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Advertising for Clean Water

By Carol Ferrie

Every year, corporations spend about $150 billion on advertising, says Paul Polizzotto, but very little of it goes to improve quality of life. Polizzotto — surfer, businessman, and environmentalist– has figured out a way to harness some of those advertising dollars through the Adopt-A-Waterway program.

"You don’t have to take the oath of poverty to make improvements to society," Polizzotto, 42, said from the New York City office of Environmental Communication (EC), the environmental media company he founded four years ago. EC operates the nationwide Adopt-A-Waterway program, which provides one of those rare scenarios in environmental advocacy where everyone comes out a winner –business, government, the environment, and Polizzotto. He calls it "doing good while doing well" (which is the subtitle of the book Enviro-Capitalists by Terry L. Anderson and Donald R. Leal).

Modeled loosely after the Adopt-A-Highway program that cleans up littered highways, Adopt-A-Waterway raises private money to help local governments fund the cleanup of stormwater pollution as well as programs informing the public about how to mitigate the problem.

In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency pointed to urban runoff flowing through storm drains as the leading cause of impaired water quality. The contaminants entering waterways via storm drains include litter, pesticides, fertilizers, grease, paint products, automotive fluids, animal wastes, construction debris, and household chemicals. "We are all contributors to non-point source pollution," Polizzotto said.

To deal with this polluted runoff, the EPA requires local governments to ensure that stormwater runoff contains no harmful levels of contaminants, but it does not provide funding for governments to comply with this mandate. This is where Adopt-A-Waterway fits in.

Polizzotto and his team solicit sponsorships from businesses and corporations that operate in the targeted area, typically coastal cities. In return, the participating businesses receive an advertising campaign that, depending on the level of sponsorship, includes road signs, television, radio, and magazine ads. Not only do the signs and advertisements promote the sponsoring business, Polizzotto said, they market the business as one that is helping to improve the environment.

Road signs used in the advertising campaign have a general message like "Cleaner Cities, Cleaner Waterways." This, Polizzotto says, helps people to make the connection that city streets and storm drains lead directly to waterways. Business names and logos are displayed prominently on the signs, which are placed strategically along high-traffic roadways with the city’s approval.

Local Government Benefits

Half of the gross advertising revenue that Adopt-A-Waterway receives from corporations and local businesses is given to local governments for runoff mitigation and prevention and for public education campaigns. In Miami, for example, where Adopt-A-Waterway was implemented in 2003, Polizzotto said the city receives about $200,000 every year for public awareness and cleanup of stormwater runoff.

The 50-percent share of revenues that the city of Long Beach, California, receives each year from its participation in the Adopt- A-Waterway program amounts to $50,000 to $75,000, according to Tom Leary, the city’s Stormwater Program Officer.

In a city that has operated for years with a deficit, Leary said he would never be able to fund public outreach, even though it is mandated by the EPA, without the money from Adopt-A-Waterway. The funds go directly to Leary’s office, so he decides what to do with them. A portion is awarded to local marine programs such as the Aquarium of the Pacific and Windows-On-Our-Waters, whose focus is on environmental education.

Actual stormwater cleanup technologies cost over a million dollars, Leary said, so this type of capital expenditure is not a feasible use of Long Beach’s Adopt-A-Waterway money. Although the city had hoped the program would generate more money than it has, Leary believes that changes in business conditions have hindered the program from reaching its potential. Currently there are 25 to 30 Adopt-A-Waterway signs posted on main roads throughout Long Beach. The goal is to have 89 sponsored signs.

"What if we could build brands, sell products and clean up the environment all at the same time?" is the question Polizzotto asks the businesses that he solicits to participate in the program. Typically these three aspects of business –marketing, sales, and, environmental responsibility– are handled by separate departments within a company. Polizzotto proposes that an Adopt-A-Waterway sponsorship cover all of these bases in one package.

John Curry, East Coast public affairs director for British Petroleum, said the company’s participation in Baltimore’s Adopt- A-Waterway program was an easy choice to make since environmental education is one of BP’s top priorities. "It is well worth our investment," Curry said.

Boeing, Comcast, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, and the Publix supermarket chain are some of the corporations that have signed on with Adopt-A-Waterway in places such as Miami, New York, Baltimore, and several California cities. Polizzotto is expecting Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and the states of Massachusetts and New Jersey to soon be added to his list of government clients.

Adopt-A-Waterway represents a natural progression for Polizzotto. While practically growing up on a surfboard in California, Polizzotto became personally aware of water pollution when he and his surfing buddies suffered chronic ear and bronchial infections that were attributed to constant exposure to polluted water. His passion for the water sent him on a mission to clean it up. "I always wanted to do something to make it better," he said.

Realizing that storm drain water was a major cause of unhealthy waterways, Polizzotto launched Zero Discharge, a method of cleaning urban and stormwater runoff before it enters storm drain systems. The company grew to 150 employees, who maintained 3,500 catch basins that were installed in the streets leading to storm drains. Stormwater was captured in the basins, transported to a purification facility, pre-treated to destroy toxins, and then discharged into the sewer system.

Polizzotto sold Zero Discharge four years ago when he saw another business opportunity developing. After attending stormwater committee meetings and talking to many city government officials in California, he learned that, while local governments knew what pollution prevention systems were needed to clean up their waterways, they lacked adequate funding to implement them. Polizzotto explored how this funding could be provided without hurting taxpayers, and Adopt-A-Waterway was born.

In a world where business, government, and the environment are thought to mix like oil and water, Polizzotto is proving the notion to be wrong.

Carol Ferrie is a program coordinator for PERC and a free-lance writer in Bozeman, MT. Paul Polizzotto can be reached at

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