Anyone old enough to remember Sesame Street in the 1970s will recall the song about the People in Your Neighbourhood. They were the postman, the policeman, the street sweeper or the milkman – the important everyday people who kept us safe, fed, and clean.
You don’t often meet them when you’re walkin’ down the street anymore, but they still play an important role in everyday life.
In our town, one of these people is Zahir Poonja, a former chemical engineer who, since 2003 has owned and operated the Okotoks Bottle Depot.
Bottle depots are operated under a provincial authority. “We get a licence for a specific area,” Zahir told me on Monday when I turned in my crop of Thanksgiving pop bottles.
“Ours is in Okotoks and surrounding area. But there’s bottle depots all around; there’s one in High River, Black Diamond and we are very close to Calgary where there are a lot of them. Is it a competitive business? Yes, we’re surrounded by bottle depots.”
Ever wonder how a business that buys empty beverage containers makes a profit?
“Alberta charges a recycling fee for all beverage containers,” he said. “You pay it when you buy the beverage at your local store. For some of those containers you can get the fee back by recycling. Money collected at the local store goes to the Alberta Beverage Recycling Corporation (ABRC) in Edmonton.”
Independent Bottle Depots around the province collect and sort the empty containers, then send them to the ABRC, which reimburses them for the refunds pays them a commission for the service.
The Bottle Depot collects 18 to 20 million containers a year.
“We take aluminum, cardboard, plastics, and glass, Zahir said. “We sort them and ship them in bags to the recycling depot in Calgary.”
The Poonja family came to Canada from Tanzania in the 1970s. Zahir’s uncle and father got into the bottle business in Calgary. They moved to Okotoks in 2000 and now employ about 10.
Zahir is proud that his business employs immigrants.
“Some have gone through hardship, so this is a new start for them,” he said. Some start here speaking no English and slowly gain confidence. It’s a good learning opportunity.”
Over the past couple of years, the Bottle Depot has greatly expanded. “We invested about $400,000 to expand the building and buy a new sorting machine,” Zahir said. “We did it to make people feel more welcome and counteract the impression that a bottle depot is a dirty place.”
For years, the Bottle Depot has also supported community charities by funneling customer donations to the Food Bank, Pound Rescue, the Hospice, Ronald McDonald House, and more.
If you haven’t been to the Bottle Depot lately, I encourage you to recycle more, and when you get your refund say hi to Zahir Poonja, one of the nicest guys in the neighbourhood.
Dick Nichols writes about business every month in The Western Wheel.