As soon as Stephanie Valenzuela walked through the doors at Montreal's newest recycling centre in Lachine, she was greeted by the stink of garbage.
The environment critic for the opposition party Ensemble Montréal says she saw dirty diapers and discarded meat bones mixed among the cardboard, plastic and paper during a tour of the facility earlier this year.
The disarray confirmed a big problem for Valenzuela: Montreal's recycling program is in an "alarming" state and needs to change.
"If we don't do it now, I really believe that we're going to go into a cycle that we can't really get ourselves out of," said Valenzuela, a borough councillor in Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.
Ricova, which took over the sorting centre in 2020, has faced the brunt of the criticism for the contamination in material sorted for recycling at the plant, which makes it difficult to find a buyer.
Both of Montreal's recycling plants — in Lachine and Saint-Michel — have struggled with high contamination levels, making it difficult to get top dollar and to ultimately recycle the items.
CBC was not given access to the Lachine sorting plant.
According to a recent presentation to city council, the level of contamination in sorted paper bales has hovered around 25 per cent at the two centres, although that level was cut to 15 per cent at Saint-Michel in January.
The improvement is likely due to new equipment Ricova installed last November.
At the more modern Lachine plant, Ricova has blamed faulty sorting equipment and filed a $5.5-million lawsuit last year against the manufacturer to buy new machinery. That case is still before the courts.
But experts say the sorting centres will never be able to reach the desired standard, regardless of the company managing the site, if Quebec's approach to recycling doesn't get a major overhaul.
Flawed from the beginning
The contract for the $49-million Lachine plant was approved in 2017 under the administration of former mayor Denis Coderre.
When it opened in 2019, Valérie Plante, who became mayor the year before, billed it as a key part of her commitment to become a zero waste city by 2030.
"This will significantly improve the recycling of plastic and paper, which means that the quality, and therefore the value of the products will be improved," Plante said at the time.
But that quality still isn't where it's supposed to be.
Under the current model, paper, plastic, glass and anything else incorrectly put into a recycling bin gets mixed together during collection — making contamination almost inevitabile.
Much of the glass collected through recycling is contaminated or broken during transport.
The fragments of glass are ground down and used as concrete filler on construction projects or spread as an aggregate at landfills in lieu of sand.
Maja Vodanovic, mayor for the borough of Lachine and a member of the city's executive committee, said the plant built in her own borough would be more effective if the system was changed.
"It's not the way it should work. We cannot put together glass, crush it with everything else, paper and all different types of plastic, especially soft plastic," said Vodanovic, who sits on the National Zero Waste Council.
Vodanovic said a recycling program that focused on deposits, like the one being implemented in British Columbia, would be more effective. That province recently expanded its program to include milk cartons. Glass is also recycled separately.
"They just don't mix it together from the start," she said.
Vodanovic has been advocating for the federal government to implement a countrywide deposit system and put more responsibility on producers to reduce plastic waste.
Sorting at the source
In the meantime, a few simple changes could help reduce contamination, said Karel Ménard, executive director of the Quebec Coalition of Ecological Waste Management.
In Ottawa, residents are asked to put paper and cardboard out every other week. On the off-weeks, the city collects plastic, glass and metal. That way, contamination is minimized, said Ménard.
"In Quebec, we mix everything together and the sorting centres are just there to unmix the problem that was created at home," he said.
"Twenty-five years ago there was separating in the curbside collection bin. But that implies we have to have trucks with a separation in the middle, and we have to have a sorting centre with different ways of sorting material."
In European countries such as Germany it goes even further. Citizens are responsible for going through all their waste and separating it out into different bins and containers.
If the quality is improved, it could help create what is known as a circular economy.
Rather than shipping it abroad, there would be a market for this material locally.
"If the recycling is done at the other end of the planet, I think there is a problem," Ménard said.
Slow to change
Quebec has a plan to expand its deposit program, but progress has been slow.
The province launched a pilot project in six communities last year, whereby people can deposit bottles ranging in size from 100 millilitres to two litres.
In January, Environment Minister Benoit Charette pushed back the plan to expand the deposit-return system for drink containers from the end of 2022 to the following year.
The plan will require merchants who sell these products to take them back and refund the deposit. Wine and spirit bottles will be worth 25 cents, while other bottles will be worth 10 cents.
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Colleen Thorpe, the executive director of Equiterre, said the deposit needs to be higher — like in a carbon tax — in order to change people's behaviour and encourage people to recycle.
But her organization argues that, ultimately, the best way to reduce waste is to reduce packaging in the first place.
"For such a long time, we thought that recycling was the answer. We now know that recycling is not the answer, but the real answer is avoiding waste in the first place so that we don't have to treat it and that it's not lying in the landfill in someone else's backyard," she said.
"What we'd like to see is that the government impose more constraints and have multiple use bottles and that exists on the market right now, but it's not widespread."
As it stands, Valenzuela said greater public education is necessary.
"I think that we need to really focus on campaigns, on educating, sensitizing the population, on what truly belongs in our recycling bins."