Sort It Out

In the famous story from the Talmud, the destruction of the Second Temple is explained as coming about in the wake of a long-simmering feud between two Jews and a party invitation meant for a man’s friend Kamtza going instead to his enemy Bar Kamtza. It used to bother me that I had to look every year to see which was the enemy and which was the friend, Kamtza or Bar Kamtza? You can see how the servant made a mistake and delivered the invitation to the wrong person, which led to Bar Kamtza being publicly shamed when he was thrown out of the party. Since no one spoke up and prevented him being ejected, Bar Kamtza delivered a report of Jewish rebellion to the Roman authorities, who attacked Jerusalem. (That they could destroy the Temple is of course only because HaShem allowed it because of the sinas chinam, the baseless hatred, that was happening between Jews.)

Much more confusing than distinguishing Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is trying to tell which plastic is which when it comes to recycling. I recently took a free webinar offered by my local solid waste district (aka the people who handle what I put out to be recycled after it’s picked up by the city) to make sure I was up to date on current recycling guidelines. I was surprised to find out that even though I have been recycling for years, I needed to make some changes to what I put in the bin. (I’m not going to list the guidelines here because they vary from city to city, state to state, and country to country.)

For the last 25 years or so, ships would come to the United States from China and other countries in the region full of things to be sold at Target, Walmart, Amazon, etc. The ships would go back filled with bales of recyclable materials bought by manufacturers in the region. But China was the biggest buyer, purchasing around half of the entire world’s supply of recyclables. In 2018, worried about its own trash problem, China banned all imports of recyclable waste materials into its country. With fewer buyers, manufacturers that buy recyclable waste were able to set higher standards and tighter rules for which recyclables they’d buy and how clean the materials have to be. They are also able to pay less, which means municipal recycling facilities (MRFs, pronounced “murfs”) have to be able to sort bags of recycling into bales quickly and with less labor to make a profit. In short, there is a whole recycling supply chain to consider. As the first link in that chain, I need to be aware of what decisions and fates await the plastic that leaves my house.

Plastic bales (Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.)

I had spent years looking up which number was on the bottom of containers (inside the little chasing-arrows logo) to see if an item was recyclable or not, but for my solid waste district, that no longer matters. My MRF only takes plastic containers with a neck that is narrower than its body and above a specific size. 

What does this have to do with Kamtza and Bar Kamtza? There’s a hint not just in that the names are almost identical, but that it’s the name itself. Kamtza in Aramaic means “locust.” The Rabbis were hinting that it wasn’t that the man was picking Kamtza for a friend because he was loyal, didn’t speak lashon hara, etc. He was Mr. Locust! There was nothing that made him appropriate to be a friend over Mr. Son of Locust.  

The same is true of plastic. There are bad plastics and less-bad plastics and really terrible plastics. All of them have some levels of toxic chemicals, and none of them break down into anything other than smaller pieces of plastic, eventually winding up in the food we eat and the water we drink. And while things like metal cans can be melted down and made into new cans almost endlessly, plastic breaks down into smaller pieces and gets mixed with other chemicals. Since it gets “downcycled” into something with more impurities and chemicals than it had before, things made from recycled plastic aren’t recyclable. A plastic water bottle can be used to make clothes, carpet, shoes, and more, but when those things are discarded, they go to the dump, not into making something new.

Since the hope for any plastic I buy being recycled into something new is slim, in my view, it’s not worth making my family (or myself) crazy about it. My kids are in elementary and high school, and they still throw things in the wrong bin. I simply move the item and either remind them or not, depending on how the day is going. Just like I make sure there isn’t anything hazardous in my recycling out of concern for the people who have to do the work to recycle it, recycling has to work for the people in my house, too. 


Amazon bag ban carbon emissions celery Chanuka Chanukah Chanukka Chanukkah COVID disinfect donuts doughnuts elul energy food waste frum Hannukah Hanukka Hanukkah jewish lag b'omer landfill lashon hara laundry line dry low-waste mishloach manos mishloach manot orthodox passover pesach plastic purim recycle recycling reduce retail therapy reusable reuse shopping single-use teshuva washcloth water zero-waste

Image of soda bottle on the beach courtesy of Brian Yurasits on Unsplash.

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