Turning Waste Into Treasure

I read a story last week that really got my attention. It was posted on the New York Times Green Blog (see story here: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/29/an-oil-bonanza-in-discarded-plastic/), and was discussing a company’s effort to convert discarded plastic into crude oil. Now I know this does not sound like the most environmentally friendly initiative, as the crude oil will eventually be utilized, resulting in the release of green house gases into the atmosphere. However, although I am a huge supporter of renewable energy, I think there is room for businesses such as this, in our effort to create a more sustainable society. The article also discussed a company who can extract commercially viable nylon from old carpet and a company that has retrofitted a mill for grinding expired pharmaceuticals to recycle rubber.

According to the EPA, an estimated 2,480,000 tons of plastic bottles and jars were disposed of in 2008. Of course, some of these bottles are recycled through municipal programs, however although the amount of plastic bottles recycled in the U.S. has grown every year since 1990, the actual recycling rate remains steady at around 27 percent. Therefore, if a company can incentivize consumers of plastic bottles (especially large industrial ones ) to collect a larger percentage of these materials, then I think it is a positive development.

Although I do not believe that this will result in any significant change in the amount of oil we consume as a society, I do think it illustrates a broader point about our need to view waste as a renewable resource. I recently read that the total municipal solid waste in the United States has grown from 88.1 million tons in 1960 to approximately 243 million tons a year today, according to figures from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Much of this waste can be composted or recycled. For example, San Francisco has created a large scale urban collection of food scraps for composting which has resulted in over 600 tons of food scraps and other compostable material each day being turned into nutrient-rich soil.

This concept of recycling and composting is engrained in Jewish tradition. The Sefer Hachinuch states that "Righteous people … do not waste in this world even a mustard seed. They become sorrowful with every wasteful and destructive act that they see, and if they can, they use all their strength to save everything possible from destruction. But the wicked … rejoice in the destruction of the world, just as they destroy themselves." COEJL has a great resource explaining the concept of BalTashchit, http://www.coejl.org/learn/je_tashchit.php, the Jewish principle that we should not waste or destroy, and should regret any loss or destruction that they witness.

We as Jews should support initiatives that help encourage and incentivize all entities in our society to recycle and compost so that we can reduce the amount of waste in the world. This can be done through businesses offering to pay for resources that they can recycle into other useful products, or through penalties imposed on those who refuse to comply (this type of program exists in San Francisco where households pay for sanitary pick up based on the weight of their trash. Therefore, the more one composts and recycles, the less the weight of the garbage). Regardless of the mechanism, I think it is vital that we adopt a holistic approach to the task of transforming our world into a more sustainable place. Although personal responsibility and changing the manner in which each of us interacts with the environment will play a large role in this process, creativity and ingenuity will be equally important if our society is to succeed in this daunting task.

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