If you ever get a ride in my car, you might notice a collection of empty water bottles sitting quietly in the front passenger footwell. They have no more purpose to me, and I would throw them out in gas station garbage bins while filling up gas the same way I periodically purge other vehicular debris, but I can’t throw them out. They are made of recyclable plastic, and I don’t like putting them in the regular garbage. Gas stations don’t have recycling bins, so I leave them in the passenger footwell until enough of them accumulate that I finally bring them into my house and deposit them in our recycling bins.
I wouldn’t describe myself as hyper-environmentally conscious, I still fly on airplanes despite them emitting tons of greenhouse gases, I eat meat even though cows produce about 15% of global greenhouse gases, I drive an SUV, and our house uses a lot of disposable cutlery, a common occurrence in homes with six children I’m told. But when it doesn’t take much extra work, why not recycle? Why let my water bottle join the billions of pieces of plastic hanging out in our oceans, slowly breaking down into smaller and smaller plastic pieces and making their way into the diet of fish and from their back into the diet of people? Why not just throw it in the bin in my garage from where it will be turned back into another bottle, or perhaps a park bench, or a Patagonia fleece sweatshirt?
There is one group of people who are really glad that I’m thinking this way, and it is not the tree huggers of the world, it’s the plastic manufacturers. They want you to think that as long as you throw your plastic into the recycling bin, you have no more guilt, you are not polluting the world, you’re kosher. But the reality is that less than 10% of plastic in the US is recycled, and of the millions of tons that are put into recycling bins each year, only a tiny fraction is actually recycled into a new product, most of it is buried where it leaches into the ground or burned where it fills the air with dangerous petrochemical waste.
For decades, we sent much of our recycled waste to China. In 2017 alone, China received over two trillion pounds of plastic waste, a number so vast that you simply cannot even fathom it. This might help; it’s about the size of 1,400 Empire State Buildings, and that was all in one year! The world was offloading its guilt onto China, and China made lots of money taking everyone’s guild off of their shoulders, but in 2017 they finally said, “NO MORE!” The National Sword policy which drastically reduced the waste China would take from other countries hit the recycling world like a ton of trash, and soon recycling centers all over the world were filled beyond capacity with bales of recycled plastics that had nowhere to go, so we started burning it, landfilling it, and burying it in our backyard.
But we have to wonder, why is it that we believe with such faith that if we throw our plastics into a bin that someone will miraculously change it into a new product, and give it another life? That is the oil industry’s money and influence hard at work. The more you believe you’re polluting the world, the less likely you are to buy plastics, so they want you to believe that recycling is working, and they’ve spent billions to make you believe that.
Plastics have been around for a while, some of their earliest forms were already being produced in the 1800’s but the beginning of the modern plastic industry traces itself back to 1907 in Yonkers, NY where a chemist named Leo Baekeland produced a product that was hard, light, didn’t conduct electricity, had a high melting point, and was easily formed into any shape. He named the product Bakelite, patented it two years later and made a small fortune of it. He also set off a plastic rush resulting in what is today a $4 trillion dollar a year industry. We have plastics in our toothbrush bristles, car fenders, eyeglasses, traffic lights, polyester clothing, bags and bottles, outdoor furniture, disposable cups, non-disposable cups, refrigerator liners, insulation foam, Saran wrap, plumbing pipes, laptops, floor tiles, Teflon frying pans, medical implants, and thousands of other products.
Plastics are made using a great number of different chemical processes, but they all come from petroleum products. Until the tech boom, petroleum companies were the biggest companies in the world, and they had every interest in making sure plastic production kept going at the fastest possible rate, as that was one of their cash cows. In the 1950’s, reports of plastics showing up in the bellies of dead birds and fish started showing, and people started being concerned about the amount of plastic waste. Not long after, recycling plants started showing up, with the message that we don’t need to discard our plastics in a harmful way, as long as we recycle them.
By the 1974, memos and reports that we now have access to, show that executives at the largest petroleum companies and plastic producers were made aware of the fact that there was no feasible way to recycle plastics. It was expensive, energy intensive, and every time plastic is recycled it degrades a bit more. To this day there is simply no viable way to recycle plastic trash on an economical basis. Sure, Patagonia can make their fleece sweatshirts out of recycled plastic bottles, but they charge $119 for a sweatshirt and it only takes 25 recycled bottles out of the landfills!
What’s perhaps most interesting is that the more people became concerned about the rapidly rising amount of plastic waste, the more elaborate the recycling façade became. In the early nineties, the plastic manufacturers and oil companies lobbied for and successfully introduced the infamous recycling number system. This happened in the early nineties, just as people began focusing again on all the plastic in the oceans, and the landfills all over the country. And to allay our guilty feelings and fears, the plastic companies introduced the number system!
Larry Thomas, who was the president of the Society of Plastics, a lobbying group headquartered in Washington DC, was recently interviewed by NPR, and he described how the number system came about. In 1989, Larry wrote to top oil executives at Exxon, Chevron, Amoco, Dow, DuPont, and Procter & Gamble. He reported that the image of plastics was deteriorating at an alarming rate, and that the industry was approaching a point of no return. They gathered for a few meetings and the Society of Plastics was given $5 million to try to salvage the image of plastics. That $5 million soon turned into many tens of millions, the number system was introduced and the biggest advertisers of recycling were the oil and plastics industries themselves! They were buying away your guilty conscience.
Today, on the bottom of almost every plastic product is that three-arrow-recycling-logo and a number inside it. We have #1 PET or PETE, mostly used in single serve bottles like water and soda, #2 HDPE, mostly found in milk jugs, detergent bottles, shampoo containers, etc. #3 PVC found in piping and siding, #4 LDPE found in single use plastic bags, #5 PP found in straws, syrup and medicine bottles, #6 PS all Styrofoam, and #7 Other, everything else, ranging from laptop cases, to CDs, five gallon water bottles, bullet proof materials, and sunglasses.
The plastic industry lobbied for laws that every plastic item should have one of those symbols on the bottom even though it knew that many of those items are not recycled in any meaningful way anywhere in the world! For example, in 2020, there are almost no facilities in the world, that will accept #4 LDPE, (plastic bags), and the few that do will only take such clean product that they are almost only working with pre-consumer manufacturing excess. Another example is #6, Styrofoam, which is 98% air, meaning it takes up a lot of room and is not a lot of product. It is very good at breaking up into little pieces that cling to other items, contaminating all your other recyclables.
For this reason, most cities (including my hometown of Oak Park!) ask that you not put Styrofoam in your recycling bins. If you want to recycle your coffee cup, you need to bring it to special drop off locations. The same applies to #4. But we consumers, we’re really good at ignoring all of this. All we need to do is see that recycling logo on the bottom of a package and we toss it into the recycling bin, and feel good about ourselves as we do it. We are following the plastic companies plan to the T.
Today, the amount of plastics we consume is only growing, and the landfills are only getting bigger, the ocean more filled with plastic debris. Chevron just built a $6 billion dollar plastic factory in Sweeny, TX, in anticipation of increased global demand for plastics. If you ask Chevron about sustainability, they will point you to Jim Becker, their Vice President of Sustainability. He will gladly tell you about how much they are doing for the environment, and how Chevron plans to recycle 100% of what they produce by 2040. It’s a great story if you have time for stories, and if you have a moment he can also show you all the beautiful ads they air about the future of a clean earth, ads filled with bright blue skies, buzzwords like sustainability, future, and responsibility, and children playing outside in pollution free playgrounds. If you have more time for stories, you might want to read the full and unabridged edition of The Collection of Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.
Ironically, all of our obsessive recycling over the last thirty years, the meticulous sorting of different numbers into different bins, those repetitive actions that made us feel less guilty even when we read reports of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or the mountains of trash in third world countries, all lead to even more plastic consumption.
This is not to say that we should ban all plastics, that question is entirely out of the scope of this thought. The more interesting this is the observation about how a deed that looks good actually causes a negative outcome. And this is exactly what Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato OBM, was trying to teach us in the Path of the Just! In Chapter 20 – Weighing the Implementation of Piety, Rabbi Luzzato says:
“You thus learn that one who wishes to conduct himself with true piety must evaluate all of his actions in light of the ramifications that will emerge from them, and according to the circumstances that attend to them, according to the time, according to the social environment, and according to the place… If a certain action would appear to be intrinsically virtuous but when considering its consequences it is bad, or another action appears to be hand, but is virtuous when accounting for its consequences, all these actions are defined by their outcome and their consequences.”
Ironically, I should probably throw out my plastic bottles, because the pain it will give me to throw them out (instead of recycling them) will make me more apt to use reusable water bottles. In my house, after using a Styrofoam cup for my morning coffee for twenty years or more, I transitioned to using Yeti-style cups about two years ago for both water and coffee, and so far have probably used one thousand less 20 oz Styrofoam cups. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to our national Styrofoam usage, but to me it’s meaningful. If I really cared enough, I could do the same for my car (which is where I use lots of disposable water bottles), but recycling my bottles religiously has given me enough moral cover that I don’t feel the need to do that. So ironically, the piety I feel with recycling could be what Rabbi Luzzato would call, “an action that appears to be intrinsically virtuous but when considering its consequence is bad.”
Living life righteously isn’t easy, if it was, everyone would be righteous. It requires not just an examination of what we do, but what our actions cause four steps down the road, and fourteen steps down the road. In the overall scheme of things, the recycling conundrum is probably not the area of greatest import in our lives, but its lesson can be. Can we be introspective enough to find an area of life where we think we’re being righteous but may be causing more damage than good? If we can’t, we’re likely really good at telling stories, and I recommend the unabridged edition of The Collection of Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. But if we can, if we’re big enough to really examine our lives and find those inconsistencies, than we are truly on the pathway to greatness and righteousness!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha, we find Avraham trying to find a proper shidduch, a match, for his son, Yitzchak. Avraham’s trusted servant Eliezer is sent on this important mission. Soon after leaving, he meets Rivka, a girl from a good family who also happens to have the prerequisite character traits of kindness and humility that make her a prime candidate for the shidduch. She invites Eliezer to her home and he graciously accepts.
“ The man (Eliezer) came into the house and unmuzzled the camels. He gave the camels straw and fodder…Food was set before him,” (Gen 24:32-33) The commentators wonder
hy the Torah went out of its way to inform us that Eliezer fed his camels. Would we have thought that he starved his camels?
One answer is that this shows us that Eliezer was meticulous in a very important mitzvah that applies to many of us today. The Halacha says that a person is supposed to feed his animals before feeding himself. This is derived from a verse in the second paragraph of Shema “And I will provide grass in your field for your animals, and you will eat and be full.” (Deut 11:15). We see that Hashem concerns Himself with providing for our animals first, and then for us. If we want to emulate Hashem, we too must do the same. If we have a pet, we need to ensure that it is fed before we have our own meal.
The verses here regarding Eliezer indicate that he too followed this precept. It wasn’t enough for him to feed his animals, he needed to feed them before food was put before him. “He gave the camels straw and fodder…” and only after that “Food was set before him.”
Sensitivity to animals is not only a mitzvah, it is also a litmus test for Jewish leaders in many occasions. In this week we find that Eliezer devises a test to determine who would be a woman worthy of marrying Isaac. The test revolved around finding a girl who would not only be willing to give Eliezer a drink, but would be willing to water his thirsty camels as well. Moshe sees his vision of Hashem in the burning bush while running after a stray lamb to lead it back home. King David is busy tending sheep when Samuel comes to anoint him as king of the Jewish people.
Displaying kindness to all of Hashem’s creatures is the hallmark of someone who recognizes and respects their source. Let’s keep this important mitzvah in mind, and even if we don’t have a pet or any other animals, let’s learn from the Torah’s remarkable sensitivity to all creatures great and small!
This week’s Parsha begins with the passing of Sara, the first of the matriarchs. The Torah tells us about the difficulty that Avraham underwent trying to buy the proper burial place for his family. Avraham dealt with a person that would make a used car salesman look like a saint. The place was called Me’arat Hamachpela, where Adam and Eve were buried.. (Today, Adam and Eve, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, and Jacob and Leah, are all buried there. You can still visit this holy site in Israel, although Arabs control Hebronwhere the Me’arat Hamachpela is located and you need a military escort.
Efron the Chiti, the owner of the aforementioned cave, pretends to want to give the field to Avraham for free, knowing that Avraham won’t take it. This prevents Avraham from bargaining when Efron says, “So let’s just get the deal over with. Here, just give me $40,000,000 which is nothing between friends, and you can go bury your deceased.” (The number wasn’t in USD; I’m using a little writer’s license.) Parenthetically, this was another challenge Avraham had to face, paying an exorbitant price for his wife’s burial place when Hashem had promised him the entire land! Avraham pays the money without complaint, realizing that the proper burial place for the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish nation is priceless.
After burying Sara, Avraham immediately starts to work on finding a mate for his son. With the Akeida fresh in his mind, Avraham feels the urgency of continuing the line of his progeny and dispatches Eliezer to find a wife for his son. Avraham makes Eliezer swear before he leaves that he will make every attempt to find a wife from Avraham’s family and not from the Canaanites living in the land.
Eliezer asks Hashem to help him in finding the proper girl. He even devises a challenge that he asks Hashem to use as the litmus test to determine the future matriarch of the Jewish nation.
According to his plan, Eliezer would ask a number of girls for a drink as they drew water from the well for their families. The one that would say, “Not only will I give you a drink, but I will also water your camels,” would be the one to prove herself worthy of marrying Yitzchak.
Using this test, he quickly finds Rivkah, a daughter of Besuel, granddaughter of Avraham’s brother Haran . When Eliezer goes to meet the parents, he tells over the whole story of how he got there and the miracle of finding Rivka so quickly.
Rivka’s father and brother try to kill Eliezer so that they could steal the great wealth that he brought with him to give to the prospective bride. They put poison in Eliezer’s food but an angel miraculously switches the dishes, and Besuel, Rivka’s father, ends up dead instead. Lavan and his mother try to convince Rivka to stay but she declares that she wants to go with Eliezer to meet her future husband.
Rivka catches sight of her husband for the first time as he is returning from praying in the field and she is overwhelmed by his greatness. They soon marry and, as the Torah tells us, “Yitzchok brought her into the tent of his mother, Sarah. He married Rivkah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. Yitzchok was then consoled for the loss of his mother.” (Gen. 24:67) This shows us that the Torah’s view of love is something that comes after marriage, after one makes the ultimate commitment to a partner, not the infatuation people often feel and describe as “love at first sight” or “falling head over heels in love!”
The Torah then mentions some of the genealogy of Avraham, and Yishmael. It also describes the death of Avraham at the ripe old age of 175. He was buried with his wife in the Me’arat Hamachpela.
The Torah concludes the Parsha with a description of Yishmael’s genealogy, indicating that Avraham treated him as a true son, despite the fact that he had a child from his primary wife, Sara. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle. – Benyamin Franklin
Random Fact of the Week: Shakespeare’s works contain first-ever recordings of 2,035 English words, including critical, frugal, excellent, barefaced, assassination, and countless.
Funny Line of the Week: War does not determine who is right, only who is left.
Have an Insouciant Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham