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Trouble with trash leads YWCA award winner to become sustainability leader

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"Every so often in life, something hits you in the head like a ton of bricks," says Louise Schwarz, founding partner of Vancouver-based Recycling Alternative, explaining the epiphany that led her to develop some of Vancouver's most innovative green community solutions.

In 1989, Louise was visiting a friend in Seattle and was amazed by their advances in recycling. It might seem strange to think of Vancouver as environmentally backwards, but at the time, there was no "blue box" program for curbside recycling, and certainly no composting or other ways for residents and businesses to easily reduce waste.

She came back from that weekend in Seattle determined to roll up her sleeves and start a recycling program. She established Recycling Alternative, a waste stream and materials recovery business.

Her work with Recycling Alternative and other sustainability programs have earned Louise a YWCA Women of Distinction Award for Environmental Sustainability, sponsored by BC Hydro.

A humble start — in a hatchback

The business had a humble start — the entire fleet consisted of Louise's hatchback, she explains. "I started driving around, collecting paper from businesses, sending out letters to promote the service."

Today they've grown to employ over 30 staff, have a fleet of 16 trucks and service Calgary as well as Vancouver. Their clients include all parts of the business community, including restaurants, supermarkets, hotels and offices.

And it's not just recycling that sparks Louise's passion. Although she was originally "galvanized by garbage", as she puts it, her focus includes running the Biodiesel Co-op, which fuels all of Recycling Alternative's fleet, and offers 100% recycled biodiesel for co-op members, and one of her latest endeavours — Food Scraps Drop Spots for apartment residents to recycle their food scraps.

Landfills: now 60,000+ pounds lighter

Working with Vancouver Farmers Markets, Louise and her team decided to create a way for apartment and condo dwellers to compost their food scraps.

"We've really been in the trash trenches," says Louise of starting the Drop Spot program. "We know intuitively what's going to work. People hate throwing their food out. People will carry their pail of food scraps to visit these Drop Spots."

And those pails are adding up. Since launching, the Food Scrap Drop Spots have received over 6,000 drops and helped to keep over 60,000 pounds of food scraps out of the landfill.

Community involvement starts with innovation

Although their core business is still the recycling business and the ongoing collection of waste, Louise and the team at Recycling Alternative are focused on building community, too.

"It's going to take all of us," Louise says of her continued involvement in the community, which includes sitting on several boards. "When you're an organization like ours, you can move quickly on things. We're nimble and innovative." Creating the Food Scraps Drop Spots, she says, was something they were simply able to think of and do. It wasn't a drawn out process.

"We just tried it out and set it up," she says.

Learn more about Louise and Recycling Alternative at her Trash Talk blog.