Discussions about recycling in the home are often couched in larger discussions of environmental protection and sustainability. Given our collective obsession with climate change, this is understandable. But did you know that for some people, recycling has nothing to do with protecting the planet? It is a matter of survival.
I grew up at a time when recycling wasn’t a high priority. My family did it, not because we were worried about climate change or ecological protection, but because we were hungry. Recycling paper and glass was a way to put food on the table.
You’ll Do Anything When You’re Hungry
I grew up in a family of eleven children. I was the seventh in line. Both my parents worked, though they did not earn enough between them to elevate our family to the status of middle class. We were poor.
There were days when there wasn’t enough food in the house for three square meals. A local priest helped us out when he could by bringing us leftovers from the county jail. We filled the rest of the gaps by picking through residents’ trash in order to recycle their glass and paper.
As a kid, I learned you’ll do almost anything when you’re hungry. You will study the city’s collection routes so you know exactly when each neighborhood puts out their trash. You will get up before the sun, climb into a pickup truck, and drive around neighborhoods looking for paper and glass sitting at the curb.
We Sorted and Transported
So how did we feed ourselves by recycling? My siblings and I would spend the weekends sorting through everything we had collected during the week. We would sort all sorts of paper products and stuff them into paper bags. The glass would be crushed and put into 50-gallon drums.
When my father felt we had enough paper or glass to constitute a full truck load, we would load up his pickup truck and take it to the appropriate recycling facility. The paper mill was about 20 minutes west of town while the glass recycler was about an hour to the east.
There wasn’t a lot of money to be made in recycling, but it was enough to make up for what my parents lacked in their weekly income. Recycling allowed them to put food on the table when they otherwise may not have been able to.
Things Are Different Today
The same process of manually sorting and transporting recyclables that my siblings and I engaged in 50 years ago is similar to the business model that allows Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics to recycle industrial plastic waste at a profit. Seraphim has taken a decades-old process and mastered it. It’s too bad consumers don’t do the same thing in their own homes.
Let’s face it, things are different today. We live in a disposable society that makes it too easy to throw things away. For most of us living in the United States, hunger is not a big issue. Most of us don’t know what it’s like to go to bed at night with hunger pangs so severe that they actually hurt.
Perhaps living a life of comparative luxury has made us soft. We do not think about recycling because there is no personal motivation to do so. Would we change our minds if recycling were suddenly the only way to put food on the table? I suspect so.
I will never forget digging through the trash during the predawn hours in search of glass and plastic. I fully understand just how attractive recycling can be when you are hungry.