The United Nations Environment Programe (UNEP) views pollution as a major threat to the earth and its inhabitants. UNEP reports that air pollution is the largest cause of disease and premature death in the world, with more than seven million people dying prematurely due to pollution. About 90% of the world population breathes air that contains levels of pollutants that exceed guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO). The 2023 “State of the Air” report sponsored by the America Lung Association reveals that nearly 36% of Americans (almost 120 million) live in places with unhealthy levels of air pollution. Furthermore, people of color are disproportionately affected by air pollution, composing 72% of the 18 million Americans living in counties with the worst air quality. One United Nations study claims that exposure to air pollution is the largest cause of disease and premature death in the world, taking the lives of 7 million persons each year. In the United States air pollution cause more deaths each year than murders and car accidents combined.
In his ground-breaking encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis recognizes the pollution problem in a graphic image: “The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” In many places, “beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish” and landfills are overflowing. The pope links the pollution problem with a “throw away culture” that casually disposes of everything not immediately useful. He cites one example: “Most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled.” He laments that our industrial system “has not yet managed to adapt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations. To counteract the throw away culture, we should limit as much as possible “the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them.”
In 2021, Francis launched a seven-year “Laudato Si Action Plan” with seven specific goals beginning with a new effort to hear the cries of the earth. In announcing the plan, the pope said we must resist the temptation to be “predators of resources,” adding “from God’s hands we have received a garden, we cannot leave a desert to our children.”
By highlighting recycling as a response to the cries of the earth, Francis provides moral support for prominent environmental agencies in the U.S. urging more Americans to recycle. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that only about 32% of Americans recycle regularly today. This is up from less than 7% in 1960 but still far from what is needed to preserve our common home. The EPA claims that “reused activities” account for 681,000 jobs and $37 billion in wages. The agency highlights the annual November 15 celebration of “America Recycles Day” as a way of encouraging all Americans to “recycle right” on a regular basis. Recycling has many benefits: reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators; conserving natural resources; preventing pollution; saving energy; conserving valuable resources; and providing new jobs. Finally, the EPA encourages all Americans to learn how to recycle properly in their local communities.
With Pope Francis, we ask God to “bring healing to our lives that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.”
How can I improve my recycling practices?
About the Author
Fr. James J. Bacik has served as a priest of the Diocese of Toledo since his ordination in 1962. He is a widely regarded theologian, writer, lecturer and pastor who served as campus minister and adjunct professor of humanities at the University of Toledo for more than 30 years. Fr. Bacik is an AUSCP member. Visit his website at frjimbacik.org.