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marcus gee

The other day - Gaia forgive me - I tried to throw something out. It was an old plastic laundry hamper that was falling apart. In the bad old days, I would have put it out on the sidewalk for the garbage men to take away. In our progressive age, things are more complicated.

I have a semi-detached house with only a narrow passageway to separate it from the neighbour's. The passage is just wide enough for a small grey bin. The large and extra-large sizes won't fit and I refuse to disfigure the graceful old Victorian I live in by putting one on the front porch. On this particular night, both of my two grey bins were full, as they often are by the end of a two-week garbage cycle.

The Toronto waste department lets you put out overflow garbage if you mark it with a yellow tag, purchased at Canadian Tire for $3.10. But the garbage has to be bagged. So, on a cold and rainy night, I found myself trying to stuff the laundry hamper into a wet garbage bag, muttering curses as the broken edges of the hamper reduced the bag to shreds.

It was a minor hassle and I would have been happy to endure it if I thought I was helping to save the planet. The trouble is that I don't. Most recycling is a giant waste of time and money.

It is a minority view, I admit. In my own household, I am surrounded by ardent recyclers. My older daughter is doing a high-school project on how vital it is for the future of humankind (which shows how much influence I have). My younger one gives me grief for putting her lunchbox grapes in wasteful plastic baggies; the school likes them to bring reusable plastic containers.

At City Hall, Mayor David Miller has made recycling a cornerstone of his greener-than-thou administration, dedicating the city to diverting 70 per cent of its waste from landfills. When the city recently announced that - predictably - it would fail to reach that figure by its ambitious target date of 2010, it promised to redouble its efforts.

The city plans include a new facility to process green-bin muck, a state-of-the-art plant for sorting mixed recyclables, and a complex plan to convert apartment dwellers to the recycling creed. All of this will cost tens of millions of dollars. A 2007 city report said it would take an extra $54-million a year to meet the magic 70-per-cent diversion goal, and that was before the bottom fell out of prices for many recycled materials. The extra money is to come directly out of the pockets of householders through escalating bin fees and other tariffs.

Money aside, recycling gobbles up time and energy. In effect, the city has outsourced garbage sorting to households, turning everyone, from banker to housewife, into domestic trash workers. Unlike me, most of them do it quite cheerfully, believing they are combatting a dire threat to the environment.

In reality, recycling is a bust for the planet. The materials we recycle - paper, plastic, glass, metal - are not running out. Most metals are in abundant supply. Plastics come from readily available chemicals. Glass comes from sand. Paper comes from trees, a renewable resource. In fact, most paper comes from trees grown specifically for pulp.

All these materials are relatively harmless if buried in modern landfills equipped with clay foundations, impermeable plastic liners, drainage systems and gas-capturing technology. If there is a shortage of landfills near Toronto, it is only because governments refuse to show the courage needed to convince local NIMBYs to host one in their backyard.

Recycling makes sense when economic logic demands it - for aluminum cans, say. But, sadly, logic has little to do with it. Recycling is what modern city dwellers do to shed their guilt over the state of the planet. What a shame all their effort does so little actual good.