Hanes: Can transparency help get to the bottom of Montreal’s recycling mess?


An opposition city councilor is proposing a motion that would push the city to help tidy up this dumpster fire.

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For a city that has been on the cutting edge of developing policies to reduce trash output, Montreal has been repeatedly stymied in its ability to effectively deliver the most basic waste-management services.

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From banning thin plastic bags back in 2018 to announcing that single-use disposable cutlery will be outlawed by next year, Montreal has often taken the lead on reducing rubbish.

Yet organics collection is only slated to be available to every residence by 2025, almost a decade later than first promised. And new compost plants are way over budget and far behind schedule, with a St-Laurent organics plant set to open next month (fingers crossed).

These difficulties have plagued successive administrations that consider themselves green.

But the latest imbroglio with the operator of Montreal’s two sorting centers for recycling fits an unfortunate pattern of programs that don’t live up to their promise.

When the city inaugurated a $47-million, state-of-the-art recycling facility in Lachine in 2019, it was supposed to alleviate major headaches with waste collection caused by China’s decision a year earlier to stop accepting imports of the world’s recyclable trash.

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Instead, those problems have arguably gotten messier for Montreal.

First, Rebuts solides Canadiens, a company contracted to operate the plant, ceased operations in 2020 because the bottom had dropped out of the market for recyclable materials.

City officials, including Mayor Valérie Plante, scrambled to find a way to keep the triage center running — and ensure the recyclables Montrealers carefully sorted and put in their blue bins didn’t end up in landfills instead. A non-profit was initially found to operate the Lachine triage center while a private enterprise took over Montreal’s other main sorting facility in St-Michel. But eventually, Brossard-based Ricova ended up operating both Montreal’s recycling plants. And things have not gone smoothly.

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In January, the city let it be known that it has refused to take ownership of the Lachine facility from Ricova as planned due to its subpar performance. Ricova is also locked in a legal battle with the supplier of its machinery, blaming its equipment for the fact plastic wrap keeps gumming up the works.

By the time Radio-Canada revealed this month that contaminated bales of paper from Montreal recycling plants are ending up in India where toxic plastics are surreptitiously burned, it was only confirming what had long been apparent: a basic municipal service has been in a tailspin for years.

The city ordered an audit of Ricova’s activities after the Enquête report.

Ricova, for its part, issued a statement blaming the decrepit machinery it inherited from the previous operator for its problems and touting an upcoming blanket ban on plastic bags in Montreal as a potential solution to its travails.

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It’s a dumpster fire, to say the least, with all the finger pointing, legal wrangling and lack of accountability. But how do we tidy it up?

Ensemble Montréal opposition councilor Stéphanie Valenzuela intends to table a motion at Monday’s council meeting calling for a plenary session with staff from the city environment department to get some answers. She also wants reports monitoring Ricova’s progress in trying to meet the city’s quality control standards brought to light.

“We need to be fair to Montrealers, we need to be honest with Montrealers and let them know that all the work they’ve been doing recycling, it’s not necessarily what they thought they were doing,” said Valenzuela, the opposition critic for the environment and sustainable development.

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It’s not only a matter of the pollution from locally-sourced plastics being burned in India or the increase in greenhouse gas emissions from recyclable materials being sent to landfills, it’s also about the efficiency of a basic municipal service.

“The city of Montreal has invested $35 million in public funding throughout the existence of these recycling centers,” Valenzuela said. “It’s money that we have invested in a center that we thought would work. But it’s not working. And we still haven’t found a solution for it.”

It seems like a reasonable option, though one she’s not confident will be accepted. With cases tied up in the courts and the city trying to pressure Ricova behind the scenes to clean up its act, the inclination might be to safeguard information on a sensitive matter.

A little transparency sure couldn’t hurt, though.

The Enquête report helped shine a light on the far-reaching consequences of contaminated recyclables, something the public needs to know to push for greater accountability. But Montrealers also deserve answers on what progress is being made to improve the quality of a basic municipal program they participate in and fund.

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