Montreal·Video

Can Quebec handle millions of empties under new deposit system? SAQ looks for solutions

The plan to collect a deposit on all beverage containers in the Quebec is being hailed by environmentalists while raising the concerns in those who will be stuck on the receiving end.

Automatic bottle-collection machines may become the norm at provincial liquor outlets

Automatic machines that collect bottles, like these seen in the United States, may soon become the norm at Quebec liquor store outlets across the province. (Don Ryan/The Associated Press)

The Legault government's plan to expand Quebec's bottle consignment system to include all beverage containers in the province is being hailed by environmentalists, while raising concerns among those who will be stuck managing the expected flood of returnables.

But Quebec's liquor board, after years of opposing the collection of wine and liquor bottles, isn't fighting the plan. It will instead be testing automatic collection machines in the coming year to handle the influx of empties.

And there will be a lot. Quebec projects that more than four billion containers will be returned annually, including more than one billion plastic water bottles.

Among those returns will be plenty of wine bottles. The SAQ sells some 200 million a year.

When Quebec was consulting on the deposit plan this summer, SAQ president and CEO Catherine Dagenais said it would be impossible for the Crown corporation to manage the expected volume of returns at its more than 400 outlet locations.

"That's why we're testing machines," she said, after the government announced the new deposit system on Thursday.

"The space factor is still an issue," she said. "But in a machine that captures the bottle and crushes it, that changes everything."

SAQ president and CEO Catherine Dagenais says provincial liquor stores will find ways to manage the empty bottles. (CBC)

Wine and spirit bottles will be exchanged for 25 cents each by 2022, and all other bottles will come with a 10-cent deposit.

Quebec wants 90 per cent of all beverage containers in the province to be recovered and recycled by 2030.

Alberta has a similar system in place, and as of 2018, the province has been diverting two billion containers from landfills by collecting more than 85 per cent of beverage containers sold.

Dagenais said it remains to be seen if these bottle-collection machines can function well outside in the winter. 

That's why the SAQ will test the machines before installing them across the province.

Plan draws praise from Recyc-Québec

The SAQ won't be alone in coming up with a way to collect empties. Recyc-Québec, the province's recycling authority, will oversee the implementation of the container recovery system, but the companies that sell the containers will have to present a deposit-management plan within a year, including the opening of a network of private depot centres.

The Legault government aims to have about 400 recovery points across the province.

"We want the system as simple as possible," Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette said on Thursday.

Recyc-Québec President Sonia Gagné ​​​​​said beverage containers are of a higher quality because they are less contaminated than other types of containers.

Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette says the aim to create a simple container-recovery system. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

'Logistically impossible' to collect them all

Still, there are those who say the plan is too ambitious. Quebec's association of food retailers (ADA) came out against it, saying it would be "logistically impossible" for its members to collect all the listed containers. 

ADA's CEO, Pierre-Alexandre Blouin, said storage areas are already filled with returnable containers under the current system, and in "most traditional grocery stores, you have almost one person working full-time on bottle deposits."

Citing Quebec's labour shortage, Martin Vézina, a spokesperson for the province's restaurant association, said restaurants are short-staffed and don't have the resources to return empties.

"We are a big consumer who has many, many bottles. More than 50 bottles a day. That's not the same as a citizen who brings back two bottles of wine to the supermarket," he said.

CBC Montreal's Verity Stevenson explains how the current deposit system will change. 1:00

with files from La Presse canadienne

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