Environmental impressions from a week in Canada’s largest city
Before moving to Toronto for the rest of the summer I was warned about the dangers of biking on its streets. I’d need a helmet and some luck, I was told. And I’d heard plenty about newly elected Mayor Rob Ford’s lack of appetite for cyclists and their paths.
In fact, the week I arrived, bike paths were making headlines as city council decided to remove bike lanes on Jarvis street they had set up one year earlier. The irony of the decision is that it will cost much more to remove the lanes than it did to install them. Reports say the removal will cost $200,000 while the original installation cost only $59,000.
“We’ve cut down to one a month, with the compost,” says Isabelle Moncion, proudly stating how many garbage bags she and her boyfriend are producing, thanks to Compost Montreal. While many now take recycling for granted in Montreal, composting is still in its early stages. More and more, however, people are taking responsibility for the waste they produce and this is precisely the market that entrepreneur Stephen McLeod and Compost Montreal have stepped in to serve.
“It’s quite a grey area as far as doing business goes. It’s an environmental business and I don’t think there are a whole lot that are quite the same as we are,” says McLeod who started out in 2007 with a small-scale residential compost collection service powered by nothing more than a bicycle, a trailer, and a heavy duty garbage container.
McLeod had originally branched out as an entrepreneur in his previous field as a Montreal bike messenger, but quickly found that even an innovative approach was not enough to make it in the competitive bike messenger market. He would need to try something else. “We composted when I was kid,” says McLeod. “It was just normal for me and certainly I always wanted to do something that was going to be, you know, helpful.”
Sitting in the meeting room of an apartment turned office space in Saint-Henri, conversation is briefly interrupted by the sound of a freight train rumbling by. The goateed McLeod then turns in his chair to point out the areas on a Montreal map that his company has grown to serve, including Saint-Henri, the Plateau, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Rosemont, Outremont, Villeray, and Hochelaga.
Compost Montreal logo by Lucas Fehr (Lucworks), copyright Compost Montreal
“We just very recently celebrated our 1000th residential client,” says McLeod, which represents about 75 percent of the company’s business. And that client base has been growing fast mainly by means of the company’s website and word-of-mouth. “Within the second quarter of 2009 we were running about half the residential [clients] that we are now.”
At five dollars per week, this means Compost Montreal is taking in about $260,000 annually from the residential service. The company also offers a slightly discounted $60 for a 13-week full season commitment. The remaining 25 percent of the business lies with commercial and institutional clients. “We want to focus our efforts more on the diversification, developing the commercial, the institutional and then working with the cities as well to get more centralized plans of services up and running.”
McLeod didn’t really have a business strategy in the conventional sense when he started out. “I sort of went pretty intuitively,” he says. “A big advantage I had in being able to do that was that I didn’t really have any start up capital.”
“I think that’s a very valuable exercise, to start with nothing and see if you can actually generate something that’s going to allow you to arc and generate proper working capital,” says McLeod, “rather than starting with money from wherever and running the risk of messing up.”
Matthew Bruno, one of Compost Montreal’s eight employees is happy with the way the business is going. “I could not ask for a better job,” says Bruno. “Everyone here is easy going, enthusiastic, pretty knowledgeable and of course, super friendly. The work is never the same and the company is still young so things are changing quickly and evolving nicely. We are all building this business together.”
At one garbage bag per month, customers like Isabelle Moncion must be feeling pretty good about themselves, and even though Compost Montreal isn’t selling it, that feeling may just be the most valuable product they offer.
Sound: Listen to Stephen McLeod tell us about his favourite part of the job and about just what happens after you put your compost bucket on the doorstep (hint: it starts with “s” and ends with “ustainability”), enjoy!
As the late summer sun went down on Saint-Laurent Boulevard, the crowds came out to enjoy the Mix’ Arts street festival, which had the bustling boulevard closed to cars and open to pedestrians from August 26-29 between Sherbrooke Street and Mont-Royal Avenue. Full of music, food, art, drinks, and especially people, the four-day festival is the Société de développement du boulevard Saint-Laurent’s way of showcasing the street’s mix of shopping, restaurants, bars and culture.
“We need it, we need it more often, we have to enhance the business, you know,” said Bill Fernandes, owner of Papas Tapas and Martini Bar, echoing the sentiments of business owners up and down the Main. “It should close all the time. It should be a closed street.”
Daniel Ma, part owner of Dyad Electric Scooters and Bicycles, noted that the street festival is even more important for new businesses. “Because we just opened, we need more people to know the products. A lot of people pass by and ask and try, and so it’s good advertising”, said Ma.
Yes, that's St-Laurent boulevard
The Montreal Urban Ecology Centre advocates creating more public spaces like the street fest, spearheading projects like Green, Active and Healthy Neighbourhoods, aimed at increasing public spaces for pedestrians and cyclists. The Centre’s website states, however, that, “In order to make this transition possible, adequate infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists is a prerequisite”.
Montreal graffiti artist, Fluke, was on the street for the June version of the street festival displaying his spray-painting skill on a temporary wall set up for demonstrations. “We just came to show off a little bit of our skills and showcase what we do”, said Fluke. He also said local artists have a long history with the street festival. “It’s helped us a lot over the years because there’s a lot of downtown crowd that passes through here that we don’t necessarily have a chance to talk to and show our stuff to on a regular basis”.
Visitors were also enjoying the pedestrian space. In town for the weekend, David Ryning of Edmonton, Alberta said, “This is fantastic, from a tourist’s point of view”.
Of course, not everyone in the area was walking on sunshine. Colleen Steacy has lived in two apartments on the Main and says noise is the main problem. “The last place that I lived was better because my bedroom was at the back of the apartment,” said Steacy. “At the new place that I’m living I’m bothered by noise constantly and it’s the reason I’m moving.”
She plans to stay in the area, however, and said she loves the shopping available during the street festival. Even at the quietest of times Saint-Laurent is buzzing, but with cars removed from the equation the Main showed it has the potential to become an even more vibrant public space and showcase for Montreal’s best.
Watch and listen to a mash-up of the sounds and voices of the Mix’ Arts St-Laurent street festival: