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?