New Westminster business among the greenest in Canada

Inside a beautifully restored but unassuming heritage home on Seventh Street are about 17 scientists and technicians who can now say they work for one of the greenest employers in Canada.

Sylvis Environmental Services, a consulting and contracting firm specializing in residuals management - taking material typically called "waste" and repurposing it for environmentally safe new products, was recently placed in 2011's top 50 greenest employers in Canada by a panel of judges at the Canada's Top 100 Employers Project.

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The greenest employers category recognizes organizations that develop unique environmental initiatives, have success in cutting their own environmental footprint and include their employees and their public brand in their environmental plans.

Mike Van Ham, Syvlis' founder and top environmental scientist said the honour was something of a surprise given that most of the other organizations and businesses with the award are much larger.

"It's very amazing. I had figured these awards are for huge companies - multimillion dollar companies with large numbers of staff that they can allocate with time and resources towards sustainability and environmental initiatives," he said.

But Van Ham's employees thought the company could make a good case if they put Sylvis' name forward for nomination with details of their work and practices.

"Both the work we do and the way we in which we go about doing it is based on environmental stewardship and sustainability initiatives We walk the walk and talk the talk," he said. "It's inherent in our company culture to do that."

Van Ham has made sure Sylvis employees have secure bicycle parking and showers and toiletries available at the office. The company uses only hybrid vehicles and employees are given $1,000 by the company towards the purchase of a fuel-efficient vehicle of their own. The company purchases electricity for its office and field projects from B.C. Hydro's green energy program and all the employees are involved with keeping track of every drop of water, sheet of paper, watt of electricity and joule of natural gas.

"The intention is to grow without increasing our demand on those resources," Van Ham said.

Van Ham said the award will mean Syvlis can market itself better not just to clients but to prospective employees.

"Potential employees now are very interested and very committed to working for a company that has this kind of acknowledgment and the kind of environmental and sustainability ethics built into what we do," he said. "We're always looking and we're always hiring and that will strengthen Sylvis as a company and how we do it."

Van Ham started the company in 1991 while working on his PhD research at a time when most waste like biosolids from sewage treatment plants was typically dumped in the ocean. Since then, he along with engineers, chemists and biologists, has been studying waste like municipal biosolids, pulp mill sludge, ash from energy facilities and biomass from greenhouses, and finding ways to convert it to something useful - most often, highly fertile and long-lasting soil.

"There's a little bit of alchemy involved. An industry will produce a product but they'll also generate a waste. They're interested in their product but we look at their waste as a potential product. It's finding where that value is, " Van Ham said.

Van Ham estimates in the last 10 years, Sylvis has taken enough waste to produce 800,000 to one million tonnes of soils, which have been used from everything from landscaping along the Sea-to-Sky Highway and Vancouver International Airport to reclamation work on old mines, fertilizing forests damaged by the pine beetle and the potting soil in the pesticide-free garden outside Sylvis' office.

"We spent two years studying the correct ratios, its staying power, sustainability, how well it drains," he said. "The growth response from fertilization was astronomical."

Van Ham says he only sees the field of residuals management growing as more research is done into recapturing valuable elements and raw natural resources become scarcer. In the meantime, he and his staff will keep at the microscopes and petri dishes, proud to have been recognized for their green cred.

"Who knew about this sleepy little company that hides out in an old heritage house in the corner of New Westminster?"

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