Celebrating Earth Day: Fred Rogers’ Spirituality of Recycling

Across the country, neighborhood recycling programs are in jeopardy. Other countries are no longer accepting our plastic. And although glass is infinitely recyclable, it’s cumbersome to do so because it is not sorted well by machines.

Fred Rogers knew we needed recycling, but he also knew we needed more than this. We need to reimagine how we use things. He knew we needed a recycling spirituality.

In his 1990 week “Caring for the Environment,” Fred emphasized the importance of recycling. This week first aired in coordination with the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day, celebrating its international campaign. During this week, he proposes that recycling is more than a physical act. Like Earth Day itself, recycling is symbolic and figurative, acting as an index to show we care.

During this week, Fred featured a trip to a recycling center to see how the people operate machines that condense cardboard and cans for recycling. He shows his audience how to make greeting cards with left over scraps of paper, a building out of scrap wood, and a tree out of toilet paper tubes. He even demonstrates for children how to make their own toys by reusing discarded household objects, and how to make a game from an old paper bag and balls. He also makes simple puppets and turns a cardboard box into a television.

Mr. McFeely arrives with a gift from Mrs. McFeely, a replica of his own trolley that she has made from a shoe box. With this particular collection of toys, Rogers prepares children to re-create their own version of his television show, starring themselves.

In the second episode of the week, Fred explains, “You know the best kind of toy is the one you make for yourself. When you make things for yourself it’s like taking care of yourself.” By emphasizing toys and play, hes moves his viewers beyond physical recycling.

Recycling Spirituality

In 1990, and today, toys are vulnerable to consumer practices contrary to Fred’s values. There are so many plastic collectibles and single-action  toys that children quickly break, out-grow, or simply display as status items. Also, merciless advertising campaigns toward children gather their identities in the toys, products, and clothes they have, defining people by their things. As a counter, Fred promotes toys that sponsor creativity, flexible objects that can be played with in many ways for years and handed down or recycled if no longer desired. For him, people are not consumers and the world is not defined by consuming. Rather, he proposes a new mentality for children, a new world of caring, a spirituality of recycling.

In “Caring for the Environment,” Fred repeatedly reminds viewers to think if something can be reused or recycled before throwing it away. In this way, he values imagination as a key to recycling as it helps people think of ways to reuse something. At least twice, he likens memory to recycling because it is a way for people to use their past again and again.

To emphasize this point on memory, in the third episode of the week, Fred uses a clip from an earlier show where Mrs. McFeely reuses household trash to make useful, domestic objects. This flashback scene comes from a Friday episode in 1972, 18 years before. Rogers is clearly younger and embedding this 1972 scene into his 1990 show is as authentic as it is productive. While there were not yet themed weeks in 1972, this episode and the one before it can be seen as a precursor for “Caring for the Environment” as reusing is discussed and a pollution crisis is the problem solved in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

In this 1972 scene, Mrs. McFeely shows him how she made a bird feeder from a milk carton, implying that what feeds humans can also feed animals, and vice-versa as Fred takes a taste of the crackers and peanut butter inside! She shows him a pillow made from torn sheets, illustrating that recycled consumer goods can give comfort over and over again. Finally, she shows Rogers a rug by her entry door and explains how her friends made this rug from old wool clothes. Here she implies that we dress ourselves and beautify our spaces with color and memories.

She states that these efforts, while laborious, are worthy, “There are lot of things you can do with old things, but you have to take the time to make it.” Fred insists that you also have to take the time to think about it. Reflecting on the past visit with Mrs. McFeely, he remarks, “I like to remember times like that, in fact, memories are things that you can use over and over again. It’s good to have memories that don’t wear out, no matter how much you think about them.”

Through these moments, and several others during the week, Fred crafts a whole way of looking at the world. He makes recycling not just about what we do to objects but rather how we care for what is around us. We care for old clothes by reusing them. We use objects around the house to make toys, becoming creators instead of consumers. We care for animals by making feeders instead dumping trash into their habitats. We reuse memories to renew our relationship with others. It is this spirituality that makes recycling a way of “Caring for the Environment.”

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Episodes referenced:

  • Episode Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, PBS, 3 Mar. 1972. Daily Motion: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5rboup.
  • “Caring for the Environment (#1616) Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, PBS, 16 Apr. 1990. Amazon Instant Video.
  • “Caring for the Environment (#1617) A Visit to a Recycling Center,” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, PBS, 17 Apr. 1990. Amazon Instant Video.
  • “Caring for the Environment (#1618) Caring for our Planet by Recycling,” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, PBS, 18 Apr. 1990. Amazon Instant Video.
  • “Caring for the Environment (#1619) Snorkeling with Sylvia Earle,” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, PBS, 19 Apr. 1990. Amazon Instant Video.
  • “Caring for the Environment (#1620) Making Toys from Throw-Aways,” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, PBS, 20 Apr. 1990. Amazon Instant Video.

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