Cyril the Sorcerer (CJ May) on the campus of Yale University, where he run’s the campus recycling program. (Photo: Mia Malafronte)
Performing under the aliases Cyril the Sorcerer and the Resourcerer, CJ May is a “recycling magician,” turning trash into compost and blowing up incandescent light bulbs. His unique vision offers entertaining but subtle lessons on the four R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle, and rethink. He spoke with host Bruce Gellerman.
GELLERMAN: Wouldn’t it be great if you could make all that plastic, waste paper and all those dead batteries you have piling up just magically disappear? Well, with just a few waves of his wand, CJ May can do the trick. And he’s got a lot more like that one up his sleeve. CJ May is a certified magician. He practices the Green Arts as the Coordinator of Recycling at Yale University and the magical Arts as Cyril the Sorcerer.
MAY: Both magic and recycling take one thing and make it into something else. Magicians take things and make things into something else all the time - an egg into a dove - but recycling takes old paper, old cans and bottles - stuff that people generally don’t want anymore - and turns it into something that they do. Here’s an opportunity to use one thing to support the other, and to do it in a way, that, instead of forcing it down someone else’s throat, is actually, if I do it well, delighting them and helping them chose a better course for the planet and for themselves.
GELLERMAN: So, you’ve got recycling up your sleeve. What other illusions do you use in your act?
MAY: Well, it’s fun because we’re entering a new era of ‘resourcery’. And in order to enter a new era of resourcery, we really have to say goodbye to the old era, and I hold up an icon - Edison’s incandescent light bulb. For most of us - your age and my age - this is a sign of intelligence, innovation - it’s a sign of the 20th century. The incandescent light bulb turned back the night - it brought light into darkness. Unfortunately, it’s also horribly outdated; it’s extremely inefficient.
GELLERMAN: So, how do you work that into a magic trick?
MAY: Well, I hold up the light bulb, and then I say, “So, we’re entering a new era where we need to use our resources wisely. So let us say goodbye to that old era - to that old inefficient technology.” And then the bulb, which I’m holding not directly, but through a bag, explodes. And that generally gets people’s attention.
GELLERMAN: I know one of the illusions you perform is called the ‘Trash Can Chop Cup.’ Am I right?
MAY: Yeah, that’s actually one of the few I can take credit for. Most of the magic that I perform is standard magic that any magician might know or buy, but they never thought to put it together in terms of recycling education. And so I have a small trashcan, and I show the trashcan empty and I put different items in and say, ‘What happens if we don’t recycle this paper? What happens if we don’t recycle this mercury battery?’ I put it in the trashcan and then I turn the trashcan over. The items have vanished and ashes come out.
And the reason we have that, and specifically in Connecticut, is Connecticut is a state where we burn our trash. We do generate some electricity from burning trash in Connecticut, but a lot of items such as metal and glass certainly shouldn’t be burned at all, because they don’t produce any electricity.
GELLERMAN: Well, I was thinking of the old adage of a magician, you know - the hand is quicker than the eye. But unfortunately, because a lot people just toss stuff away, they’re not looking to the future. How do you get people to look to the future?
MAY: There’s a lot of different ways to do it. Some of them aren’t magical, but actually one of the big magical things is money. For homeowners, the recycling professionals have found that one of the single best ways to get a suburban household to start recycling is to charge them for removing trash and to make the removal of recycling free.
GELLERMAN: Boy, I tell you, I’m not a magician, but when I compost - which I just started doing it in my house - it makes the garbage disappear! The stuff I have to bring to the curb is - like - one tenth of what it was before.
MAY: Well, I’ve got some good statistics on that. The EPA says that our trash is between 30 and 40 percent organics. So, if you look in the average American’s trashcan, you’re going to see a lot of food waste, you’re going to see cut flowers, you’re going to see leaves, and none of that stuff should go into the trash. All of that really is magical. All of that can be made into new stuff again.
And I enjoy actually doing one particular trick with that - I talk about composting. We started a composting program at Yale for our food waste, and I talk about how you can take all the food waste, and I throw it into this bin, close the lid - snap-o, presto change-o- and now that’s turned into dirt and I can pour the dirt out.
But dirt by itself isn’t any good, because why would you want dirt? I close the lid again and open it up and flowers grow out. And that’s a delight in trying to show them quickly, because the composting process is quite long, and you’ve experienced that with your own garden. But if we can show them in this sort of split second change what they can accomplish, then we’re helping that educational process.
GELLERMAN: So, CJ, what is it about a magic show that can change people’s behavior - you know, abracadabra?
MAY: One of them certainly is just the - gee, wow, whiz factor of a magic show can get people’s attention and that it will retain the message - whatever’s conveyed afterwards - in their mind. The second thing is that magic such as taking an old newspaper or taking an old piece of foil and making it into a new aluminum can, points out directly by its action what you can do.
And if what we, as magicians - green magicians - can convey the wonder in our world, and the wonder of what every single member of the audience can do by recycling, then I think we’re doing a good job and we’re helping all of us see the magic that we have everyday all around us.
GELLERMAN: Well CJ, it was a lot of fun talking with you.
MAY: Thank you so much, it was a joy to talk with you as well.
GELLERMAN: CJ May is coordinator of recycling at Yale University. When he performs his magic, he’s Cyril the Sorcerer or the Resourcer-er.
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