have to look at it.”

35:15 – (Ross) “And that word, you keep using: responsibility. What could be more unsexy than the word responsibility?
(Paige) “Totally. It’s not like – there’s not like drugs, sex, and rock and roll, and then responsibility.”
(Ross) “Yeah. Responsibility isn’t jet skiing on a lake. It’s not having my own private yacht that’s too big to fit through a Dutch canal, like responsibility, that’s a poor person’s problem. The more money that I make, that means that I have less of an obligation to be responsible. Right?…That’s why I want to be a billionaire so bad.”
(Paige) “I appreciate and obviously resent that you’re saying that right now because it’s so true. It really is. It’s the luxury. It is a privilege of status to not have to worry because you can pay, if you live in an area that floods, you can just pay to live on a hill.”
(Ross) “I’m just going to live on a hill. The Hollywood way.”
(Paige) “That’s exactly what we saw happen during Katrina and all those low-lying areas compared to, like that was such a stark contrast. But without a doubt that’s, I think that’s where so much of the mindset has gone.”

36:44 – “One thing I’ve been frustrated about with the sustainability movement is that obviously it shouldn’t have become politicized, but it did. Climate change does not, you don’t get to choose to believe it or not. It is a scientific fact. You can just decide to act on that fact or ignore it, but you don’t get to believe in it or not. That’s not how facts work. But I feel like we – sustainability from the sense and this goes back to the responsibility component of it, and this idea that we can sort of like wipe our hands clean if we choose to or if we have the status enough to do so or the means to do so – but when we talk about sustainability, it’s not this like this tree-hugger lifestyle that it’s been made out to be again, like since the 70s.”

37:31 – “Sustainability is just meaning that the generation after us has the same means or even more means, the resources that they need to continue thriving. So if we want to talk about sustainability as anything, it’s just, it’s a family cause. If I want my kids to swim in the river, if I want my kids to breathe clean air, then it’s my responsibility – Mother Nature will take care of herself. I mean, she’s just waiting for this next cycle of idiots to run out, and then she’s going to take one big deep breath and she’s going to heal. But our kids won’t. And our kids’ kids won’t. And that’s the thing that’s always frustrated me. It just feels like there was a PR miss on that.”

38:58 – (Ross) “You might argue, if you’re being generous, that the past generations did their best and that the best that they knew what to do was to put it all in a single pipe, rainwater, sewage in a single pipe. And that was how they thought to solve a problem, which was previously, let’s say, some centuries before, not solved at all….However, what I think is so interesting is that there are such a large group of people who seem to think that progress should have stopped or that – tell these people to go back to using a Nokia phone from 2007 as their primary phone and they’ll think you’re an idiot. Obviously the iPhone 14 Pro is better in every single way. It’s like, well, why should we accept the way that we thought to handle sewage and wastewater 100 years ago as being the best way when your phone is obsolete two years later, it’s not a matter of even necessarily judgment or any of that or politics. It’s just a matter of saying, ‘let’s use what we know now and can we do better?’ Because the answer is almost always ‘yes, we can do better,’ right?”

41:55 – “What you’re paying for every three months or whatever your billing cycle is, is not necessarily the gallons of water that you use. It is the provision of that water to your home safely. It is the treatment, it’s the infrastructure, it’s all these things that you can’t see. And therefore it’s so challenging for humans. I think it’s a human nature thing. If you can’t see it, if you can’t hold the problem in your hand then you have a hard time understanding how you can participate in, or therefore why it should matter to you.”

46:13 – “The workforce in the water sector is already predominantly white, predominantly male, even predominantly Christian, predominantly older. And we’re working on creating a workforce that looks more like the communities that we serve. And the better that we do to create that more equitable workforce or again that workforce that maybe has better perspectives of the people that we seek to serve, the hope is that we’re gathering the proper perspectives to help us understand where the challenges exist in someone who can afford to spend a little bit more per month on their water bill and someone who cannot.”

48:54 – “Can the most affordable thing be the best? And that’s a standard that as professionals we’re trying to raise up to, so that that becomes the standard. And we can’t do that without other people in the country. The ratepayers, the politicians, the regulators coming along with us for that. We all have to get to a point where we say the most affordable thing, the least common denominator affordability, is still the absolute best and it’s not impossible. It’s just the reality that we’ve been trying to solve this problem in a silo. And we have to be way more interdisciplinary on it.”

51:51 – “A dream for me is that eventually we’ve developed this technology to a point where it is also an appropriate technology outside of a developed country where, that’s really where my worlds start colliding in all the international development work that I’ve done, and where we see the sanitation challenge is really, really equaling – where the lack of sanitation or the lack of wastewater services really, really correlates to a poor quality of life.”

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