If one person’s waste is another’s treasure, then there is a revolution happening under-foot. The resurgence and continued uptake of composting at home and in the workplace, has been pushed to the forefront of daily conversation on much of Southern Vancouver Island due to the continued Herculean efforts of social business entrepreneurs like Jason Adams, founder and owner-operator of reFUSE Resource Recovery and Nadine Collison, executive director of the Greater Victoria Compost Education Centre. Both are influential members within the burgeoning environmental community, with a common vision and love for what gardeners affectionately call Black Gold.
Adams hails from Ottawa and arrived here in the late 1990s, to a wonderful west coast oasis, the way most twenty-somethings do in Victoria, to attend the University of Victoria. As part of the business degree requirements, all commerce students must apply their classroom skills to the business world through a co-operative education work term. So after taking a keen research interest in waste, not as refuse but instead as a source or revenue generation, he became sold on the idea that this was the optimal career path for him to follow. Having seen a poster for the Rubbish Boys, the forerunner to 1-800 Got Junk, he applied and got a co-op term with this unique company. His hard work would soon reap many dividends, by establishing a name for the company and himself for being leaders in green business around Southern Vancouver Island. Adams’ graduated in 1999, having received his BBA from the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria.
After graduation, Adams’ next career step took him to ETL (Environment Technology Limited), a goliath at the time within the paper recycling industry, he explains, “they were very technologically advanced- they had significant infrastructure in their plans; so they were buying this company- so they hired me to run it and integrate it with the bigger company.” So after integrating Penner Recycling, the local ‘ma & pa’, into the larger Canada-wide management structure for the company, he began to tire of working for other successful companies, realizing he had the skills to start his own small business. So by the time ETL laid Adams off, sensing the winds of change within the management structure of the company (ETL was sold to Metro Materials Recovery), he utilized his ace in the hole, a plan to register his dream venture ReFUSE with the BC provincial registry office in 2000/2001.
ReFUSE would be structured to access a previously untapped market, of residential and commercial food wastes, “I came to see the economies of waste and the stuff as a commodity really. There was some serious dough to be made.” Making the papers wasn’t easy in the beginning explains Adams, while sitting in his office. The office is located in a brand new waste transfer station, just on the outskirts of downtown Victoria; It is a bristling operation, as his employees struggle to keep on top of the mountainous volumes of various: hard and soft plastics, Styrofoam and organic food wastes that arrive frequently throughout the business day. Sitting across from each other in two leather commander chairs within his new warehouse facility; which acts as a transfer station for not only food waste but also for a multitude of different plastics, which is a recent addition to the array of services offered to reFUSE customers.
Kicking back in the office, with a faint aroma hanging in the air, which I presume is the smell of money being made in Adam’s industry, it is easy to see, that he is at a good place in his life. Half-jokingly he points towards a hulking black IBM laptop, that is presumably from the turn of the century, that in addition to an $11,000 used-garbage truck were his only two items of capital infrastructure in those early days, where he had few clients and many problems ranging from odors to unsatisfied customers, “ when we started out with a garbage truck that would dump them [the bins] and we would drive away and leave the bins dirty. You learn pretty quickly that isn’t something that you can sustain, so rather than let a competitor offer it, we really wanted to jump to where a mature industry will finish.” Flash forward from 2001 to 2011 and the differences are stark, when compared against those early days, the addition of new and hi-tech equipment like the Styrofoam compactor has helped to streamline business operations and reduce overhead.
The Styrofoam compactor can crush that menacing substance at a 50:1 reduction ratio thereby reducing the frequency and the cost of shipping to a processing facility in eastern Canada. The delivery and pick-up fleet for organic and plastics, has also gone through growing pains; the numerous fleet vehicles- of varying sizes run on bio-diesel that is obtained from a local company ReDux. This bio-diesel though, will soon be phased out, to be replaced with cooking oil collected by reFUSE from customers and then re-engineered into a more sustainable and local fuel by their business partners up island at the Cowichan Bio-Diesel Co-op. This group operates through cooking oil to fuel conversion business venture within the Cowichan Regional District-Waste Transfer Facility.
Recent infrastructure upgrades have also helped to push reFUSE to the forefront of the waste management industry, now as a major player within this blossoming industry, they see a zero waste as a possibility within the near future. Their impact is huge when I ask Adams if he keeps track of all the wastes that are processed at their In Vessel processing plant in Cobble Hill, he nods his head empathically, explaining, that his company will process up to 4500 metric tones of food waste this year. This is enough compost to fill one hundred and sixty 53 ft. tractor-trailers. Stunning! Innovation by necessity is how Jason has kept ahead of his competitors for the past decade. Looking at ReFuse’s business strategy in this light, helps to explain the reason behind adding a bicycle powered organic waste collection service. This division of the company is aptly called ReCyclists and is a partnership between Cowichan ReCyclists and the Downtown Victoria Business Association; the prior organization provides ReFuse with infrastructure and the latter helps with volunteer staffing. Similar to Adams’ outreach approach to build his business, by offering better services to community members, is Nadine Collison’s approach to running her own enterprising non-profit organization the Greater Victoria Compost Education Centre. This registered charity, is the premiere source of information on how to make your own compost, if you are more inclined to adopt a DIY approach then hire a collection service to deal with your organic wastes.