Helping Industry Go Green

Canada Fibers

It’s hard to remember that there was a time when recycling was the sole domain of a very small minority of socially conscious individuals. Up until the 1980s, there were very few concerted efforts to recycle; then, in 1983, Kitchener started its blue box program which spread to span all municipalities in Canada…

Aside from municipal initiatives, most companies stayed out of this industry until the late 1990s when the push to be green became more appealing. Canada Fibers is one of the few operations to have been ahead of this trend. The company, which began in 1990, has been at the forefront of this burgeoning sector. Business in Focus spoke with Jake Westerhof, its Vice President of Operations about innovations in the business and one of the largest recycling centers in all of North America.

In the past ten years, privately held Canada Fibers has expanded from its initial focus on the paper industry (providing waste paper to paper mills) to become a multi-material recycling company recovering metals, plastics, glass and paper products and providing them to the re-manufacturing sector. When Jake started in 1987, recycling companies were few and far between; he could name all twenty companies involved in Ontario at the time.

“The early roots of recycling were mostly in NGOs – not for profits – and volunteers who saw the benefits of getting these materials re-used. It wasn’t until the mid nineties that the environmental aspect shifted toward economic interests. All of a sudden there was a lot of investment in the mainstream industry. Not just paper and metals but other materials recovery sectors.”

In August of 2013, Canada Fibers unveiled its Arrow Road complex, the largest material recycling facility (MRF) of its kind in North America. It is equipped to recycle industrial, commercial and institutional (IC&I) waste as well as residential waste. The first phase of this project began in 2010 when the company saw that there would be a strong movement toward recovering recyclables in the IC&I sector.

This movement to initiate the recovery process was one of the reasons the company moved ahead with the MRF complex. Another reason for this major investment was to re-secure a contract with the City of Toronto to recycle its blue box materials. This contract accounts for approximately twenty-five percent of recyclables generated in the entire province of Ontario.

Van Dyk Recycling Solutions (VDRS), manufacturer of sorting systems and balers for the recycling industry, has installed its Bollegraff system at the company’s MRF complex. “It’s an entire sorting system that takes a mixture of recyclables that come in our front door – paper, plastics, metals, glass, etc. – and separates them into their constituent parts,” Jake explains. “In that mix we separate it into nineteen different material types. Then we bale it, and it is shipped to end users to be made into re-manufactured goods.”

There are many MRFs in Ontario but what is unique about this particular complex and the phase two facility is its scope. This highly automated complex is capable of processing almost 250,000 tonnes per year of material. It is also unique in that it recovers nineteen different types of material. There are two plants on this site – Canada Fibers has bundled them and now it is recovering more printed paper and packaging recyclables than any other facility in North America.

Have you ever wondered what happens to those unrecyclable items that people throw into the blue bins? “There are a number of materials that we cannot recycle, either because there is no current market for it or [it is] some sort of composite package,” shares Jake. “The VDRS system does get the non-recyclable material off early in the process and the rest is taken for disposal. This facility is getting recovery rates of around ninety-seven percent.” This is a very high level of efficiency for a recycling plant, and the company is now into the second generation of highly automated plants.

In terms of growth, Canada Fibers’ large site allows for future additional capacity. The company sees itself as having a significant role to play in this sector for the foreseeable future, not only at its main MRF complex, but also at the other four sites it maintains throughout Ontario. The company has significant recycling facilities in the regions of Peel, Hamilton and Sudbury, but is always looking for other opportunities to partner with municipalities in order to bring more materials to the main complex.

Canada Fibers is also very excited about the IC&I sector and improving its recycling record. “The province has a very progressive and proactive piece of legislation (Bill 91) which will attempt to drive more recycling and materials out of landfills and into places like ours to be recovered and re-used. It’s obviously good for the environment but it is also good for driving the green economy and creating jobs.” A report was produced in 2011 which projected that for every thousand tonnes of recycled material, seven jobs can be created. Currently, of course, there are many thousands of tonnes of recyclables being wasted, the recovery of which would mean quite a boost to the green economy.

Another unique facet of what the company does can be seen through its efforts at recycling grocery bags. “The grocery bag is ubiquitous and the grocers’ move toward charging for disposable bags has promoted a lot more use of re-usable shopping bags, and that’s a good thing. It’s a fairly new material to be recycled, so there is still a lot of market development going on… grocery bags are high volume and light weight, and in any business that can be tricky.”

Canada Fibers attempts to recover the bags in as clean a way as possible. It does this with vacuum hoods located over the sorting lines throughout the system. Sorters manually sort the plastic bags and the vacuum hoods transport all of the bags into a designated spot in the plant. From there it goes directly into a baler and is shipped to market. The challenge is in determining which bags can be recovered due to the many different resins used to make them.

There are a few other challenges that Canada Fibers faces in this industry. “We are beginning to recover materials where markets are still in the development phase,” says Jake. “Some of the plastics such as polystyrene are expensive to sort and neophytes when it comes to recycling.” Markets continue to evolve and develop around these materials, but it will take time to figure out what works and what doesn’t. One of the main challenges, however, is the fight against the inexpensive alternative of disposal. It will always be less costly to pick up mixed materials and truck them to a landfill site to be buried.

“On the residential side, I think the municipalities have done a fairly good job of making the argument that recycling is more sustainable than disposal. They have created the matrix that drives all the good residential recycling programs in the province. What we now need to concentrate on is how we can get the same sort of thinking going in the IC&I sector.”

For corporate Canada, recycling seems to make a lot of sense due to cost savings. More importantly, it can mean being good corporate citizens by following sustainability protocols and living up to mission statements. Unfortunately, the majority of waste in the IC&I sector comes from small and medium sized businesses, who may have more pressure on their bottom lines and fewer personnel to deal with waste streams. The challenge is to somehow make a change in the way of thinking. Perhaps it will come with material bans, levies on disposal or through education. Even taking this into consideration, Jake does not believe that recycling will ever be cheaper than the landfill option in the short term, but brings more long term benefits.

As in most industries, innovation will inevitably be the driving force for the future. In this industry technology and automation will be crucial to success. “I don’t think I have been wrong on that over the last five years, and nothing leads me to believe that there won’t be more of that to come. There are some really bright people within equipment companies and with companies like ourselves. We are getting our hands dirty and have a lot of ideas. Innovation and technology is going to be the big move going forward and will really help this industry.”

Canada Fibers has been ahead of the recycling game from the beginning. It is a business that is constantly evolving, and it is ready for any challenge that comes.