This is what a recycling crisis in Quebec looks like

Sherbrooke’s recycling plant, Recup-Estrie is drowning in a sea of untreated plastic, paper and metal after a dispute with its sorting company shut down operations for nearly two weeks.

Sherbrooke’s recycling plant is drowning in a sea of untreated plastic, paper and metal

A cat scavenges at the recycling plant in Sherbrooke as mountains of untreated material surrounds the site. (Alison Brunette/CBC)

Mounds of colourful plastic, paper and glass tower six metres high and cover most surfaces at Sherbrooke's recycling plant.

Several stray cats climb to the top of the pile, playing in cardboard boxes and sniffing empty tin cans.

Every step produces a loud crunch as miscellaneous discarded objects shatter underfoot.

Conveyor belts used to sort the material are buried under the mess.

Pierre Avard is the vice-president of the regional sorting facility Recup-Estrie, which reopened four days ago after being shut down for two weeks.

He blames the chaos on Ricova — the multinational waste management company hired to run the plant, claiming it did not fulfill the terms of its contract.

"We'd sent warnings and complaints to Ricova for several  months and nothing changed," Avard said.

"The material wasn't getting sorted anymore."

Pierre Avard, the Vice-President of Recup-Estrie, said he's never seen Sherbrooke's recycling plant in such disarray since it opened 16 years ago. (Alison Brunette/CBC)

Avard said about a dozen employees are attempting to create some semblance of order after operations at the plant ground to a halt at the beginning of June.

Avard said Recup-Estrie sent a letter to Ricova terminating its contract a year-and-a-half early and forcing the company off the property.

Ricova denies accusations

Ricova president Dominic Colubriale has a different version of events.

He said operations at Recup-Estrie were running well, until the company was forced to leave.

Colubriale said the relationship with Recup-Estrie only turned sour after Ricova approached the regional facility's administration asking to renegotiate its contract for more money.

The city of Sherbrooke's recycling plant is overflowing with material after it shut down for two weeks. (CBC News/Alison Brunette)

He said the problem dates back to when China imposed a wide-ranging ban on imported waste last year.

"Honestly, we believe it's all about the market crisis," said Colubriale.

"Where we used to sell [recycled paper] product for about $150 dollars a tonne, today we're paying to get rid of it. So somebody has to pay the cost to get it processed."

Calls to improve practices in Quebec

For some residents like Karel Ménard, who heads the Coalition of Ecological Waste Management, Quebec's recycling problem starts at home.

He says by allowing paper, glass and plastic to be mixed in bins, recycling plants are creating problems for themselves.

"We have to rethink curbside collection in Quebec," said Ménard.

"That starts with the producers, with the collection itself, with what you do at home."

A mound of untreated recycling snakes its way around Sherbrooke's recycling plant (Alison Brunette/CBC)

But Paul le Blois, vice-president of recycling at Montreal-based Kruger, doesn't think changing Quebec's entire recycling system is realistic.

His company buys about 40 per cent of its used paper from Quebec, with the rest coming from other parts of Canada and North America.

Le Blois said the problem lies with paper not being sorted properly.

"They can't cope with being able to clean it all," he said. "Other material passes through and it's very hard for our mills to take. It can jam up our machines."

He said the company could increase what it buys in Quebec substantially if people were more careful about what they throw into their recycling bins.

"There's stuff being put in the box right now that shouldn't be. So if we could stop doing that, it would help our sorting centres."

Short-term solution for Sherbrooke

Recup-Estrie has taken operations into their own hands and hired back former employees of Ricova under their own banner.

Curbside pick up has resumed, and the city expects it should be back to normal by next week.

Ricova said it has contacted its legal team and prefers not to disclose its next move.

with files from CBC's Verity Stevenson.