Urban Impact Recycling Sets High Standards for Business, Environment

In 1989, Nicole Stefenelli took a small business idea and turned it into a leader among recycling companies. Not bad for what started as a school project.

Yep, a school project.

“I travelled in Europe in 1986 [at age 18] and observed a massive green movement and commitment to the environment,” says Nicole Stefenelli, founder and president of Richmond, BC-based Urban Impact Recycling. “When I returned home in 1987, I was shocked at the difference between Europe and North America. No one [here] even knew what recycling was.”

Stefenelli went back to the University of British Columbia to continue her geography studies. In her fourth year, she started a demonstration project to prove that commercial recycling was viable, and it worked out so well that she decided to take it operational. From a small business with one employee and one vehicle in 1989, Urban Impact has grown into a multi-million dollar endeavour with 85 clients and 5,000 client locations in the Lower Mainland, recycling about 90,000 tonnes of material per year.

Urban Impact Recycling Makes Environmental Sustainability Easy

One reason for Urban Impact’s success is its commitment to making recycling easy for clients. At first contact, Urban Solutions (UI’s consulting arm) works with new clients to assess their values and needs, and create a plan. This includes regular scheduled pick-ups – no pre-sorting required – and extra pick-ups for special events or office cleanouts. If they have sensitive documents, Urban Shredding (UI’s information destruction arm) becomes part of the plan.

UI also exemplifies best practices for the environment in its own day-to-day operations. In fact, Stefenelli calculates that UI diverts over 99% of its excess material away from landfill and into recycling, demonstrating that zero waste is virtually possible.

Each year, Urban Impact issues Certificates of Diversion to verify how much waste its clients – and itself – have diverted from landfill and how much money they have saved by recycling. Clients and the company can then give back to the environment by offsetting any carbon outputs they’ve generated through participation in UI’s annual tree planting project, Plant One Here.

Launched on Earth Day, 2008, each new Plant One Here project starts when UI clears a site of non-native species (like broom and blackberries) and covers it with a compost-like soil developed by recycling biosolids. The recycling company then enlists volunteers from staff, clients, and the community to plant the site with native tree species such as Garry oak, black hawthorn, and Spanish chestnut.

Striving for Zero Waste through Recycling

Another reason for the success of Urban Impact Recycling is happy employees. Described by BC Business as one of the best companies to work for in BC, UI offers excellent health benefits, profit sharing, and an RSP program. But it’s the less conventional benefits that stand out, like above-market wages, a monthly carbon credit for staff who ride a bike, take a bus, or carpool to work; a health benefit for employees who don’t use sick days; and a four-day work week for truck drivers (to reduce carbon emissions); and meaningful support for employee skill development.

Urban Impact has also found a unique way to spread the word about recycling while contributing to charities around the Lower Mainland by donating free recycling services. “Our idea is that they can reduce their operating costs and therefore have more money to give back to their causes. I like this fit – it is so easy for us to give and make a serious impact on the charities’ operating costs.”

In 2009 alone, UI contributed close to $50,000 in recycling services to charities ranging from the Autism Society to Early Music Vancouver, Richmond Food Bank to Ten Thousand Villages. Taking charity a step further, UI also conducts periodic shred-athons, with pledges made per box of paper shredded. Proceeds from the most recent event, on February 3, were donated to support.

While educating the public about environmental sustainability is certainly an aspect of these activities, the more direct education takes place through school tours. Stefenelli estimates they conduct about 25 tours annually, notably around Earth Day in April and Recycling Week in October. While the tours are open to all grade levels, Stefenelli finds that “the quality of questions and discussions are best with grade 4s and 5s. They become the most engaged.”

What’s next for Urban Impact? “I’d like to partner with a business on a zero waste project,” says Stefenelli. “People talk about achievability, but we’d like to prove it. We don’t know if it’s doable, but we have a couple of customers who are getting darn close.”

Chances are they will make it happen. From being the first multi-material recycling business in the Lower Mainland in 1989, to being the first recycling business in Canada to own a hybrid vehicle in 2009, this recycling company has been an environmental leader for 20 years. Not bad for something that started out as a school project.

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