The Recycling Religion

Jack Hitt, “A Gospel According to the Earth,” Harper’s, July 2003.

Early one morning, I stepped out of my house with a large container and walked to the curb, only to look up the street and see three neighbors doing the same thing. We all nodded. In Connecticut one recycles by putting bottles and plastics in distinctive twilight-blue bins. Newspapers and cardboard are also presented to the garbage collector separately. It was an odd scene, men and women carrying what looked like votive baskets to lay them on the ground in front of their homes.

Try describing the purpose of recycling to a five-year-old daughter and you find yourself suddenly toiling like a second-year seminarian with a fresh allegory. Recycling is about redeeming old waste by transfiguring it into something new. The theological potential is almost too easy: “recycling” (Greek, “to come full circle”) and “resurrection” (Latin, “to rise again”). The first word practically clicks in the mouth like a new machine getting started; the other mumurs with that harmony of the spheres.

As a household practice, recycling is quite recent, dating only to the 1960s. According to President George W. Bush, recycling’s popularity throughout America managed to reclaim 64 million tons of the nation’s annual 230-million-ton garbage pile in 2000. When he signed into law the new America Recycles Day (November 15, in case you’ve forgotten), President Bush urged his citizenry toward more participation in order to “close the recycling circle.”

What’s most curious about recycling is that it seems bulletproof to criticism. A few years ago, The New York Times Magazine ran an article exposing curbside recycling as a sham. Turns out there are much more efficient market systems that would dispose of our trash without all that individual participation. Worse, around that time one began to hear other reports that in many locales those newspaper bundles—bound with twine at a tremendous cose of hassle, if not of time—are just trucked to the dump and bulldozed into the steaming offal.

I seriously thought I would give it up, in part because, like the author of the article, I hate to recycle. But I found I couldn’t give it up. My kids had already heard the little story about bad things being turned into good things. Somehow this puffball of a parable had staying power. It was one of those trends—you run across them from time to time in our culture—that logical argument is impossible to stop. I often brought up the pointlessness of recycling with friends. It would turn out that they, too, had read the article. Yet they always said they recycled anyway because “at least it’s something.” Such a packed word that last one.


You mean, something like a feeble sacrifice set out to slake the fury of a vengeful God angry with mankind’s … sin?