Manufacturing Change

Powell River firestarter startup a social & environmental win-win

Leni Goggins

K-Lumet firestarters | Photo: Darren Green

Recycling in Canada has its problems on the best of days. It’s a tedious ritual we do because we believe, or at least hope, it’s better than the alternative of dumping all our waste materials into a landfill.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted some of our already-weak social infrastructure, including our waste management systems. Now more than ever, they are being put under pressure with depots closing, limiting hours, or limiting the materials that they accept, and clothing donations to charities grinding to a complete halt.

Still, recycling diverts waste from landfills, lessens the demand for raw materials from extractive industries, and contributes to useful end products. Even now during this crisis, recycling discarded fabric ends into personal protective equipment is happening across the world. A Powell River social enterprise, K-Lumet, is aiming for a social/environmental win-win by piloting a European inclusive-employment model that creates fire starters from recycled wax, toilet paper rolls, and waste wood from construction debris – all things we still have an abundance of ending up in the landfill.

The project

K-Lumet is an employment social enterprise with a vision to create inclusive jobs, meaning people with and without disabilities work alongside each other to make products by hand.

While meaningful employment is the main objective, the enterprise creates its products – fire starters that burn for up to 15 minutes, replacing kindling for wood stove owners and campers – from waste materials, with a target of 99% recycled materials. The project aims to produce half a million K-lumet fire starters over the next two years. This amounts to approximately 24,000 kg of wood, 5,000 kg of wax and 166,000 toilet paper rolls that would otherwise have ended up in a landfill. There are drop points set up in Powell River where locals bring their toilet paper rolls and unwanted candles and wax, and wood is collected from contractors building new homes, as well as sawmills and hardware store operations that have wastage from the cuts they make for customers (an enormous amount of usable wood ends up in the landfill each year from the construction industry).

While inclusive employment is the main objective,
the enterprise creates its products from waste materials,
with a target of 99% recycled materials.

Scaling up manufacturing was scheduled to begin in April 2020, but due to COVID-19 the enterprise has had to slow down production. Still, efforts continue to educate the public about the benefit of separating waste materials to be recycled. The social enterprise hopes to expand manufacturing facilities into the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, should the pilot be successful in Powell River.

A community effort

Recycling isn’t a trend, it’s now a major part of our supply chain. In a great twist of irony, toilet paper producers in the US are currently struggling because of the increased demand for their product whilst lockdowns have reduced their access to a cheap and steady supply of recycled office paper which they recycle into toilet paper.

During World War II the supply chain was so disrupted that the US and Canadian governments hosted “scrap drives” (or in Canada the less sexy “National Salvage Campaign”), whereby citizens were encouraged to donate recycled metals and rubber for the government to turn into ships and other crucial supplies for the war effort. The campaign was hugely successful with people fervently collecting all the metal in their neighbourhoods to donate. While the program was popular, the actual contribution was nominal. But it created a sense of community during a very turbulent time.

For recycling to be successful, we need community action and education around the value of recycling, but also systems in place to adequately gather and utilize materials. K-lumet has had to develop a collection system from scratch, forming partnerships with recyclers, second-hand stores, and those working with waste management.

David Repa, one of the people in charge of running K-Lumet, has years of experience in the electronic recycling industry, having co-founded the social enterprise Free Geek Vancouver. He believes that the K-lumet model has all the right ingredients for success. “My experience with Free Geek taught me that the community is always ready to support businesses that are diverting waste from the landfill. K-lumet is looking for materials people don’t often pay attention to, to make them into a high quality product.”

The project, fully named “Manufacturing Change: The K-Lumet Pilot Project,” is operated by the charity Inclusion Powell River and the license holder Barbarah Kisschowsky, the mother of an autistic son, who purchased the license for K-lumet in BC in 2013, allowing for partnership opportunities throughout BC. There is also a research dimension – lessons learned during the first three years of operations can be used to help other manufacturers adopt inclusive employment strategies.

K-lumet was founded in Switzerland in 1995 as a sheltered workshop employment program for people with developmental disabilities. Today there are K-lumet franchise licenses in 12 European countries including Germany where there are 2,000 people with developmental disabilities working to manufacture K-lumet. The social enterprise in Powell River is the first license for the company in North America and has high hopes for expanding the business, but also innovating by expanding the employment model to be more inclusive, and committing to employ people from diverse backgrounds. Unlike in Europe where sheltered workshops are the norm, the model in BC will pay the workers minimum wage or higher. In order to achieve a fully inclusive facility, they plan to also offer workplace accommodations like specialized equipment and support.

Leni Goggins is an entrepreneur, professional grant writer, and the project manager for Manufacturing Change: The K-Lumet Pilot Project. For more info see www.k-lumet.ca


This article appears in our Summer 2020 issue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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