Lives around the world have been changed, and day by day people are adjusting. Many of us are working from home and continue to receive a paycheque. Despite social distancing, and the fact that the means to distract ourselves have dwindled, life continues.
The government has scrambled to implement measures to soften the blow of the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic. Notably, workers are supported by the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), which provides monthly payments of two-thousand dollars. This is extended to those who have contracted the virus, lost their job due to the economy being put on pause, taking care of children or an ill loved one.
Businesses themselves have been lent a helping hand through the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). This measure is extended to the hardest hit businesses by enabling them to maintain a link to their employees and avoiding layoffs. The plan covers 75% of an employees wages up to $847 per week.
There are forms of work in our society that go unrecognized, though they bring a tremendous social, environmental benefit. One such form of labour is that of “valoristes”, or binner, who collect used bottles and cans and return them for the consignment deposit. These women and men collect the consumption of the population at large that is simply left in the urban environment.
“The term “valoriste ” is used by the Coop Les Valoristes to define women and men, with challenges entering traditional job markets, who collect refundable beverage containers from the streets, in exchange for cash. The Quebec term “Valoriste” is a synonym to anglo-Canada’s term “Binner”.”COOP LES VALORISTES
Valoristes and the organization that supports them face challenges in the best of times, though so far 2020 is shaping up to be very different.
COOP Les Valoristes, Social Enterprise and Only Bottle Depot in Town
We reached out to Coop Les Valoristes for a better understanding of how a social enterprise like this one operates, the profile of the people it serves, and how this particular type of labour is impacted by the current social distancing measures.
Marica Vazquez Tagliero, Vice-President of Les Valoristes, explained that the coop is a corporative social enterprise that was founded in 2012 due to “a real risk of the abolition of container refund system here in Québec.”
There was not a lot of public awareness of that fact, and “there was no consideration for the impact that this would have on valoristes, and the cleanliness of the city,” Vazquez Tagliero said adding that “they do have an important impact on the cleanliness of the city.”
La Loi sur la vente et la distribution de bière et de boissons gazeuses dans des contenants à remplissage unique, is the province’s framework which regulates the sale and distribution of these beverages.
For instance anyone who distributes beer and soft drinks in Québec must first obtain a permit which requires them to enter into an agreement with either the Société Qébécoise de Récupération et de Recyclage (RECYC-QUÉBEC) or Boissons Gazeuses Environnement (BGE).
Retailers sell beer and soft drinks in containers that are marked for deposit, accept the return of used containers, and refund the deposit. RECYC-QUÉBEC and BGE are charged with oversight of the system. The original legislation was adopted in 1984 and has had a hard time keeping up with and adapting to the changing beverage market.
Vazquez Tagliero said that approximately “50% of containers [sold] in Québec are refunded because the law is so old.” She added that the system didn’t take into account products that came to market since its adoption such as “water bottles and other nomad drinking containers.”
Despite this “the recycling of refundable containers was far more elevated despite the obstacles that exist for consumers to bring them back,” Vazquez Tagliero said pointing to different sets of rules that retailers may impose on container returns. The Vice-President related that many, not all, retailers may not take containers that they don’t sell, and only take a maximum quantity.
The work of Valoristes is heavily impacted by the return restrictions that they are faced with when one considers that “they are not bringing their own consumption, they are bringing the consumption of others” Vazquez Tagliero said. She added that “they bring big quantities,” of containers.
This was and is the situation that the Coop Les Valoristes was created in and continues to operate in, the group chose the route of a social enterprise for a sense of inclusiveness and that they viewed valoristes as entrepreneurs.
The heart of what they do is the bottle depot “it’s the place where we can meet the valoristes, get them involved in the operation,” Vazquez Tagliero explained. The organization was founded on the United we Can business model which created one of the first bottle depots in Canada in the mid 1990s. “Today all provinces operate with bottle depots except Québec and Manitoba,” Vazquez Tagliero said.
The bottle depot is located under the Jacques Cartier bridge during the summer months, and Vazquez Tagliero said that “the service is amicable, much faster and we know the valoristes by name.” Through the interaction the Coop “gives references to services that valoristes might need.”
Coop Les Valoristes also offers a service that collects containers from local businesses. “When its a large amount the service is offered through the coop though when its small quantities, in some cases a bag, we put local valoristes in contact with the business,” Vazquez Tagliero said. She added that “when that is done it creates a connection between the valoristes and the business.”
As a means to gain extra revenue the organization began to offer a service to events, as Vazquez Tagliero explained, the organization is offering a sorting centre operation that “not only does sorting of refundables, but also recylables and garbage.”
The return to sale system can be a lot to manage for retailers and as Vazquez Tagliero said “because we only concentrate on [collecting] we can do it better because we do it faster, manage larger quantities.”
Annually the organization hires some of the valoristes that use their services. Vazquez Tagliero said that “it’s not always the case, we’re not open all year and it can be difficult for those to leave a situation of government aid for two months.”
Francois Brodeleau, étudiant-chercheur du Groupe interuniversitaire et interdisciplinaire de recherche sur l’emploi, la pauvreté et la protection sociale (GIREPS), Université de Montréal, and Pierre Batellier, Chargé de cours en responsabilité sociale des entreprises à HEC Montréal, doctorant en sciences de l’environnement à l’UQAM, cofondateur et président de la Coopérative de solidarité les valoristes, conducted a socio-demographic study of those who used the temporary bottle depot in 2014 entitled La récupération informelle des contenants de boissons consignés à Montréal: Une étude exploratoire autour du projet pilote de centre de dépôt temporaire de Les Valoristes, coopérative de solidarité.
The study questioned 50 people over the course of the Coop’s 2014 summer activities, and showed that a vast majority, 90% of those were men. A majority of respondents were aged 50 years or older. Very few were under the age of 40.
Vazquez Tagliero said that Valoristes tend to cease the activity after the age of 64, “when they get their pensions because their situation is better.” The study showed that the largest group of respondents’ (44%) collecting activities go toward their basic expenses, such as rent, food and clothes. While others (25%) use their activities as a means to purchase extras such as leisure activities and presents for children.
Vazquez Tagliero said that “there is a small population retirees that are doing this work, though for them it is less about the money and more about keeping themselves occupied and getting a little exercise.”
All Valoristes collect containers from multiple sources, according to the study, and a main source for a majority is residential recycling bins. Many continue their activities through the winter months which offers its own set of challenges. During this period people consume their beverages indoors so it becomes more important to have agreements with residents.
In any given year there are challenges and obstacles that effect the work of valoristes and that of the Coop. The issue is that 2020 is not any given year and that we are in the midst of a pandemic and many sectors of the economy have been affected by a slow down due to social distancing measures. This holds true for those collect used bottles and cans to make ends meet.
Vazquez Tagliero explained that 50% of the Coop’s workforce are volunteers who are paid a per diem for their work. “This year [the Coop] cannot operate with 50% volunteers because the conditions are different.” The other workers are paid by subventions from the government.
The unfortunate aspect of this situations is that it comes down to dollars and cents. Retailers make money on the sale of the beverages, and they make 2 cents for every used container that they collect. Vazquez Tagliero said that “we are not paid for the work that we do,” it has been a struggle for the bottle depot to be recognized on the same level as grocery stores and dépanneurs.
Coop les Valoristes operates the only bottle depot in Québec, and is different than those operated in other provinces. As Vazquez Tagliero pointed out depots in other provinces “are all private,” and receive a premium for the manipulation of the containers. She added that the premium elsewhere in Canada “is much higher and can go from 4 to 10 cents per container and that is how the depots get paid for the manipulation.”
This year, and because of the pandemic the Coop “has to pay people and train them for the COVID,” Vazquez Tagliero said. They will be hiring some valoristes this summer, though the CERB may be an obstacle. “I cannot pay minimum salary when people are bringing in $2 thousand a month,” Vazquez Tagliero added.
The Coop sees problems in making a job this summer with them more attractive than the emergency benefit. The fact remains that the bottle depot and collection operation this “requires a [paid] workforce, and the volunteers need to be kept to a minimum because of the circumstances of COVID-19,” Vazquez Tagliero said.
Another obstacle in the Coop’s 2020 operation is that they “need the okay from public health,” Vazquez Tagliero said. She explained that they “normally open at the end of May or Beginning of June, so we are still on our timeline.” The Coop is eager to open earlier this year though they are still waiting “on the right envelope of money in order to offer the service that is not being offered by supermarkets anymore.”
“Bottle depots in Alberta and british columbia have been declared an essential service and many are open, and have health safety measures in place to make it secure in order to continue to offer the service for the return of refundables.”Marica Vazquez Tagliero, Vice president Coop les Valoristes
Vazquez Tagliero has had limited contact with members since the annual closure of the bottle depot in September. What she has heard is that many valoristes “are living a difficult situation, many don’t know what is going on, they are not watching the television or reading the newspapers.”
Vazquez Tagliero would like to have more contact with the valoristes that frequent the depot, the issue is that “many don’t have a telephone.” The Vice President pointed out that the situation brought on by COVID-19 will have an impact “how they pay for their food, rent, and medication.”
ReCYC-QUÉBEC, and the Official Directives
As Québec was put on pause in mid March, the government has produced lists of essential services and public health and safety measures. The directives concerning bottle and can returns were published by RECYC-QUÉBEC, the organization that oversees the province’s strategies for responsible residual matter management. On one hand consumers were directed to “keep refundable containers at home”, while retailer were instructed to maintain consignment collection services.
The two directives seemed to be in contradiction so we contacted RÉCYC-QUÉBEC for clarification.
It was explained that “considering the government directive imploring citizens to stay at home, RECYC-QUÉBEC asked citizens to keep their consigned containers at home for the time being.” Consumers can always return their used containers at a later date.
Residual material management, waste and recycling all fall under priority and essential services as defined by the Québec government and can continue if the necessary safety precautions are met. Citizens are being asked to keep their used consignment containers at home, as much as possible, though should it be necessary collection services are still available.
“While being understanding and attentive to the exceptional situation experienced by retailers, it is our responsibility to remind them that the management of residual materials is an essential service which includes deposit activities and should be offered as long as it’s possible to do so under appropriate sanitary conditions.”RECYC-QUÉBEC
There are retailers that are no longer maintaining deposit activities which in fact is making it more difficult for those who depend on those services. RECYC-QUÉBEC explained that “in order to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, most [store] entrance areas are reserved for hand washing stations, where a distance of 2 metres must be maintained.”
It was underlined that “the safety of employees or consumers must not be compromised.” It is positive to see that the safety of the employees and the customers are paramount, the flip side of this situation is the reverse vending machines that occupy store entrances are no longer accessible.
If you are looking for a place to return your used bottles and cans “several independent convenience stores continue to take back returnable containers and some retailers are offering return schedules for returnable containers.” The Beverage and beer Industry is also doing their part, RECYC-QUÉBEC explained that they are “contributing by offering recovery options that address challenges faced by retailers.”
The work of Valoristes often go unrecognized by society, though the task they perform contributes greatly to the cleanliness of the urban environment. The bottle depot operated by Coop Les Valoristes, though only open during the summer, helps to alleviate some of the stress on the consignment return system in Montréal. Despite the good work the Coop accomplishes it still, like other social enterprises, has to chase after funds and a global pandemic does not make it easier.