Montreal·Special Report

Quebec’s recycling industry performing poorly, experts say

People who work in the recycling business in Quebec are warning that the industry is in jeopardy and plants are shutting down.

The province has more than 30 recycling plants, but only a few are making money

Items at a Montreal recycling plant are sorted. It's estimated that about 15 per cent of things Montrealers put in their recycling bin cannot actually be recycled. (CBC)

People who work in the recycling business in Quebec are warning that the industry is in jeopardy and plants are shutting down.

“It's a difficult period. I think the model that has been around to manage the recycling is obsolete now. There needs to be changes,” said Johnny Izzi, director general at Gaudreau Environnement.

Izzi manages several recycling plants in Quebec and says operating costs are getting too high.

His glass recycling plant in Longueuil closed its doors last summer.

“We lost more than $2 million in the last two years operating that plant because we believed in treating the glass, and not sending it to a landfill,” Izzi said, adding that once the plant eventually shut down, the glass was sent to a landfill because there was nowhere else to process it.

In June, a plastic recycling plant declared bankruptcy, though it continues to operate with some aid from the government.

Reduced quality leads to Asia exports

Experts say recycling plants are losing money because the market for selling recycled materials is at an all-time low, while operating costs are on the rise.

Also, many plastics on the market contain new types of materials and many facilities in Quebec do not have the technology to process them properly.

“To build or modernize equipment, we're talking millions of dollars. So not every recycling facility can afford that,” Izzi said.

Recycling plant managers say another problem is that people are putting junk in their recycling bins. It’s estimated that about 15 per cent of a recycling bin’s contents is actually trash.

Even with technology like optical sorters, not all of the unwanted items get removed from the mix. That downgrades the quality of the final product.

“You know what we say: garbage in — garbage out. So yes, we want some better quality entering the sorting centre so we can produce some better quality,” said Groupe TIRU Vice-President Gilbert Durocher, who manages the recycling centres on the island of Montreal.

The reduced quality is having an impact on who's buying. At one Montreal plant, 80 per cent of recycled material is exported to Asia — where standards are lower — because Canadian companies have stopped buying.

“We've seen a general downgrading of the quality and the impact it has is that we're looking outside those sources to get the quality we need,” said Hugo D'Amours, spokesman at Cascades

D’Amours said the company, which makes tissue products composed mostly from recycled fibres, is turning more often to the United States and Ontario to buy its recycled materials.

A call for government help

People working in the recycling industry say they want the government to help plants deal with challenges they face — before more plants close down.

Recyc-Québec, a government agency in charge of recycling, says it’s aware of the issues.

“The quality coming out of the municipal sorting facilities is really a priority for Recyc-Québec and that's why we've launched [a] financial program, which is really aimed at improving the quality of the material coming out -- because we know if we work on the quality, then the value will be higher and can meet recyclers' demand,” said Recyc-Québec CEO Benoit de Villiers.

The agency is also working on conducting a waste audit — a first in Quebec — which will allow municipalities to target problem areas and launch awareness campaigns.