VanCity Investing in Communities – Stories of Impact
Some businesses seek to fill the world with their products. But for Recycling Alternative it’s all about getting to zero—zero waste, that is.
More than 20 years ago, Robert Weatherbe offered his friend Louise Schwarz some help to advance her passion for recycling. Today, he and Louise co-own of one of Canada’s most creative recycling companies, Recycling Alternative.
A small but formidable company with more than two dozen employees, Recycling Alternative is based in a warehouse in Vancouver’s industrial district. Its mission is simple: collect materials from clients across the city, then separate and recycle. But the story of Recycling Alternative’s development has more twists and turns than the back alleys of Vancouver’s downtown district where it does its daily rounds.
“We shared a lot of values,” Robert says of Louise, adding wryly, “we had a heart for lost causes at that point.”
A mechanical engineer, Robert had worked as a surveyor in BC’s remote north and studied engineering in the UK before Louise asked for his help. Long before blue boxes made their debut in Vancouver, she was passionate about recycling and used an old hatchback to collect newspapers from small businesses in Vancouver.
“Some of the large paper producers were recycling on a large scale—accepting a minimum of one tonne at a time—and here was Louise going around picking up waste in plastic bags,” says Robert. “It really wasn’t very efficient.”
Making it efficient was about developing an economic way of collecting and sorting waste. Robert built a software program and client database to capture details such as pickup time, date and location, the type of waste being collected—paper, plastics, metals and, later, food and other organic waste—and even what key was needed to open which waste container.
Initially Robert and Louise formed a not-for-profit organization, offering free pick-up of paper and cardboard, and they tapped into a Vancity grant to buy their first truck. But as demand grew, so did their business and their clientele now include offices, retail businesses, restaurants and multi-tenant buildings throughout the city. After injecting their own capital, they converted Recycling Alternative into a private company.
There were other challenges to tackle, including sorting out the best way to work together as business partners.
“Louise has unlimited capacity and energy and one of her great attributes is that she is incredibly well organized,” says Robert. “She has lists and lists of lists—all, of course, on pieces of craft paper. I remember one time she was getting quite flustered with the amount of work we had to do and she had this list she had been working on all week. I looked at her and at it and asked, ‘What part do we have to get done first?’ She answered, ‘The top part.’ So I ripped the list in half, gave her the top half and said, ‘Let’s get that done.’”
An unanticipated twist came when Robert and Louise looked into using alternative-fuel vehicles just as Robert was approached by someone who asked for help in sourcing waste vegetable oil from city restaurants. As a result, Recycling Alternative is now the backbone of the Vancouver Biodiesel Co-op, Metro Vancouver’s only source of 100 per cent recycled biodiesel, which has far lower greenhouse gas emissions and negative environmental impact than petroleum. Co-op members fuel up on B100, an organic substitute for diesel fuel, at a pump on Recycling Alternative’s property. Recycling Alternative provides the supply and pump infrastructure and has created an efficient system of billing and resource management for members.
Since 2011, Recycling Alternative has partnered with Vancouver Farmers Market to create a food scraps drop-spots collection program for apartment residents. To date the program has diverted over 50,000 lbs of food scraps from the landfill and is so popular that Recycling Alternative and Vancouver Farmers Market are continuing to roll-out the program to new locations throughout the city.
Along the way, Recycling Alternative and Vancity have crossed paths several times, partly because of Vancity’s commitment to support emerging enterprises in the environmental sector. The Vancouver Biodiesel Co-op is now partnering with the Cowichan Bio-Diesel Co-op on Vancouver Island, which Vancity has also helped to finance, and Greasecycle, a company that collects waste cooking oil. As well, Vancity’s Green Business Manager, Maureen Cureton, engaged Recycling Alternative in Climate Smart training, a carbon-reduction program that Vancity helped seed in 2009 through Ecotrust Canada.
As their recycling collection business evolved to include organics and food scraps—currently 40 per cent of Metro Vancouver’s waste stream—Robert and Louise realized that to create operational efficiencies they would need a truck with more compartments to separate recyclable components. Since no such truck existed, Robert worked with a trucking company to design and build the required vehicle.
“I’ve financed a lot of trucks but when it came to this one, no financial company was interested in spending money on a truck that had never been built,” Robert said. “Fortunately Vancity said, ‘We’re going to make it happen for you.’” Now Recycling Alternative is using its line of credit with Vancity to acquire a third truck.
What’s next for Recycling Alternative? The company is working with other local businesses to develop Vancouver’s first eco-industrial green hub, where businesses can co-locate to provide services that reduce, re-use and recycle materials while sharing resources to create financial and environmental economies of scale.