As soon as Stephanie Valenzuela walked through the doors of Montreal’s brand new recycling center in Lachine, she was greeted by the stench of garbage.
The environment spokeswoman for the opposition party Ensemble Montreal says she saw dirty diapers and discarded meat bones mixed with cardboard, plastic and paper during a visit to the facility earlier this year .
The disarray confirmed a big problem for Valenzuela: Montreal’s recycling program is in an “alarming” state and needs to change.
“If we don’t do it now, I really believe we’re going to enter a cycle that we can’t really get out of,” said Valenzuela, municipal councilor for Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.
Ricova, which took over the sorting center in 2020, has faced criticism over contamination of materials sorted for recycling at the plant, making it difficult to find a buyer.
Montreal’s two recycling plants – in Lachine and Saint-Michel – have struggled with high levels of contamination, making it difficult to get the best price and ultimately recycle items.
CBC did not have access to the Lachine sorting center.
According to a recent presentation to city council, the level of contamination in sorted bales of paper hovered around 25% in both centres, although this level was reduced to 15% in Saint-Michel in January.
The improvement is probably due to the new Ricova equipment installed last November.
At the more modern Lachine plant, Ricova blamed faulty sorting equipment and filed a $5.5 million lawsuit last year against the manufacturer to buy new machines. This case is still before the courts.
But experts say sorting centers will never be able to reach the desired standard, no matter which company runs the site, unless Quebec’s approach to recycling receives a major overhaul.
Default from the start
The contract for the $49 million Lachine plant was approved in 2017 under the administration of former mayor Denis Coderre.
When it opened in 2019, Valérie Plante, who became mayor the previous year, presented it as a key element of her commitment to becoming a zero waste city by 2030.
“This will significantly improve the recycling of plastic and paper, which means that the quality, and therefore the value of the products, will be improved,” Plante said at the time.
But this quality is still not where it is supposed to be.
Under the current model, paper, plastic, glass, and anything else placed incorrectly in a recycling bin gets mixed up during collection, making contamination almost inevitable.
Much of the glass collected through recycling is contaminated or broken during transport.
Glass fragments are crushed and used as concrete filler on construction projects or spread as an aggregate in landfills instead of sand.
Maja Vodanovic, Lachine borough mayor and member of the city’s executive committee, said the plant built in her own borough would be more efficient if the system was changed.
“That’s not how it should work. We can’t put glass together, crush it with everything else, paper and all different types of plastic, especially soft plastic,” Vodanovic said, who sits on the National Zero Waste Council.
Vodanovic said that a deposit-based recycling program like the one implemented in British Columbia, would be more efficient. This province recently expanded its program to include milk cartons. Glass is also recycled separately.
“They just don’t mix it up from the start,” she said.
Vodanovic advocated for the federal government to implement a nationwide deposit system and hold producers more accountable for reducing plastic waste.
Sort at source
In the meantime, a few simple changes could help reduce contamination, said Karel Ménard, executive director of the Quebec Coalition for Ecological Waste Management.
In Ottawa, residents are asked to take out the paper and cardboard every two weeks. On public holidays, the city collects plastic, glass and metal. That way, contamination is minimized, Ménard said.
“In Quebec, everything is mixed up and the sorting centers are only there to sort out the problem that has arisen here,” he says.
“Twenty-five years ago there was a separation in the curbside collection bin. But that means we have to have lorries with a separation in the middle, and we have to have a sorting center with different ways to sort materials.
In European countries like Germany, it goes even further. Citizens are responsible for reviewing all their waste and separating it into different bins and containers.
If the quality is improved, it could help create what is called a circular economy.
Rather than shipping it overseas, there would be a market for that material locally.
“If the recycling is on the other side of the planet, I think there’s a problem,” Ménard said.
Slow to change
Quebec has a plan to expand its deposit program, but progress has been slow.
The province launched a pilot project in six communities last year, where people can drop off bottles ranging from 100 milliliters to two liters.
In January, Environment Minister Benoit Charette pushed back plans to extend the beverage container deposit system from the end of 2022 to the following year.
The plan will require traders who sell these products to take them back and repay the deposit. Bottles of wine and spirits are worth 25 cents, while other bottles are worth 10 cents.
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Colleen Thorpe, chief executive of Equiterre, said the deposit needs to be higher – like in a carbon tax – in order to change people’s behavior and encourage people to recycle.
But his organization argues that ultimately the best way to reduce waste is to reduce packaging in the first place.
“For so long we thought recycling was the answer. Now we know recycling isn’t the answer, but the real answer is to first avoid waste so you don’t have to deal with it and may it not be lying in the landfill in someone else’s garden,” she said.
“What we would like to see is for the government to impose more constraints and have multi-use bottles and that exists in the market right now, but it’s not widespread.”
As things stand, Valenzuela said more public education is needed.
“I think we really need to focus on campaigns, on education, on raising awareness, on what really belongs in our recycling bins.”