Quebec's liquor control board has, after years of steadfast opposition to wine and liquor bottle returns, come out in favour of collecting deposits on glass containers.
But somebody else will have to collect the empties.
"Our branches, which are increasingly limited in size, don't have the space to take back 100 per cent of our inventory," SAQ president and CEO Catherine Dagenais told a legislative committee on Monday.
The committee is looking into the matter of glass recycling across the province — a system that currently sends nearly three quarters of collected glass to landfills.
The SAQ sells some 200 million bottles a year, Dagenais explained, and its 404 outlet locations just aren't equipped to handle that volume of empty containers.
Expanding storage in all of its locations isn't possible either, she said, because many are signed into long-term leases in tight rental spaces.
Even if the agency did collect the bottles, what would it do with them? Sending them back to suppliers is out of the question, Dagenais said, because the agency has more than 3,000 suppliers in 81 countries.
In her testimony to the committee, she said the wine and liquor bottles sold by the SAQ account for about half of the glass found in recycling bins and that glass is hardly recycled.
Quebec has low glass recycling rate
The province only has one glass remelting plant, which mainly recovers clear or amber glass. That type of glass represents only 20 per cent of the bottles sold by the SAQ, she said.
In 2018, 70,000 tonnes of glass was sent to landfills by sorting centres and that's not counting what residents tossed directly into trash bins.
According to Recyc-Québec, the recycling rate for glass recycling is rising, but it was only 28 per cent in 2018. This is largely due to contamination and breakage during the single-stream collection process that mixes everything into one blue bin and, subsequently, one truck.
Dagenais said the province should be zeroing in on that problem instead — a new glass collection strategy that addresses all glass containers.
"We believe that the chosen solution must be to go beyond the collection method and offer a solution to improve the rate of glass recycling in order to avoid its burial," she said.
"It is urgent that we put measures in place that will really improve the recycling rate of all post-consumer glass in Quebec. And if this goal is achieved by changing collection methods and by setting a deposit on glass, the SAQ will support the initiative."
FTQ says SAQ should collect empties
But some groups feel the SAQ shouldn't just pass the buck onto others.
The Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ), which represents not just glass manufacturers, but also SAQ workers and waste collectors, is among those calling on the SAQ to manage collection.
When the purity of glass is impaired during the collection process, the market value is reduced, the FTQ says. Plus, broken glass can damage sorting equipment and exposing workers to the risk of injury.
Recyc-Québec has proposed the coexistence of deposit and collection. The rate of glass recycling is up from 14 per cent in 2014, but the province needs to do more, it says in a statement published on its website Monday.
Recyc-Québec's president and CEO Sonia Gagné says the current system must be modernized to achieve the desired objectives and the Crown corporation is working to "provide solutions in this direction and to work on proposals that will move us away from the status quo."
Manufacturers forced to import glass
Quebec is among the only provinces not demanding a deposit on wine and liquor bottles. That means companies like Owens-Illinois, which has a glass-container manufacturing factory in Montreal, must stock up on glass from outside the province.
It uses 40 per cent recycled glass to produce containers. The company does use beer bottles collected through the deposit system in Quebec, but otherwise buys glass from Ontario, New Brunswick and the United States.
"I've worked here for seven years and, for seven years, we've taken glass from other provinces, because it's glass that comes from deposit systems," said François Carrier, director of the Owens-Illinois plant in Montreal.
"The deposit is working elsewhere, so it should work here."