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Early monday morning, the van with the WormWorX logo makes its way down Alberni Street. As a couple of men finish up their coffees at Thierry Chocolaterie’s outdoor tables, the driver, Vish Hour, manoeuvres to get as close to Thierry’s underground garbage receptacles as he can, making his way past the Smithrite Dumpster and the nine blue bins lined up for paper, plastic, metal, and glass. In less than 20 minutes, Hour, a former fitness trainer with a shaved head and legs that look like they could still do an Ironman, wrestles five green bins to the van, the heaviest of them piled with Thierry’s coffee grounds, and replaces them with washed bins lined with a compostable plastic liner. It’s one of about a dozen stops on his pickup route this week, which includes the Chinatown restaurant Bao Bei, Nook in Kitsilano, and a couple of 40-unit condo buildings near Main Street.
By Wednesday, Hour, owner of this fledgling business, has accumulated just over a tonne of rotting food in his Mount Pleasant storage. He reloads his bins and heads for the southeast corner of Richmond. There, squeezed between farms, Highway 91, and the south arm of the Fraser River, is Harvest Power, the region’s biggest food-scraps recycler. He tips his 140-litre green bins, one after the other, onto the concrete floor of its giant collection shed. “It’s smelling good today,” he says with a laugh to plant managers Joe Canning and Suzanne Kennedy. Later that day, a front-end loader will shovel the fermenting heap — steak remnants, orange peels, oil-soaked paper towels — into an underground tunnel where it will sit for two weeks, exuding methane gas that will become, through a process straight from a diagram in an engineering textbook, power sold to the province’s electrical grid via a transformer on the edge of the property. The de-methaned remainders will become commercial compost.
Hour, 42, decided six years ago recycling had a better future than fitness. At first, he just did restaurant bottle collection. But in 2012, he moved into food-scraps recycling and sales of worms for composting. He’s slowly building up the scraps business. At $10 to $15 per bin pickup, he’s hoping to get to $20,000 a month, enough to keep him, his wife, and three employees — plus the trucks — going. “When you look at the top 100 businesses that are the most profitable, the garbage haulers tend to be at the top,” says Hour, who arrived from Cambodia 34 years ago and has run a number of businesses since he worked his way through a degree in geography at McMaster in his 20s. “Usually, it’s hard for small people to get into the market. Except these last years, when there’s this opening for us. I’m hoping I can carve out a niche market to service the small and medium accounts. Maybe the other guys don’t want to pick up one tote at $13 a week.”
That’s the plan, anyway, if he can survive the tumult of the local garbage revolution. Because the science of solid waste is going through such a dramatic transformation, governments, in turn, are remaking the rules. Hour is competing in a new game with very big money and some giant corporate, environmental, and political interests at play. The trash factions in the Lower Mainland are fighting with particular vigour to protect the old systems and capture new ones, in the face of Metro Vancouver’s game-altering plan to ban organics from landfills by January 2015, stop private haulers from taking waste out of the region, and develop a new waste-to-energy facility.
For millenniums, trash ended up mostly in big holes near major settlements, valueless except to future archaeologists. Or it was burned in open fires before anyone even knew how to spell “particulate.” Then in the 20th century, the great leap forward: no to open burning; yes to recycling the simple stuff like glass and tin cans and paper. And when residents became as unenthusiastic about dumps as they were about nuclear-power stations, when landfills made a mess of everything, leaching chemicals and belching methane, cities started to recognize they needed alternatives. Today there are multiple choices — incineration, incineration that generates energy, plasma-arc gasification, single-stream recycling, source- separated recycling, good old landfilling with new gadgets attached — and innovations are arriving every day. Everyone is fighting for a share, because garbage has become a river of gold filled with riches for those willing to sift it.
“I’ve been in this industry for many years,” says Tom Loewen, the B.C. manager for Progressive Waste Solutions (formerly BFI), the multinational that has become a major Canadian player. “It has significantly changed to looking at what goes into the truck as a resource. As time goes by, that value will increase.” Progressive — with 2013 Canadian revenues of $770 million — is one of the big players in a business estimated to be worth over $55 billion in the U.S., perhaps as much as a billion here in B.C.
Progressive built its business on the old landfill system. There are several others in B.C.: North West Waste Solutions and Smithrite and Waste Management and Belkorp. They’re moving fast (some faster than others) to develop new systems to respond to the surprising success of recycling. Some among them have also been pushing hard to build what are called MRFs, materials recycling facilities that take trash with everything mixed together, with the promise that ever-improving technology will make it possible to mechanically separate an increasing proportion of recyclable material. Those companies are betting that most of us — especially those in offices, stores, condos, apartments, parks, businesses, stadiums, movie theatres, at rock festivals, and everywhere but single-family houses — aren’t willing to get our hands dirty. Or even willing to figure out the sorting system. After all, only a quarter of people living in the region’s condos and apartments recycle even the dry stuff, which is the easiest to manage. Loewen and others in the big businesses make the case that everyone’s better off letting them figure out the sorting after the garbage has been dumped. The best case for what they believe most businesses and residents can handle: separating wet from dry.
At odds with them is the industry sprouting on top of Metro’s recycling policies, which banned dry recyclables from regular garbage years ago and is moving toward the ban on organics. They range from little start-ups like Hour’s WormWorX to Harvest Power, the U.S.-based company that invested a reported $20 million in the Richmond plant, to the numerous cardboard, glass, electronics, metal, and paper recyclers now operating in the region. Their world is built on the premise that eventually all humans can be trained to sort their garbage into clean, separate, orderly piles that make recycling relatively easy. No need for multimillion-dollar sorting plants; all of us collectively can do the sorting. We’re at 58 percent diversion now. Zero-waste paradise is nigh.
There’s a pile of money to be made, whichever way it goes. Take one average condo development. The NewPort on Vancouver’s Main Street — a four-storey complex with 164 units — pays between $1,900 and $2,200 a month to have its loads of mixed trash and dry recyclables taken away. Vancouver has 5,700 multi-unit buildings with nearly 175,000 condo and apartment units in total. That’s $28 million a year, just from the Vancouver multi-family dwellers. Then there’s the rest of the region and all the restaurants, stores, offices, and businesses that also have to comply with the organics-separation requirement by 2015. At the moment, haulers have to pay $108 a tonne to dump in a Metro Vancouver landfill or $50 to $65 a tonne to dump food scraps at places like Harvest — or, according to Metro Vancouver officials, $75 a tonne for haulers who just take truckloads of mixed trash out of the district and ship it off to a private landfill. Business is based on the gap between what we all pay to have our garbage taken away (much more than the tipping fee), what it costs the haulers to get rid of it, and, increasingly, what value they can get out by turning it into electricity, plastic milk jugs, and recycled paper.
People in the Lower Mainland put 1.8 million tonnes of their trash into recycling bins and boxes every year — an enviable amount. But there’s another 1.3 million tonnes that still gets dumped, willy-nilly, into landfills or the region’s one existing incinerator in Burnaby. Diamonds in the rough.
Most businesses won’t provide dollar figures on what they’re making in the garbage trade. But you can tell how big a deal it is, says one insider, by looking at the money they’re spending on lobbyists, consultants, and public-relations strategists. Cynthia Shore Burton, well connected to the B.C. Liberals, has been hired to lobby for Rabanco, the American company that owns a Washington landfill where Metro Vancouver suspects much of the 100,000 tonnes of garbage leaving its borders is going. It’s this kind of outflow that Metro Vancouver, through its proposed Bylaw 280, is trying to stop. Former B.C. Liberal solicitor-general John Les, along with two others, is lobbying for Belkorp, which is dead set against Metro’s incinerator proposal and its refusal to allow the single-stream recycling plant the company wants to build in Coquitlam. Former Liberal pollster Dimitri Pantazopoulos is lobbying for Progressive, which also opposes the incinerator and Bylaw 280. And political strategist Brad Zubyk is lobbying for Urban Impact, one of the local companies that has flourished in recent years because of Metro’s moves to push recycling.
Environment Minister Mary Polak, who is supposed to give a decision this fall on whether Bylaw 280 can be enacted, officially has no comment. But sources say she considers this her most difficult file, more contentious than pipelines. (Although the Mount Polley tailings-pond disaster may have boosted mining regulation to an unwelcome first place.) She’s caught between a constellation of groups — the incinerator builders, the landfill and single-stream recycling advocates, the source-separating tribe — each saying that millions of potential investment dollars and hundreds of jobs are at stake while accusing each other of lying, misrepresentation, and bad faith. (To add to the confusion, there are different alliances on each issue. Some environmental advocates are anti-landfill, pro-incinerator; others are anti-landfill, anti-incinerator. Vancouver is anti-incinerator, pro-gasification, pro-maximum recycling, pro-Bylaw 280, but also in favour of the limited use of mixed-waste recycling. The source-separation advocates are pro-Bylaw 280, anti-incinerator, anti-mixed-waste recycling.)
Progressive, Belkorp, and their band argue that Bylaw 280 is heavy-handed social engineering, that it’s going to drive up the price of garbage removal, that Metro is just trying to create a captive market for its (badly thought out) incinerator to generate the money for its bloated staff payroll, that it’s stifling capitalist creativity by not allowing companies to experiment with new ways of mechanically sorting and recycling mixed trash. “Our whole effort is going to innovation for scalable models,” says Progressive’s Loewen. “What Metro is doing is just anti-business.”
On the other side, Polak has Metro Vancouver forcefully pounding on her door. Board chair Greg Moore, the tough-talking mayor of Port Coquitlam, argues big haulers are just trying to preserve their right to keep dumping mostly unrecycled trash in the cheapest place possible. Sitting in a room at Harvest Power, he’s adamant that Metro is going to do whatever it can to enforce new ground rules so that the new recycling ecosystem can flourish.
Moore, a strapping guy faintly reminiscent of Bruce Willis, is so riled up about this particular file that he’s taken on the smallest fights. The Port Coquitlam Chamber of Commerce convinces the local Earls that it will face terrible increases for garbage hauling if Metro’s bylaw is passed? Moore has someone go talk to Earls management, showing how once the restaurant starts recycling its food scraps, its waste bill will go down. The B.C. Chamber of Commerce comes out against Bylaw 280? Moore Tweets, challenging it to reveal which chambers actually voted in favour of that stance. The big companies say Metro is just anti-business? They’re only trying to protect their profits, he says. “Follow the money. That’s what this fight is about.”