Is there a need to recycle from a Jewish perspective?
First of all, it is a Torah requirement to keep the law of the land. Thus, if one is in a place where local, civil law requires one to recycle, a person is required to do so according to Judaism in order to respect and observe the law.
However, even if the law does not require it, insofar as recycling preserves natural resources and the environment, Jewish teachings mandate it. This is perhaps most emphatically stated in the following Midrash:
When the Holy One, blessed be He, created mankind, He said: See My works, how fine and excellent they are! All that I have created, for you have I created them. Think upon this and do not spoil and destroy My world. For if you do, there is no one to set it right after you. (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28)
Since recycling paper products saves trees, and recycling other goods reduces the amount of landfill or burning required to treat garbage, while also resulting in a higher percentage of more environmentally-friendly biodegradable waste, recycling fulfills this Divine mandate to preserve natural resources and to maintain a clean, natural and healthy environment.
In addition, recycling is also related to the prohibition of “bal tashchit” — which forbids destroying useful objects. The source for this is the Torah prohibition against destroying fruit trees: “When you shall besiege a city…you shall not destroy (lo tashchit) the trees thereof…so you may eat of them. You shall not cut them down….Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food, them you may destroy and cut down, that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you.” (Deut. 20:19-20)
However, the prohibition of bal tashchit was understood by the Talmudic Sages to extend to all other forms of unnecessary destruction as well. Thus, the Talmud (Kiddushin 32a) teaches, “Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the prohibition of bal tashchit.” Rambam fixes this principle in his code of law. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars 6:8, 10)
Accordingly, throwing away paper products, clothes, boxes, cans, bottles, plastics or other goods and materials in a way that destroys them and prevents their future use is arguably a form of bal tashchit, since through recycling they can still be used. Conversely, recycling preserves these objects, preventing them from being broken and destroyed.
Regarding this second consideration, the Talmud (Berachot 52b) states “Jews should be taught when very young that it is a sin to waste even small amounts of food”. As above, this need to educate applies to all forms of destruction, and by extension, to the need to recycle. The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 529) offers a beautiful explanation of the purpose of this mandate:
“This mitzvah teaches us to love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it, so that good becomes a part of us and we will avoid all that is evil and destructive. This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah: that nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world, that they should regret any loss or destruction that they see, and if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can. Not so are the wicked, who are like demons, who rejoice in destruction of the world, and they destroy themselves.”
Regarding this last point of educating children in this mitzvah, since recycling often involves a monetary incentive, for example refunds for bottles and cans, this is a good opportunity to educate children to recycle and become accustomed to environmental issues. One can encourage children to recycle by giving them the responsibility to save or gather recyclables and return them in order to receive and keep the refund as compensation or for spending money. In this way one fulfills the teaching of the Sages to educate one’s children in this important mitzvah, such that he and they will be among the righteous who improve society!