Quebec distributer develops recycling program for end-of-life equipment

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A worker dismantles one of more that 100,000 appliances recycled every year.

By Bruce Nagy

Chris was living an unhappy life. He suffered from an anxiety disorder that made it nearly impossible to work. In his twenties, he still lived in his parents’ basement in a small Quebec town and had no real friends. He was not even capable of taking a bus on his own. Recently, a company in Sherbrooke, Quebec, decided to take a chance and offer Chris a job.

The company – Défi Polyteck – was created more than a dozen years ago as a self-sustaining non-profit that today recycles HVAC equipment.

In the last seven years, Défi Polyteck has received more than 100,000 air conditioning, refrigeration and similar appliances. “The original forecast was 14,000 pieces each year, but that may double this year and could go up to 100,000 or more every year because the new (stewardship) requirements will be in place this December,” reported Paul Gemme, vice president of Sunrise Tradex, and who helped with the original set-up of the company.

Sunrise Tradex is an air conditioning vendor for Rona, imports and services heat pumps and air conditioning units from Gree, and shares space with Défi Polyteck in a 107,000 sq. ft. plant in Coaticook, Quebec. Gemme is also on the Défi Polyteck board of advisors.

End of life

“If you send HVAC equipment to the scrapyard, they may not remove the gas and it’s really bad. The government wants to end this, and new regulations are coming into force,” said Serge Sylvain, Défi Polyteck CEO. “When you install it, you will pay a fee to cover the cost of recycling at the end of its life.”

High-value scrap like these motor armatures are separated and sold to help support the program.

In November of 2019, Quebec announced the mandatory program for refrigeration and other appliances. It will come into effect in December 2020 and the government has allocated $90 million to get it started. However, at this point, the program applies only to plug-in consumer appliances, rather than commercial and industrial refrigeration products.

B.C. policy

In British Columbia, similar legislation has been enacted. In both cases, the original purpose was to deal with refrigerators and AC units left at the curb that are scooped up by collectors and sold to scrap dealers. Recyc-Québec estimates that just one old fridge can contain up to the equivalent of 3.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide (roughly equivalent to emissions from a car travelling 17,000 kilometres).

The Heating Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada (HRAI) has been working with B.C. to clarify what is and what is not covered by its new laws. Originally, they included heat pumps which, HRAI pointed out, are installed by heating professionals and should not be included.

HRAI created its Refrigeration Management Canada program years ago to help with the collection and destruction of HCFC and now HFC refrigerants. Commercial systems are processed by professional recycling operations in each region, where the refrigerant is properly removed, copper, iron, and aluminum materials separated, and foam insulation melted down.

From left, Pierre Morency, Serge Sylvain, and Paul Gemme worked together to create the Défi Polyteck HVAC recycling program.

The new B.C. legislation references this record and says its consumer laws are designed to build on this success, citing 98 per cent efficiency in the industry. The original goal was 90 per cent. HRAI says 3.9 million kilograms of refrigerant have been destroyed to date.

An employment opportunity for disabled

When Chris went to work for Défi Polyteck, he discovered that almost all of its recycling operations were undertaken by people like him, people with emotional or physical disabilities.

Défi Polyteck has expanded over the years and now has another 98,000 sq. ft. recycling facility in Sherbrooke, Que. with, again, mostly disabled people doing other kinds of recycling, prototyping and miscellaneous manufacturing operations. This is sometimes for small and medium enterprises that can’t afford to set up their own plants. It’s still a non-profit, but its revenue now exceeds $5 million per year.

“We have a relationship with Sherbrooke University,” reported Pierre Morency, director for development strategy and environment, as he leads a tour through the Sherbrooke plant. “It helps us develop new recycling processes and products.”

He showed how the university helped create a revenue-producing product from ceramic dust residue that previously was a waste byproduct with high disposal costs. The Sherbrooke plant also makes rubber mat runners from recycled tires. “If you mix and dump everything, it’s a waste. If you separate it and innovate, it becomes a resource,” says Morency.

Well before the Sherbrooke expansion, Gemme realized that Sylvain’s team was as effective as any working group, and the wheels were turning in Sylvain’s mind. “He had a vision. He could see the HVAC recycling movement coming. His team was already recycling wood and creating and selling new wood products.”

There was some hope of expanding the project even further which would include bringing in more people and machines. Each time the refrigerant is “vacuumed” out, they are able to send approximately 160,000 tonnes each year for destruction. All metals are sold to support the program.

Workers evacuate the refrigerant from appliances.

Adaptable model

The system that Défi Polyteck has created has been praised by the Quebec government because it can be easily adapted for use in other regions and provinces. There is now a mandate to follow. Défi Polyteck is one of two ‘elite’ Quebec processors identified for the new program. Deals have been made with Canadian Tire and Rona to take back units to recycle.

“And this recycling program is critical. We cannot continue to let the gas go into the atmosphere and create high temperatures and cause a lot of problems for everybody,” said Gemme. “The young generation is telling us every day; we must take care of nature so she will take care of us.”

The recycling has a significant social benefit as well. The company culture at Défi Polyteck makes the employees feel as if they are part of something.

“Pretty early they are able to take care of themselves,” said Marc Olivier Sylvain, director of production at Défi Polyteck and Serge Sylvain’s son. “Some have their own apartment. They have families, cars – so it’s good on the economic side too. We’ve had two marriages with people who have met here.

“The government is very happy with businesses like ours because we take people off the social system and now it is becoming an answer to the skills shortage problem. It’s a win-win situation.”

Chris now takes the bus by himself to his recycling job at the Coaticook plant. He has friends and a girlfriend. His parents say Défi Polyteck changed his life and have offered to provide a testimonial (true story, but his real name is not Chris).

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