There’s something magical about a compost pile. We take the ickiest leavings of our kitchen, put them in a pile outside, and they are somehow transformed into nutrient-rich humus that we can use in the garden. Not only do we avoid sending excess waste to the landfill, but we can actually benefit from it. That’s amazing.
It’s probably just because I’m a middle-class, 21st-century American that I find the compost process such a wonder. Most of human history (and prehistory) has been one of frugal and creative reuse of resources. After all, we’re part of the natural world, in which death and waste always become new life and nutrients, in a perfect circle of sustainability. I see in this pattern a sacrament of the divine, whose very Trinitarian nature is a circular dance of self-emptying and being filled, and in whose loving care no sin or sinner is ultimately beyond redemption.
It’s only the modern industrial age, which has pulled us away from both nature and God, placing us in a linear process of resource extraction and pollution, that blinds us to a fundamental truth: In God’s realm—both spiritual and material—nothing goes to waste.
On one hand, I find this divine truth of “zero waste” to be a tremendous relief and a great invitation. If we can trust in it, then our lives can’t ever be without meaning or purpose, and it becomes possible to live with openhearted curiosity, discerning the great mystery of how God might be making use of even our mistakes, failures, and sins.
On the other hand, the truth that God wastes nothing is both a high standard and a severe judgment. If we are called to conform ourselves and our culture to the nature of God and the nature of nature, then we can’t simply throw away things—or, far worse, people. We can’t keep turning the material world into garbage and pollution through our industrial processes, and we can’t keep wasting people through gun and domestic violence, poor schools, poor social safety nets, or the lack of meaningful and well-paid work.
Living up to such a calling may be daunting, but all we can do is start where we are and move toward the vision, doing what is ours to do as part of a larger collective effort—sometimes with small, cautious steps, sometimes with brave leaps of faith. Maybe we commit to minimizing our purchases, reducing our waste, and repurposing or recycling all we can. Maybe we give our lives to improving public education or social services. Maybe we advocate for better working conditions and a living wage—or run a business that provides them. Maybe, if we are limited by age or infirmity, we encourage and support those on the front lines of change.
I can’t prove it, but my heart tells me that God is guiding us and that the divine breath is in our sails. If that’s true, then it’s safe to trust that not one effort toward a better world will be wasted.
Ways You Can Help
1. The best way to avoid waste is on the front end—don’t make unnecessary purchases. Ask yourself: Do I really need this? Can I find it used? How can I take responsibility for its entire life cycle?
2. Only about 35 percent of American waste gets recycled, largely because we put the wrong things in our recycling bins. Go to this page at Popular Science to learn how to properly recycle.
3. Even if you live in an apartment, you can compost. Google “worm composting” to learn how.