Michele Nestor, President

August 12, 2015

6 Min Read
How Recycling Factors into the Vatican’s Climate Change Plan

This is the second of a two-part series that explores the implications of Pope Francis’s recent call to action on global warming and climate change. Read part one here.

On June 18 the Vatican officially published Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s much-anticipated encyclical on climate change. Regardless of your religious or political persuasions, a document of this magnitude is news worthy.

Encyclicals are papal letters written to the Catholic community to provoke serious thought, discussion and actions on specific issues. Often, the letter is aimed at a more global audience, as in Laudato Si, where Francis shows that he has no qualms about reaching outside of his flock.

To be clear, encyclicals, like Francis’s Laudato Si, do not constitute church doctrine. There are no mandates or formal expectations for Catholics to observe. By tossing blind faith aside, how does the Pope expect folks to change their habits on a scale grand enough to affect the issues of his concerns? After all, Al Gore has been pitching hard-core scientific analysis about the cause and effect of carbon emissions for a number of years with less than convincing results. What’s the game changer?

For starters, Francis stepped up to the mound and zipped a curve ball across the plate as the industrialized nations stood like Casey at the bat. His windup coupled the forces of industrialization, globalization and capitalism. With a little help from a holy rosin bag, he got poverty and climate change to cling tightly to those issues, just as if they were the laces sewn into the ball.

Francis didn’t lop all of the blame onto corporations, however. That single pitch was meant for the “1 percent” sitting in the luxury suites and the “99 percent” in the bleachers, alike. By introducing moral and ethical issues into the game and telling people that their personal actions like recycling and energy conservation can make a difference, the Pope hopes to mobilize those who aren’t moved by science alone. But how? Who will facilitate the actions?

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is poised to convince American Catholics to follow Francis’ lead. Unlike gay rights, abortion, women’s rights, etc., this is the first time U.S. Catholic leadership has been fully aligned with Rome in decades. That’s a big deal.

USCCB developed manuals that it is delivering to the 17,000 parish priests to help deliver homilies (sermons) that relay the principles of the encyclical with ideas for each month. There’s another manual for discussion groups. A variety of USCCB web sites on everything from climate change to environmental justice walk Catholics through the steps to take action in their own communities and states. There are even a series of children’s books. A recurring theme in all of the tools and resources is to start with something easily understandable and achievable, like recycling. Just in case they want want to tweet support for Francis, the faithful are instructed to use the consistent hashtag #popeforplanet, #papapeloplaneta or #papaporplaneta, depending upon their language.

It is not surprising that the Pope uses recycling as a common ground upon which to launch this latest initiative. Francis frequently expresses his respect for those who manage the waste generated by others. The Vatican's garbage collectors were the first employees the Pope invited to his morning masses. This is a carryover from his days as an archbishop in Argentina where he did the same for the local “carteneros”–those who scavenge for cardboard and other recyclables for a living.

During the annual meeting of trash recyclers in India, Francis told attendees, “You recycle, and in doing so you accomplish two things: a necessary ecological job and (you) ensure a production cycle which provides jobs.” He even made an amateur video on the topic. The theory in all this is that if the Pope can make folks feel good about having to sort through mixed waste, he probably has the motivational skills to influence a whole lot of other changes.

What could that mean for the recycling industry? According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014 there were 76.7 million self-identified U.S. Catholics. That’s almost 27 percent of the U.S. population. Using the EPA’s reported national averages, this group collectively represents 16.09 million tons of recyclable material that could be recovered from their homes and businesses each year.

Enrollment in U.S. Catholic schools for 2014 was 1.97 million students, who generate approximately 24,890 tons of recoverable material each year. Granted, some of this material is already being recycled, but with the national recovery rate at only 34 percent, we imagine a considerable amount of it still remains in the waste stream. Bottom line, it wouldn’t hurt to put these institutions on your list of targeted prospects.

Francis is pretty savvy about drawing people into his inner circle. Born under the influence of South American politics, where gestures, appearances and timing all play stronger than the spoken word, this Pope understands how to work the media. His participation in cause-based events, as well as hosting several of his own, has been a sound recruiting mechanism. He’s not bashful about calling out the vote either. The pope encourages the use of political pressure to get government officials to adopt policies and regulations to protect the environment.

One U.S. archbishop dubbed the encyclical “the marching orders for advocacy,” and they are doing just that. Catholic bishops in Iowa and other early running states have already put conservatives on notice that there are other social and moral issues to consider at the polls beyond gay rights and abortion.

Nowhere is that more visible than in the Republican presidential primary campaign, which is proportionately the most Catholic leaning slate of candidates in any U.S. election. Recently successful presidential candidates have carried the Catholic vote.

Six of the leading Republican hopefuls are Catholics. Of these, only Marco Rubio openly disagrees with the notion that climate change is manmade. Former Gov. George Pataki has a strong record on climate change. The rest of the pack–Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie–have cautiously attempted to downplay the potential influence of the encyclical on people’s political views, in some cases to avoid slamming potential donors.

We like Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s take on the situation. A latecomer to the GOP race, and a former Catholic, he sums up his feelings like this: “Now when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.”

Michele Nestor is the President of Nestor Resources Inc., based in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and chair of the board of directors, of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, Penn State, Harrisburg.

About the Author(s)

Michele  Nestor

President, Nestor Resources

Michele Nestor is the President of Nestor Resources Inc., based in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and chair of the board of directors, of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, Penn State, Harrisburg. She helps private and public sector organizations develop strategic plans to survive in a transitioning marketplace.

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