The Journey to 90 Percent Recycling at Quayside Village

Brian Burke, Quayside, North Vancouver, British Columbia

The Quayside community recently won the annual Environmental Stewardship Award given by the City of North Vancouver. Says Brian, “Seizing the opportunity to impress the city council with Quayside’s efforts toward Zero Waste, the Quayside kids took bags of what we recycle—and what the city at present does not, such as three kinds of Styrofoam and meat bones—along to receive the award at City Hall. We struck up a chorus to the tune of ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ with the words ‘Zero waste we say, in thirty different ways, reduce, reuse, recycle, rejoice, you can start today.’” –DLW

What happens when an aging hippie who got arrested protecting the last of the Canadian rain forest meets an irrepressibly positive grandmother and former shop steward? Well, for one thing, you’ve got a recycling problem!

When Carol McQuarrie and I first met seven years ago, I was looking for a new, environmentally friendly community to buy into and she was one of the original Three Blind Mice, a trio of single almost-grandmothers who didn’t want to grow old and lonely in their empty nests. They had an idea for creating a friendly, supportive neighborhood, and by the time I met them, five other families had bought into their crazy idea. They had plunged their savings into hiring the cohousing consultants Community Dream Creators.

At those first dream-creating meetings, often at Carol’s old heritage house, I noticed that her blue recycling box on the back porch wasn’t used all that often and there was no compost out in the yard. My mission was to change that kind of behavior. I asked the emerging community if they were willing to adopt a goal of diverting 90 percent of its waste into recycling. Perhaps they were overly influenced by the desire for more members, but they said yes and I joined the community.

A year later, our cohousing consultant was on the front cover of the local newspaper, pictured standing on our beautiful urban site that overlooks Vancouver Harbour, the Pacific Ocean, and the snow-capped North Shore Mountains. Downtown Vancouver was only a ten-minute ferry commute away. What a location!

The recycling program was already well underway during construction. The first step was to demolish three houses on the site, and based on my two years of experience in the recycling industry, I instituted an extensive demolition salvage-sale and recycling program. During construction, 51 percent of all material was recycled—the highest level ever achieved in the Greater Vancouver area. Wood, cardboard, paper, metal, Styrofoam, soft and rigid plastics, beverage containers—all were separated. Lunch leftovers were composted off-site and even all the old concrete foundation material ended up in the harbour as fill for the new cruise ship terminal.

By the next summer, that excavated site had been transformed into Quayside and we began to move in. Quayside inherited the contractor’s supply of garbage cans, which ended up in the parkade. This fleet of carts and bins holds both the materials picked up by the city as well as twenty-two other materials to sort, all of which I load into my van every month and take to a number of recycling facilities across the city.

“I’ll never get the hang of this,” Carol would cheerfully report in those early days, but I was determined to prove her wrong.

Challenges

At move-in, Quayside was halfway to our goal at 50 percent diversion, thanks to community members such as Kathy McGrenera, super single mother. Her daughter, Elise, became the first member of the day-care operation that had been Kathy’s dream to open in cohousing. Kathy was soon seen squinting over recycling bins separating items too small for normal people to see. “You know,” she giggled at one point, “once you get started on this, it’s hard to stop!”

But we faced other challenges. Some neighbors, perhaps a third of the community, made our recycling goal of 90 percent seem very unlikely. As recycling coordinator for the maintenance committee, I started recording how full the two-cubic-yard Dumpster (the smallest unit available) was every two weeks on pickup day. When several new members moved in, in spite of the clearly marked metro-wide cardboard ban that threatened fines, cardboard boxes began appearing from every weekend’s shopping sprees. The bin measurements went from averaging 75 percent full to overflowing. It was obvious that part of the challenge was to reduce what we brought into the community.

Then there were the days shortly after the Chinese owners of the little corner store in our building moved into their new house. They had bought the same historic corner store site where the Dome Mart had stood since about 1915. (Although the historic dome itself was relocated, Quayside’s architect had carefully reproduced the famous dome on the new building.) Suddenly, the day after regular pickup, the little Dumpster was full again, this time with cardboard boxes full of Chinese papers and old business files. Did that have something to do with the $1 extra garbage can fee assessed by the city?

Progress!

For two years, nothing much seemed to change, except that the donated backyard composters multiplied from two to four. Soon even the four units were not keeping up with demand, with, at that time, about three-fourths of the community participating. So we decided to invest in a high-volume, triple-bin composter made out of cedar, similar to the one at Cardiff Place in Victoria, British Columbia’s first cohousing community. Was our community culture maturing? My investigations showed we had now achieved 63 percent recycling, and six months later, this had risen to 70 percent. But our goal was still in the distance.

Most other similar buildings in the neighborhood were on weekly Dumpster pickups, but Quayside’s remained on a two-week schedule, in spite of the challenges. Clearly, the last one-fourth of the community was producing almost three-fourths of the waste. But people such as Kathy were leading the way, with program breakthroughs such as:

Putting a plastic bag in the common house freezer for bones, which get taken to a willing butcher for inclusion in the bonemeal industry pickup.

Collecting all Styrofoam. White bead board goes to the local ‘retro’ beanbag chair manufacturer. Eggs, coffee, and meat trays, weighing almost nothing, are nested and mailed to the Canadian Polystyrene Recycling Association in Toronto. Net cost is about $35 a year.

Bringing batteries and compact fluorescent lightbulbs to the IKEA company’s new recycling program.

What Goes Where?

While the municipality does pickups of metals, glass, numbers one and two plastics, mixed paper, cardboard, and newspaper, Quayside has recycling bins for many other items, including soft plastic; numbers three through seven hard plastics; low-grade paper and cardboard, such as pizza boxes and milk containers; Styrofoam; and several other groups of items. There are labels on the wall above the bins to give residents a map of what goes where.

We have a container for deposit bottles for funds that go toward common-house expenses. We have a container for clothes that gets taken to the Salvation Army. There’s even a bucket for wine corks and wood that get sent through a chipper at the transfer station; these are combined with other landscape materials to become garden and landscape mixes. Soft plastics get recycled into pellets that are then recycled into more plastic bags.

There’s no such thing as real garbage. But some of the items that we haven’t figured out how to recycle include incandescent lightbulbs; items that are made of different types of materials glued together, such as metal and plastic toys; disposable diapers; cat litter; and large vinyl items, such as shower curtains and raincoats.

The Final Push

On our journey to 90 percent, a fundamental question kept coming up: how to get problem recyclers such as Carol on the recycling bandwagon? I asked her if I could look under her sink, which was very fastidious, the same as the rest of her showpiece apartment. I saw a problem here. One of the keys to a successful program is to reorganize under the sink to allow for multiple bins, such as our recycled ice cream buckets, so that sorting and emptying is just as fast as throwing out garbage. There weren’t enough such containers under Carol’s sink. “How about starting with just one or two more items?” I asked.

“No, too complicated! Too yucky! I don’t do ugly!” she protested. And what can you do when someone blocks consensus on your proposal? We were head-to-head. She was the interior-design nut who refused to budge, but I was equally as determined—an activist who had once said no to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Clayoquot Sound when my environmental values were at stake. But this is Canada, you act polite. We weren’t playing hockey, after all.

Then I remember strange things started to happen. A few months later, I was back in her kitchen and noticed a beautiful ice bucket on the counter. Since she wasn’t known as a drinker, I asked her what it was. “My compost bucket,” she said. “It was a perfect match with the sink and faucet.”

Next she volunteered to empty the three little bins in the common house laundry, which are for lint, paper, and everything else. “Start small so you don’t fail,” she said.

Finally, I remember feeling hope for the world when Carol started her own recycling program, signage and all. She collected and delivered tin cans for the Community Arts Lantern Festival and corks and paper for the museum’s children’s program. She told me, “I love doing that. It makes me quite happy when I help recycle.”

It was the same voice that had started the community. In our early meetings, Carol’s voice had sometimes risen above the despair in the room to rally the group with her unwavering positive words. Now she was becoming a leader with the recycling. “Yes, we can do this too.”

P.S.

No, we haven’t reached our lofty 90 percent goal as of yet. But four homes have recently sold to new members who are all, so far, looking like more avid participants than the outgoing group. We must be well over 70 percent, although I haven’t done a formal calculation this year. And this weekend, we cancelled the garbage pickup for the third time in five years. After three weeks, we’re still not full!

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