Case studies in social innovation: Recycle Action
Local businesses in the United Counties of Prescott and Russell were frustrated. There were no recycling facilities available in the area and, as a result, they were either paying high fees to ship their recyclable by-products a great distance from their operations or paying a lesser amount to transport materials that could have been recycled to the local dump, where they filled landfills as waste indefinitely.
Several of these businesses approached Groupe Convex, a network of social businesses that came together to develop enterprises that respond to local needs. Groupe Convex agreed that the cost of getting rid of recyclable materials was crippling businesses, as well as harming the environment. Upon further investigation, Groupe Convex learned that even the recyclables gathered by municipal blue boxes were being transported to another region.
A local recycling solution that feeds back into local business
In response to this challenge, Groupe Convex established Recycle Action in 2008 with a mission to collect and sort recycled materials from corporate clients and commercial and industrial customers throughout the local community. The enterprise was so successful and efficient (as well as conveniently located) that, by 2011, it began to assist municipalities with residential recycling and became a blue-box transfer site that today serves six municipalities.
Recycle Action addresses several obvious needs. It enables local businesses and government to reduce their waste management costs and efforts; employs local workers, creating jobs in a rural area that is battling rising unemployment; and helps open up tax revenues so they become available to support other community initiatives.
Of equal importance are the social needs that Recycle Action has managed to address. It is helping to reduce the impact of the environment and has also begun to recycle Styrofoam, which consists of 10% plastic and 90% air. Recycle Action has been able to extract the plastic and sell it back to local businesses to serve as both a supplier as well as a processing plant. Robert Lessard, Recycle Action’s director of operations, reports that “furniture stores are now saving a dumpster worth of garbage a month just from Styrofoam recycling.”
Recycle Action is a strong example of a blended value business that MaRS supports, including through its social innovation advisory supports for ventures with a social mission. Recycle Action is a revenue generating operation that is expanding successfully and provides a cheaper and more efficient way to dispose of waste generated by local businesses. In terms of social value, it employs community members that face significant barriers to accessing stable employment.
Hiring locals who face barriers to accessing the local job market
Recycle Action addresses a powerful social need by hiring workers who have intellectual and physical challenges, as well as those who have mental health issues. The large group of businesses created by Groupe Convex is able to boast that over 70% of their employees are representative of this community. Of Recycle Action’s 40 employees, for example, close to 50% face a mental or physical disability.
Recycle Action enables these workers to earn stable wages, while also ensuring that their work is both meaningful and empowering. Employees who have special needs are appointed to a variety of roles, ranging from working in the plant to dealing with customers to managing the front desk.
Caroline Arcand, the co-founder and executive director of Groupe Convex, states that one of the most positive outcomes of their efforts has been to see the interactions between employees and members of the local community on a daily basis. “The mayor will come in and owners of small stores and many individuals interact with the workers and this has the potential to change perceptions that people may hold about these community members,” she says.
Giving back to the local community
For each tonne of material recycled, Recycle Action gives $1 to local schools to conduct environmental projects. This past year, that amount reached over $2,000 and employees went out to the schools to hand deliver the cheques.
Recycle Action is growing in size and in volume of business, as well as in its connections to the community. As it scales, it will need to acquire a larger space, to comply with government regulations and to manage an increasingly diversifying business with ever-changing needs. For example, Recycle Action has recently begun to enter into confidential document-sharing for businesses and has also undertaken an electronic waste program where community members can drop off old computers, radios and other electronics to be reused or recycled. Recycle Action continues to focus on the local community’s needs and ensuring that its responses both serve and benefit local people.
Want to learn more about social innovation? Read other case studies in social innovation here.
Toni De MelloTanya (Toni) De Mello works as a consultant on social innovation programs at SiG@MaRS. She previously worked as a management consultant for Deloitte, Touche LLP and the United Nations. She has experience in grassroots community service, finance and law and humanitarian aid consulting. See more…