Since China closed its doors to foreign recycling in January, several centres in Quebec have been struggling.

In Quebec, about 60 per cent of recyclable material including paper and plastic used to be sold to Asian companies, most of them in China.

The Montreal recycling center -the biggest one in Quebec- has been asking for the Quebec government and its governmental organization, Recyc-Quebec, to intervene and give money to recycling centres.

“We’re going to have to see with Recyc-Quebec and the provincial government which sorts of aids recycling centres in Quebec will obtain because it’s clear that with a crisis like this one, no one will be able to go through it,” said Gilbert Durocher, director of Montreal’s recycling centre to National Observer in early March.

Durocher said that with many recycling centres around the world being affected by the crisis and trying to sell their recyclable materials, prices have gone down and that his recycling centre was seeing “enormous” financial consequences.

On January 25, the Quebec government and Recyc-Quebec announced a $3 million investment to fund projects by recycling centres.

“The $3 million (investment) is a first step,” said Recyc-Quebec in an email, “ We will be able to adjust the means we have deployed until now with additional investments. We will have a clearer idea of the situation by the spring after the submission of (project) proposals.”

The government society said that the 27 recycling centres in Quebec all had different situations based on their business models and shares of exportations to China.

“Since the announcement of the closure, several stakeholders in the sector have been contacted by Recyc-Quebec to better understand the problems they’re anticipating and to develop leads for solutions,” Recyc-Quebec said.

Durocher said his recycling centre would submit a project but that the current investment was not sufficient.

“We’re going to need more effort,” he said.

As of early March, around 6,000 bundles of recyclable material have been waiting in the courtyard of the Montreal’s recycling centre. Durocher said all of them had been sold to new markets such as India, Indonesia and Korea, and were just been stored until they could be sent in the next weeks or months.

Recycling, Montreal
Bundles of paper are being stored at the Montreal recycling centre on Feb. 19. Photo taken by Karel Ménard.

Karel Ménard, director of the Front Commun pour une gestion écologique des déchets, an environmental group, has seen the thousands of bundles accumulating and is worried.

“If we learn that bundles of recyclable material sorted by regular citizens go to dumping grounds, there’s going to be a sort of confidence crisis and we need to avoid that at all costs because citizens are already cynical right now for all different reasons,” Ménard told National Observer on February 26.

Ménard said that there was very little information about the crisis. He said that many recycling centres and the government just said “everything was okay.”

“Honestly, it surprises me a lot that 60 per cent of the material we exported, all of a sudden we find someone to buy it here or elsewhere on the planet while everyone in the world is dealing with the same situation,” he said. “Great if it’s the case, but I’d like to hear official communications from the government.”

He said that in a previous recycling crisis in 2008, recycling material had to be simply burned or buried.

Maryse Vermette, CEO of Éco Entreprise Québec, a private non-profit organization which represents packaging companies that are legally obligated to finance municipal curbside recycling services, said her group and Recyc-Quebec have warned against the practice of burying recyclable material.

“With Recyc-Quebec we have said zero tolerance for the burying (recyclable) material,” she said to National Observer on March 5. “We need to send a clear message that burying (recyclable material) is not acceptable.”

Recyc-Quebec said to National Observer that the decision to bury material was ultimately in the hands of recycling centres. The Quebec environment department also said that “based on applicable laws and regulation,” the department could not order recycling centres and dumping grounds not to bury recycling materials.

Ménard said that, based on current regulations, the government had no way of knowing what recycling centres would eventually do with their material.

“All the information we have is based on voluntary disclosures from recycling centres themselves,” he said.

Vermette said Éco Entreprise Québec had already “raised a red flag” about the upcoming crisis in summer to warn recycling centres to prepare and that she was hearing “relatively encouraging” news from most centres in the province.

But for Ménard, another worry is that even if recyclable materials manage to be sold to new markets including Vietnam, Indonesia or India, it remains unclear how they are recycled there.

Vermette said that her organization has been asking for several years for legislation to verify that recyclable materials from Quebec are actually being recycled when sent abroad. European countries including Germany and France already have such regulations and officials regularly visit and verify foreign recycling companies, where their domestic material is being sent.

She said she was reassured about new Indian, Vietnamese and Indonesian markets because some of her European contacts told her they were recycling.

Ménard thinks that this crisis could result in improvements to the current recycling system.

“Maybe the good side of the crisis it that we could review all the mechanisms that have been put into place in a slightly anarchical way and try to have a global vision,” he said.

In order to develop local markets, Vermette believes it's important improve the quality of bundles of recyclable material so that they can be sold to local companies. She's hopeful that there will eventually be changes based on what she has heard from Quebec environment minister, Isabelle Mélançon.

“If we put in place quality norms, it will help to build a stronger and less fragile industry,” said Vermette.

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This is a huge opportunity! Every single chemical engineering & biochemical university program in the country should be taking on this challenge to turn this plastic waste into something usable. We already know of 3 mushroom species that break down plastic - a great opportunity for bio-remediation. The companies that have imported this plastic with their products should be contributing $$$$ to the universities to find a solution.

Step 2 - make all producers of plastic 100% responsible for dealing with their plastic!! That would reduce waste in packaging to almost nothing!