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Recycling Alternative: a true innovator in building recycling programs for the IC&I sector

YVR international airport among major commercial clients using on-site food waste composting technology

Louise Schwarz and Robert Weatherbe, co-founders of Vancouver-based Recycling Alternative.
Louise Schwarz and Robert Weatherbe, co-founders of Vancouver-based Recycling Alternative.

In the late 1980s Vancouver-based Recycling Alternative founder Louise Schwarz was driven by the ambition to help change the culture surrounding waste management and advance the transition away from a "throw-away" society. She still is. She began by collecting office paper from local businesses in a hatchback car, and co-founder Robert Weatherbe soon joined as a partner. 

When they started as a non-profit, Schwarz was a teacher and Weatherbe was working as a mechanical engineer. "We were managing the business ‘from the side of our desks' at the start, for quite a few years," explains Schwarz. "The hatchback grew into a van, then a larger truck, and then multiple trucks.

Schwarz and Weatherbe can now look back at three decades of serving the IC&I (industrial, commercial and institutional) sector with waste management solutions, and the establishment of multiple community-partnership based programs and initiatives in Vancouver's downtown core. 

Their business is now a for-profit operation co-located with the non-profit charitable organization United We Can, a bottle depot which serves Vancouver's inner-city lower-income population with employment opportunities and a safe place to deliver returnable containers for refund. Recycling Alternative is also itself an inclusive employer for people with barriers to employment.

Recycling Alternative's clients include offices and retailers, restaurants and hotels, shopping centres, events and festivals, multi-tenant apartment buildings, high-rises, and, recently, Vancouver International Airport. Materials processed range from food waste, wood waste, paper and cardboard to glass, metals, plastics, e-waste, EPS, batteries and lights.

The zero-waste three-compartment truck designed by Robert Weatherbe in 2012 as a way to pick up three types of materials simultaneously. Using their compact truck, they can efficiently collect wet materials (organics) and dry materials (paper and containers) in dense urban areas.

According to Weatherbe, one of the biggest challenges in IC&I waste management is not the collection, it's the engagement and education of the staff in a given organization.

"Waste management for businesses is like an engine. You need to maintain it," he says. "A lot of what we do is on the consulting side. We've moved into providing better education programs and engaging our clients' staff to help them understand how to design their waste management systems so that they have better recovery models in the back end.

"Our clients are not in the business of waste," he continues. "At the same time, they want to trust that they're getting the best bang for their buck from a waste partner. They don't know what the best, most cost-effective diversion options are. We come in and we help mitigate that challenge." 

As an example, Weatherbe says they work with clients on upstream procurement, helping them understand what their supply chain looks like in terms of sustainability, including how to make better procurement choices and streamline their supply chain. 

"Community impact is also very important to us," adds Schwarz. "How can we create community models that provide employment and deal with waste? We need circular models.
"In our case, why I think we've been very successful with this is that we're trusted as an organization that has always been very focused on diversion, on waste reduction, on reuse and recycling. We're focused on best practices for how to manage waste and on introducing new programs. Our ‘wheelhouse' is innovation and pushing the envelope in waste management.

"Our clients understand that we are very much in the trenches working directly with waste materials. We are collecting and moving materials, processing and brokering. Our consulting, as well as our education and engagement with clients and the community, comes from a real place of knowledge and a foundation in reality. We're not consultants that don't have our hands dirty. We know what's happening with markets and on the ground, we know what's working, what is not."

YVR’s Recycling Alternative on-site food waste composter.

On-site composting technology
Recycling Alternative has most recently turned a large portion of its attention to food waste management. In 2015, Metro Vancouver officially introduced a ban on food waste to landfill. Prior to the ban, Weatherbe and Schwarz started looking around for technology that could provide a viable solution to businesses - one that could help them manage this very challenging, heavy and contaminated stream. 

"We use machines that are essentially compact, in-vessel food waste decomposers," explains Weatherbe. "The technology dehydrates material and turns it to compost, greatly reducing material volume in 24 hours.  "We now provide these machines, customized for our clients, to turn wet food waste into a dry residual, partially composted material. They are ideal for food courts in shopping centres, for example. One of our most successful installations is at YVR (Vancouver International Airport), the first North American airport to introduce this technology."   

He continues, "When we started out in food waste, we realized that contamination levels were really high in programs where consumers were left to sort waste themselves. We have since developed hosted sort station programs for food courts, where food waste is separated by an organization's custodial staff instead of the actual consumers. Once we did that, some of our food-court clients went from 25 percent diversion up to 90 percent, which is dramatic." 

He says by installing their food waste composting machine, the volumes on-site that need to be collected and removed from the business are dramatically reduced. Material is dried into an inert product, eliminating odour, fruit flies, maggots and other problems, and the output can be utilized for landscaping and other composting applications. As the material is dehydrated, it becomes densified. It can be stored for longer periods of time and be efficiently transported to a composting site if needed. Moisture is exhausted through a venting system and the machines have a built-in bio-filter to manage odour. 

"There's no water used in the system and no waste water is discharged into the sewer systems," explains Weatherbe. 

"These machines also handle contamination very well." Once material is dried and reduced, he says it is easy to manually pick out contamination, or it can easily be screened out. "ROI in most cases is less than three years," he adds. "And again, it's not just about the composting machine, it's also about the program that goes with it - the education of the staff." 

According to Schwarz, once large corporations and businesses start to deal with their food waste, they realize they can increase their diversion rates and save money on disposal and transport. She says the application of on-site systems such as theirs isn't just ideal for large, commercial generators of food waste such as food courts and airports.  

"Multi-unit residential buildings and high-rises, where residents are generating high-volumes of food waste, are ideal for this technology as well," she says.  Both Schwarz and Weatherbe agree that on-site waste processing technology is going to be a big trend for food waste management in the coming years - and they are very happy to be at the forefront of this development.

Waste sorting stations in the YVR international food court.

The case for Vancouver airport
Since October 2016, Recycling Alternative has been running an on-site composting program at Vancouver International Airport.   "We've established an entirely new sorting system for food waste at YVR's international food court," says Weatherbe. 

"Passengers, after they finish their meal, drop off their tray and YVR staff sort material into garbage waste destined for the landfill and food waste that goes into our on-site composter." 

Since the YVR program was started, Schwarz and Weatherbe estimate that there's been an 80 percent reduction in food waste to landfill from their international food court.  "This project has been a great success, and we need to keep expanding these kind of initiatives so that we can direct waste away from the landfill," says Weatherbe. "It is only going to become more and more important as the number of passengers that use the terminal increases." 

He says YVR plans to add two more machines in the near future, and the goal is to have all food waste managed on-site at YVR, with no food waste being sent off-site. 

"Instead of food waste having to be hauled to a composting facility, we're actually going to process it on site, for use on site," he says. "At YVR, what we want to do now is map out their whole waste material flow, for all of the location points of food generation, and see how we can implement a full on-site composting process - not using a windrow in the back lot somewhere, but actually inside the airport."  

He says YVR would be one of the first airports in North America that is fully composting internally, with multiple machines around the airport, and with no more food waste removed from the site. 

"Our system not only provides an 80 percent reduction of waste, and produces closed-loop compost which can be used for landscaping, it also means our clients such as YVR have less need to source fertilizers for their landscaping," adds Schwarz. "And the material being produced is extremely nutrient-rich. It's inert, pathogens are killed, and it's quality tested. It can be used for the landscaping on-site and there are no odour issues."

Recycling Alternative’s food waste composter in a multi-residential application.

A future in de-centralized food waste management 
When food scraps are sent to landfill they take up valuable space and break down over a long period of time, releasing huge amounts of methane gas.  "It essentially closes the loop on all of the nutrients they contain," comments Weatherbe. 

"Alternatively, by composting, we can loop those nutrients back through another cycle for growing more food. "When our machines have finished composting, if the resulting material is not being used on-site directly, we take the compost material out and send it to a local processing facility," he continues. 

"Once it's there, they'll mix it with other compost products to create agricultural-grade soil amendments as well as biofuel." 

Schwarz emphasizes another important factor that makes composting so important is that organics disposal rates continue to escalate, with major increases over the last few years. 

"Over the last two years the disposal cost for food waste has more than doubled, and is almost three times what it was in 2017," she says. "We have seen even higher increases in Calgary. The cost of dealing with food waste is going up rapidly." 

"To decrease these costs, we want to be able to provide our on-site systems in all kinds of locations - in food courts as well as multi-resident towers."  

Schwarz says whether organics are sent to landfill or a large centralized composting facility, one of the biggest benefits for any application of on-site composting is simply that it eliminates the need for hauling a very heavy material, often long distances. Recently, the commercial composter Harvest Power decided to close its composting site in Richmond, B.C., largely due to regulatory uncertainty around odour and other compliance issues. With this kind of large compost facility closure, combined with the region-wide ban on food waste to landfill, there is no reasonably located, cost-effective option for managing food waste, outside of on-site processing.  

"We can have these same conversations around what's happening with wood waste, or what's happening with plastics and fibre, now that markets have crumbled," says Schwarz. 

"For food waste, with large centralized models where waste needs to be transported an hour or more, out of urban areas, the carbon impact alone is significant. And these large facilities are having huge challenges with capacity and managing odour. Another local, large-scale facility in the area is run by GFL/Enviro-Smart. 

"They're in the middle of a large infrastructure development, and are spending millions of dollars to put the operation undercover so that they can continue to operate," says Schwarz.  "These are the challenges of dealing with food waste and organic materials. The cost to generators, compost processors and to the environment can be immense when using centralized models that require long-distance transportation of materials. 

"We have been looking for and implementing solutions for this stream now for many years," she continues. "On-site composting is an excellent, efficient solution. Going forward, businesses need to start thinking and acting on implementing these kinds of alternative solutions for food waste - and all waste generated by the IC&I sector. 

"The solutions are definitely available. It's a matter of spreading the word, educating the industry, changing the culture surrounding waste management and continuing to advance the transition away from our ‘throw-away' society. We are very happy to be part of it." RPN

This article was originally published in the April 2019 edition of Recycling Product News, Volume 27, Number 3.

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449 Industrial Ave.
Vancouver, BC
CA, V6A 2P8


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