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Why Give | Impact stories

UBC graduate applies Campus as a Living Lab lesson to help restore ocean ecosystems in Hawaii

While at UBC, supported by the RBC Foundation, James Roberts studied green approaches to community wastewater treatment. Now in Hawaii, he is using his experience to help restore ecological systems from negative effects associated with wastewater effluent.

James Roberts and CIRS Solar Aquatic System

Freshwater is one of the world’s most precious resources. For UBC alumnus James Roberts, managing wastewater is also essential to community building worldwide.

“As water stresses increase, treating wastewater at a local, community scale is becoming more of a consideration in urban areas,” says James. “The closer you treat wastewater to its source, the simpler (and more cost effective) it is to reuse.”

James is passionate about the potential for urban wastewater treatment and reuse to revitalize communities, support urban agriculture, and reduce pollution. At UBC, his master’s thesis in civil engineering focused on green technologies to achieve these goals.

Supported by the RBC Foundation, James studied the Solar Aquatics System — an innovative water treatment system that uses sunlight and biological processes to treat wastewater, which had been adapted for use by UBC’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) building.

Now in Hawaii, James Roberts is taking lessons he learned at UBC and applying a local approach to a global problem.

“Hawaii has a very large stock of residential cesspools, used by over 400,000 people, mandated to be replaced by 2050. There’s all these people that need to install alternative onsite wastewater treatment systems,” says James. “One of the reasons I came to Hawaii was to form a company, and we’re applying for National Science Foundation funding to develop a research project. My experience at UBC CIRS gave me a walk-through of the problems that can arise for end users of onsite wastewater treatment, and that’s a fundamental perspective that I need to have.”

The concept of treating wastewater onsite at a community scale — with emerging technologies such as the Solar Aquatics System — makes both environmental and financial sense.

“That’s the fundamental basis behind the design for a building like CIRS,” says James. “It increases the opportunity for reuse.”