Opinion: How to make money from toxic sludge

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pretty sick of seeing environmental mayhem every time I flick on my television set.

Oil-encrusted birds padding about in the Gulf of Mexico. Hapless fish wriggling slowly through gobs of crude. Pristine beaches and wildlife destroyed. And now, thanks to the collapse of a retaining wall at an aluminum facility in Hungary, a sea of disgusting red sludge cascading towards the mighty Danube River.

It’s enough to make one visibly cringe – especially when you consider the companies involved seem to hold the lion’s share of responsibility for these disasters.

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Not that these businesses haven’t paid a heavy penance, of course. British Petroleum PLC – which was publicly skewered for the Gulf spill all summer – had its share price on the Dow slide from around US$60 to a low-water mark of around $27 in early July (it’s hovering at around $40 right now).

And one can only imagine the stratospheric spending levels within the firm’s advertising department over the past six months.

Similarly, the director of the aluminum company responsible for the Hungarian mess – one of that country’s richest people, apparently – was recently detained over his role in the disaster.

But through the haze of bad environmental news, it’s nice to be reminded that there are some companies whose very raison d’etre is to fight what’s described above.

Indeed, that seems to be the case with local firm Blue Swan Technologies Corp. It’s a clean-tech firm that offers what it calls a “Great White” decontamination product, which is basically a giant white sponge (although I’m sure the official description is much more scientific).

The company says this gigantic sponge can absorb 77 times its own weight in hydrocarbons, with a product density of one pound per cubic foot. That’s a lot of hydrocarbons.

Representatives also say the product is effective in mopping up large-scale spills, poisonous or otherwise, and can even suck up oil stuck to birds and other wildlife. They say it would be just as effective on red sludge as crude oil.

The firm’s back story is lengthy. Blue Swan has actually existed since 1997, when it was a Quebec-based company. “At the time, back then, they couldn’t get anyone to buy the product if their life depended on it,” explains Blue Swan rep Stephan May.

“Trying to convince an oil company that they had to pay for oil cleanup …  they didn’t want to hear it.”

Fast forward more than a decade, however, to the festering BP Gulf spill. Mr. May says he and a business partner stumbled upon the dormant company this past summer, and – after glancing at the news headlines of the day – knew there was an opportunity in the offing.

Mr. May says that since resurrecting the firm earlier this year – working in partnership with co-founder and current CEO Gisele Fortin – they’ve added a clutch of experienced and local businesspeople to the company’s board.

Board members include Dan Hilton of Work Horse Capital and Green Swan Capital (and Conservative Party executive director), iFathom Corp. CEO Leo Tardioli and Jeff Smith, a lawyer, marine engineer and the current chair of the Canadian Institute of Marine Engineering.

Now, they’re looking to either license the technology – to “someone that already has manufacturing infrastructure in place” like a DuPont, Mr. May says – or, probably more ideally, flip the entire company.

“We all have other businesses, so we’d ideally be looking for an acquisition,” says Mr. May.

He says they haven’t taken out a patent on the technology “Because it’s very easy to reverse engineer these kinds of solutions.”

Given that I haven’t tested the firm’s technology myself – although I probably could have this morning, considering the size of the coffee I spilled all over my desk – I can’t give it a ringing endorsement, by any means.

But having said that, it’s sure nice to see a local company that may be able to help plug up the flood of bad news we’ve recently endured.

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