“But waste not by excess: for Allah loveth not the wasters.” (Quran 6:141)
One question that has puzzled me since I took shahada 20 years ago, is why I don’t see the Muslims recycling their garbage. Surely, there are exceptions, but I continue to be completely baffled by the general level of environmental disregard. I would have thought that in 20 years, we would have made more progress in terms of our consciousness about the burden we put upon our fellow citizens to cope with our daily waste.
Recently I was visiting an Iraqi family for dinner. When I inquired why they preferred to live in America even after the political situation had stabilized back home, they told me that Iraq is a terrible place to live because it’s full of garbage. After dinner, I watched them stuffing a huge bag full of trash from just one meal! I asked them why they don’t make use of the government trash recycling services, now that they live in a country that has curbside pickup. They said they had no recycling bin. I told them you just call the City and they will give you one. They said it didn’t matter because they had a neighbor who hauls away their trash for them so that they don’t have to pay the garbage removal fee. I was truly shocked.
Their friend is hauling away their garbage for them as a favor, and they don’t have the decency to reduce their amount of trash? Even though recycling is free and garbage dumping costs money? As I was leaving, I noticed that they actually did have a recycling bin in the garage. It was being used to store baseball bats and other sports equipment. I started feeling resentful, like they came to my country just to fill it with garbage! They’ve been here for ten years, their children were born here. At what point will they start caring about their adopted country enough to recycle their garbage? Don’t get me wrong, they have many good qualities too.
The Muslims’ hesitancy to recycle their garbage is all the more perplexing, since one of the most popular dawah pamphlets continues to be the “Environment and Islam.” It points out Quranic verses such as, “Do no mischief on the earth, after it hath been set in order” (7:56), and applies them to the scientific concept of maintaining a balanced ecosystem. This appealed to me as a young person who was terrified by dire predictions that due to environmental pollution, there would not be enough oxygen to sustain human life on earth within 50 years. The threat of impending planetary doom put the fear of God in my heart and made me want to live more consciously.
When I was a child, there was no recycling. Recycling services are something that ordinary citizens and environmental organizations worked and fought hard for. It began with volunteers collecting recyclable trash at various church and school parking lots. People who recycled were often belittled as ridiculous idealists, but they kept struggling and striving to slow the steady stream of trash into our landfills and trash incinerators. Eventually, citizen pressure resulted in recycling programs in many cities.
When Ann Arbor, Michigan got its first recycling truck I was 18. I enthusiastically volunteered on the truck for one day, hauling bottles and newspapers from the curb. I gained a lot of respect for all trash collectors, as every muscle in my body hurt at the end of the day! Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his last speech in support of Memphis Tennessee’s sanitation workers, where he compared their importance to that of doctors, because society relies upon them to protect us from disease. Recycling reduces the amount of rotting material by separating the clean garbage from the gross garbage. Composting food scraps in the garden reduces the amount of rotting waste even more.
Yet, recycling is done by just half of Americans daily, and 13 percent don’t recycle at all. Research points to apathy and lack of convenience being the main reasons people neglect their civic duty to reduce their human footprint upon the earth. In many cases, confusion about what can and cannot be recycled plays a large role. Education and peer pressure seem to be the keys to compliance.
Pride in home ownership might also go a long way in sculpting attitudes about garbage. In my neighborhood, the streets where most people are renters are usually strewn with garbage while the streets where most homes are owned by their inhabitants are usually clean. People who identify with and value their property are more likely to pay attention to the mess that their garbage creates. Yet, even if we rent an apartment, we can cultivate an attitude of pride in our town, our country, or our planet.
People who don’t recycle often feel like their efforts don’t make a difference. It may be that people with a strong sense of self-worth might be more likely to believe that even a small contribution to the recycling bin could be meaningful. Immigrants who feel like it’s fine to pollute America because it’s not “their” country should be encouraged to participate in the communal health of our country as a matter of self esteem, and as a baby step towards civic engagement.
Every community usually has at least one concerned individual. This person should help make recycling convenient at the local mosque or Islamic center by obtaining recycling bins and encouraging people to use them. The City will generally have a list of the types of items they accept that can be printed out from their website. Posting these instructions near the recycling bin might go a long way towards reducing confusion.
Youth groups could play a large role in educating parents and creating peer pressure to recycle. We are fortunate enough to live in a country where we have curbside recycling. Those communities who don’t have it, should lobby for it. This could be a great way to join a cause and cooperate with your neighbors about something that helps everyone.
Feeling like we are part of a community makes us want to recycle our garbage because of the way our garbage makes us look. It’s embarrassing when you have a huge pile of trash outside your house on garbage day and your recycling bin just has a few newspapers. At the same time, caring about the environment can help us feel connected with others and provide opportunities to work within our community on issues of mutual benefit.
Either way you look at it, recycling is a win-win solution for society that goes beyond the immediate material concerns of trash removal.