Local Business

A Green Alternative

Local business offers an environmentally-friendly solution for construction companies…

“I delivered 20,000 litres last year,” says Martin McNabb of his GreenRelease product, a vegetable oil substitute for diesel oil used in concrete building forms.  “That’s 20,000 litres less of toxic oil being trucked hundreds of miles to end up in our watershed.  That gives me a lot of hope.”

Martin McNabb believes education is a catalyst for change.  It’s the main reason he became a teacher, however his ‘education’ encompasses a wider world than the official world of formal schooling.

“A friend of mine was complaining to me that his wife was refusing to wash his work clothes. ‘She says I should throw them out, they stink so much, but I can’t put on a new set of work clothes every day,’ he was saying to me,” says McNabb.

That friend works in the construction industry and is required to work with wooden forms for concrete to be poured into.  The traditional method of preparing the forms involved spraying the wooden forms with diesel oil.  This allows the forms to be pulled off the hardened concrete.  “That diesel oil—it stinks!” McNabb says.   “It’s also toxic.  If you’re working in summer heat, it makes you feel all woozy.   If you’re working in an enclosed space, you have to wear a mask.”

McNabb pondered the dilemma his friend—and many other construction workers—was in.  “As a person who knows a little about science, I thought there has to be a better way… and that was the beginning.  I experimented with various substances and came up with a mixture of vegetable oils and some secret ingredients.  After a good bit of trial and error, I eventually came up with a formula—and voila—it worked!”   Thus was born GreenRelease, McNabb’s company.

Six years have passed since that experiment and quietly and single-handedly McNabb has been going to professionals in the construction industry and telling them about his invention.

“It’s a win-win situation,” McNabb says. “Not only is the oil available locally, it’s non-toxic.  When the concrete made in diesel-sprayed forms is finished, the rain eventually washes the diesel off—into our groundwater, into our drains, poisoning everything it touches.  Trucks were bringing the diesel up from Texas and Ohio—more poisoning of our air.  Almost the whole of Vancouver Island has converted to vegetable oil for their concrete forms.  It’s fantastic.”

Surprisingly, in the age of internet and hard-sell, most of McNabb’s customers have been swayed by word of mouth.  “No one liked using the diesel oil,” he says frankly, “but at the time, there were no alternatives.  Prolonged use of diesel makes the skin on your hands crack, and the strong smell permeates your body—not to mention your clothes.

“When I began my rounds of concrete companies and construction sites, the first question was invariably, ‘Is it more expensive?’  You see, even although people know what they’re doing is harmful, we’re all conditioned to putting money first.  Fortunately, my product isn’t more expensive, and once people heard it was vegetable oil, they were keen to give it a try.  One man told me recently that when he went to pull the forms off the concrete, he pried off the first board and the rest just fell off!  ‘I’m sold,’ he told me.”

Born in Toronto 52 years ago, McNabb is the child of immigrants from Northern Ireland.  “It was easier to get into a commonwealth country back then,” he explains, “but my parents held the United States as the ideal place to live, so when I was two years old, we moved to Los Angeles.  After 13 years there, McNabb moved to Oregon where he stayed for the next 27 years, completing a Bachelor of Arts degree.  He had a four year stint in Germany and a year in South America before coming to Vancouver and earning his teaching degree at UBC.

“I initially went into teaching because I had a desire for a world run on better principles, but found the reality extremely frustrating,” he says.  “The education system is a world unto itself and many teachers and administrators are not in the slightest interested in shaking the status quo.  I wasn’t too popular with quite a few head teachers!”  He laughs.  “I was too much of a free-thinker, didn’t wear a suit and tie, and had a non-authoritarian rapport with the kids.”

But, he adds, “I always got on really well with the kids and still do.  I work as a teacher-on-call and when I go to a class I regularly sub for in Port Alberni, the kids have a big smile and say, ‘Hooray, we got the McNabb again.’”

Finding his chosen profession to be rather hit-and-miss, McNabb had been dabbling in various other business ideas.  “You know, it’s a bit frustrating in Canada as a small business person,” he says.   “Having grown up in the States, I saw that small businesses were encouraged and seen as a positive force in a local economy.  The Canadian government seems to have no interest in supporting small business; they’re more concerned with protecting their benefactors.  I found Canadians to reflect that attitude, and be rather suspicious of small businesses.  They seemed to be under the impression that large corporations would be more reliable, and they felt somehow safer dealing with them—not that there’s any real evidence of the truth of that belief.  The reverse, I would say.”

McNabb shrugs his shoulders and looks thoughtful before continuing.  “I think that attitude is changing though, and it’s part of the slow ‘greening’ of our ideas.  Certainly in the Comox Valley there is growing support for small businesses like mine.  Also, I think the slump in the construction industry last summer gave everybody involved in it a bit of time to reflect.  They were all so frantically busy in that building boom that swept through here, no one had time to consider new ways of doing anything.  ‘If it’s working, let it be’ seemed to be the philosophy.  People are more open to listening to what I have to say about not using diesel oil, and really, we all know the writing is on the wall as far as the oil industry is concerned.”

Over the past two years, McNabb has seen a big shift in attitudes.  “Lots of the guys I talk to in the construction industry love to fish, and I say, ‘Why would you want to pollute the oceans and poison the fish when there’s an alternative?’  They can’t disagree, and ultimately, most people want to do the right thing, so if it’s made affordable, they jump right on board.”

One of the delights in operating GreenRelease for McNabb is that all his oil comes from restaurants that would dispose of their frying oil anyway.  Oil can only be used for a limited time for frying before becoming a health hazard and has to be thrown out.  Most of it used to go into pet food, but now there are quite a few businesses that are more than happy to take used oil.  As more cars convert to bio-fuel, there is more demand for used oil.

McNabb’s attention to his own ‘carbon footprint’ is obvious in his enthusiasm for GreenRelease’s growing number of clients.  He also runs his own car on used vegetable oil, and sees that although bio-degradable oil isn’t a total solution, it’s part of the puzzle of finding better ways of doing things.

At the moment, McNabb is still doing most of the collection and delivery of oil himself.  “I collect all the used oil myself in containers in the back of my truck, and take it to a little plant I have and mix it into GreenRelease and then I deliver it from Campbell River down to Victoria.  I’m not really a salesman, though, and just recently I’ve been able to hire another man to work with me, and he drums up more customers.  Up till then, though, I’ve had to do everything myself—advertising, delivering.  It’s been a lot of work over the past six years, but it’s beginning to pay off, finally.”

One of the first commercial outlets to use GreenRelease was Island Forms in the Comox Valley.  “I talked to the owner and asked what he was using, and it was diesel oil, or engine oil, of course.  Everyone used that because it’s cheaper than regular oil, as it’s used off-road and isn’t taxed.  He was using 3,800 litres a year—all of which was going into the environment afterward.  One of the other beauties about GreenRelease is that it’s totally bio-degradable—it turns into mold within a month,” McNabb says.

“Island Forms tried it and really liked it, and it’s a small community where the concrete delivery people talk to their customers, and word spread.  Another big outfit is Highland Concrete and they’re now using GreenRelease—it’s exciting.

“Concrete is in everything,” McNabb says.  “It’s ubiquitous—in our roads, our homes, all the pipes that carry waste, as well as clean water—and for centuries we’ve been using products that are harmful to the environment, as well as ourselves.  But slowly and surely, things are coming around.  I knew from my own experience how toxic diesel oil was—I’ve done my share of spraying it on forms—so I’m delighted that there’s something better for us all.

“Of course, there are still some people who are stuck in their old attitudes, even though they know it’s bad for them.  Some people don’t like to change,” McNabb says.  “But I look on the fact that I delivered 20,000 litres last year—that’s 20,000 litres less of toxic oil being trucked hundreds of miles to end up in our watershed.  That gives me a lot of hope.”

For more information visit www.greenrelease.ca.