Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Reflections on Recycling
distributed 3/16/01 - ©2001

The task of caring for God's creation is multifaceted and complex. Two vignettes on a similar theme show the need for change on several levels.

1) Yesterday, I drove by a local school, and saw several students heading across the parking lot toward the recycling bins. Their arms were full, and they were trying hard to control a little cart that bounced and wobbled, threatening to shed its cargo of waste. It was wonderful to see a real effort being made to keep all that stuff out of the landfill. My pleasure evaporated, though, as I looked a bit more closely at the scene. The entire load being taken to the bins was composed of carefully flattened cardboard boxes. And the dumpsters are designated for all sorts of paper products except cardboard and phone books. I never saw how the problem was resolved. Did they unload their cardboard into the recycling bins (contaminating the contents), or is that mass of cardboard now buried in a landfill?

2) A few weeks ago, a good friend of Eco-Justice Ministries wrote to me with an observation about life on his block. He lives in a neighborhood that is rapidly being transformed from comfortable bungalows into urban trophy homes. The new residents seem to possess considerable affluence, and have the means to do whatever they want. Our friend noted that, of the twenty or so homes on his block, only three participate in the free curbside recycling program offered in Denver. He commented, "Now that is a shame and probably because people just don't want to be bothered with it."

Recycling is a good thing. But making it work calls for change on several levels.

We need to convince our friends and neighbors of the rewards (both personal and social) that come from a simple effort on their part. We need to work for personal change in order to build participation in the readily available options for recycling.

We also need to work for change on institutional and systemic levels, to create new options where we can act on our convictions. Those students were willing to make an effort to dispose of cardboard responsibly, but there was no available place for them to do so.

As we work toward healing for our beleaguered world, we have to change both hearts and systems. We must combine personal and institutional change.

It seems to me that most advocacy groups lean strongly toward one type of change or the other. Some work at personal transformation with little recognition of our institutional constraints. Others work at the legislative and corporate side, with only a nod toward the personal choices involved.

The church is wonderfully positioned and well experienced at bridging these two perspectives. The church knows how to look at both individuals and society. I pray that we can build on our strength, and help bring about both personal and social change.

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Last week, I reflected on the reported death of millions of Monarch butterflies at a forest reserve in Mexico. Updates on that story say that cold weather was the cause of death, not maliciously applied pesticides.

My hope is renewed that the Mexican government can pull off its wonderful efforts to protect the endangered butterfly and to move those who have logged the forests into new and sustainable work.

However, other news this week from Washington, DC, provides an unfortunate confirmation of my rumination about the danger of choices for lifestyle rather than life.

  • President Bush has reversed his campaign pledge to treat carbon dioxide as a regulated pollutant. Business as usual for coal and power companies takes precedence over the health of the planet.

  • Gale Norton has started nibbling away at national monuments and national parks, looking to remove restrictions on use. Traditional uses -- the lifestyle of the locals -- takes precedence over the preservation of habitat and cultural treasures.

  • The Bush administration seems dedicated to a quest to drill for oil and gas wherever it may be found -- the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or national monuments, or any other public lands -- while cutting funding for research on alternative fuels and greater energy efficiency.
As we seek to understand how to live in the 21st century, it appears that we should look to Mexico, not Washington, for creative options and life-affirming commitments.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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