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Toronto ‘Reduce’ and ‘reuse’ may do more good today than ‘recycle’

It is time for a big rethink about recycling. For years now, cities have been urging residents to sort their trash and put the recyclable stuff in the blue bin for pick-up. Most people happily go along. Recycling gives them the sense that they are doing something in their daily lives to protect the environment. But does it really work? Legitimate doubts have begun to creep in.

As Jeff Lewis and Molly Hayes wrote in the Globe this week, Canada’s recycling business is in “full-scale crisis, stung by rising costs – and inundated by a mountain of trash no one wants to buy, or even, in many cases, take for free.” China’s decision to stop importing many recyclables has left cities across the country scrambling to find a place to send the stuff. Prices for everything from newspaper to cardboard to the plastic film from plastic bags has plummeted. Toronto has lost millions in revenue.

The recycling outfits that are still willing to pay for these products are much more picky about what they will take. Because only the purest and highest grade passes muster, cities are being forced to sort and cleanse the recycling stream more thoroughly. That takes time and costs money. Cities must either pay more for hand-sorting or invest in ever more advanced sorting equipment. They must also spend money on ads pleading with residents not to put shoes, black plastic, lined coffee cups, greasy pizza boxes, old garden hoses or dead hamsters in the blue bin.

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Conveyor belts move materials that will be sorted manually at the Canada Fibers' recycling facility in Toronto.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Toronto’s website includes an “important reminder about coffee pods”: they go in the garbage. The city actually conducted a survey on the use of coffee pods to see how big the problem was. Among the other pro tips in its encyclopedic instructions on the art of recycling: Remove and separate the plastic bags or covers that flyers and magazines come in. Clean and rinse food containers. Place the metal top of a cardboard frozen-juice can inside the can and pinch it closed. Don’t put your recyclables in clear plastic bags; loose in the bin is better – except in the case of shredded paper; it should go in a clear plastic bag, tied closed.

All of this fussing takes considerable effort, both for the resident and the city. It might be justified if recycling were doing a great service to Planet Earth. Often, it isn’t. It would make sense if the stuff we were recycling was made from rare or vanishing resources. But we are not short on glass, metal or plastic. Paper comes from trees that are often grown and harvested for that purpose.

It might make sense if we had nowhere to put the stuff. But Canada has plenty of space and modern landfills are engineered to protect the water and soil around them. Burying an inert object like a plastic bottle should not be considered a mortal sin. It may be better for the planet than shipping it across the world to some country that would still take it. An environmental audit might find that making a new plastic bottle from fresh material is the superior option.

Burning trash that is impractical to recycle is another perfectly reasonable option. Today’s high-tech incinerators scrub out pollutants and often produce energy that can be fed into the electrical grid. Many green-minded European cities use them.

There is another way out of our recycling fix, too, of course. Use less packaging in the first place. Fill a reusable water bottle instead of buying one from a store; Toronto’s tap water is wonderfully clean. Buy food in bulk and bring your own bags. “Reduce” and “reuse” may do more good than “recycle” in that familiar three-part mantra.

Some recycling still adds up. Aluminum pop cans remain in demand, for example. But cities should consider dropping products from the blue bin if the crisis in the recycling industry persists and they can’t find buyers who will pay a decent price. In considering what to recycle, they should put cold logic ahead of sentiment. If it makes economic and environmental sense, assign it to the blue bin. If not, toss it.

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