Montreal's Garbage Management: The Good, The Bad and the Messy

Updated: Mar 29

Policy Brief submitted by Annabelle Linders

As one of the most populated cities in Canada, Montreal produces huge amounts of waste each year. Unsurprisingly, Montreal citizens struggle with managing their waste sustainably, with many obstacles in their path including difficulties disposing glass and the closing recycling facilities. Despite these difficulties, Montreal has taken steps towards building a sustainable urban center, investing in state-of-the-art technology that has proven to increase recycling rates. In this brief article, we’ll be taking a closer look at Montreal’s current waste management system, the initiatives implemented to address growing waste, and some of the challenges the city faces in crafting a sustainable future.

Waste Collection

In order to discuss the challenges facing Montreal’s waste management system, it is important first to get a sense of how that system works. Common recyclable materials like paper, cardboard, plastics, metals, and glass are put into a single container to be processed at the sorting centre (1). There are both advantages and disadvantages to this method. The ease of not sorting materials into different recycling bins may serve as an incentive for more citizens to participate in the recycling program, but there is also a risk of material quality being reduced because of contaminants from other materials. There are also many materials that cannot be included in recycling collection, including flat glass like windows and mirrors, light bulbs, dishes, anything made with more than one material category such as some toys, compostable plastic bags, rubber, and more (2). Montreal’s composting is split into two zones. These two zones each have their own rules and regulations for how they manage organic waste . For example, while the West side of the city zone accepts green waste such as dead lives, short branches, and wood chips, the East zone does not accept any of these materials. This could create some confusion among residents as to how they are meant to dispose of their waste and which set of rules they are meant to be following.

City Initiatives

There are two central initiatives that have been implemented by the City of Montreal to address waste management. . First, single-use grocery bags have been banned since January, 2018, almost three years before the Canadian federal government had even announced their plan to do so (3). Although plastic bags can be recycled, Montreal reported that only 14% of the millions of single use plastic bags handed out each year were being disposed of sustainably (4). To respond to the growing waste of plastic bags, this ban on single-use grocery bags was intended to limit their overall waste rather than attempt to incentivise recycling. Fines have been issued ranging between $200 for an individual’s first offence to $4,000 for a corporation’s second offence.

Second, in November 2019, a city-owned recycling centre was opened, featuring magnets, blowers to separate plastics, and optical separators (5). Running 72 hours per week, this facility handles 35 tonnes of recycling materials per day (6), or almost 11,000 tonnes per year. When the centre was first opened, Montreal was recycling half of all waste, with the goal to increase that number to 70% by 2025 and 85% by 2030 (7). 91% of materials sent to the recycling plant end up actually being recycled, with 9% being returned to landfills. About 50% of the recycled products are sold within Montreal or North America, while the other half is shipped around the world. Transporting such a large amount of waste across the globe creates a huge carbon-footprint and contributes to climate change.

Current Challenges

However, one of the challenges of this recycling facility has been glass recycling. Recycling glass is especially difficult because glass must be free of any contaminants to be turned into new bottles. This is a problem across Quebec, with only 28% of collected glass being recycled in 2018. The exception to this provincial trend is Quebec City, which has been able to achieve a rate of 100% recyclability of collected glass. This exceptional diversion rate is caused by new technologies such as shockwave implosion equipment in Quebec City recycling centres (8). The glass, which is of a higher quality as a result of the new technologies, is sent to Bellemare Environnement recycling centre in Trois-Rivières (9). This centre is approximately the same distance between Quebec City and Montreal, meaning that implementing the same new technologies into Montreal’s city-owned plant and following this process could greatly increase the quantity and quality of glass recycled in the city.

An additional challenge facing Montreal is the January 2020 closure of two recycling facilities. Following China’s ban on buying imported recycled waste, decreased revenues have led to many recycling facilities closing in the Montreal area (10). The city had previously given $29 million to the plant in 2018 to avoid closure, but were unsuccessful. This closure has put more responsibility onto the city to find or construct alternative recycling centres to meet the growing demand. The city-run plant may need to increase hours of operation or find other ways to increase output to avoid a backlog of materials needing to be sorted.

Conclusion

When we look at Montreal’s recent history with waste management and recycling policies, there have been both good and bad developments. The investments towards implementing new recycling technology have allowed most of Montreal’s waste management to be effective, but there are still some missing pieces when looking at glass recycling and the heavy carbon footprint that transporting recycling products around the world could cause. Recent closures of plants may also cause delays in material processing and could result in the city needing to take on a more direct role in Montreal’s recycling and waste management process.

  1. “Montreal and the 3[R]s + [V]” Ville de Montréal, February 2011. http://ville.montreal.qc.ca/pls/portal/docs/ PAGE/ENVIRO_FR/MEDIA/DOCUMENTS/DEPLIANT_PELEMELE_ANG.PDF

  2. ibid.

  3. Ville de Montréal, “Frequenty Asked Questions: Plastic Bags Banned as of January 1, 2018”, n.d., http://ville.montreal.qc.ca/portal/page?_pageid=7418,142803239&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL

  4. Ibid.

  5. René Bruemmer, “Automated recycling centre opens in Lachine, but glass remains an issue”, Montreal Gazette, November 12, 2019, https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/automated-recycling-centre-opens-in-lachine-but glass-will-go-to-landfill

  6. “Quebec City recycles 100% of glass while rest of province struggles to keep up”, CBC News, August 18, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/quebec-city-100-per-cent-glass-recycled-1.5251383

  7. René Bruemmer, “Automated recycling centre opens in Lachine, but glass remains an issue”, Montreal Gazette, November 12, 2019, https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/automated-recycling-centre-opens-in-lachine-but glass-will-go-to-landfill

  8. Éco Entreprises Québec, “Innovative Glass Works Plan”, n.d., https://www.eeq.ca/en/the-recycle-bin/programs-and-initiative/innovative-glass-works-plan/

  9. CBC News, 2019.

  10. Matt Grillo, “Company behind two of Montreal's recycling facilities set to halt operations”, CTV News Montreal, January 24, 2020, https://montreal.ctvnews.ca/company-behind-two-of-montreal-s-recycling facilities-set-to-halt-operations-1.4783000