Teach them not to rush to opinion on environmental issues. Instead, help them conduct their own research, including looking into original sources that are science-based. When there is a problem, they will be better equipped to engage in a conversation with a possible solution. The world is full of many problems to talk about. Science-based solutions are needed!
As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Wilson.
Scott Wilson, president and CEO of REGENESIS, has extensive experience in the development and application of advanced technologies for groundwater and soil restoration and vapor intrusion mitigation. He is a widely published expert with over 30 years of experience designing, installing and operating a broad range of remediation technologies. Wilson has expertise in project management and has directed the successful completion of large industrial remediation programs under State and Federal regulatory frameworks. At REGENESIS, he plays an active role in technical oversight and program management to ensure conformance with customer expectations. Wilson received a M.S. from the University of Texas at El Paso, a B.A. from the University of San Diego and an M.B.A. from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I remember that my early youth was spent running through the Pennsylvania woods, playing and exploring in the streams, and falling in love with the flora and fauna. And then, our family moved to San Diego and I fell in love with the ocean — studying the tide pools, surfing, watching the cliffs erode and taking in the geology of the area. A little later, I moved to the high desert in Texas and loved everything about the Chihuahuan Desert, which stretches from the southwest states into northern Mexico. There’s nothing more beautiful than a light dusting of snow on the yucca!
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
When I was a kid, my parents were members of the National Wildlife Federation. They had a kid-themed magazine called Ranger Rick. I remember as an eight-year-old being shocked reading the story of Ranger Rick and his friends meeting at the swimming hole and finding it polluted when they went back to it for their first swim of the summer. There was foam floating on top of the water’s surface and trash everywhere. I was shocked that someone would let that happen to a treasured water resource like a stream or river.
Around the same time, there was an award-winning PSA commercial with a Native American paddling his canoe through a polluted river surrounded by smog, pollution and trash. As the man is paddling through, the camera pans to a close up of a single tear rolling down his cheek. It made such an impact on me. These early messages in the media and at home inspired me to become environmentally active. Even to this day and in my current role, they continue to inspire me.
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
At the time I was growing up, the environmental industry did not exist. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was only established in 1970, and even though it had been in place for ten years, it was not until December 11, 1980, that President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund). So, as I entered college, there was no “field” for the type of environmental work I was seeking and had a passion for. As a college student, I refused to be locked into a single discipline because what I wanted to study hadn’t been defined at that time. If there is a lesson to be taken from my college experience, it would be to advise young people to follow their passions. Look to be integrative and not necessarily locked into a single discipline. Your unique contribution to the world may lie between or even combine many different disciplines.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
As president and CEO at REGENESIS, a science-based technology company, I tackle a host of environmental challenges, including treating toxic chemicals in groundwater to protect drinking water wellfields, rivers and streams. We also have solutions to address vapor intrusion. Our vapor barrier systems are effective in protecting residents in new apartment complexes built on top of former brownfield sites, for example, or in historic buildings where indoor air quality may be compromised by vapor intrusion.
From the beginning, the goal of REGENESIS was to develop innovative technologies that allow the earth to be restored, using passive, sustainable solutions like stimulating the natural bacteria. Very similar to pharmaceutical science where a person may need to take a prescription to heal the body, there are ailing (or contaminated) aquifers requiring a prescriptive treatment in order for the aquifer to be restored.
When you think about sustainability, what is often lost in the conversation is the idea of being good stewards of what you already have. This is true conservation. And one thing we are especially gifted with here in the U.S. is an abundant groundwater supply. It is a primary source of our drinking water and has played an integral role in building up our country and feeding the world. Unfortunately, this precious resource has been neglected over the last century. Industrialization and toxic chemical releases have either tainted or threaten most of the country’s groundwater resources and our science-based solutions work to remediate the damage.
People are only now waking up to the problem. For instance, did you know that recent studies have shown as many as 200 million Americans may be drinking highly toxic, cancer-causing organo-fluorine chemicals known as PFAS? That’s more than half of our population! At the same time, we find that half the children in the U.S. have chronic health conditions. I often wonder how much contaminated drinking water is playing a part. Time will tell. But parents should be concerned.
So, when we are talking about sustainability, a company that cleans contaminated groundwater is inherently sustainable. Restoring blighted, industrial land into beautiful mixed-use developments to revitalize a city’s downtown and avoid urban sprawl is also inherently sustainable. At our core, we are in the business of sustainability.
But we don’t stop there. We take it a step further by developing technologies to promote the most efficient and cost-effective solution to the problem. An example is a technology we developed called PlumeStop, an in-ground filtration technology that removes contaminants from groundwater. It is a liquid form of carbon that can be installed as a barrier between a source of contaminants and a drinking water supply well, a river or another receptor. The barrier permits the flow of groundwater but captures the contaminants onto the carbon. Think of a Brita® filter, but below ground — a natural, passive in-ground water purification system. The alternative methods for treating a contaminant like PFAS involve mechanical systems that extract the groundwater and filter it above ground. This pumping takes a tremendous amount of energy, all powered by fossil fuels. Often these systems pump millions of gallons per year to remove a few grams of contaminants. Most of them run continuously for decades, contributing to tons of greenhouse gas emissions. And what’s worse, it doesn’t really solve the problem. You’re just transferring the liability by moving the contaminants to a landfill where it becomes a community’s problem when these contaminants begin to leach out. It is a major issue. Our in situ treatment approach is revolutionary in that it eliminates all of that. The treatment itself generates zero-emissions, and therefore, it addresses the climate change issue head-on without all the infrastructure and maintenance.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?
- Keep Telecommuting. As a company, we’ve embraced telecommuting for nearly 20 years. I would offer encouragement to other company leaders thinking of adopting the practice post-COVID. The environmental benefits are obvious, but there are other benefits for your employees as well.
- Stop Drinking Bottled Water. This is a huge waste of energy contributing to a massive amount of pollution, especially in our oceans, where there are huge floating masses of plastic waste as large as some countries. Instead, drink tap water and filter it. Also, check into your local water utility’s sampling reports to ensure it meets drinking-water-safe standards. Usually, they will post these online. Either way, it is best to filter your water just to be certain. If everyone drank tap water, there would be a drive to improve it.
- Encourage Contiguous Natural Area Preservation and Development in Urban Planning. This is especially important in urban areas. Education starts with experience. Also, too many people aren’t exposed to open natural spaces. Studies have shown that immersing yourself in nature is an antidote for stress: It can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety and improve mood. Not only is it good for you to spend time outdoors, I believe that as more people have contact with our environment, the more people will want to preserve it.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion, what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
- Get your kids outdoors. Kids today are too focused on technology with a screen in front of them. Encourage them to go outside so they can experience our natural world and appreciate it.
- Teach them to be curious about nature. Once an environmental interest is identified, foster it in your kids. We always took our kids hiking, camping and backpacking. I was interested in snakes and over time, my kids became fascinated with reptiles as well. We liked to search for interesting species as they were growing up around our home and when we would camp. One time, my son and I found a rubber boa in the Sierras, which is a pretty rare snake for that area.
- Let them know the importance of the ocean. It is crucial we teach kids about the ocean and its importance to us globally. I would recommend we teach them about sustainable fishing practices and the species that are being overfished to make wise choices about their seafood consumption.
- Remind them of their purchasing power. The wallet is your ballot. Are the things and services you buy contributing to or helping the problem?
- Teach them not to rush to opinion on environmental issues. Instead, help them conduct their own research, including looking into original sources that are science-based. When there is a problem, they will be better equipped to engage in a conversation with a possible solution. The world is full of many problems to talk about. Science-based solutions are needed!
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or an example?
Environmental stewardship and capitalism are not diametrically opposed — in fact, that is quite the opposite. For instance, in the late 80s and early 90s, there was a waste minimalization movement in industrial manufacturing and the companies that participated found that by minimalizing waste, they also saved money and reduced liability. Before long, waste minimalization became an essential practice companies employed to remain competitive.
Recently at REGENESIS, in response to the tremendous demand for our PlumeStop amendment, we needed to expand into new manufacturing and warehouse space. We looked into constructing a new, green LEED-certified building, but when we assessed the carbon footprint, we found it was actually much better to repurpose an existing building. This prompted us to search out a brownfield site. Eventually, we found one. The new site was an abandoned wire factory in Tennessee. We retrofitted it and it’s in use now. In our new location and from this shipping point, we can reach two-thirds of the US population within two days. This simple environmental stewardship act to adopt an abandoned 70,000-square-foot building will reduce the carbon footprint and increase profitability for us and our customers.
We can speak most directly to the idea of profitability through sustainability since our business is the environment. Our focus is on innovating and deploying intrinsically sustainable technologies that remediate the parts of it that have been damaged. We’ve been in business for more than 25 years, and we have grown year after year, while most of the rest of the economy has see-sawed. Clearly, the public demands environmentally conscious businesses and business practices.
There are many environmental challenges, such as this PFAS-in-groundwater issue, we are actively addressing. Our experience has shown that if you can effectively solve these challenges and your solutions are built on sustainable, environmentally conscious practices, you will be profitable.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Yes, his name is Dr. Claude Zobell. Spurred on by my love of the ocean, I discovered the field of microbiology in college. I became intrigued with using microbiology as a solution to clean up the environment. In 1946, Dr. Zobell published the very first paper on the use of bacteria to degrade oil. He was investigating ways to use oil to grow single-cell protein bacteria as a food source. By feeding it to cattle, it would be a low-cost way of generating food from oil. I saw it as a way that we might harness microbes to clean up oil spills in the open ocean. I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Zobell at the Scripps Institute at Oceanography and mentored me while I was at the University of San Diego. Dr. Zobell then led me to study under another professor, Dr. Zheic, who researched ways to use bacteria to clean up pollution. From this early inspiration I was led into this field.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I love the idea of crowdsourcing solutions. If we could somehow take all the angst over environmental issues and redirect this energy into a succinct crowdsourcing platform to solve specific environmental problems, I am convinced it would help. A solution could come from someone who’s not a major university professor or a great industrialist. Instead, someone from a remote corner of the world who may be subject to conditions that trigger an entirely different look at the problem. It’s exciting to me that we now have the technology tools that connect people globally in order to find the answers.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
Arthur Schopenhauer said this: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”
I think this is true for any new concept, innovation or invention in all walks of life, including those relating to our environment. In earlier times, it was heretical to suggest the world was not flat but spherical. More recently, the idea that human activity could release greenhouse gases was not received well, nor was the idea of a commercially successful electric automobile. Unfortunately, the great thinkers and innovators are usually ridiculed and violently opposed. We could all benefit from embracing or at least considering the outside view.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
LinkedIn is the best place to reach me: https://www.linkedin.com/in/scott-wilson-6710162/