“They’re throwing away a folder. That’s a perfectly good folder!”
“It’s only half a folder.”
“Well, they could find the other half and attach them together.”
Miss Aponte finished emptying the last bag. “We’ve been learning about the need to reduce, reuse and recycle,” she said, and pointed at the pile. “How does all this make you feel?”
“Baaaad,” the students moaned.
Miss Aponte separated out two bottles, the only items in the pile that could be recycled. She asked what lesson the students had learned. The class sentiment was summarized by Lily Finn, the student who had been so determined to save the half folder: “People shouldn’t throw away paper or anything. They should recycle it. And they shouldn’t eat candy in school.”
Lily’s judgment about candy sounded reasonable, but the conclusion about recycling seemed to be contradicted by the data on the floor. The pile of garbage included the equipment used by the children in the litter hunt: a dozen plastic bags and two dozen pairs of plastic gloves. The cost of this recycling equipment obviously exceeded the value of the recyclable items recovered. The equipment also seemed to be a greater burden on the environment, because the bags and gloves would occupy more space in a landfill than the two bottles.
Without realizing it, the third graders had beautifully reproduced the results of a grand national experiment begun in 1987 — the year they were born, back when the Three R’s had nothing to do with garbage. That year a barge named the Mobro 4000 wandered thousands of miles trying to unload its cargo of Long Islanders’ trash, and its journey had a strange effect on America. The citizens of the richest society in the history of the planet suddenly became obsessed with personally handling their own waste.
Believing that there was no more room in landfills, Americans concluded that recycling was their only option. Their intentions were good and their conclusions seemed plausible. Recycling does sometimes makes sense — for some materials in some places at some times. But the simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill. And since there’s no shortage of landfill space (the crisis of 1987 was a false alarm), there’s no reason to make recycling a legal or moral imperative. Mandatory recycling programs aren’t good for posterity. They offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups — politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations — while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems. Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.
The obvious temptation is to blame journalists, who did a remarkable job of creating the garbage crisis, often at considerable expense to their own employers. Newspaper and magazine publishers, whose products are a major component of municipal landfills, nobly led the crusade against trash, and they’re paying for it now through regulations that force them to buy recycled paper — a costly handicap in their struggle against electronic rivals. It’s the first time that an industry has conducted a mass-media campaign informing customers that its own product is a menace to society.
But the press isn’t solely responsible for recycling fervor; the public’s obsession wouldn’t have lasted this long unless recycling met some emotional need. Just as the third graders believed that their litter run was helping the planet, Americans have embraced recycling as a transcendental experience, an act of moral redemption. We’re not just reusing our garbage; we’re performing a rite of atonement for the sin of excess. Recycling teaches the themes that previous generations of schoolchildren learned from that Puritan classic, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”
John Bunyan’s 17th-century allegory features a character not unlike the garbage barge that left Long Island: a man dressed in rags who flees the City of Destruction, desperate to find a place he can unload the “great burden upon his back.” Guided by the Evangelist, the pilgrim wanders the world trying to reach the Celestial City. His worst trial occurs in Vanity Fair, a village market founded by Beelzebub and inhabited by noblemen named Lord Luxurious and Sir Having Greedy. The market offers tempting wares, but the pilgrim bravely practices the first R — reduce — by shunning the products of the “merchandizers” and continuing on to the Celestial City.
Today’s schoolchildren, though, might be confused by one character encountered on Bunyan’s road to salvation: a man, the source of our word “muckraker,” who is busy raking together a compost pile. This recycler of household waste isn’t presented as a role model for the pilgrim. He’s a symbol of moral blindness because, instead of looking up to see the heavenly rewards awaiting him, he “could look no way but downwards, with a muck-rake in his hand.” In Bunyan’s time, it would have been hard to imagine that pilgrims would one day be taught to search for salvation right down there in the muck.
The Day of Reckoning Foretold