SORT­ING IT OUT

Back when fes­ter­ing land­fills were out of sight and out of mind for most peo­ple, Louise Sch­warz, BA’83, de­cided to start tack­ling one source of the prob­lem head- on.

Trek Magazine - - Lay Of The Land - BY ROSE­MARY AN­DER­SON, BA’74

It was late sum­mer in 1988. Back then, sus­tain­abil­ity was a lit­tle-used word in the Cana­dian Ox­ford, blue boxes were a rare sight, and the toxic soups dished up by land­fills had gained lit­tle of the no­to­ri­ety they de­serve. Like most of the peo­ple she knew, Louise Sch­warz, BA’83, hadn’t given a sec­ond thought to what be­comes of the trash we throw away.

But on that Septem­ber day, she was vis­it­ing her friend JoJo in Seat­tle, who was “a gree­nie” and ahead of the curve. JoJo pointed out a green bin she’d placed out­side her apart­ment. “I’ve got all the peo­ple in the build­ing do­ing re­cy­cling,” she re­marked, “so we’re not just throw­ing it all away.”

Sch­warz, who had just re­turned to Van­cou­ver af­ter sev­eral years teach­ing ESL in Europe, was not at­tuned to en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. Al­though she had started notic­ing some things – the way peo­ple still smoked in hos­pi­tals in Italy, for ex­am­ple, and how crowded some cities were be­com­ing – not once had she ever con­sid­ered the life cy­cle of garbage.

But when JoJo spoke that day about the con­cept of re­cy­cling, a re­al­iza­tion hit Sch­warz “like a ton of lead bricks”: when we throw garbage “away” it is out of sight and out of mind, but all we are re­ally do­ing is shift­ing its lo­ca­tion. Once garbage, al­ways garbage. And what starts out as a seem­ingly man­age­able pit of refuse gets added to and added to, un­til it be­comes a moun­tain of toxic me­tals and stink­ing, germ-in­fested rot – quite pos­si­bly near some­one else’s home – fill­ing up space and suck­ing clean air from peo­ple and an­i­mals and plants. The more she thought about it, the more her head reeled.

Over the next few months, Sch­warz couldn’t shake the nag­ging con­vic­tion that she had to take on this garbage monster. “I can­not be a per­son who stands on the side­lines and says, ‘Oooh, it’s a big mess, and I can’t do any­thing to change any­thing’,” she says.

At the time, one of her broth­ers was run­ning a courier busi­ness. When she ob­served the “sheer vol­ume of en­velopes” go­ing into his garbage, she knew this was some­thing she could tackle: she could re­cy­cle of­fice paper. She sent out a let­ter to com­mer­cial en­ter­prises, of­fer­ing to col­lect their paper trash for the bar­gain base­ment price of a few dol­lars a load, “depend­ing on fre­quency.” She picked her fee out of thin air, she laugh­ingly ad­mits, but she knew of no other ser­vice like it on which to base her num­bers. The let­ter it­self was sim­ple and di­rect. The wel­fare of the en­vi­ron­ment “is the most press­ing is­sue we face today,” it said, and it went on to ex­tol re­cy­cling as “a nec­es­sary al­ter­na­tive to the ever-grow­ing prob­lem of our waste.”

The phone started ring­ing, and Sch­warz’s lit­tle non-profit so­cial en­ter­prise was born. She called it Re­cy­cling Al­ter­na­tive. To be­gin with, it was just Sch­warz alone, pick­ing up paper trash in her Chevy Chevette hatch­back, but the ven­ture soon grad­u­ated to need­ing a van, and Sch­warz was joined by her busi­ness part­ner, Robert Weatherbe.

The com­pany switched into full gear as a for-profit busi­ness in 1998. Today, they boast a fleet of 20 ve­hi­cles, fueled – when­ever pos­si­ble – with re­cy­cled biodiesel, and they ser­vice a wide va­ri­ety of com­mer­cial clients, from of­fices to shop­ping malls, restau­rants, large apart­ment build­ings, and even YVR.

In ad­di­tion to paper, they sort, bale, and de­liver soft plas­tics and card­board for re­cy­cling; they col­lect e-waste, bat­ter­ies, lights, and Sty­ro­foam, and dis­sem­i­nate these to the ap­pro­pri­ate pro­cess­ing spe­cial­ists; they shred highly sen­si­tive doc­u­ments for busi­ness and res­i­den­tial clients; and, ev­ery day, they col­lect, ag­gre­gate, and de­liver tons of food waste for com­post­ing.

Al­ways con­cerned about the im­pact of their fleet’s car­bon foot­print, Weatherbe de­signed a spe­cial ve­hi­cle they fondly call the “Zero Waste” truck. It has an en­gine smaller than usual for a ve­hi­cle its size and bears three dis­tinct waste com­part­ments. One Zero Waste truck can do the com­plete rounds of a pickup route and re­turn to the de­pot hav­ing col­lected three to­tally sep­a­rate re­cy­cling streams in a sin­gle pass. In an­other novel move, they’ve been run­ning ex­per­i­ments on a rev­o­lu­tion­ary food com­poster. You can feed this com­poster 10 totes of mouldy, dis­gust­ing, messy food waste and, in 24 hours, you’ll have an out­put of zero food waste and two totes of earth that smells like chicory cof­fee, is dry, has no pathogens, and isn’t in­fested with fruit flies, rats, or any­thing else. Scientists from UBC’s Fac­ulty of Land and Food Sys­tems are work­ing with Re­cy­cling Al­ter­na­tive to test the ma­te­rial’s grow­ing yield (see “Mir­a­cle Mi­crobe” on the next page).

For a high-vol­ume en­ter­prise such as a con­ven­tion cen­ter or an air­port fa­cil­ity, hav­ing one of these com­post­ing sys­tems on site means they can scale down from their daily (and of­ten twice-daily) or­gan­ics pick­ups to just one col­lec­tion per week. Not only would this help them slash their waste-dis­posal costs, but the re­duced fre­quency of pickup would mean a lot less CO is be­ing emit­ted by garbage trucks. An­other ad­van­tage is no longer hav­ing to con­tend with smelly garbage await­ing pickup and tempt­ing rats, mice, and other ver­min to the feast.

Near one end of the fa­cil­ity, Weatherbe has a whole row of these com­posters and is con­duct­ing fur­ther ex­per­i­ments to see how they han­dle plas­tics. No­body wants plas­tics in their com­post and, in any case, cur­rent bin­ning pro­to­cols re­quire that the en­tire bin has to go to a land­fill if plas­tics such as sand­wich wrap­pers or sushi trays hap­pen to get dumped in along with the ba­nana peels and other food waste, “so we wanted to test what hap­pens if we threw in pack­aged food – hum­mus… a tray of sushi,” says Sch­warz. “What we’ve dis­cov­ered is the heat in this ma­chine helps break open and co­ag­u­late the plas­tic. The mi­crobes go in and start

To be­gin with, it was just Sch­warz alone, pick­ing up paper trash in her Chevy Chevette

eat­ing the food, and then it’s so much eas­ier to sift out.” They run the mix through a tum­bler to catch the macro-plas­tics, then cen­trifuge what’s left to sep­a­rate out the mi­cro-plas­tics. “Bear in mind, this is ex­per­i­men­tal,” Sch­warz cau­tions, “but the goal is a nu­tri­ent-rich com­post tea.” The UBC scientists are keen to test this end prod­uct as well, when it is ready.

The com­pany’s fo­cus has al­ways been re­cy­cling, Sch­warz says, but what sets them apart is their in­no­va­tive ap­proach to waste re­duc­tion, and their in­te­gra­tive ap­proach to help­ing clients im­prove their own re­cy­cling in­fra­struc­ture. For ex­am­ple, they help ed­u­cate clients so they can choose more en­vi­ron­men­tally-friendly prod­uct lines, mean­ing less of their waste must go to a land­fill. And long be­fore the City of Van­cou­ver banned the dump­ing of or­gan­ics in reg­u­lar garbage, Re­cy­cling Al­ter­na­tive was heav­ily in­vested in ex­plor­ing new ways to ef­fec­tively re­duce clients’ or­ganic waste.

Re­cy­cling Al­ter­na­tive is, at heart, a com­mu­nity-build­ing en­ter­prise, and it en­joys shar­ing space, as well as val­ues such as in­clu­sive em­ploy­ment, with its Green Hub neigh­bour, United We Can.

On the de­pot floor there’s a con­stant ebb and flow of work­ers. Mem­bers of the bin­ner com­mu­nity stream in with shop­ping carts over­laden with re­fund­able bot­tles and cans, and leave with empty carts and the day’s earn­ings in their pock­ets. A fair por­tion of the moun­tains of pop cans and beer and wine bot­tles they bring in would have ended up in land­fill if the bin­ners hadn’t re­trieved them. The bin­ners be­long here. They are an in­te­gral part of this co-lo­ca­tion busi­ness com­mu­nity, ini­tially en­vis­aged by Sch­warz and Weatherbe and pro­posed to the City many years ago. Re­cy­cling Al­ter­na­tive and United We Can each has their own sep­a­rate lease agree­ment with the City for their re­spec­tive por­tion of the 30,000 square-foot de­pot, but there is a no­table ab­sence of walls and a strik­ing warmth of spirit.

Cross­ing the ware­house floor, Sch­warz and the bin­ners greet each other by name. Sch­warz is in her el­e­ment. “When I in­te­grate, it does some­thing to me. It changes who I am,” she says. “And I want my staff to be a part of this. It opens up their world and their heart, too, to in­te­grate, and to un­der­stand that we are all one. In­te­gra­tion is so im­por­tant. We’re just all the same, all the same.”

Pho­tos by Martin Dee

Louise Sch­warz founded Re­cy­cling Al­ter­na­tive in the 1980s.

Re­cy­cling Al­ter­na­tive shares space with its Green Hub neigh­bour, United We Can.

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