For pretty much all of her life, Tabitha Livingstone was being groomed for a long-term career in her family’s Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant in Rustico.
That all changed when a groom of a different kind showed up — her now husband, Dalbert Livingstone — and she shifted gears to a whole new family-owned business, Island Auto Supply in Charlottetown.
“Like I said at my wedding, ‘I traded in fryer oil for engine oil,’” laughs Tabitha, who is now co-owner of this automobile recycling company, which was founded by Dalbert’s grandparents, Harvey and Rena Livingstone, in 1966 and now has 19 employees, many of whom are family members.
“Last year we processed hundreds of cars,” she adds of her company, which has been recognized for its ongoing top-notch environmentally conscious practices.
Although recycling has always been a big part of the restaurant industry, it was Tabitha’s mother’s longstanding sorting practices at home that first took root.
“My mother was always quite keen on (recycling and reusing), even (years ago) when people had never even heard of recycling. But you could take your own blue bags for recycling at the bottle plants. My mom did that in our house,” she says.
Until she met Dalbert, she was pretty much unaware of the complex process involved in automobile recycling.
“To come into a place like this you think, ‘Oh, they just take cars and then they pull parts.’ But it’s a whole process of recycling a vehicle in the same sense. What a vehicle can do (if not processed properly) is very harmful, which is why you have to put all these (steps) into place to recycle and reuse them,” she says.
She made her first steps on this road to change three years ago when she and Dalbert were planning their future together.
She was assisting in the management of her family’s popular wharf-side restaurant, but decided to give the auto recycling business a go.
“(The restaurant) is seasonal, so I was off through the winter. So I gave it a try and I surprised myself that I liked it. I’ve always been very good in a managerial way, it’s more inbred in me and I’d been doing that for quite some time,” Tabitha remembers.
She started out in Island Auto Supply’s shipping and receiving department.
“So I came in and started implementing some changes, putting some routines and structures into place, and I liked it. I liked getting my hands dirty. I liked that I didn’t have to dress up every day. It was fun how it all changed like that for me,” says Tabitha, who married Dalbert in May 2011.
She now knows by heart the extensive procedure of properly processing end-of-life vehicles in an environmentally safe manner.
“When a vehicle first comes in you drain all its fluids out. We have a list of parts that we would tag off: fast-selling parts like alternators, starters, struts . . . ,” she says.
“We have a waste oil furnace so we burn our own waste oil here, plus we take All
a lot of other waste oil in from other businesses around. The antifreeze and windshield wiper fluids we rebottle and sell out front.”
A special machine drains air-conditioning fluid that is put into storage tanks and traded by the bottle with local auto businesses.
“They give us empty ones and they take our full ones. They use that AC (fluid) to fill up the cars that are in their shops. It’s like a trade program that way, which turns out well for us because if we had to get rid of those tanks full of AC it would be quite expensive.”
Cars that are 2002 models or older may include mercury switches in the trunk area or under the engine bonnet.
“One of those little tiny mercury switches, if it dropped into a lake and broke it would it would take the whole lake out,” Livingstone says.
Island Auto Supply is affiliated with the Switch Out Program, which accepts collected switches twice a year.
To date, this program has collected and safely managed 625,000 switches.
“When everything is completely done and has been stripped off and all the fluids drained, then we have somebody come in and crush them. Then that company takes them to a shredder plant,” says Tabitha, whose company is a member of the Automotive Recyclers Association of Atlantic Canada, which was co-founded by Harvey.
“Our association developed this program of draining, dismantling, taking the switches off, to follow and now it’s actually starting to follow suit and we’re seeing it in the shredders and the people that are crushing them, they’re not taking them anymore until they have been properly drained, dismantled and put to the end of their life.”
Non-functioning core parts like batteries, starters and alternators are sold to companies that refurbish them.
A local person picks up tires for recycling.
Disposing of a car has come a long way from the drag-’em-to-the-back-40 days.
Today it is possible to reuse, remanufacture or recycle more than 80 per cent of an entire vehicle.
“People just didn’t know the devastating effects that that stuff can do like they do today,” says Tabitha, who has been lobbying government for stricter rules pertaining to auto recycling on P.E.I.
“Right now on P.E.I. there are over 50 salvage licenses out there. Don’t get me wrong, I am not in the position that we would ever dream of putting people out of business, but there are still people out there who are buying up vehicles, stockpiling them in their backyard and crushers are coming in and everything is just going into the ground.
“And then there are people like us that are being responsible and trying to put into place something that makes other people as responsible for processing vehicles as us.”
Tabitha Livingstone’s skills at restaurant management came in handy when she started working at her husband’s family-owned Island Auto Supply, which the couple now co-owns.
©Guardian photo by Mary MacKay