Bishop of Salisbury welcomes Government waste strategy, calls for more action on plastics recycling

On 19th December 2018 the Lords debated a motion from Baroness Neville-Rolfe, “To move that this House takes note of the threat to the environment posed by plastic and the case for improved recycling.” The Bishop of Salisbury, Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Salisbury: My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, for her persistence on plastic and for securing this debate. In the light of the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, I observe that I enter the debate after three inspiring women.

I want to say “Well done” to the Government on the resources and waste strategy announced yesterday. It must be a bit of a relief to find an issue around which there is a good level of agreement for us to work on, but it means that there is a danger of complacency in the face of such an urgent task. In welcoming the government strategy, I also welcome those who have urged the need for more detail and smart goals, but it is set in the right direction, which is good news. In churches at the moment it is Advent, which is a period of preparation, not just for Christmas but for the coming of Christ in judgment:

“Now is the time to awake out of sleep”.

It is the time for this debate but I want to shout, “Sleepers wake!” There is an urgency in what we do, here and now. Plastics are incredibly useful, and we have overused them and misused them. They pollute and have got into the food chain and, thanks to “The Blue Planet” and the like, we now know this at more than an intellectual level and want to do something in response. Just before the shortest day, we need what Chris Rapley, professor of climate change at University College London, calls “dark optimism”.

Last Lent, the Church of England encouraged a plastic-free Lent. It got significant take-up and a lot of media attention. Those who tried to do it found it incredibly difficult, like the day the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, described in her opening speech. It is not just about supermarket packaging or eliminating plastic on the Parliamentary Estate—I wrote this with my cheap plastic pen after eating a salad from a plastic container downstairs in the River Restaurant. However, it would be a good start to address those sorts of issues. What is really needed is a change of behaviour that reduces, reuses and recycles plastic and all goods. The attention is currently on recycling, and we could certainly do much better, but we also need to reduce our consumption and reuse in a way that eBay, charity shops and church sales often facilitate.

This is a spiritual issue. Earlier this year, I spoke at the European Christian Environmental Network meeting in Katowice. I met some Norwegians there who were building Hope Cathedral with a roof made of plastic claimed from the sea. It is beautiful, transformative and creative—an imaginative project that does something beautiful with what is proving so harmful. It speaks to the human condition, lifts the spirits and points to what we need to do. I probably ought also to say that they asked me to be a patron, and I gladly accepted.

However, I am not so heavenly minded as to think that we simply need to encourage one another with the beauty of holiness, although a healthy respect for and reverence of creation is a good place to start. We need a framework of good law to support our actions. “Most people want to do the right thing”, somebody said on the radio the other day, “but if doing the right thing is made difficult, they won’t do it”. As we have ​heard, recycling rates are in danger of stalling and not meeting the 2020 target, so it is good to see the proposals that have been made to regenerate recycling arrangements across the country, and good to see the engagement of business in helping to create and pay for these improvements. But there is still so much more to play for in the care of creation.


Baroness Vere of Norbiton (Con):… I noted with interest the plastic-free Lent mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury, which goes to the heart of the matter. It is up to all of us and all organisations to work to reduce consumption and encourage people to do the right thing…