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There used to be a dump a few kilometres away from our place in the country. Every Saturday or two, my husband would take our garbage there and throw it down the hole. He put the stuff that was still usable in a special section where people could help themselves. The dump was a sociable gathering place of sorts. It was even an occasional trysting spot for desperate lovers.

Then they closed the dump and bought a garbage truck. Everybody had to get green bins and blue boxes, plus several different kinds of garbage bags depending on the kind of trash. Our taxes went up. Our garbage sometimes got rejected. Suddenly we needed a degree in garbology to throw anything away. Now we take it back to our condo in the city, where we just dump it down the chute and say to hell with it. Nobody can reject it. Nobody can trace it back to us. This is smelly, but efficient

Am I recycling wrong? No doubt. You probably are too. How can we help it? The rules are tricky, and they’re always changing. Some kinds of plastic go in the blue bin but others don’t. Plastic food containers with black bottoms and clear tops? Tops, yes; bottoms, no. Or is it the other way around?

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Because of drastic changes in the market, the garbage sold to recyclers has to be purer than ever before. Recycling experts call this problem a “purity tsunami,” and they’re expecting us to solve it. “Something as simple as a piece of paper with a coffee stain on it – that piece of paper a year ago would have been recyclable,” Jim MacKay, general manager of solid waste management for Toronto, told the CBC. “”Today that’s actually garbage.“

Contamination in the trash is costing us millions. So please memorize the following instructions: No black coffee-cup lids. No paper splashed with coffee. No plastic frozen-food bags. No coffee pods, even if they’re marked “recyclable.” No greasy pizza boxes. Even a splash of yogurt or a dab of peanut butter can mess up a whole load, so make sure to wash the container. Our job is to lovingly inspect, wash, rinse and sort each scrap of trash and consult with experts about what to do with it.

But we can’t. Even as you read this, the garbage police are prowling Toronto’s streets, snooping in our blue bins for forbidden substances. Violators are getting notes. Repeat offenders will get worse.

In some places the garbage police state has already arrived. A number of U.S. cities have introduced cameras and radio-frequency identification chips, along with human garbage snoopers, to monitor people’s trash. Seattle vowed to pin a bright red flag to offending bins. But people went ballistic. They didn’t like other people rooting through their trash. “Automated garbage monitoring raises very serious privacy concerns,” warned the American Civil Liberties Association.

Canadians are more comfortable with authority than Americans are. Still, even some of us are starting to push back. Why the heck are we doing this, anyway?

Oh, right. It’s to save the planet. Or is it mainly to remind ourselves how virtuous we are?

The truth is that recycling is often a money-losing proposition. Take plastics. The economics of recycling plastics changed when oil prices fell. Now that new plastic is cheaper to make, recycled plastics aren’t as competitive any more. Glass is a money-loser too. Glass bottles are a nightmare to recycle because they break. Glass shards are hard on equipment and contaminate other waste. So a lot of glass winds up in landfill anyway. Some U.S. municipalities have told residents to stop bothering and just throw their glass in the trash.

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In many cases it would be cheaper and easier to just bury our junk in landfills the way we used to. Why ship it all the way to China when we can dig a hole right in our backyard? Contrary to popular mythology, we’re not running out of space – especially not in Canada. We’ve go more space than anyone will ever need. Or do what Sweden does, and incinerate it. That’s right. Environmentally conscientious Sweden burns half its household waste for energy.

I know it is environmental heresy to say so. But there must be better ways to save the planet than wasting time washing empty yogurt tubs. Besides, we liked the dump. My husband says he misses it.

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