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The Accidental Recycler.

Local, independant firm grows to become leader in ‘green’ business.

By Philip Raphael, Staff Reporter
Richmond News – Business – Weekend, April 5-6, 2003

Some of the best ideas can arise when you least expect them. Just ask Nicole Stefenelli.

In the late 1980’s she was a University of B.C. geography student who was admittedly “lacking a bit of direction.” But after a year and a half visit to Europe, a ‘green’ lightbulb went off in her head. “I was extremely impressed by their recycling initiatives,” explained Stefenelli. “I very quickly identified that a recycling service was something that did not exist at home because it wasn’t until about 1991 that the blue box program got started.”

When she returned from her trip she explored the possibility of setting up a business that could provide a similar service. The result? Today, she and partner Rod Nicolls are co-owners of Richmond-based Urban Impact Recycling Ltd., one of few independent, privately-owned recycling operations.

Starting out in 1989 with a single employee, a 1,000 square-foot space in Vancouver, and one collection truck, the business has blossomed to include a two-and-a-half acre site in North Richmond where recyclable material is sorted.

25 full-time employees, a fleet of 10 collection trucks, around 1500 clients from Vancouver to Chilliwack, and a total processing volume of 700 metric tons of material last year.

All in all, not bad for a business that started almost by accident. “It wasn’t anything really brilliant that I did, it had more to do with really good timing, ” Stefenelli said. “I just kind of fell into it. But the marketplace was right because people were willing to do the right thing for the environment.”

Today, 14 years after opening up shop, and with recycling pretty much the habit for most urbanites, the business continues to grow. The firm’s most recent foray, made last month, involved gaining 300 or so small business customers who were previously being served by the Delta Recycling Society.

“In the first four to five years the business pretty much doubled each year,” Stefenelli explained. “Since then, we’ve grown about 25 per cent annually.”

Their single biggest client is the City of Vancouver, which contracts Urban Impact to service the city’s apartment building residents. Their five-year contract with the city expires next year. Other significant clients include Vancouver International Airport, VanCity Credit Union, Granville Island Public Market and the majority of hotels in the downtown area.

About 95 per cent of the material they cart away is paper and cardboard. And with new cardboard products now being permitted to us as much as 20 per cent of post-consumer content – material that has been recycled – the market continues to be bountiful for recycled paper fibre in overseas markets such as Chile, Peru, Korea, and Argentinal.

“Essentially, it’s anyplace that doesn’t have trees,” quipped Nicolls who is the firm’s manager of operations. Brokers help the firm find buyers for the paper and cardboard that is hand-sorted and then compressed into bales and readied for container shipment. While most large recycling firms belong to corporate interests, Stefenelli said there is little fear her and Nicolls would ever hand over their operation to an interested buyer any time soon.

“Some people have that exit strategy to build up a business and then have some big corporation come in and buy it. But we love what we do. It may not be a glamourous business, but we enjoy it.”