How a new building material is saving marine life

The co-founder of ECOncrete tells us how she's already doubled the amount of species in Brooklyn and beyond.

For Shimrit Perkol-Finkel, a day at the beach is just another afternoon at the office.

You won't find her lying on the sand, reading the latest summer thriller novel. Instead, she'll be deep underwater with a pencil and clipboard in hand. "So many people ask," she said with a laugh. "The pencil is very ordinary. We're kind of old school. But it's a special paper for underwater writing."

Perkol-Finkel said that she uses something similar to baking paper, and that she can erase and reuse the sheets as often as she likes. Perkol-Finkel said that she uses something similar to baking paper, and that she can erase and reuse the sheets as often as she likes. (Photo: Courtesy ECOncrete)

But there's nothing old-fashion about the work she's doing. Perkol-Finkel is the co-founder of ECOncrete, an Israeli startup that has invented a solution to an oft-cited problem: About half of the world's population lives along a coastline dotted with bridges and seawalls and ports. Many of those structures are built with concrete. Indeed, concrete is one of the most consumed materials in the world. But it can destroy the marine life around it for thousands of years.

Perkol-Finkel was studying these issues while getting a Ph.D. in marine biology at Tel Aviv University. It was there that she met a fellow Ph.D. student named Ido Sella and together they came up with an alternative. They tweaked the makeup of concrete by about 10% – Finkel compared it to merely adding salt and pepper to a recipe – and that fine-tuning was enough to make all the difference necessary.

Their new mixture provides a hospitable habitat in the ocean. It's designed with tiny holes for small fish to live inside it. Seaweed grows on top of it. Corals and oysters appear around it. Marine life thrives. All of this brings the concrete to life and actually makes the structure even stronger.

A before and after picture, showing the Econcrete when it's first placed in the water and after all the marine life grows on top of it. A before and after picture, showing the ECOncrete when it's first placed in the water and after all the marine life grows on top of it. (Photo: Courtesy ECOncrete)

While still students, the two of them conducted a small study to see if their idea would actually work. "Instead of building a huge monster of a structure, I put some units on an existing structure in the Red Sea in Eilat," Perkol-Finkel told us. "That small addition, that three dimensional element that I added on to an existing structure, really ignited a lot of biological activity." Many environmental groups have devised plans for artificial reefs, but the duo wanted to go a step further. "Why build all these artificial reefs on a nice clean seabed when we have all these infrastructures that people built for other purposes? We can enhance them, we can use them as a scaffold for ecological enhancement," she said.

What's more, the mixture – now used to build ports and seawalls and bridges – is about 5% stronger than normal concrete and not any more expensive. Their structures have up to 80% less of a carbon footprint.

After graduation, Perkol-Finkel and Sella co-founded ECOncrete. The company launched in 2012 and has been, like the concrete they work with, growing ever since. They've already installed their material in across the globe – including in Israel, the Netherlands and here in the U.S. One particular area they've seen success is in New York City, which has 578 miles of shoreline. In a project at Brooklyn Bridge Park, they have already doubled the amount of species and the amount of diversity in the water. "We're bringing life back and reducing the impact," she explained.

Thanks to Econcrete, the oxygen level in the water at Brooklyn Bridge Park is twice as high in the tide pools as it is in the river. Thanks to ECOncrete, the oxygen level in the water at Brooklyn Bridge Park is twice as high in the tide pools as it is in the river. (Photo: Courtesy ECOoncrete)

There are new projects in France, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Croatia. Upcoming projects are being looked at in San Diego and Australia. When we caught up with Perkol-Finkel, she had just left Hawaii from a scouting trip. "The last year has been really strong for us in terms of geographic strengths. We are seeing more interests from different countries."

A potential project in Mexico might even see her teaming with fellow Israeli entrepreneur Inna Braverman, whose company has figured out a way to take the energy from ocean waves and convert it into electricity. Braverman, the focus of a recent "Our Friend from Israel" podcast episode, usually works on existing coastal infrastructures. But the Mexico site requires an entirely new pier to be built. She's considering building it out of ECOncrete.

For Perkol-Finkel and Sella, they're making their own kind of waves. He's been named as an emerging leader in Israel, landing on the Globes 40 under 40 list. She was just named one of the most creative people of 2019 by Fast Company magazine, as well as one of the 2019 winners of the European Union Prize for Women Innovators. The mother of three sees no end in sight. "EcoConcrete should be a dominant player in the market of bio-enhanced infrastructure, which doesn't really exist now. They will not be building grey, drab, featureless structures. That's my goal, that's my vision."

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How a new building material is saving marine life
Shimrit Perkol-Finkel, the co-founder of ECOncrete, tells us how she's already doubled the amount of species in Brooklyn and beyond.