For those who collect refundable containers, pandemic shutdown is 'catastrophic'

On Sunday, around 40 Maxi grocery stores around Quebec are accepting refundable containers in parking lot depots.

Retailers stopped accepting bottle and can returns, drying up a primary income source for many

Marica Vazquez Tagliero, left, says income from refundable containers is 'indispensable.' In non-pandemic times, Michel Patoine made around $400 a month. (Matt D'Amours/CBC)

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, collecting and returning refundable bottles and cans was Michel Patoine's source of income, good for around $400 every month.

But when the virus took hold and the Quebec government imposed wide restrictions on the economy and public life, retailers stopped accepting returnable vessels.

For Patoine and many others who call themselves binners — or valoristes in French — the impact was immediate and devastating.

"I don't have anything else — I have this," Patoine said. "You're demolished. It took three or four days to absorb the news."

Marica Vazquez Tagliero, a co-founder of Les Valoristes, a cooperative that works with people who collect refundable containers, said for many in that community the income is "indispensable" and the current situation is "catastrophic."

"Most of the people who are doing this activity, they don't do it just for fun," Vazquez Tagliero said. "They do it because it's a flexible way of finding money that permits them to support their basic needs."

For people who get government assistance, the loss of a major — or sole — income supplement "makes it difficult for them to get groceries, buy medication or pay the rent."

Some of the people Vazquez Tagliero works with are stockpiling containers until retailers begin accepting them again, but only those who have space where they live or who have the fortune of working with an organization that can provide somewhere to store what they have collected.

Maxi stores accepting cans today

Volunteers sort through bags of returned bottles and cans at a supermarket parking lot on Jean-Talon Boulevard in Montreal. (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC)

Patoine is one of those who is accumulating a collection of containers, and in the meantime he has had to resort to going to food banks, something he says he's never had to do before.

Sometime in the next few weeks Les Valoristes will open their annual summer depot under the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, though with pandemic-conscious precautions in place.

The province is working on a plan for retailers to resume accepting returnable cans and bottles, but some retailers are already taking action.

On Sunday, around 40 Maxi grocery stores around Quebec accepted refundable containers in parking lot depots. The chain was offering to let people claim the refund or donate it to charity. 

At the Maxi supermarket on Jean-Talon Boulevard, Kabiria Espinosa brought a trunk full of empty cans and bottles that had accumulated in her garage over the last few weeks, as well as a bunch more she collected from neighbours.

"We wanted to do a little part, give back and clean out our garage," she said. The refund money will go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada.

"I lost my brother to blood cancer," she said. "This is definitely a cause that is near to my heart."

Benoit Jones, a district manager for Maxi, said the day had been quite busy.

"We've had vehicles backed up in a number of our stores."


With files from Matt D'Amours and Valeria Cori-Manocchio

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