Garbage In, Profit Out: Our yearly look at sustainability on Vancouver Island

    How the circular economy fights to keep products out of the landfill — and may just be the best way to grow business on Vancouver Island.

    Garbage in, profit out - Douglas Magazine Dec/Jan 2022 2023
    Georgia Lavender (right), chats with Sydney Munk, owner of Grove Outdoors, a consignment store that upcycles active gear that would otherwise be discarded. It's a good example of the type of circular economy encouraged by Lavender, the director of operations for the Synergy Foundation, through Project Zero, an initiative that is all about jobs, innovation and keeping garbage out of the landfill. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

    Joe Perry and Andrew Smith are a couple of jocks with an entrepreneurial itch to scratch. The two friends started their respective hockey and football careers where they grew up, in Nanaimo, before eventually going pro.

    Perry was a speedy forward whose last stop before retirement was with the Orlando Solar Bears, which was part of the now defunct East Coast Hockey League. Smith, a slotback, played for the Vancouver Island Raiders and the University of Manitoba, then was drafted by the Montreal Alouettes, where he spent one year before hanging up his cleats.

    Then, after they both moved back to Nanaimo, came real life, family and real jobs. But they also started batting around business ideas that they could pursue together. Two years ago they landed on one that emanated from a place they knew well — the sweaty, testosterone-fueled environment of the locker room.

    “We knew how much sports tape gets used and how it all ends up in the garbage,” Perry explains.

    They started researching and learned that it’s possible to make sports tape out of fully biodegradable bamboo fibre, a relatively green alternative to the conventional cotton-based tape. Their startup company, Sully’s Sports Tape, was born and the budding entrepreneurs were in the thick of planning when Perry says an ad for Project Zero popped up on his Instagram feed.

    Victoria-based Project Zero is a Synergy Foundation initiative aimed at growing the circular economy in British Columbia. The circular economy is a model of production and economy based on reusing, refurbishing and upcycling existing products to keep them in the economy for as long as possible and out of the landfill.

    A key part of what Project Zero does is offer an eight-month incubator program for innovators and entrepreneurs with an idea that will help grow the circular economy. Previous business experience isn’t a requirement — just a saleable idea and a sincere commitment. Perry and Smith have both. 

    Waste as Resource

    Even if Sully’s Sports Tape eventually becomes a thriving enterprise that shakes up Canada’s sports tape market, this two-man shop would only be able to keep a tiny, incremental amount of stuff out of the landfill. But every increment counts in the circular economy. 

    By any yardstick, humans planetwide remain consumer-driven and wasteful. Planned obsolescence — designing a product with an artificially limited useful life — has become the unspoken policy of manufacturers of everything from smart phones to fridges. Recycling helps. But some critics see recycling as a shallow salve for a consumer’s or business’s guilty conscience that doesn’t require any change in purchasing or manufacturing behaviour. 

    In theory, recycling redirects plastics, paper, packaging, glass and cans out of the landfill, and B.C. has made big inroads since the province enacted legislation to create the non-profit organization Recycle BC to co-ordinate efforts.

    Garbage in, profit out - Douglas Magazine Dec/Jan 2022 2023Today more than 1,200 businesses offer financial support to a program that sees 157 communities and more than 95 per cent of British Columbians recycling 186,000 tonnes of materials annually. That includes companies like Richmond-based Metalex Lead Recycling, which smelts lead recovered from used batteries, and Merlin Plastics, which grinds recycled plastic into pellets that can be used to make new plastic products. 

    But recycling is far from a waste-reduction silver bullet. According to Statistics Canada and a study by Deloitte and Cheminfo Services, 87 per cent of plastics used by Canadians ends up in the landfill, and 12 per cent of recycled plastics are shipped overseas for processing.

    That’s why circular economists say we need to do much more than plunking blue boxes in front of homes and businesses and start viewing waste as a resource. There’s massive potential for growth, according to a 2022 study called the Circular Gap Report.

    Research showed that, globally, more than 91 per cent of all products made by humans end their lives in greenhouse-gas-emitting, land-consuming garbage dumps. Furthermore, it’s estimated that the circular economy could recover US$4.5 trillion in otherwise wasted resources by 2030.

    Constructive Cleanup

    The circular economy is a buzzword on Vancouver Island these days, but there’s also some policy to back up the talk. In December 2020, the City of Victoria adopted Zero Waste Victoria, which aims to cut waste disposal in half by 2040. The plan comes with some concrete actions that target single-use products (plastic forks, for example), the city’s own solid wastes services and construction waste, which accounts for more than a third of landfilled material. 

    In June the city introduced a bylaw that will charge companies $19,500 for a demolition permit, but with a catch: If a construction company salvages at least 40 kilograms of wood per above-ground square metre of floor area during construction, it gets all the money back. City staff began phasing in the new bylaw in September. By the time it’s fully rolled out in 2025, when it will apply to all demos of houses and duplexes built before 1960, an estimated 3,000 tonnes of construction material will be diverted from the landfill annually. 

    In a companion effort, in September the Vancouver Island Green Business Collective launched a program to help grocery stores redirect food waste to animal feed and other uses. Grocery stores generate up to 300 tonnes annually of food waste, the second biggest landfill contributor.

    Last fall, the city collected feedback from residents and businesses on how best to reduce reliance on single-use items and is now developing a bylaw that will require food businesses to only hand out utensils, stir sticks and straws on request, and to use only reusable products for dine-in service. There will also be a 25-cent fee for disposable cups and containers.

    Zero Waste Victoria has also committed to improving the city’s solid waste collection services. (A recent change now allows homeowners to put garden waste in their green bins, for instance.) 

    At the same time, the Capital Regional District (CRD) is doing what it can to avoid the publicly unpopular possibility of having to expand the Hartland Landfill. In its new Solid Waste Management Plan, approved by the province in 2021, the CRD plans to reduce the per capita waste disposal rate from the current 400 kilograms per capita per year to 250 kilograms by 2030, with a long-term “aspirational” target of 125 kilograms.

    Under its Reduce & Reuse program, the CRD funded 10 non-profit reuse organizations to the tune of $86,000 in 2021, and also diverted 22,000 tonnes of reusable items, such as bikes, appliances and textiles to five non-profits. Under an agreement with Recycle BC, the CRD now provides curbside recycling to more than 130,000 single-family dwellings in the Greater Victoria area. 

    These are just a few of the efforts underway to reduce per capita waste disposal that at current levels would make landfill expansion into the surrounding Mount Work area inevitable, something rigorously opposed by citizen groups like the Mount Work Coalition. From what remains in the landfill, the CRD is capturing methane gas — a powerful greenhouse gas that is a byproduct of organic decomposition — and burning it to produce enough electricity to power 1,600 homes. 

    Garbage in, profit out - Douglas Magazine Dec/Jan 2022 2023
    Construction waste is one of the biggest contributors to landfills. Unbuilders is a Victoria demolition company that carefully deconstructs houses layer by layer, salvaging as much of the materials as possible.
    Photo By: James MacDonald.

    Startup Potential

    Despite political and organizational commitments to zero waste, former Victoria city councillor and CRD chair Jeremy Loveday thought there was something critical missing in the discussion — a commitment to the circular economy in Victoria 3.0, the city’s economic development road map to the year 2041, dubbed “Pivoting to a Higher-Value Economy.” In August, while still on council, Loveday introduced a motion that commits to making Victoria a national leader in the circular economy. Council unanimously adopted the motion.

    “It adds circular economy language to Victoria 3.0. My motion ensures everything in the plan will be looked at through a circular economy lens,” Loveday told Douglas magazine during the recent municipal election campaign.

    This is a topic dear to Loveday. He’s near to completing an MBA with a focus on the circular economy. When asked by Douglas magazine what, exactly, his motion could do to help budding circular economy entrepreneurs, Loveday focused on his dream of establishing a zero-waste demonstration site.

    “I’ve heard from a lot of businesses and individuals that they have problems accessing the waste stream. A demonstration site is one way some of these entrepreneurs could access material,” he says.

    But perhaps even more important is what the city can do to make light industrial space available — and affordable — for the small startups that will lead the way in the circular economy.

    Having appropriately zoned land and making sure it’s incorporated in the Arts and Innovation District envisioned for the Rock Bay neighbourhood is important, says Loveday, but so is affordability.

    One idea is supporting the creation of a shared workspace for circular economy entrepreneurs. It’s blue-sky thinking at this point, but Loveday believes the city could offer support in several ways: by looking at its own inventory of land holdings that could be put to such a purpose and providing core funding.

    “The city can’t fund individual businesses, [but] it could help fund a non-profit model,” he says.

    Georgia Lavender, director of operations for the Synergy Foundation, says when the organization launched Project Zero in 2019, the term circular economy was still somewhat obscure, a topic being bandied about by sustainability and economic development nerds. Four years later, it’s gone mainstream.

    Any city that wants to chart a progressive course into the future is at least talking about the circular economy, zero waste, doughnut economics or whatever you want to call it. The planet can’t sustain a throwaway society. 

    Lavender says it’s much more than avoiding landfill expansion; it’s about local jobs, innovation and tapping into the economic potential of a vast treasure of stuff that gets tossed into the dumpster or collected as recycling and shipped to the Lower Mainland for processing. 

    In its first incubator intake, Project Zero received 18 applications and accepted seven entrepreneurs. This year, there were more than 40 applicants, with 17 accepted into the program, including Andrew Smith and Joe Perry, the Nanaimo athletes behind Sully’s Sports Tape, and Timber Tiles, a Port Alberni-based business that turns wood waste from a local Western Forest Products’ mill into designer tiles for homes.

    Lavender is excited by the idea of a demonstration site. Vancouver is steps ahead of Victoria on this front and is moving forward with a zero-waste hub on an acre of industrial land in the city’s south end, where entrepreneurs will be able to pilot zero-waste technologies without going broke paying the rent.

    Lavender says affordability, whether for land or commercial leases, is by far the biggest barrier for circular economy entrepreneurs in Victoria. She says it’s early days in terms of addressing this challenge, but hopes Loveday’s circular economy motion will move the needle. 

    Disrupting the System

    In the meantime, innovators have to get creative. While working at Mountain Equipment Co-op in Victoria, Nicholas Courval spotted an opportunity to start a gear repair company. “Stuff was being shipped to Vancouver for repairs and there were some things the repair company wouldn’t deal with,” he explains.

    In February 2021, he bought an industrial sewing machine with then-business partner Alex Walsh-Piedrahita and launched Basecamp Repairs to fix tents, backpacks and other gear from a home-based shop.

    They were soon getting a steady stream of referrals from longtime downtown retailer Robinson’s Outdoor Store, Arc’teryx Victoria and other gear stores. His partner has since moved on to other pursuits; meanwhile, Courval needed to get out of his home and into a bigger space so he teamed up with another Project Zero graduate, Meaghan McDonald of Salt Legacy, an upcycling company that makes stylish bags and backpacks from old sailcloth (see story on page 46),  to lease a 760-square-foot workshop in Rock Bay Square.

    “Rents and leases are pretty tough in Victoria. At $1,600 per month, this space is the lowest lease rate we could find,” Courval says. “We found it because Meaghan was on the waiting list for two years.”

    Perhaps the greatest promise of the circular economy is the power to disrupt conventional ways of manufacturing, to capture value from waste and eventually maybe even eliminate the word “waste” from the conversation.

    Disruption is what Duncan’s Ergo Eco Solutions is all about. Company founder Brian Roberts has had a varied career in government, teaching at Vancouver Island University and working as an environmental consultant. Making biodiesel — fuel from used cooking oil — was one of his personal passions, something he did off the side of his desk and as a member of the Cowichan Bio Diesel Co-op. In 2017, he decided to get serious about it and started Ergo Eco Solutions. Two years later, he doubled down on the enterprise when he applied successfully for Project Zero’s inaugural incubator program.

    Conventionally, used cooking oil is a liability for restaurants. They have to pay a reduction company to collect the oil, most of which gets shipped and sold to offshore manufacturers in China and elsewhere, which then use it to make perfume and other products. 

    Roberts came to the table with a different model. Depending on volume, his company either pays restaurants or, at the very minimum, collects their used cooking oil at no charge. Today, Ergo Eco Solutions has a staff of 10, including a chemist and engineer who tinker in a lab looking for new applications and uses. The company makes biodiesel and a release agent used in the concrete industry, and is also innovating in agricultural, asphalt and other sectors. 

    Roberts calls it an intensely competitive market and declined to give specifics about new product developments. But business is growing and Ergo Eco Solutions will be moving into a new Mill Bay space, part of a joint venture with the Malahat First Nation, once construction is complete. Roberts couldn’t give a date for the move, but says it will be a crucial step for the company as it scales up.

    “We were a major disruptor. Rendering companies were charging restaurants to take the used oil,” he says.

    Roberts admits some feathers have been ruffled. Sometimes change is hard. But the circular economy is all about changing how we look at and deal with waste.

    Full Circle

    For Perry and Smith of Sully’s Sports Tape, inspiration came from decades of tossing used sports tape into the garbage can. An idea is one thing; turning it into something people will buy is another matter altogether. When Project Zero accepted them into the incubator, the timing was right.

    “We both work 40 hours a week [Perry at a Western Forest Products sawmill and Smith for the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation‘s oil spill response facility], so we’re working on this after hours and on weekends, trying to balance work and family,” Smith says.

    For the past eight months, they’ve had access to business mentors and experts in the fields of law, accounting, marketing and business planning through monthly meetings. At the end of the program, they’ll get to test drive an investment pitch to prepare for a time when they might want to start angling for financing to help scale their business. Best of all, the Project Zero program doesn’t cost them a penny to participate.

    According to Smith, they’ve been stalled for a while at product testing, working with a China-based supplier, and their long-range goal is to shift to a domestic manufacturer. Even so, he says, “We’re pretty close to getting a product that we’re satisfied with.”

    And when they do eventually sell their first rolls of bamboo sports tape, an idea hatched in a lifetime of locker rooms will have come full circle.