Recycling Advertising Junk in Vancouver

Ad waste:  Wes Baker and Amelia Ufford are cleaning up the ad industry by recycling promo material, such as this display at Granville Island. Vancouver marketers put a green face on advertising.


Ad waste:  Wes Baker and Amelia Ufford are cleaning up the ad industry by recycling promo material, such as this display at Granville Island.

Vancouver marketers put a green face on advertising.

Amelia Ufford and Wes Baker were sitting on a beach in Sri Lanka two years ago, drinking beers and watching the tide roll in. From their spot on the sand, the two were shocked to see the amount of waste washing up on the beach, the majority of which consisted of North American advertising detritus. “Old cola bottles, signs, papers, handouts. So much of it was directly attributed to advertising or marketing,” Ufford recalls.

Of course, they weren’t the first to connect the dots between advertising and a rising tide of junk, but as veterans of the marketing industry these two Vancouverites were insiders. And they weren’t alone; they would go on to form one of at least two Vancouver companies that have set out to do something about it.

At the time, Ufford and Baker were co-workers at Inventa, a Vancouver marketing agency. Ufford had taken time out from her Vancouver job to volunteer with Right to Play, an international agency that uses sports programs to improve the health of children in marginalized communities, and Baker was visiting her from Vancouver. Following their Sri Lankan epiphany, the two started thinking seriously about finding more sustainable solutions to what they saw as the marketing and event-planning industry’s seemingly endless production of waste. In late 2008, they founded Debrand Inc., specializing in reducing the environmental impact of branding materials generated by marketing campaigns.

“Our ultimate goal is to help reduce the environmental footprint of the marketing industry and to simply start asking the question, What’s happening to all that stuff?” Ufford says. “Marketing’s dirty little secret is the amount of waste it generates.” A case in point was the summer 2009 World Police & Fire Games in Vancouver, which generated two tonnes of plastic signage that Baker and Ufford recycled through Debrand.

Getting recyclers on board to take such volumes of materials hasn’t always been easy. Wood, metal and plastic recyclers in Metro Vancouver handle their materials according to specifications that don’t always line up with the volumes of recyclables that Debrand takes to the plants, Ufford says. “It’s not just about changing the minds of corporations; it’s changing the minds and behaviours of back-end recyclers as well.”

The move toward more environmentally friendly business practices has spread to the notoriously unsustainable event-planning industry, with Vancouver event planner Emily Murgatroyd founding Greenprint Events Inc. “I’ve been in the event-planning industry for over a decade and have seen a lot of waste. When An Inconvenient Truth came out, I had an epiphany,” she says. “The very nature of events is that they are temporary, and this leads to the type of thinking that says, How can I do this as cheaply and quickly as possible? This translates into using materials that are easy to mass produce and can be thrown away after use, which usually doesn’t bode well for the environment.”

Now, more than three years after she started the company, Murgatroyd’s Greenprint Events boasts an impressive client list including ForestEthics, Lush Handmade Cosmetics Ltd. and Epic Sustainable Living Expo. And Murgatroyd’s choices for sustainable product suppliers have grown too. “I feel like attitudes are shifting,” she says, pointing to the example of the Green Meetings Industry Council, a professional organization serving the meeting industry that has seen its membership jump from 129 in 2008 to 577 in 2010.

The keys to successful sustainable event planning, Murgatroyd says, are rooted in good taste and simplicity. “How many computer bags have you gotten at a conference made from some awful material that you wouldn’t take a second look at? Choose your giveaways thoughtfully and people will remember you,” she says. “It’s all about making smart choices.”

Here in Vancouver, sustainable choices continue to grow with the expansion of the city’s green business economy. “All of us need to be accountable,” Ufford says. “We shouldn’t just keep producing for the sake of producing, with the hope that someone else deals with it.”