Can This Entrepreneur Save Flint From a Plastic Bottle Crisis?
Charities, church groups, and celebrities hoping to help provide clean, safe H2O to the roughly 100,000 residents of lead-plagued Flint, Michigan, have donated truckloads of it—one bottle for tooth brushing, several for bathing, more bottles for cooking meals, and don’t forget the dishes need washing up. Are you thirsty? Here’s another bottle of water.
Residents tell Florida entrepreneur David Antelo that all those bottles are a lot to manage. “Every resident we’ve spoken to has said, ‘You know, it’s just too much to deal with bottled water. We’re really grateful—don’t get me wrong—but when you’re trying to shower and empty all these bottles and all the refuse, there’s so much waste,’ ” he said.
Antelo is aiming to sell part of the solution to that problem as the head of ANSA Technologies, a company that manufacturers portable power and water systems—and he’s helped overcome tougher water woes in far-flung places.
Antelo arrived in Flint late last Friday night, intent on showing residents and public officials his HydroVolt portable filtration machines. The equipment uses a seven-step process that involves carbon, ultraviolet light, and reverse osmosis. The units can filter as much as 7,000 gallons of water a day for a fraction of the cost of a case of bottled water, he said.
Antelo’s large purifier costs about $45,000. “But if you do the math, it pays for itself in bottled water in 6.2 days,” he said. “We sent this exact unit to Liberia during the Ebola crisis,” he adds. The setup is easy. Antelo said they emailed villagers “a 10-minute video, and they were able to run it and maintain it. That’s how easy it was.”
“We work with humanitarian agencies to bring water to countries in Africa, South America, the Caribbean, and such, so when this Flint situation first happened here in the U.S., we didn’t have a big concern because hey, we are in the U.S.—we can handle it pretty quickly, and we assumed that was the case,” Antelo said.
In January, he began reaching out from Florida to government officials and organizations about hooking up his machines to taps in public places, such as community centers or schools, which would allow residents to fill up reusable containers as frequently as they needed. But Antelo has run into bureaucratic red tape and an unwillingness to consider other methods, so he decided to come demonstrate the effectiveness of the equipment.
Early Saturday morning, he set up one of the machines at Vietnam Veterans Park directly on the Flint River and invited the public to come fill up their reusable containers. Word about the purifier quickly spread on social media, and a news crew from the local NBC affiliate showed up to film Antelo using the system and drinking water that had been run through it. “So Saturday was a taste testing, people bringing containers. They said, ‘You’re out of your mind, drinking from the Flint River. It’s impossible.’ People are very reluctant to trust anyone or the water,” said Antelo.
Although people told him he was brave to drink water filtered from the river, they told him, “That’s not where the true source of the problem is. It’s in the pipes and the infrastructure,” he said. To save $5 million over two years in April 2014, Flint officials made the fateful decision to switch Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The corrosive river water caused lead to leach out of the pipes in the city and flow through taps. On Monday, Antelo decided to take his system into the homes of people he’d met.
“I’m grateful for the water bottles, but I think this could be a more profound solution,” LaRee Tibbitts, who let Antelo hook up the system in her home, told NBC 25. “It sounds more appealing to me, until we have our pipes fixed, because I don’t trust any of the other solutions they’re talking about.”
Although certified faucet filters are being handed out at fire stations and some government offices, concerns remain over whether they can handle the amount of lead coming from some pipes.
In an email to TakePart, Sid Roy, a graduate student and volunteer with Virginia Tech–based Flint Water Study, an independent group that helped expose the lead crisis in the city, wrote that the certified filters “work very well.” Other fixes could still help, however. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also found reverse osmosis systems such as Antelo’s “typically are effective in removing lead,” wrote Roy.
If the machines are working at 100 percent, they “are a welcome addition,” Roy added. But he expressed concern over Antelo measuring lead removal with a hand-held TDS meter, as can be seen in the video below at a home in Flint on Monday.
“Scientifically, this is not the way towards showing lead removal,” wrote Roy. That’s because a TDS meter can only measure in parts per million, not parts per billion, as the Environmental Protection Agency requires. Therefore, “smaller concentrations of lead, if present, will not be detected. So, independent testing of their unfiltered/filtered water where lead in ppb is measured will be a better way of showing how good their machines are,” explained Roy.
Antelo wrote that he’d invited the EPA to come and test his water with more high-tech equipment but said that the agency did not respond to his requests. Meanwhile, residents continue to rely on bottled water.
“You would have to send 200 bottles a day, per person, to cover what the average American (we are Americans in Flint) needs each day,” Flint native and filmmaker Michael Moore wrote in a letter on his website in late January imploring people to stop sending the plastic containers to the city. “That’s 102,000 citizens times 200 bottles of water—which equals 20.4 million 16oz. bottles of water per day, every day, for the next year or two until this problem is fixed (oh, and we’ll need to find a landfill in Flint big enough for all those hundreds of millions of plastic water bottles, thus degrading the local environment even further). Anybody want to pony up for that? Because THAT is the reality,” Moore wrote.
Although Flint has a curbside recycling program included in its garbage pickup for two years, most residents haven’t requested a bin and don’t take advantage of it. Gary Hicks, a representative of Republic Services, the company contracted to do waste and recycling removal for the city, told Michigan Public Radio at the end of January that only “around 13 to 16 percent of the city is participating” in the program.
The EPA estimates one single-use plastic bottle takes 450 years to decompose. As a result, it’s projected that by 2050 there will be 40 billion tons of plastic on the planet. Meanwhile, the costs to marine life and beach damage of plastic waste is estimated at $13 billion per year, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme.