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Second-career checklist: Be your own boss, save the planet

When Jason Lim was 39, his wife offered him a proposal: Move the family to Canada and take two years to study whatever you like.

It was 1999, and Mr. Lim was an economist with a stable job in Seoul, South Korea. But for years his interest had been piqued by the environmental movement. As well, he dreamed of being his own boss.

"I didn't know yet what I wanted to do," he said. "But one thing for sure I knew, I didn't want to spend my whole life in a company."

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Mr. Lim's wife, Yasmine, wanted to move to Canada to allow their then-11-year-old son to get an education in a less competitive atmosphere. But Mr. Lim was reluctant to make the bold move.

"My wife and I had a couple of months of tug-of-war, then finally she threw the bait - I'll give you two years, you won't have to make any money, you can do whatever you want to do."

Enticed by the thought of transforming his career, Mr. Lim and his family left Seoul for Toronto in August of 1999. One month later, he was enrolled in the master's program in Environmental Applied Science and Management at Ryerson University. Through his studies, he learned about Ontario's Waste Diversion Act legislation of 2002, which mandated that various waste-producing industries reduce, reuse and recycle the waste produced by their industry. The "waste stream" that intrigued Mr. Lim the most was that of electronics, which at the time was mostly ending up in landfills.

"I thought, basically there's no market at the moment, no competition. This could be the beginning of an industry," said Mr. Lim. "But I couldn't really formulate the idea beyond that."

After completing his degree, Mr. Lim went looking for employment opportunities, and that led him to meet with officials at the Municipality of Waterloo. During an interview, one of them suggested he think about recycling electronics such as computers, monitors, televisions, audio-visual equipment, printers and photocopiers. It was the same idea he'd been mulling over at school. Mr. Lim thanked them, took his leave and spent the next five months doing intensive research.

Using his savings, his wife's savings and the savings of two employees, he founded Toronto Recycling Inc. Today the firm has 39 employees, about 700 clients in and around the Greater Toronto Area, and it just celebrated its seventh anniversary.

The operation, based in Richmond Hill, Ont., takes "e-waste" from its clients - such as universities, law firms, municipalities, media companies and manufacturing companies - and either refurbishes or recycles it. Items with a resale value are refurbished at the Richmond Hill warehouse (computers are always data-wiped) and then sold to retail companies to be re-marketed as used goods. Anything that is damaged or has no market value is broken down into individual materials (plastic, glass, aluminum, copper, etc.) and sold to recycling companies to be made into new items.

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Rebates are available to clients, with the net revenue from re-marketing or recycling of the IT waste split between the client and Toronto Recycling.

But while this process keeps Ontario's e-waste out of landfills, turning a profit is not quite as simple. Certainly the need is there, as electronic items quickly become obsolete. However, one of the challenges of Mr. Lim's industry is that the intrinsic value of used IT waste is very low in 90 per cent of the items, not even enough to compensate for the processing, transportation and storage costs. As he puts it, it's not a self-sustaining business. That's where Ontario Electronic Stewardship comes in.

The OES is a not-for-profit organization that was formed by leading retail, IT and consumer electronics companies under the Waste Diversion Act. Under the act, brand owners, first importers, franchisers and assemblers are all required to help fund the recycling of their e-waste. Those funds are distributed to companies like Toronto Recycling to help offset their costs. Ultimately, consumers pay the fee, in the form of the provincial environmental fees for new computers or other electronic items.

Mr. Lim prepared from the start to be part of the program, even though it wasn't clear when it would begin. Indeed, it would take several years before it was launched, in April of 2009.

"When I first opened up the operation, the main goal was to become part of this program," said Mr. Lim. "In the recycling business, volume is the key, but to reach that big volume it takes many, many years and a lot of effort and always competition is there wherever you are. But becoming a part of the program means a lot.

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"There were companies that had been in the market before me, but they weren't interested in, or didn't know to make the investment to prepare to take advantage of this opportunity."

To make sure he would qualify for the program, Mr. Lim adopted a stringent documentation and inventory system. It's an important feature of his business - the chain-of-custody reporting that ensures that companies can trace each and every item that goes to Toronto Recycling.

Mr. Lim said he is grateful to have been able to accomplish what he had been longing to do for years - to run his own business and do his part to improve the environment. He said he has many people to thank, particularly, his wife Yasmine, for insisting they make the move to Canada. In addition to enabling him to pursue his dream, the move had an unforeseen benefit: a healthier lifestyle.

"After I moved here, I stopped drinking and I stopped smoking," Mr. Lim said. "After a few years I had to tell her, thank you for your decision, you saved my life."

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About the Author

Shelley White is a freelance writer, editor, video producer and mother of twins. Before taking the plunge into the wild world of freelance work, she produced educational programming at TVO, explored digital culture at the late lamented Shift magazine and entertained young minds at MuchMusic. More

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