Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Origin of Recycling

Recycling has become a distinctive of modern life. Citizens who were alive during World War II, however, may recall a few formal recycling practices, such as flattening tin cans or salvaging rubber tires for the wartime effort. But beginning in the 1960s, increased sensitivity to environmental issues started to become important in the national psyche. In 1970 the first Earth Day was celebrated. Formal recycling gained popularity gradually during the next twenty years. Municipalities began to mandate the recycling of aluminum cans, plastic, and paper. Now the recycling mentality is ingrained in most of us.

By no means is recycling a new idea. In the Creator’s plan for preparing our earth for the sudden arrival of modern humans a mere blink of geologic time ago, prehistoric recycling has served to prepare plenteous natural resources for a rich human existence. Modern research reveals a fascinating scenario of ancient earth processes which now provide a wealth of resources needed by our modern technological society. Fertile soils, usable metallic and non-metallic elements, and fossil fuels such as petroleum, natural gas, and coal have all been produced by the inherent recycling processes of our living, functioning Planet Earth.

Let’s give a few eye-opening examples. Sometime after the earth’s formation as a solid body 4.5 bya, our sun is known to have become dimmer by about 15%. Coincident with this dimming was a change in atmospheric composition. Volcanoes greatly increased the concentration of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and water vapor. Earth’s temperature was maintained at a life-friendly temperature in spite of the dimmer sun. Green plants and different types of bacteria absorbed and processed the additional greenhouse gases. Later, they were converted to the bio-deposits on which our society depends: coal, oil, natural gas, limestone, phosphates, sand, and multiple other resources. Sulfate-reducing bacteria also recycled poisonous soluble metals in the oceans, converting them to the non-poisonous, insoluble metal ore deposits we use today as the raw materials for our modern products.

Recycling is the continuous re-use of materials. This earth is really a large and complex recycling organism. We have spoken of man’s short-term recycling to avoid overusing newly mined materials, reduce landfills, or save money. We have also mentioned the earth’s own spectacular carbon-recycling mechanisms, such as the growth of green plants, still occurring on a large scale. This brief discussion barely scratches the surface of this topic. Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation of Psalm 104:24 is an exuberant expression of worship of the creator of our earth’s recycling system: “What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side, made earth overflow with your wonderful creations.”