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Recycling at work - Torontos dirty secret - Globe and Mail

September 22, 1997
Peter Cheny
Globe and Mail

At Vellend Tech Canada, an Etobicoke distributor of bicycles and clothing for endurance athletes, you enter a universe of health and pollution-free activity. Warranty manager Darren Duke commutes to work nearly 40 kilometers a day year-round on a mountain bike and has never owned a car. Warehouse chief Pierre Perrin spends his weekends racing cross-country on a cyclocross bike.

Despite its focus on clean living, Vellend Tech has a dirty little secret. Venture out back, past the bicycles and running jackets, and you'll find a steel trash container filled with everything from food scraps to cardboard to glass bottles to broken bike frames. There isn't a blue bin in sight.

It's true: Vellend Tech doesn't recycle. "I know it isn't right," co-owner Rob Vellend says. "But this is the way it's always been."

The company is far from alone in its old-school approach to taking out the trash. Recycling experts say there are thousands of companies in the Greater Toronto Area that do absolutely no recycling- instead, every piece of waste they produce goes into a landfill site. In 2005, the last year for which figures are available, the amount was estimated at up to 10 million tonnes.

"It's disgusting," says Franz Hartmann, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, which is pushing for tough new rules that would force companies to recycle. "And it's costing us all," he adds. "That garbage has to go somewhere."

Although most Torontonians have made recycling a part of their daily routine, many behave far differently at work. The staff at Vellend Tech, for example, all recycle at home, but have become accustomed to throwing everything into one container at the office. "It's pretty gross, when you think about it," Mr. Perrin says.

Over the past 15 years, city-led efforts like the blue- and green-bin initiatives have diverted up to 40 per cent of Toronto's household waste into recycling programs. But for industry, it's a different story - recycling industry experts estimate that more than 80 per cent of the waste produced by small- and medium-sized businesses goes straight into landfills.

"It's not a pretty picture," says Joanne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario.

The challenges to waste management include bureaucracy and architecture. Although large companies (including those with a floor area over 5,000 square meters, and restaurants with annual sales of more than $3-million) are required to develop a waste diversion plan under
guidelines developed by the provincial Ministry of the Environment, smaller firms don't have to do anything.

"It's really up to them," MOE spokesman John Steele says. "There's no statutory requirement."

In many downtown Toronto buildings, recycling is complicated by the fact that the structures were never designed for it. (And the problem isn't confined to commercial buildings - in high-rise apartment buildings, recycling rates average just 13 per cent.) In the downtown core, recycling can be particularly tough. At Stollery's, a classic men's wear shop that has done business at the corner of Yonge and Bloor for more than a hundred years, a downstairs showroom has been converted to a recycling area where staff collect cardboard, glass and aluminum cans for pickup. At Morningstar, a jam-packed furniture store farther south on Yonge Street, staff deal with the lack of recycling facilities by taking cardboard and glass home with them to put in their blue bins.

"I know it sounds crazy," store manager Roula Routsis says. "But I can't stand to see it go in the garbage."

Commercial garbage is governed by a complex set of rules imposed by the city and the province. Small businesses have two options for trash collection: They can get the city to pick it up using the yellow bag program (they must buy special bags from City Hall) or pay a commercial hauler to give them a bin.

The program includes a clear incentive for recycling: Every yellow bag costs $3.10, but recycling is taken away free.

"It works really well," says Geoff Rathbone, head of Toronto's solid waste management division. Unfortunately, most businesses don't use the program, which is restricted to companies that occupy less than 500 square meters and four storeys. There are about 90,000 businesses in the GTA, but only about 20,000 use yellow bags. The rest must pay for pickup by private waste contractors.

Vellend Tech, located in an industrial mall near Kipling and the Queensway, is typical. The company pays $226 a month for a four-cubic-yard bin to be picked up every week by Waste Management Inc., North America's largest private waste-collection firm. Although WMI does offer recycling services, they cost extra. And until this week, when a visitor examined the company's paperwork and noticed that their WMI bill mentioned recycling, Mr. Vellend had no idea that the service was even available. No one from WMI, the city or the Ministry of the Environment had ever contacted him, and since his neighbors in the industrial mall use single bins,
he assumed that was the state of waste-collection art. "I've never seen anyone else recycling out here," Mr. Vellend says. "It all just goes into the bin."

Private waste-collection companies have turned garbage into a huge business. WMI had North American revenues of more than $13-billion last year. Although the company stresses environmentalism (a message on its phone says, "We think green every day!"), it is driven by profit - unless a customer is prepared to pay for recycling, they won't get it. "It's not up to us to create the incentive," says WMI spokesman Wes Muir. "We're a business."

But private waste collection is not incompatible with environmental righteousness. Many large companies, working in tandem with private waste haulers like WMI, have become model recyclers. The Ford Motor Co. of Canada's Oakville plant, for example, reportedly recycles up to 90 per cent of its waste. First Canadian Place, one of Canada's largest office buildings, has achieved a similar rate.

Mr. Muir of WMI says his company offers consulting services that can help companies dramatically reduce the amount of material that goes in the trash. The service is driven both by a desire to be seen as a good corporate citizen and by profit (rising prices have turned recyclable materials into a valued commodity).

Environmental activists believe that streamlined rules, tougher enforcement and education could make a huge difference in the amount of waste sent to landfills by small and medium-sized companies. "No one's taking charge of this," Mr. Hartmann says. "If people realized how much unnecessary waste was going into landfills, they'd be outraged."

Ms. St. Godard of the RCO agrees: "There's no real enforcement right now. And a lot of companies have no idea what they should be doing.

"Large companies want to be seen as environmental leaders, but for small companies, there's no real incentive. That has to change."

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