Cleaning up Quebec City — one empty can at a time

After a successful run in Montreal, Les Valoristes is setting up collection points in Quebec City where binners can exchange their cans and bottles for cash.

Les Valoristes offer refunds for cans and bottles that could otherwise end up in trash

Serge Williams, a volunteer with Les Valoristes, said he got into "binning" after noticing how many refundable cans were ending up in the garbage. (Julia Page/CBC)

Serge Williams estimates he's picked up well over a million cans over the last few years collecting refundable containers in the Quebec City region.

And that's only when he's not at his day job as a forest technician for the Ministry of Forests and Wildlife.

"It seems astronomical, but picking up cans in Quebec is a joke — they're everywhere," said Williams.

From park benches to sidewalks to blue bins in his suburban neighbourhood — at five cents a can, they're his for the taking.

"People are fed up. It's complicated to bring them back, so they chuck them in the blue bin," he said.

He's now volunteering with Les Valoristes co-op to collect even more.

Every Sunday, the non-profit organization sets up their table under the Duplessis overpass.

A blue children's swimming pool is laid out, ready to be filled with empty bottles and cans that "binners" have picked up in public places or in trash bins.

"One guy left this morning, he was so happy — and we just gave him five dollars," said Williams.

Cutting down on waste

Les Valoristes has existed in Montreal since 2013. From 2015 to 2018, it collected more than 2.5 million refundable containers at its bottle depot, under the Jacques-Cartier Bridge.

Based on British-Columbia's United We Can model, the goal is to make bottle collecting a little easier for people who have trouble landing a regular job, according to the co-ordinator of Quebec City's Valoristes, Véronique Chabot.

"It's another way to make a living," she said.

This is the first year Les Valoristes is organizing bottle depots for refundable containers in Quebec City. (Julia Page/CBC)

She said that showing up at grocery stores with large bags can be cumbersome.

Pushing hundreds of cans through automatic machines takes a lot of time at the end of an often long day walking around — and crushed cans aren't accepted.

But the biggest challenge binners face, said Chabot, are people's perceptions.

 "Some people call the police when they see someone looking in their garbage," she said, even when their bin is on public property for curbside pickup.

The fact that there are so many refundable containers that end up in blue bins or garbage bags illustrates the ongoing issues with the province's recycling system, she argued.

Only beer bottles, cans and soft drink containers are refundable in Quebec. With the exception of Manitoba, other provinces have depots where large quantities of milk, juice, water and wine bottles can be dropped off for a refund.

"Too much of our waste goes to the landfill. We need this system to be updated and we need bottle depots to make it easier," said Chabot.

After three weekends, the Quebec City co-op has collected 20,523 containers. 

But more importantly, Chabot said, they are giving dignity back to the people who pick up other people's trash.

"They are cleaning up our city and doing us a service," she said.

Space, hygiene a concern for grocery stores

Without designated bottle depots, grocery and convenience store owners end up with mountains of 12-packs and empty cans.

Yves Servais, the general manager of the Association des marchands dépanneurs et épiciers du Québec, said that isn't ideal to maintain a clean space for fresh produce.

Véronique Chabot, the coordinator of Les Valoristes in Quebec City, said so far this year, Les Valoristes have collected 20,523 containers. (Julia Page/CBC)

"It smells, we find insects inside these containers. So it's a hygiene problem for us," said Servais.

Warehouses often fill up quickly, he said, sometimes making it difficult to bring in new inventory.

Merchants receive two cents for every container they process — but Servais said that compensation, which came into effect in 1984, no longer makes up for the salaries and warehouse space merchants pay out to handle the empties.

With Quebec about to review the law in an upcoming parliamentary commission in the fall, Servais said he's worried what will happen if more containers, like water bottles, become refundable.

"We're ready to play a role, but there are limits to what we can handle in a small space like a dépanneur," said Servais.

He said he's interested in seeing a mixed model, where larger bottle depots could co-exist with local drop-off points.