Tuesday is the high point of my week: garbage collection day, a ritual of cleansing and purification when all the excesses of the past seven days are swept away and out of sight. On a Tuesday morning, everything is potential garbage to me, as I hunt through the house with my all-consuming extra-heavy thirty-gallon drawstring trash bag. When the bag is out at the end of the driveway in the big green can – secured with a rubber strap for the amusement of the neighborhood dogs – I feel a solid sense of achievement. As long as I keep putting out the garbage, I postpone the inevitable moment when I become garbage myself. I like to listen to the garbage truck growling in the distance like a hungry dinosaur, getting closer and closer. Sometimes it stops for a while outside our house, as if amazed by the quantity and quality of the garbage and digesting it noisily like a hungry man in an all-you-can-eat restaurant.

America has the biggest, most impressive garbage trucks in the world, and the most garbage – 200 million tons a year. In some profound sense, garbage is the gross national product, and we produce our share.

It’s a bit of a mystery where it all goes. ┬áMost of the landfills around New York have long since been closed down, so I suppose it gets carried off to Oklahoma or somewhere they still have a few square feet of empty space. That would explain why the trucks so often arrive in our neighborhood later than scheduled, and why the drivers look so tired. The main thing is: the garbage goes away. Those distant landfills work like the Freudian subconscious, where we dump all the things we don’t particularly want to remember.

Recycling is a great idea, of course, but it’s not as psychologically satisfying as plain garbage. Garbage is about excess and waste. Recycling is about control and responsibility, and it doesn’t inspire much enthusiasm on a cold morning.

In our town, the recycling rules are simple. Bottles, cans, and plastic all go into one bright blue container, rather nauseatingly called the “Curby Can.” I must say I don’t envy whoever has the job of sorting all that stuff. Paper products are all bundled together and picked up on alternate weeks. Residents in the next county have a much tougher assignment. They must separate glass, plastic and metal objects, which we throw all together into the same can, and they must carry out a complicated triage on their paper products: newspapers must be separated from magazines, envelopes with and without windows, cardboard, Victorian romantic novels, used train tickets, and so on – a long list of precise recycling categories with terrible penalties for the homeowner who becomes discouraged, confused, or rebellious.

The more precisely our trash is divided, the more potentially useful it is. In the end, we could reach a steady state where everything is recycled right back to being what it was before, and nothing will need to be produced at all.

Recycling is nothing new. The human race has been recycling the same old jokes for thousands of years, along with the same political promises. Television has become the greatest recycling medium of all time and hasn’t used a new idea since 1946. Some people spend a lifetime recycling their memories of childhood, or weddings or divorces or operations, or obscure injuries to their self-esteem.

The planet itself is nothing but a giant recycling mechanism. All our air and water are recycled one way or another, although we don’t want to think too hard about that. When we drive we burn gasoline, which is just recycled organic stuff. The used gasoline turns into air pollution, and then into medical fees, and then into the doctor’s yacht. In due time the yacht will sink into the mud at the bottom of the sea, the wood will rot away, and in a few million more years the doctor’s yacht will turn into oil which can be pumped up, turned into gasoline, and start the whole cycle over again.

The whole universe is probably just a random mechanism for recycling heat and light and stray molecules into random forms like strip malls and presidential candidates. When these forms have outlived their usefulness, they will be broken down into molecules and reconstituted as something entirely different, and perhaps more useful. This may be the actual secret of the universe. The true answer to the eternal question: “What is the meaning of life?” may turn out to be: “Recycling.”