Recycling Tu B’Shevat
The other day, I watched my son struggle with garbage. He had just washed and dried his hands but noticed the liner in the compost bin was missing, and therefore couldn’t throw out his paper towel. Never mind that the trash can was inches away. In my son’s world, paper is not trash. So instead, he spun in circles, not knowing what to do. “Over there,” I said. “Paper can also go in the recycling bin.”
I thought about this incident as I was checking out the school calendar and noticed Tu B’shevat at the bottom of the month. And that got me thinking about trees and paper.
When I was my son’s age, composting and recycling weren’t even on my parents’ – or teachers’ – radar. Yes, it was part of the public conversation, but only as a whisper.
In April of 1966, the New York Times ran a front page story with a call-to-action headline: “Man Must Re-Use Wastes”. The article cites a report from the National Academy of Sciences, which outlines the environmental damage caused by garbage including fish kills, river deaths, and predicted stresses on air quality, crops, and physical space. It goes on to predict we would choke on our own air by 1980, if nothing was done about it. Then, the article sums it up with a number: $3-billion. That’s how much the United States spent in 1966 to dispose of household waste. In today’s dollars, that’s the equivalent of $22.7 billion.
Fast forward fifty years and the numbers are staggering. According to a report by the World Bank, the United States alone spends $205 billion annually to dispose 254 tons of trash. That’s more waste than any other developed country creates. It amounts to 4.6 pounds of trash generated per person, per day. And we only manage to recycle 34% of it.
Now, I’m not going to step on a soap box – mostly because it’s already in my recycling bin – but there is a Jewish component to all this.
Bal tashchit is one of the 613 commandments, and frankly, I’ve never heard it by name before. The general interpretation is that we shouldn’t destroy needlessly or waste wantonly. The particular passage in the Torah has to do with not destroying fruit trees during battles. It goes to the bigger Jewish notion of preserving life (fruit is food that prolongs life). Other, non-fruit-bearing trees were deemed OK to chop down, as long as they were used to make something useful, like bulwarks (defensive walls) “against the city that makes war with you”. (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)
Rabbis throughout the centuries have interpreted bal tashchit in a broader sense, one that is considered the cornerstone of environmentalism: we should not waste fuel, water or food, nor should we tear clothing, break vessels, or destroy something built up.
As with most things Jewish, there are exceptions to every rule. Once the fruit tree stops producing enough fruit and renders the lumber more valuable, you could chop it to the ground. Or, if you are ill and need to cook something and the only firewood you have available is from a fruit tree, you can grab an axe. You can rip clothing if you’re in mourning. And, Jews used to throw food at the bride and groom on their wedding day (now we throw candy), which sounds a bit wasteful, but there’s (naturally) an argument for it.
But back to this notion of not wasting. “The idea of being disposable is the modern ethic,” says Rabbi Jamie Korngold, a.k.a. the Adventure Rabbi. “If you go back to any primitive people, they re-used everything. Materials were hard to come by. When you don’t have a lot, you cherish and reuse.” Of course, we have a lot. And now, we also have a lot of trash.
“Recycling is an old thing that we’ve rediscovered,” says Korngold. And with it a renewed effort to take care of the earth. “It’s all about the Jewish mythology, that when Gd create the world and put Adam in the garden, he put him there to till and tend. So that’s where the phrase shomrei adamah comes from: guard and protect the earth.”
Korngold goes on to explain that our job – as humankind – is to be guardians and caregivers of our natural surroundings.
And that is how my son explained it to me when I asked him why it was important to compost that paper towel. “Because,” he said and looked at me as if I had three heads, “it’s better for the earth.”
When I was my son’s age, we bought trees to create forests in Israel. Tu B’Shevat was a “there” holiday. As an adult, I planted someone else’s purchased tree on a barren Israeli hillside, which shifted my focus and made the holiday a little more tangible. Now that I have kids of my own, I want it to be a “here” holiday that gives them connection and context. We can’t plant a tree in the middle of winter, but we can celebrate all the things that trees give us, and reflect on the gifts we can give them in return.
And so, this Tu B’Shevat, when my kids and I sing happy birthday to the trees, I’m also going to sing their praises for how they protect the trees and care for the earth each time they ignore the trash bin.
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