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Shabbat Parashat Noach 5772

Ask the Rabbi: Taking Bottles from Recycling Receptacles

Rav Daniel Mann

Question:  I am a preschool teacher who wants to do a project for the children, using a few dozen large (no deposit), empty soda bottles. May I take bottles from the recycling “cages” we have in Yerushalayim and “recycle them” in that way?

 

Answer:  It is good that you are sensitive to both the ecological elements of recycling and the halachic propriety of what you take from where. This question requires research in one or two areas: monetary halacha and the attitudes of the people in charge of the recycling effort.

We start with halacha. Does the recycling company or authority acquire the bottles, making it necessary to receive their explicit or implicit permission? Is it possible to acquire the bottles before any employee touches them? The kinyan (act of acquisition) that works without the involvement of the acquiring party is chatzer, i.e., if an object is on the property of the acquirer, he can acquire it without his presence or knowledge (Bava Metzia 10a). A variation of kinyan chatzer is kli (utensil). If an object is placed in a utensil that is owned by the acquirer, he acquires it (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 200:3). While this does not usually work if the kli is in the public domain, that is because people do not have the right to leave their utensils in the public domain to use as they like. However, when they have permission to keep their kli in a given area, the kinyan works even in the public domain (see ibid.). Recycling cages are certainly put out with permission.

Another requirement for kinyan chatzer is that if the acquirer is not present, it must be put in a place that is guarded on behalf of the acquirer (Bava Metzia 11a). While there are various explanations, the basic idea is that in the acquirer’s absence, the chatzer has to serve as a shaliach (agent) of sorts, and to fit the role, it has to be a reliable guarantor that the object is not taken by any passerby (S’ma 200:1). On the other hand, many say that if someone is giving the object to the acquirer (as opposed to a lost or un-owned article) it is sufficient that the giver is watching it at the time he puts it in the utensil (Rama, CM 200:1). Furthermore, the Netivot Hamishpat (200:3) says that if the kinyan is done in a utensil with walls, then there is no further need for it to be guarded.

Since the bottles can be acquired in by the recycling authorities, you need to know that the people in charge allow you to take the bottles. (We imagine that even if there was a halachic deficiency in the kinyan, you would not want to do it against the recycling people’s will, but it is worthwhile to know the halacha for cases that you are not confident what they would say.)

The most important research on many “halachic” questions is to find out the facts. I contacted the recycling authority, who told me that these days (I cannot tell you about the past or the future), the municipality operates the collection efforts and owns the recycling cages. The municipality workers in charge of the collection told me that the Jerusalem municipality is not bothered at all if people take out bottles to reuse. In general, my research indicates that, these days, recycling is not particularly financially rewarding, but is done to alleviate the need for landfills or polluting through incineration. Thus, for someone to take the “usable garbage” home is not offensive to the authorities. One of the officials thought that it would be educational to have the children bring bottles themselves, but we leave that to your educational and logistical wisdom.

We do have a slight concern that, in certain settings, some people might view you as “raiding” the recycling bin and thus a chillul Hashem. However, in most cases, that need not be the case. We cannot give an absolute assurance that other municipalities, or in other times, the situation might not be different, but in Yerushalayim of the foreseeable future, you can take the bottles without fear of stealing.

 

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