Floating Islands: Using Garbage to Clean Polluted Water

It would not be accurate to call Floating Island International, the business led by Bruce and Anne Kania, a mom-and-pop operation -- for one thing, although they are married, Bruce and Anne don't have children -- but that description gives you a sense of the scale of their startup. With fewer than a dozen employees, the Kanias are tucked away in the small town of Shepherd, Montana (population: 208) and the firm's annual revenues are less than $1 million.

But Floating Island International already lives up to its name: Its man-made islands can be found in New Zealand, China, South Africa and Canada as well as in the U.S. Its customers include U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, American Electric Power and Disney World, which suggests that they may be onto something. And the Kanias' ambitions seem to know no bounds.

"I'm pretty sure we are going to be one of the most successful businesses of all time," says Bruce.

Bruce, who is 57, is an inventor and entrepreneur who worked in prosthetics, textiles and sporting goods (he invented a broadhead arrow). Then, about a decade ago, he came up with the idea of turning plastic trash into man-made floating islands that can clean polluted water, spur the growth of fish, provide species habitat and sequester carbon.

Not to mention create beachfront property.

"We're learning how to grow real estate," he says.

I met Bruce and Anne recently at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Missoula, MT. Their company is just five years old, they told me; it was inspired by the floating peat bogs of northern Wisconsin, where Bruce grew up and worked as a fishing guide. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in social studies, and much later bought a farm on the Yellowstone River in Montana.

His business got started with a smelly dog named Rufus. The pooch jumped into an irrigation pond on the farm and emerged with a stinky, reddish tinge. The water was overloaded with nitrogen and phosphorous, runoff from nearby farms and ranches -- the same kind of runoff that pollutes waterways everywhere, from the Mississippi River to Chesapeake Bay to the New Jersey-sized dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

What might be done to clean up the pond, Bruce wondered. He had by then heard of biomimicry, a term coined by biologist Janine Benyus, another Montanan, to describe a discipline that draws upon nature's designs and processes to solve human problems. (See Buildings inspired by nature at Fortune.com) Says Bruce:

It was so extreme and graphic that it drove me to ask the question: How does nature handle this? Nature handles it with wetlands.

 

This concept of using nature as a model seems a lot more elegant that the bombs and bullets approach of turning to a chemical solution or mechanical device. It's a vision of trying to live more in harmony.

So how can you develop more wetlands?