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Can a Richmond man’s love of water save the ocean?

on December 4, 2018

For Norman Hantzsche, everything is about water.

He spends his free time swimming in open water. At work, he endeavors to make dirty water clean. Most days, he is no more than a few steps from the San Francisco Bay.

Hantzsche both lives and works at Richmond’s shoreline. On at least one occasion, he has found himself swimming home from work.

Lately, he has turned his focus toward cleaning up the ocean. His new nonprofit Plavel Water is addressing two problems at once by using plastic trash to filter water. In his spare time, Hantzsche can be found chopping up plastic bottles to test out locally before implementing full scale projects across the globe.  

Norman Hantzsche demonstrates how to make Plavel out of PET bottles using a paper cutter.

Hantzsche, 69, was born across the bay in San Francisco and grew up in Tiburon. The son of an operating engineer, he got started young doing water engineering work with his father. As a boy scout, he got involved with a stream erosion project and recalls how much fun it was to be outdoors and in the water.

He went on to study civil engineering at Stanford University and University of California Davis before founding Questa Engineering, a geotechnical, engineering and landscape architecture firm based in Point Richmond.

Inside the entryway to his office, which occupies a nondescript building adjacent to the Brickyard Cove marina, a wall-sized vintage photograph of a sailboat hangs on the wall. The hallway is lined with framed charts of waterways in the San Francisco Bay, Hawaiian Islands and Strait of Georgia.

Hantzsche, true to archetypal engineering form, can speak at length about numbers and models with an even tone, punctuated only with a subtle sparkle in his eyes as he relays the mathematical nuances he spends so much time pondering. Yet, along with his engineering proclivities, he also brings people together.

Ask him about himself and he becomes almost shy. His sentences get shorter, but he doesn’t lose his water-quality-themed sense of humor.

Hantzsche formed an open water swim group named the “Keller Coliforms” after a bacterium whose counts are used to determine water quality. “You’ve got more coliforms on your body when you get in the water than when you get out,” he muses with a chuckle.

“My strongest connection to the ocean was when I started diving for abalone (a type of edible sea snail with iridescent shells) and just for fun,” Hantzsche said.

But it was open water swimming that ultimately took him around the world, from Croatia to Fiji, and opened his eyes to the realization that, “everywhere they were in dire need of the kind of work that we do here.”

While swimming, Hantzsche said, he, “could see where septic systems were just discharging straight into these beautiful water bodies.”

On a trip to Croatia, Hantzsche encountered a stream of trash in the ocean, and realized people were just dumping garbage straight into the water.

Many people are trying clean up the plastic in the ocean; but the best method, by virtually all accounts, is making sure it does not end up there in the first place. Hantzsche plans to pursue just that. He wants to divert polyethylene terephthalate plastic bottle waste, known as PET, by turning it into a valuable commodity that can be used to treat wastewater.

In line with his distinctive engineer variety of humor, he is calling his new nonprofit, Plavel Water–derived by combining the word plastic with gravel.

Plavel works just like gravel does as a water treatment material. It turns out that biofilm, a layer of microorganisms that grows on gravel, will also grow on plastic. As water flows over the biofilm, the microorganisms feed on the organic matter in the water, thereby cleaning the water of contaminants.

Making Plavel is a surprisingly simple process. To show how it works, Hantzsche picks up a plastic bottle, twists it, and slices it into gravel sized pieces using a paper cutter. 

Making Plavel is a two step process. The first step is twisting the PET bottles to make them easier to cut.
Next the PET bottles are sliced into small pieces.

The simplicity of the process makes the use of Plavel something that could be adopted around the world, with little start-up money. And by virtue of its simplicity to make, using it for water filtration is something that can be implemented on the local level.

Hantzsche and his team plan to try out the model in Fiji first. Turning the plastic waste into a valuable material will create much-needed jobs and revenue in developing countries, he said. In Fiji, Plavel Water is working with Rotary Pacific Water for Life and the World Wildlife Fund to get the program rolling.

“Plavel is light, cheap and made from a source that is abundant. It elegantly addresses the dual challenge of marine pollution and wastewater infrastructure works, especially in remote environments,” said Pascal Vlieghe, acting director of Rotary Pacific Water.

Fridel Pretorius, staff engineer at Questa Engineering, shows off some Plavel. Plavel is placed inside a mesh bag before it is buried underground.

Before they start work in Fiji, more work needs to be done here in Richmond. One of the first steps is to get a Plavel supply ready, so Hantzsche and his team can test it out locally. To do this, they are planning to work with the scouts, 4-H club and swim team. These youth organizations can raise some money for their clubs by collecting plastic bottles from home. They will supplement their bottle supply by purchasing some from Tri-CED recycling center, one of the larger recycling centers in the East Bay.

Norman Hantzsche describes a diagram showing a water treatment system design which incorporates Plavel.

This project is coming along at a critical time because China recently decided to stop accepting the world’s plastic waste. Many countries are going to be searching for new ways of disposing of plastic bottle waste.

Conventional ways of recycling PET bottles have some significant drawbacks. The sorting process presents logistical challenges.  And Hantzsche said the recycled material is primarily used on items such as shoes, which have a short useful life, maybe a few years, before ultimately ending up in a landfill.

Plavel, however, will last a long time–100 years or longer, Hantzsche estimates.PET is a stable material, and although it breaks down under heat and UV exposure, Plavel will be buried underground.

 “It will last longer than the concrete structures it surrounds,” Hantzsche said. If it were buried to clean runoff around a home, and the foundation needed to be redone, Plavel could be pulled out, the foundation repaired and the Plavel replaced, Hantzsche notes.

Plavel also uses less greenhouse gases to transport because it is a fraction of the weight. You could, theoretically, bring your Plavel water filtration system with you when you move, since it is so lightweight.

Hantzsche was back out on the water in early October for the annual 11-mile trans-Richmond swim. Although not in the water himself that day, he was facilitating the swim for those around him.

But he was also thinking about Plavel. Christina Kossa, one of the open water swimmers, excitedly shared with Hantzsche the logo design ideas she has been working on for Plavel Water. She envisions a design showing waves of water passing through crushed up bottles to show how Plavel filters waste water.

Norman Hantzsche preparing to escort swimmers in a Kayak during the 11-mile trans-Richmond swim.


  1. Daniel O'Brien on December 4, 2018 at 5:56 pm

    Whoever’s working on cleaning up the oceans good job. I’m glad that you work on doing that and I hope that you’ll be earning enough money to keep the oceans clean forever and remind others not to dump trash.

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