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Vanguards of recycling

Dave and Julie Koehn help found the recycling society in Maple Ridge 40 years ago. - Colleen Flanagan/The News
Dave and Julie Koehn help found the recycling society in Maple Ridge 40 years ago.
— image credit: Colleen Flanagan/The News

The Maple Ridge method of sorting waste just never caught on in the recycling world, admits Julie Koehn.

The colour-coded system, with five bags and one blue box that creates a clean, separated recycling resource, is only done here.

In Maple Ridge, residents dutifully sort their cardboard and brown paper into a yellow bag; place their newspapers into a blue bag and put clean, rinsed tin cans into an orange bag.

Green is for office paper and magazines; a clear plastic bag is for plastic; while a blue plastic box takes glass bottles, jars, old telephone books and catalogues.

It’s the best way to do it, adds Julie, one of the founders of the Ridge Meadows Recycling Society.

The low levels of contamination, thanks to residents doing all the sorting in their kitchens and garages, produces a sought-after commodity that ensures a market in good times and bad.

“We’ve been fighting that ever since we started,” says her husband, Dave Koehn.

Julie says it’s the most sensible way to recycle.

“If you don’t mix it in the first place, then you don’t have to separate it.”

What’s the point of dumping all recyclables into one bag, as most municipalities do, then separating them at the depot? That causes a dirtier waste stream, less attractive to processors, she points out.

Julie wonders why others don’t follow suit and suggests politicians don’t give people enough credit.

But that’s the way it’s been done in Maple Ridge since 1972, two years after Bob Cordoni returned from Earth Day in Victoria and brought with him the recycling bug.

Cordoni proposed the local branch of the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation start recycling here.

So Julie asked Belkin Paperboard in New Westminster if it would take old newspapers. It said yes, and the recycling race was on, first using the Koehn’s Hammond home as a base, soon followed by the Cottonwood dump as a collection site.

“Think globally, act locally” was the phrase, still in use today.

“We were just so super keen to get this project going,” Julie says.

“This was all done by volunteers,” adds Dave.

“We always looked it as a resource. You’re mining the urban garbage, per se.”

Contracts soon had to be signed and payrolls had to be made, so a separate organization from SPEC was needed. Candace Gordon, first hired as a driver, took care of the paper work and the non-profit Ridge Meadows Recycling Society was born in 1981.

It would take until 1997 before the society signed its first fee-for-service agreement with the District of Maple Ridge.

Dave and Julie expected the district to move in long before that, however.

“We figured five years, they’d take over the whole operation,” says Dave.

That, however, was a blessing in disguise, he found out.

“They did that in Victoria and it stagnated. It didn’t go forward.” The lack of enthusiastic environmentalists within a municipal system led to the project fading, he explained.

The recycling society began curbside collection around 1980, as SPEC still, thanks to a kickstart from an $8,000 grant. After wearing out a couple of collection trucks, Dave came up with the idea of modifying them so bins could be loaded from the side. That allowed quick and easy switching from full bins to empty ones.

The trucks today still use the same system.

Currently, for an annual $64 district levy on each home, the society picks up the trash, sorts it and runs an education program to tell people about its good work.

In the early days, a dozen volunteers got together every few weeks to collect paper. Today, there’s a full-time staff of 64, including about 30 developmentally disabled people.

Ridge Meadows recycling’s partnership with the developmentally disabled dates back almost as far. In 1980, when the recyclers were renting office space from Maple Ridge Community Services, some disabled people were working in the same building when Dave thought, why not get them involved so they could enjoy outdoor work?

The partnership has endured since, even surviving a scare last September when Community Living B.C. said it was cancelling the supported program at the recycling depot. But funding was restored and the government revamped Community Living B.C., kicking in another $40 million. Today, about 30 developmentally disabled are employed at the depot while negotiations between CLBC and the society for extending the program another year are continuing.

For Dave, recycling should always come before waste disposal.

That’s why when the society proposed the present depot site on 236th Street in the Albion industrial area, the depot is located at the front the site and the waste transfer station is behind.

The relocation to Albion happened in 1990 after a region-wide recycling program was cancelled. The society then proposed that if Metro Vancouver would buy the land, and the District of Maple Ridge put up the building, the society would run the depot.

The governments said yes and, thus, was born the present depot.

“We’re probably the largest, community-based, not-for-profit, multiple material source-separated society,” said Gordon.

“Our people in Maple Ridge do a fantastic job,” recycling, she says.

According to recycling society executive-director Kim Day, Ridge Meadows even hit the goal of recycling 50 per cent of the waste stream by 2000, ahead of Metro Vancouver, she pointed out.

Now, it’s working on Zero Waste, the main goal at the depot. That is an approach that goes  “beyond recycling, by taking a whole system approach to the vast flow of resources and waste through human society,” says the society’s website.

One of the final components in achieve that composting of yard and kitchen waste remains the final major component of the waste stream.

That could begin soon, once the logistics of collection and dropoff are worked out.

Currently, compost material forms 30 per cent of the waste stream. “If we get that out, we’re moving very close to zero waste.” Gordon said.

Looking back, 40 years later, Dave and Julie wonder how they got it all done. They raised a family, built a home, managed careers, and along with help with other committed volunteers, got recycling underway in Maple Ridge.

All told, the couple has been on the board of directors for a combined 70 years.

“In my biggest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined it going so well. I’m so happy it is,” says Julie.

“It’s our baby, sort of thing,” Dave adds.

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