On a cold winter Sunday afternoon, a tall, long-haired man sorts through recycling bins in front of houses across Whitby, Oshawa, and Courtice.
William, a retiree from the Oshawa General Motors plant who started there in the 1970s and retired in 2005, has been collecting empty bottles and cans since 2007. He got the idea after seeing others do the same.
“For kicks, I said to the wife I’m taking the van out just to see what’s out there,” William says. “I came back with maybe half a van load, and then once you start adding it up you’re thinking ‘holy crap this is good money’.”
While many see collecting recyclables or trash for money as a small-time hobby to help with the bills, in reality there is a big business behind the idea.
In the grungy industrial area of South Whitby, metal clashes and scrapes as customers drop off scrap metal and old electronics.
Art Northcott, owner and general manager of ANJ Recycling in Whitby, also makes a buck from other people’s waste, just on a bigger scale. He started his business after collecting scrap on the side while working for a different recycling company.
“When I was in steel, I used to watch people come in and make money and I’m going, ‘I could do that’,” Northcott says. “I drove around picking up scrap, saved my money, and opened it up.”
Northcott opened his business in 2007. He hasn’t looked back since.
While both Northcott and William help reduce the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill, both the federal and provincial government need to implement more initiatives to reduce waste that makes its way to a landfill.
According to the Region of Durham’s annual Waste Management Report, in 2014 the region diverted 55 per cent of collected waste from landfills, an increase of 22 per cent since 2004. The region also made $5.3 million in revenue from the sale of blue box recyclables.
According to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, from May 2008 to May 2009, a year after the bottle return program came back, 259 million wine and spirit containers were returned for a refund. Of that number, 145 thousand tonnes of glass was recycled rather than being dumped in a landfill.
South of the border, the industry is even bigger. According to IBISworld.com, the American scrap metal industry alone provides over 34 thousand jobs and brings in $36 billion in revenue annually.
In recent years, more and more governments have put in place rules to try to increase recycling numbers and lower waste numbers. Durham Region has both a roadside compost and yard waste program. In 2014 the region collected 27,007 tonnes of organic material for compost, and 32,123 tonnes of yard-waste. They are now looking into a clear bag policy for garbage.
Ontario even had an Environmental Handling Fee (EHF) introduced in 2014. This is essentially a tax when purchasing electronics, but the money does come back to the public… sort of. The fee reflects the cost to responsibly recycle electronics rather than the e-waste going to a landfill.
The fee is part of the Ontario Electronic Stewardship (OES). The government pays for the electronics from a processor such as Greentec, the company the DC Sustainability office works with through their program. The processor breaks down and takes apart the electronics to extract precious metals. A processor buys e-waste from a generator, such as Northcott, who then buys the electronics as scrap from the public, still in its original form, completing the cycle.
Tanya Roberts, Sustainability Coordinator for Durham College, says since we’ve extracted so much from the earth through mines and put it into electronics, now we can start extracting from e-waste.
“Now we have above-ground mines which are these processing plants,” she says.
Northcott says in the past copper was the scrap metal with the best return but now electronics have taken over.
“It’s definitely changing, people are going green,” Northcott says.
Roberts receives equipment from IT and what can’t be re-sold as used is sold as e-waste to Greentec, who is paid by the government with the money from the OES program.
“People probably aren’t even aware of how much of a lucrative business (e-waste) that has been and is becoming,” Roberts says.
“Electronics, we recycle probably 2 million pounds of per year, it’s kind of our bread and butter,” says Northcott.
In a perfect world, Roberts says the government would offer incentives to everyday people for recycling, but in reality that won’t happen.
“The government isn’t going to offer those incentives unless there’s value,” says Roberts.
William on the other hand, gets his scrap a little differently. He either uses a van, or a bicycle he equipped with a low horse-power motor. He hauls a child’s wagon that he rigged up behind the bike to carry the empty bottles and cans. He says the main reason for doing what he does is due to the rising cost of bills.
“The one thing that’s killing middle class and lower that have a house is hydro,” William says. “My wife just smokes when she opens up the hydro bill each month.”
When William retired from GM, his income dropped nearly 300 per cent. Like many in his situation, his kids, both in their early 20s, still live at home. With two kids at home, one looking for work after finishing post-secondary and another saving for a house, his GM pension wasn’t cutting it.
“I just used it to help supplement my pension,” William says. “I realized it was a pretty good thing to do.”
Roberts has been watching people collect bottles the same way William does for years outside her home. She thinks collecting bottles is a great idea, and has seen it come a long way over the years.
“It (collecting bottles) has definitely evolved,” she says. “There are a lot of opportunities from the government for rebates.”
At age 67, William’s health is limiting his ability to collect empties.
“This year hasn’t been a good healthy year for me, this will probably be my last year doing it,” he says.
For Northcott, 2017 is looking to be a big year. He is opening up a new location in Courtice that is twice the size of his current location. Unlike his current location, the new place will be equipped to take in steel, something he’s never been able to buy.
“When we open the new location we’re gonna have 5 or 6 more guys,” he says. “We’re hoping summer, July or August.”
Northcott says he doesn’t want his business to get too big.
“I don’t want to get too big. When you get too big you get too many headaches,” he says.
He is hoping to pass the business on to his son when he retires, who is already part owner.
Even with people and businesses like William and ANJ Recycling, Canada still has a lot of work to do to catch up to countries such as Germany, a powerhouse when it comes to clean energy and recycling. According to GB Resources Group and wefuturecycle.com, 80 per cent of waste is recycled in Germany, while 80 per cent of waste in Canada goes to a landfill.
Like Germany, Canada needs to make it worth the public’s while to recycle. More incentives need to be made towards recycling, both private and commercial, which will lead to the already lucrative waste market increasing even more.
If you live in Whitby, Oshawa, or Courtice North of Highway 2, chances are you have heard the putter of William’s makeshift motorcycle cruising down your street.
Where there is waste there is opportunity. In a never-ending world of garbage, one man’s trash really can be another man’s treasure.
(Since what William does is illegal under City by-law, only his first name can be used)