Spring is the season when we start to see new life after the cold, dark winter. Many start preparing ground for growing gardens, while others begin rifling through closets to dispose of clutter. With Earth Day this past Monday, CHAI Good Neighbor Day last Sunday and Baltimore Green Week ending tomorrow, many of us will have participated in community improvement projects. We can also use this season to evaluate our behaviors and elevate our actions through mitzvot.
One of the goals of spring cleaning is to decide what is valuable enough to keep and what we can do without. What becomes of the items we don’t want? It is likely that some can be repurposed or donated. Most of it will end up as garbage and will be taken to a landfill or incinerator for disposal. This waste detrimentally impacts our environment, impairing our air quality and water supplies. To help stem this problem, many communities have adopted a program to encourage people to reduce their contribution to these environmental stresses.
Most of us recognize the graphic of a triangle composed of three arrows moving in the same direction creating a closed loop as being synonymous with recycling. What you may not know is that this triangle actually symbolizes the 3-R program: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. The order is important as it is prioritized by the most desirable action first.
Ideally, recycling should be the last resort, because it takes a substantial amount of energy to re-manufacture items from used materials. But because the other Rs (reduce and reuse) largely have been ignored, we are in an even bigger predicament.
In the U.S. we continue to increase the amount of waste produced per person per year (almost five tons). A successful 3-R program should result in less waste, not more. So what’s going on? The problem originates with our purchasing, consumption and disposal habits. Using the rationale we employ during spring cleaning to assess what possessions we keep, we could move closer to reduced (or zero!) waste by considering an expansion of the R program:
- Refuse what you do not need.
- Reduce what you do need.
- Reuse what is not disposable.
- Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse.
- Rot (compost) the rest.
We could not only reduce the impact on our environment, but also create healthier living and working spaces. There are significant financial benefits to this as well. We would be creating the means for a more sustainable lifestyle, and we would be connecting to Jewish values found in our mitzvot such as donations/charity (tzedakah), not wasting/destroying (ba’al tashchit), protecting our health (ush’martem et nafshotaichem) and our obligation to protect and cultivate the earth (l’ovdah u’l’shomrah).
There is a Jewish teaching of mitzvah goreret mitzvah, one mitzvah leads to another. Every positive action we take has a ripple effect and can inspire others to pitch in and make a difference as well. Spring cleaning is not in itself a mitzvah. But by extension, if we consciously choose to connect mitzvoth to this seasonal ritual, we can in turn reap long-term benefits for ourselves and our community.
Aleeza Oshry is manager of the Sustainability Initiative at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.