What Categories of Shemos May Be Recycled

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that in the year 2000 the average American produced approximately 4.4 lbs of waste per day, or over 1600 lbs per year. The EPA also estimated that 40.4% or 71.6 million tons of all trash generated is from paper products. In the U.S., paper use is increasing, despite already utilizing over 100 million tons a year. According to the EPA and Treecycle (a leading recycled paper provider), recycling paper reduces energy and water consumption by 60-70% and 55% respectively and reduces toxic and water pollution by 74% and 35% respectively during paper production.
Consistent with leading a Jewish lifestyle, our communities are faced with the environmental quandary of what to do with the large quantity of paper products called Shemos (all religious documents). We need to determine what, if any, of these documents can be recycled. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein answers this question in his writings of Teshuvas: Torah scrolls, anything on parchment (i.e. tefillin, mezuzas), siddurim (prayer books), any paper form of the 5 Books of Moses, and the written 7 Kinnos (different holy names) of Hashem’s name cannot be recycled and must be put into Shemos for proper Jewish burial. Alternately, Shemos are often placed in the foundation of a new Synagogue. Remaining materials, including oral law, is permitted to be recycled, as it was never supposed to be transcribed into writing. However, Rabbi Feinstein qualified the above by saying that the Poskim in Israel should be consulted and that not everyone will hold by this lenient view (Igros Moshe, Orah Hayim, volume four, number 39).
This list does not include electronic images, which have separate teshuvas. Whether your paper waste is Hebrew or English, there’s an excellent possibility that it can be recycled at a local facility, which allows you to personally contribute to environmental conservation.
Originally posed in “On Eagles’ Wings” December 25th 2003