Recycling as Ritual – Part I

By David Stone

We rode the rough back roads through the Sonoran Desert in silence with the truck’s bed full of empty, brown glass bottles. They had been easy to collect, thousands lay scattered under the creosote bushes and saguaros, more numerous than rocks at that “party site,” as he called it.

Richard guided the truck through a maze of washed out roads and sometimes along the flat natural washes. He suddenly gave a short laugh and shot me a sideways glance.

“What did you feel out there?”

I was new to the reservation at the time and still unfamiliar with the O’odham ways of thinking and speaking. The question did not make sense to me. We were simply collecting bottles as a source of glass for my recycling project. The bottles would be crushed into aggregate for building products. Before setting out collection bins in the towns we gathered them on our own from the desert. There were plenty out there and Richard knew where to find them.

Almost all are the same, quart-sized beer bottles known as “Qs”, the standard alcoholic drink on the reservation. Alcoholism is prevalent and that is the generator for our caches of glass. I pretended not to notice but pretense is obvious to him and attracts his attention.

“What kind of spirit did you feel there?” he said and looked at me again to see how it registered.

I told him that I did not know what he meant and asked him to tell me what he felt.

“It was a dark spirit. I felt it and it was dark. When I picked up a bottle I wondered about the person who had drunk from it. I wondered about their life, about the bad life path they were on, like I was once. I could feel the pain still in the bottle and I prayed for them.”

After that had sunk in, I asked if what we were doing was good. Should we be going out there? He said without hesitation that we should go, it was good, we were taking something dark and turning it into something strong.

“You see broken glass, David. I see broken dreams. You want to recycle the glass. I want to recycle the broken dreams.”

Bringing in money for jobs, so desperately needed on the rez, is hard for anyone to reject. Toward that goal I wrote grant applications and we were awarded one from the EPA’s Tribal program. Though a white outsider, I became the Tohono O’odham Community College’s official “ecoAmbassador.” My proposal was to recycle glass and mix it with steel dust and carbon dioxide to produce locally-made building products and structures, but this was not a simple task. [To be continued tomorrow…]

About the author: David Stone is an instructor and EPA’s Tribal ecoAmbassador at Tohono O’odham Community College in Sells, Arizona. He has a PhD in Environmental Science.