Our Recycling Challenge

As seems to happen at least twice each year, I spent a significant amount of time this week cleaning out the Cheder classroom. So much accumulated rubbish! I tossed out two large boxes of brochures about services for the elderly that were leftover from a Bagel lunch last year. I also tossed out dried-out paintbrushes, old construction paper, broken pencils–you name it. Some of the discarded stuff went into the red bin, but a great deal of the rubbish–especially all the papers–went into the yellow recycling bin.

A story on ABC’s website from March 3 of this year reported that in 2014-2015, Australians recycled 60% of our waste. That’s an amazing and inspiring statistic, but all that it means is that 60% of our rubbish went into the recycling bin rather than the red bin. Where that recycled rubbish ends up is only now coming into sharper focus. As we have learned, what happened up until the beginning of the year was that most of that potentially recyclable material–a whopping 600,000 tonnes–was being loaded onto cargo ships and sent to China. Now China has announced that it will no longer accept Australian recycling; around the country, warehouses are filling up with our discarded bottles, cans, paper and especially plastics. It turns out that Australians are very faithful about placing our recyclables in the right bin, but not prepared to think more deeply about our responsibility for dealing with those items after they’ve been thrown away. Now is that time of reckoning we’ve managed to avoid for so long.

The revelation that simply throwing recyclables into the correct rubbish bin does not magically cause it to be recycled has been quite an unpleasant revelation within my own family. I remember an episode within the last year in which I threw a plastic milk bottle into the regular rubbish. I think this might have been because the recycling bin was full and no one had bothered to take it out to the much larger bin outside, but that is another story. At any rate, both of my sons treated this incident with such severity that you would have thought I’d committed the original sin. Recyclables need to be placed in the recycling bin, they lectured, because then they are recycled.

It occurred to me at the time how neatly the action of placing items in the yellow bin absolved us for throwing it away. My sons earnestly believed that using recyclable items–especially plastics–meant that no waste was involved at all. Somehow they had conjured up a recycling system which operated with 100% efficiency. This meant that even though our yellow bin was full pretty much each time the recycling was collected, none of us bore any blame for increasing the amount of rubbish thrown away and the amount of raw products used.

And now we know that isn’t true at all. And that, I think, is a good thing. Because now we need to see ourselves as accountable for all the rubbish we use, whether it’s theoretically recyclable or not. That same ABC article cited an estimate from a European Union report that production of virgin plastic will account for 20 per cent of global oil consumption and 15 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. I invite you to collect all of the plastic that you discard in a single week and contemplate just how much plastic each of us are putting into the environment every year. In recent weeks I’ve been monitoring my own plastic use, and it’s appalling, even as I carry around my own water bottle and use reusable plastic containers to store food. I buy milk in plastic bottles, cheese in plastic sleeves, produce in plastic bags–and on and on and on.

It is an unpleasant truth that Judaism in the past did not have a particularly good track record when it comes to environmental advocacy. It is comforting to appreciate that this is true of just about all the world’s major religions, which mostly came about in eras when human beings usually had negligible impacts on the world around them even when they tried really hard. The good news is that, as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan memorably noted about Judaism, “The past has a vote—not a veto.” It is possible to chart a new course, and Judaism has done just that in recent decades. Standing up for the environment takes us all the back to the second chapter of Genesis, in which God admonishes the first human to tend the garden in which he’s been placed. At the moment, we are doing the exact opposite of tending our garden. Another imperative to environmental activism comes through Judaism’s highest mitzvah: the saving of life. We see now that our lives are inextricably tied up with the health of the sea, the air and the land. So our highest calling is to save the earth, and our own lives with it. As I’ve said often, doing so will be difficult and will require much of us, but it is so important to do so. As the rabbis said, “It is not for us to complete the work, but we are not free to leave it to others.” Shabbat shalom!

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