It took Christians about 300yrs to convert the Roman Empire and become the dominate culture and ethics of the Empire. It took the Religion of Recycling a little over 20yrs to convert approximately 75% of trash making Americans to its doctrines and precepts. The high conversion rate to the Religion of Recycling surprised even its most ardent supporters and most managers of local municipalities. Many parents and all schools have indoctrinated their children with the morality of recycling, hands down in a far superior way than Christian morality was ever taught. Many cities even check your blue bin to shame you into compliance. If it is filled with proper items you get a star on your bin, if not you get an excommunication notice. Behavior modification at the refuse level! But there is a big crack in the foundation of the Religion of Recycling catechism.
Contemporary society did not invent the idea of reusing cups, forks and plates, nor repurposing organic garbage or even animal excrement for fertilizer. Just visit a Museum and you will see in the Antiquities section, ancient and even prehistoric reusable ceramics and stoneware used as eating utensils. Or just think back to say the 1970’s when soda, milk and juice bottles were all made of glass and reused again and again or even baby diapers. What we did invent is the Disposable Everything. Convenient and sometimes limiting the spread of infectious disease or germs but very wasteful.
By the 1980’s someone figured out a way to make money off of our trash. Brilliant! And the Religion of Recycling was born. Now local municipalities could actually make money off of your refuse by selling paper, plastics, glass, aluminum and cardboard to the Recycle High Priest; he could then recycle it and sell it back to manufacturers. This required religious loyalty from citizens in order to be successful. Several problems, however, have brought this arrangement to a screeching halt. First, believe or not, people recycled with the furor of a religious zealot, that is, at a much higher level than anticipated which caused a glut of recyclable materials and lots of it has to be sent to landfills. Then most recently, China, who bought almost all of our recyclables has now stopped importing our capitalist trash. So now that we are fully indoctrinated in to the Religion of Recycling to the point that when we don’t, we feel like we need to go to confession, there is nowhere to put all the recyclables, except back in the landfills or incinerators. The Religion of Recycling is dying out like the gods of Olympus and the Pantheon.
I have tried to find out where the recyclables that the City of Tempe collects are now going since they lost their one-way trip to China but no one seems to know. I think they actually do know and are bit shy to say. After all these years of indoctrinating us to recycle and make a religious ritual of sorting our trash, how could they tell us to go cold-turkey and just stop? So, we just go along with the charade, recycle, feel good about ourselves all the while the recyclables are heading to landfills and incinerators or piling up in warehouses.
But there is a solution. Much of what we put in the recycle bin is actually not recyclable. Most paper is but not so with plastics and cardboard that has been wrapped in plastics or sealed with glues. The solution lies in taking action not at the end use but at the beginning. The biggest problem we actually have is with packaging, too much packing, way too much packaging, the wrong type of packaging and our reluctance to use reusable items like glass bottles.
While I know this is the unforgivable sin of Marketing Departments who like bright shiny packaging but manufacturers should reduce the amount of packing on their products and start using only the types of plastics that can actually be recycled. That will go a long way to reducing our waste problem. Supermarkets could start wrapping things in wax paper instead of plastic wraps and plastic bags as they did in the not too distance past and brown paper bags could replace those ubiquitous plastic bags that can’t be recycled. By putting pressure on the beginning of a products life we will have less to deal with at the end of the products life.
Most of what you put in that blue bin these days goes to a landfill or incinerator. So be prepared to get a letter from your local municipality telling you something like, “the economics of recycling has become unfavorable” and “we will have to reconsider what recycling means to our citizens”. Sounds like a change in doctrine to me. The truth is the Communists no longer want our trash and it is starting to pile up. Which means trash collections fees will start to rise (even though when the cities made money off of trash the fees never went down).
During this Lent challenge yourself to find ways to reduce the trash you produce. And worship not the blue bin but the God who gave us this creation and commands us to be its stewards.
Fr. John B.