Trying to support dairy farmers

Like many people in the UK, I have great sympathy for the plight of dairy farmers, who have struggled for years with the fall in the effective cost of milk. The move by supermarkets to start another price war means that dairy farmers are making a loss on every pint of milk they produce, and after years of falling prices, there aren’t any savings left to make. I’ve tried to do my bit to support the cause by posting info from the Farmer’s Weekly on Facebook. But the only direct action I can take concerns where we buy our milk. This is the information I have gathered so far, but as far as I know it’s only valid today, and even then to the best of my knowledge, so I would be interested in comments as to what others think…

  • Morrisons and Asda seem to be the worst in forcing down milk prices.
  • Co-operative supermarkets have recently said they will not activate planned price reductions.
  • Milk processors Robert Wiseman and Arla are being blockaded by farmers as I write. According to their website ‘Robert Wiseman Dairies processes and delivers over 30% of the fresh milk consumed in Britain, every day.’ I know they bottle milk under their own brand, but I guess they also do the same for supermarket chains. (But which ones?) Arla bottle milk under the Cravendale brand.

In the end, the milk consumer in Britain should support the plight of our dairy farmers, not just because they are our neighbours. If we allow supermarket price wars to destroy the milk production infrastructure of our country, we will soon find ourselves drinking imported milk, the shipping costs will be added to the price and it will do further damage to the UK balance of payments. It’s not like we can’t afford milk, which is far cheaper than the bottled water which so many of us consume by the gallon.

Life after the rapture – on grabbing the microphone

The biggest “Christian” internet event of the year so far was the prediction that the world was going to end on 21st May 2011 at 6pm in each time-zone. The reaction by Christians has been either to ignore it, to join in lampooning it as extremely stupid, to protest loudly that they have nothing to do with the speculations of Harold Camping or to grow increasingly depressed at the amount of media interest that such an example of a group of Christians being extremely (and publicly) foolish has generated.

Religions are developing an interesting relationship with the internet. It is now possible for any deviant trait within them to find a global expression which can attract the attention and following of others. This is so, not just in the case of Christianity (and the antics of the likes of Camping) but also for Islam, which has struggled with the way Islamists seem to have “grabbed the microphone” for the whole faith and have extended their appeal to young, impressionable Muslims searching for a way to construct their lives around a passionate expression of their faith, whilst only having an early, developing understanding of its theological subtleties. For both fundamentalist Christians and Islamists, it would appear that the internet is like an unguarded, very powerful public address system where the microphone can be grabbed by those who have the most high-impact (if untruthful) message.

This is an uncomfortable experience for Christianity. From the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century up to the Reformation (in the West), the Church had a sufficiently central role in society, with its own internal authority structure, to ensure that deviant voices claiming to speak on behalf of the whole faith could be marginalized and silenced. Even after the Reformation, the churches of Protestantism had a close enough relationship to the secular arm that, again, the most eccentric voices could not get much hearing or public credibility. After the Enlightenment, although freedom of religious practice and speech steadily grew, the mainstream churches had sufficiently allied themselves with the dominant power structures to qualify them as sources of a “rational” religion, as distinct from “irrational” enthusiasm. It was only in America, where traditional social structures were stretched at the margins of western expansion, that marginal, deviant approaches to Christianity could gain a significant hearing. For this reason American Christianity has never had anything like a social or intellectual elite, controlling the significance of which religious discourse was to be taken seriously and which was not. (Americans may wish to point to the constitution which enshrines religious liberty and freedom of speech, but similar constitutions have operated in Europe for almost as long, yet our religious discourses have usually been constrained by a social elite which have severely limited the extent to which deviant discourses have attained public credibility.) With the internet, however, everyone is equally mainstream, everyone equally marginalised. Privileged discourses are under significant threat, especially in the domain of religion. Even the Vatican and the Queen of England have websites which exist alongside those of religious fanatics and political extremists. The public address system is open to absolutely everyone and the microphone is unguarded, ready to be grabbed by the person with the most attention-demanding message. So, in this case, a message that THE WORLD IS GOING TO END AT 6PM ON SATURDAY understandably grabs the microphone of world attention.

There is only one previous situation where Christianity, as a whole faith, has been seriously challenged by eccentric discourses in this kind of way. In the century immediately following the death of the first apostles, the Christian communities, which were small yet globally-dispersed, had to cope with the fact that their faith was expanding into the Graeco-Roman world. That world was one where religious discourses were multiple and where diversity was unlimited. Before very long, the Christian community itself was struggling with the fact that divergent interpretations of its teaching were abounding within its communities. The teachings of those whom the Church came to regard as “heretics” – people like the Gnostics, Docetists and Marcionites – were sitting alongside more traditional interpretations. It was difficult for local Christians to know for certain whether the understanding of the faith held by their local community was the same as that which was held by Christians elsewhere, let alone that which was held by Jesus and the first apostles. Although the New Testament itself recognized that false teachers would emerge (and indeed were emerging) to lead people astray, it did not provide a thoroughgoing way of structuring the discourse of the Church in such a way as to prevent deviant interpretations of the faith of Jesus from eclipsing, or drowning out, authentic interpretations. This came to be a problem in the following century. The Christian concept of “heresy” grew alongside its key response to the problem, which was to develop an understanding of the Church as a structured community, with authorized ministers in each locality (bishops) who represented the local church to the wider community and the wider community to the local church. These bishops acted as points of accountability. They could be identified as sources of either authentic or inauthentic teaching by reference to other bishops elsewhere. Similarly, they could be trusted (by reference to their relationship with other bishops) by the local community as trustworthy teachers, thus inspiring confidence among local Christians that they were not being led astray.

This, of course, is the root of the Catholic vision of the Christian church and indicates that the Roman Catholic (and Easter Orthodox) churches may have less to fear from the internet than do the churches of Protestantism. Ultimately, the Catholic model was originally designed to cope with exactly the problem presented by the internet. Protestants have broken with this model as they believe it has gradually led the Church to a point where its authority is functionally (if not theoretically) independent of the original apostolic teaching which it was designed to serve and protect. Protestants point back to the Bible as the source of authentic Christian teaching. All other sources are second-order to it. However, the Protestant approach comes at the cost of allowing deviant interpretations of the Bible to thrive without any internal mechanism to marginalise them, except through forming allegiances with social and rational validators mentioned above. Yet it is precisely these “meta-validators” which are being systematically removed by the internet. In short, Protestantism has no functional validation mechanisms left to rule out deviant interpretations of the Bible from claiming that they represent the whole of authentic Christian faith. This is exactly what we had with Camping, whereby all that the rest of Protestantism could do was individually and privately to dissociate themselves from Camping’s claims.

What has worried most Christians is the way Camping’s obvious and crass stupidity has lent support to the claim by opponents of Christianity (such as Richard Dawkins) that Christianity is somehow inherently less “intelligent” than atheism. The existence of atheist parties celebrating Camping’s “prophecy” denoument shows that the point is not lost on Christianity’s detractors. Camping and his ilk are a massive impediment to Christianity’s credibility, and hence do severe damage to its mission. The question of validation – of whether a person is genuinely representing mainstream Christian belief – is therefore of considerable importance to all Christians, and especially to Protestant Christians in the age of the internet. It is easy for the Catholic Church to dissociate itself from Camping – after all, he isn’t a Catholic bishop – he doesn’t speak with the Catholic church’s authority. But few non-Christians on the internet are likely to be sufficiently motivated to engage with the only alternative Protestant Christians have in the validation stakes – to listen to a point-by-point rebuttal of Camping with reference to the Bible.

I am left with the conclusion that unless Protestants are able to come up with some kind of global system of validation – or, its converse, dissociation – then the widespread image of Christianity they are going to have to work with in their mission will be a random collection of absurd and less-than-absurd beliefs about what “Christianity” actually is about. Even if one Christian is able to make a coherent argument commending their faith to another person (either by teaching or practice), who is to say if that really is what Christianity is, or whether it’s about – say – a rapture which didn’t happen on 21st May 2011 at 6pm local time.

Praise the Lord and press the accelerator

I’ve been an active, adult Christian for about the same time as I have been an active supporter of green modes of human transport. For me, the two all but go inseparably together.

So when I saw this story about Christians praying for lower gasolene prices – and apparently getting an answer to their prayers – I had one of those ‘my religion is up for sale’ moments …

On having the armed forces

There’s an interesting, if badly-spelt, debate going on on the BBC Have Your Say website. This follows a recent news report of how personnel from RAF Wittering have been ordered not to wear uniform in the local town of Peterborough, following incidents of servicemen and women being insulted because of anti-war sentiment. The debate includes stories of similar incidents happening to forces personnel around the country (for example, staff from RAF Brize Norton denied entry to a petrol-station on the grounds that their uniforms would “offend the public”).

I find myself getting very angry at this for all sorts of different reasons. One reason is that it feels so unbelievably ungrateful to people who are putting their own lives at risk, and sometimes losing them, in the service of this country. The second is that ignorance on this scale always makes me angry. Because for me it is symptomatic of a deeper cultural, political and theological ignorance which is growing.

I deeply opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq and continue to believe that it did not fulfill the conditions for a Just War, so we should never have got in there in the first place. I believe that history since has borne those convictions out. BUT, once a war begins, the situation changes. We are years down the road now: the decision on whether and when to leave that country is an entirely different one – indeed it is a more difficult one, perhaps, than the decision ever to join war in the first place. So political voices raised in opposing the current occupation need to answer the question of how best to bring it to an end, and in so doing, must address the issue of the widest welfare for all human beings presently caught up in the situation.

And yet, none of these issues bear upon the morality or position of a single member of the armed forces, nor upon the armed forces themselves. These are political questions to be discussed in the wider context of public debate in Britain. They are particularly matters for the government of today. If people disagree with there being a single British soldier in Iraq, they need to bring that to the door of the people who are keeping them there – our government. They are there because we elected a government which decided to join war in Iraq. We also re-elected them afterwards. Maybe we made a mistake, but if so, then we need to own responsibility for that and exercise it in appropriate ways. Insulting service personnel is not an appropriate way.

But this raises the spectre of a much deeper ignorance which, sadly, I have encountered in Christian circles on occasions. Britain, like most nations, keeps a standing army, navy and air-force. Their responsibility is to follow the orders of our democratically-elected government and, when so ordered, to join conflict and in that arena to use a variety of methods demanded by it to bring about the wishes of our government according to rules of engagement set by our government. These include pursuasion, protection, coercion, and, where no other option remains, to kill. In the field of conflict, this also includes the real possibility of being killed in the process, since war is like that.

Having laid it out like that, we may feel revulsion at the prospect of war. Most civilized human beings normally do so, including members of the armed forces. War is a horrendous context to put any human being, but our armed forces have the duty, under the British constitution, to enter those contexts on our behalf and to carry out the will of our representatives in government. They are doing that right now, our our behalf, in Iraq. Wars are a bit like sewers: nobody wants to go into them, but someone in the end does so on everyone else’s behalf. Our armed forces are there and operating “in our name”. Whilst Britain maintains armed forces, they will continue to operate “in our name”.

Whatever the pros and cons of this, it is worth citing another example. A couple of years before going into Iraq, British forces went into Sierra Leone, where a civil war was leading to a systematic abuse of the weakest amongst its citizenry. Following an ineffective period of intervention by UN forces, the country was faced with the prospect of a takeover by the RUF. All the NGOs had had to flee because it was unsafe to remain, leaving the weakest people in the country exposed to terrible evil. The British Army invaded in 2000, and in a short period of time removed the influence of the RUF, demobbed child soldiers, made it safe for NGOs to return, and in a couple of years the country had changed from bloody chaos to democracy and peace, albeit with terrible scars. Again, the British forces did this “in our name”.

The fact is that we live in a world where, in places, people bear and brandish arms. They threaten others with these arms, including the weak in their land and any weak neighbouring countries. If you ask any person who has worked with a NGO in a country which is unstable or subject to civil war, they will tell you that they can only operate with the protection of either a stable and benign local army, or with the support of the armed forces from stable, democratic external countries who believe they have a responsibility for global peace. Sadly, the United Nations is sometimes highly ineffective at providing this support, as the case of Sierra Leone proved (and, arguably, is also being proved again at the moment in the lives of people in Darfur).

About three or so years ago, some time after the start of the present Iraq conflict, I was sitting in a field at the Greenbelt Festival at a service of Holy Communion. An entire litany had been constructed, protesting about the war, with the response “Not in our Name”. I love the Greenbelt Festival, but I found this nauseating. Here we were, a crowd of mostly middle-class, western Christians, few of whom had ever seen a gun fire a bullet, nor heard the sound of rifle-fire in real-life, chanting this liturgical response whilst thousands of British soldiers were risking their lives and carrying out the ugly task of war for precisely that: “in our name”. The “Not in our Name” chanting bandwagon had begun earlier that year, but, crucially, it had begun after the conflict had begun, and troops were already engaged. It was the wrong sentiment, wrapped up in the wrong catch-phrase: wrong, because instead of arguing for a precise course of action (such as “troops out now”) which could be subject to a political and moral debate over its wisdom and practicality, it was seeking to dissociate the protesters from the link with the armed conflict, and therefore the armed personnel who are out there “in our name”. It was a woolly phrase, whose imprecision was at best insulting, and at worst, immorally abandoning people who we, through our democratically-elected government, had contracted to work on our behalf in a dangerous situation. That was bad enough, but at Greenbelt it wasn’t even being chanted to the government, it was being chanted to God. So what on earth was going on?

My conclusion now, which I had dimly been aware of through my anger at the time, but am now much more clear about, was that it was a large-scale attempt at pious guilt-avoidance, founded on ignorance of how politics, and therefore the world, works. So what were we actually saying? There were a number of possibilities:

  • Dear God: We do not believe that Britain should keep or use any armed forces. We are therefore pacifists.
  • Dear God: We disagree with the British constitution and the concept of executive government acting on our behalf. We are therefore anarchists.
  • Dear God: we feel morally embarrassed about this, so we corporately wring our hands in your presence because we would “rather this not happen in our name”
  • Dear God: we feel angry about this, but we can’t be bothered to understand it, so we’re publicly washing our hands of culpability for this situation, because we hope that such ignorance is defence in the (moral) law
  • Dear God: We forgot to protest about the war when to do so might have made a difference, so we’re salving our consciences for the killing by saying these words to you now (hopefully, it will make us feel a bit better and more righteous having done so)

… or any number of the above.

The words of worship are sacred, and so it’s very important that they be subject to theological and moral scrutiny before people are asked to use them in the offering of the worship of the People of God. The use of slogans in liturgy is therefore a high-risk strategy. In this case, I believe the slogan failed theologically, politically, morally and ethically to speak truth to God, which is rather important in worship. But, hey, maybe most people there didn’t really know what they were doing or saying anyway.

And that’s the problem. There is a kind of growing, culpable ignorance regarding the way politics works. A generation of adults has grown up, formed by a popularist disenchantment with politics, which fails to appreciate that it only works properly when people realise that democracy is about everyone accepting responsibility for their own governance and therefore the governments which we elect. After we, the people, have elected them, we bear a certain responsibility for their actions, because we elect them to act on our behalf. When they send our soldiers into war, they do it “in our name”, and whilst we have a democracy, it will always be in our name. We will have an opportunity to change that government to one which offers an alternative. Some of us won’t get our way, but that’s democracy, and if anyone can come up with a better system, then let’s consider it.

There are three aspects of maturity which sometimes come slowly. One is to realise that sometimes you bear responsibility for situations which you didn’t directly, but only indirectly, bring about. The second is to learn that the act of living brings inevitable guilt. The only thing that can be done about this is to do what we can to avoid incurring guilt whilst we can, but once it is too late then we need to ask for forgiveness, rather than wash our hands of responsibility. The third thing is to realise that ‘no man is an island’ – we work as a society, and we bear responsibility for the actions of that society, because we are part of it.

It’s the sad failure to realise these facts that leads to well-meaning Christians piously indulging in act of (un-)ethical “handwashing” in a Gloucestershire field, and to people insulting uniformed personnel in Peterborough. We don’t want the responsibility, we don’t know what to do with the guilt, and we’d rather the whole world just go away.

St Paul had it easy

The first thing to say is that I think the whole shift of culture in the Church of England after the report Mission-shaped Church has been wonderful for anyone who wants to risk trying to plant Fresh Expressions of Church. When I think back just seven years, the Church of England was comparatively in the “dark ages” as far as church-planting is concerned. At this month’s General Synod, we discussed the final stage of the process which makes it culturally and legally possible for a group of Anglican Christians to plant a church outside of a single parish boundary, and not necessarily wedded to a Parish structure. This becomes possible through a mechanism called a “Bishop’s Mission Order”. It will mean many Fresh Expressions, Alternative Worship communities and Emerging Church groups have a vehicle, within Anglican structures, to exist, flourish and enjoy full legitimation. All great so far …

However, the “Code of Practice” which has been drawn up by the House of Bishops, and which governs how Bishop’s Mission Orders can work runs to 83 pages, six chapters and five appendices. Although essentially an enabling document, it speaks volumes about a large Church which is shackled to structures inherited from a past rooted in Christendom, and for whom the call to become truly missionary (or missional, if you prefer) has come late, perhaps too late, in its history.

How to get a BMOHere is a quick look at a simplified “Procedure Flowchart” which explains the process of how a mission initiative (actual or planned) would go about getting legitimation through a Bishop’s mission order. Pretty, isn’t it? Pretty complicated… (If you click on the image, it will download it in PDF).

Having read the document, I found myself thinking, again and again, “what are we afraid of?” The overwhelming fear seems to be that certain territorial or ecumenical feathers may be ruffled by the appearance in an area of a new, young, fast-changing form of church which people are attracted to, but which cannot be controlled by more established Christian power structures. A lesser fear also lurks, based on the assumption that spontaneity, innovation and rapid development will always end in tears, and the fear that this might besmirch the “good name” of the reliable product of the Church of England. Of course, once in a blue moon, this can actually happen (as it did in the case of Nine O’Clock Service).

I have to shrug my shoulders reluctantly and accept that megaliths such as the Church of England do have a low fear threshold when it comes to legitimating anything which is fast-moving, subject to change, hard to understand and therefore hard to control. But at the same time, I wish more people would recognize that we (ie. the CofE) have to be far more afraid of the haemorrhaging of attendance from so many parish churches who stick to the established script, for at the moment it looks like a slow and irreversible death from a thousand cuts. Although I do not believe the parish model to be completely broken from a missional point of view, I do think that it is holed below the waterline as a “default” mode of being church. My guess is that for every one example which works (from a mission point of view) there are probably about forty which are not working and have very little likelihood of ever working again. So the need for the Church to have a “mixed economy” of modes of being church is far more urgent than most people realize. The very kind of communities which we need are those which are fast-moving, subject to change, hard to understand outside their context and therefore hard to control. We need to trust the Holy Spirit a bit more when it comes to mission, and legal or quasi-legal structures a good bit less, because law – however useful it is – does not drive mission, but is there to cater for the odd occasion when things go wrong. So the document (which delights in the catchy title Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure 2007: Part V: Mission Initiatives Code of Practice) had me with my head in my hands onHow to plant in Asia Minor occasion. I’m grateful that it makes possible what it makes possible, but it doesn’t necessarily make it easy, nor does it necessarily make it possible in a short space of time – especially when it’s not operating in sympathetic or confident hands. I couldn’t help wondering what St Paul would have done in Asia Minor if he needed to go through this kind of rigamarole. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the whole Church of England (and, sadly, it would appear, the House of Bishops) also need to rediscover that generous Catholic missional spirit we see between people like St Paul, Apollos and others, which worried less about territory and ownership, and far more about the message getting out and transforming the world.

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labour of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Cor 3:5-9)

It’s not difficult to redraw the version of the “Procedure Flowchart” which led to the planting of the Church of God amongst the Gentile communities in Asia Minor. Even with the co-existence of Judaizing opposition groups who were seeking to undo (or “correct”) their work, it still took off and became the womb of Eastern Christianity.

Virginmedia fault-reporting rip-off: BEWARE!

Today I had a problem on one of my email mailboxes, which had refused any access since 8pm last night. I couldn’t get into it, either through POP3 or through their webmail pages. So I visited the status pages. Nothing was showing up so since it hadn’t resolved itself for 12 hours, I assumed that there was a particular fault on my account.

So I dialed up the basic contact number. After negotiating 4 levels of menus, I was given two phone numbers. The first was “technical help”, which I was informed was going to charge me a 10p connection fee, plus a 25p/minute charge. The second was a service status number. As I had already looked at the status webpage, I reasoned that there wasn’t much point going down that route again. So after a few abortive attempts to circumvent the charge – after all, I didn’t want “help”, I wanted to investigate an apparent fault with the system – I found myself dialling the number with gritted teeth.

After five minutes on the line, the operative told me that it was a national fault with my email cluster, and that because this had been reported on the status number, I didn’t qualify for a rebate on the call. Given that I had a working internet connection, I think I acted reasonably in assuming that it carried all the status information available.

Virginmedia took over Blueyonder about a year ago.

Their customer service is rubbish.

I’ve reported the incident to OFCOM.

ps. I phoned again to complain (NOT the pay-as-you-report line) and eventually got a rebate. Apparently the phone line is updated “first” because many users don’t have direct access to the internet…

But many do, so why do they have an internet status page at all, if it only carries partial information?

A grumpy post on early Christmas shopping

It’s of the devil. There’s no doubt about it. The way that the mad rush to begin (and hence complete) Christmas shopping before some kind of consumerist Tsunami takes over the high street becomes a fixation in people’s minds. The result is that more and more of us are taking to the shops earlier and earlier. The Christmas lights in Park Street this year were on in October. This is appalling. It has to stop – at least for anyone who has the remotest intention of celebrating Christmas time properly.

I don’t really need to rehearse this, but I will. Christmas is an important time for Christians. It’s second only to Easter in holiness – when we remember the coming of the Word made Flesh. It’s supposed to be a time of intense spiritual focus on the mystery of the Incarnation. It’s a joyful time, to listen and ponder the magic of the story of Jesus’ birth. But it’s getting harder and harder to do this in the midst of the demands of the feast of consume-mas which has cast its long shadow over an entire quarter of the annual cycle, condemning people to worry, debt, stress, exhaustion, overindulgence and God only knows what other life- and planet-destroying things.

The reason it has been able to do this is because of a myth (not unconnected to Charles Dickens and other Victorians) that one has to get all the present-buying and other preparation done in time for a big beano on the first day of the Feast. Miss that deadline, and all has been lost for the year.

This is total rubbish in Christian terms. Christmas Day marks the start of the festal period and the Epiphany (6th January – 12th Night), the final jubilant culmination. When this Christian period of feasting was taken seriously, people would do their buying and giving of gifts during the 12 days of Christmas. As a result, the world was protected from the whole feast becoming materialist by its time-limited nature. The words of the traditional song, ‘On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…’ set out a picture of giving during, and throughout the period. If we had this pattern now, there’d be no time for people to stress themselves out with Christmas preparations, they’d just get on with getting and giving during a period of 12 days. How refreshing that would be! More to the point, it would re-associate the gifts themselves with the reason for giving – the season of the Gift, currently being celebrated.

A restricted period of buying and giving would also act as a restraint on the rampant consumerism (with its attendant acolytes: debt and disappointment) which, without the fetter of a time limitation, is stretching further and further back into the year, swallowing up the period almost back to the August Bank Holiday. Best of all, it would give us the chance to celebrate Advent as a period of solemn preparation.

One financial plus, were Christians to choose to be slightly counter-cultural in regard to our celebration of Christmas, would be that we would do our present buying and giving during the period of the Christmas sales, which nowadays begin on the 2nd day of Christmas. So if you can manage a partridge in a pear tree in advance of day one, you’ll get all four calling birds, three French hens and the two turtle doves etc. at knockdown prices.

Recycling in Bristol isn’t working

OK – here’s the rant about recycling which I threatened earlier.

Tracey has already described her woes. For us, E-day happens on 8 August, but we’ve known it’s been coming for some months now. From that day, routine garbage collection moves from a weekly to a fortnightly basis. The present situation is already a shambles, and it looks like this:

In addition to our wheelybins, everyone in Bristol has a little black box, presented by our municipalia, which will take: paper, glass and metal, shoes and old clothes. It’s about the size of an old cardboard box. It’s just big enough to salve everyone’s consciences, but not big enough to be particularly useful in removing a significant amount of waste from a family household. For that, we’ve got the wheelybin. The little black box won’t take: cardboard or plastic. It is emptied weekly.

We are a household of four, including two teenagers. They consume huge quantities of food at the moment. Most of this food comes in cardboard or plastic packaging. None of this can presently be recycled. It accounts for about 3/5ths of our total rubbish, with a slight bias towards plastic rather than cardboard packaging. I also have a composting bin, which I use, but others in the family have been reluctant to use.

From 8 August, our wheelybins will be emptied fortnightly. The little black boxes will continue to be emptied weekly. In addition, we will have a little plastic bin for perishable food waste. And cardboard will henceforth be collected for recycling. But not in the little black box. It’s got to be left loose, by the side of the perishable food box. Presumably, it’s the responsibility of a different department from the black box emptiers. If it’s rainy, this will turn into a sodden mush. If it’s windy, it will blow all over the street. Nice.

Plastic will not be collected. The only plastic being recycled in Bristol is plastic bottles. To recycle plastic bottles, we must please make our way to the local Recresco bottle recycling skips. Our nearest is tucked away by an out-of-the-way bar in Clifton. I never go near the place – neither do most of the local residents. Even if we were so keen to recycle that we were to make the trip, most of households of more than one person will take our bulky plastic bottles in our cars about once per month. Probably thereby burning up more by way of fossil fuel than will ever be saved through the recycling of our puny little load. Households can also pay for a fortnightly garden waste collection service, if they can’t compost themselves.

Two of Bristol City Council's recycling partnersNow this is a bit of a curate’s egg: it encourages more recycling, but doesn’t offer effective solutions for its collection – and crucially, doesn’t offer effective recycling of plastic. This is the real bin-filler which could cause the whole waste-collection system to break down. This afternoon I was driving along the Muller Road – one of those areas first to experience this new regime. Overflowing wheely bins lined the route: a serious public health hazard. The rat population, already high, will benefit greatly (perhaps rats are going to be the great recyclers).

The policy is a shambles, driven by government targets which offer local councils financial incentives based on the percentage of household waste being recycled. Bristol have tried to get their hands on the money, without – it would appear – really thinking through what effective recycling really means. There is little evidence that the policy was thought through by anyone who lived in a largish household who was serious about the need to find a way to get everyone recycling – I’m reminded of the council’s policy on cycling (oh don’t get me started on that!). The bottom line is that effective recycling only happens when you bring the service to the end of the gate. Local mini “recycling centres” are an outdated approach which doesn’t take the matter seriously.

So here’s what I think they should be doing:

  1. All houses should have a recycling-only wheelybin, which will hold paper, cardboard metal and plastic. This will be emptied fortnightly. These will be the existing big wheelybins. We can cope that they’re not coloured green.
  2. All houses will have a general waste-bin – this will emptied weekly – new, smaller bins will be provided. Thus providing the incentive to recycle whatever is possible in the larger wheelybin.
  3. All these silly bottle banks and plastic recycling centres should be removed – save the money to pay for effective home-collected plastic recycling. Ditto the ridiculous black boxes.
  4. The garden waste collection should be more expensive – encouraging everyone to compost far more. Much better to rot it at home, then pay a lorry to pick it up to rot elsewhere.

Websites giving more information:

Bristol City Council’s Silly New Policy

A Helpful Composting Guide (yes, my compost bin is presently hot!)

POSTSCRIPT: The only sensible thing I can see written on the web is on the local Green Party site, which shows the truly abysmal recycling record of Bristol, and comments:

It doesn’t help that the city has got itself in such a financial mess that it daren’t pay the price for decent recycling facilities, and it’s stuck with a contract that gives its waste contractor a virtual monopoly when it comes to new recycling initiatives. We’d like to see much more effort made to reduce waste at source; that means acting locally and nationally to cut down on throwaway goods, and to make sure that what there is can be easily recovered for reuse. Meanwhile, the council must take things like composting and plastics recycling more seriously, for starters.”

Meanwhile, in 2004/5, Bristol was sitting at 364 out of 393 on the County Council recycling league issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Sorry, have to stop now, can’t stop laughing …

The Writer


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