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Theology in action: going for recycling gold

St Paul’s Cathedral

The offices at London Diocesan House in Pimlico are full of teams of people who help to run a spectacular range of buildings for the Church of England – from schools and vicarages to St Paul’s Cathedral. Brian Cuthbertson, who is the first person to take up the role of head of environment and sustainability, works with his colleagues to push climate change, energy, waste and recycling issues further up the agenda.

Brian Cuthbertson

Brian Cuthbertson

“For environment, it’s just me,” he says. “But I’m cross-cutting – everyone is expected to co-operate and do their bit. I co-ordinate an effort by everybody in relation to their particular departments.”

As the sole expert within the organisation, how does Cuthbertson keep up with what is going on? “It is difficult because the information flow is huge and has vastly increased. It is particularly fast-moving, especially in relation to climate change. I am bombarded and harassed with information every day.”

But he is quick to focus on matters that are important to him. When shown the latest issue of MRW, his eye is immediately drawn to a cover story about England’s recorded recycling rate dropping for the first time: “That’s bad news; I wasn’t aware of that.”

The scale of his task is daunting, made the more difficult by the fact that he has direct influence only over London Diocesan House, so dealing with the rest of the estate across the capital involves a great deal of cajoling and persuasion. However, his focus on London Diocesan House has yielded some impressive results. In January, the offices changed its waste and recycling service and appointed First Mile, a zero-to-landfill company, and the recycling rate has shot up. It achieved First Mile’s ‘silver standard’ rate within the first month.

“We do not have specific waste and recycling targets for the diocese,” Cuthbertson says, “but we do for this building. We’re aiming for the gold standard, which is 90%, and are currently at 75%.

“I think we might reach gold standard by the end of the 2016 because, when we first started at the beginning of the year, it was 60%. I don’t see why we can’t do it – people’s minds are focused and they understand it.”

Cuthbertson went with First Mile as part of a wider move to a zero-landfill basis, but he also has to set out an economic case. “There was an element of ‘suck it and see’ about [the contract] because it is priced per bag and is not a fixed annual contract,” he says. “So, until you know how many bags you are going to use, you don’t know how much it is going to cost – therefore you need to fill the bags as full as possible. That depends on everybody, [especially] the cleaners, who have been very helpful.

“First Mile collects from quite a few businesses around here, which is one of the reasons we chose them – we’re on their beat. We would like to roll them out more widely to our area offices, but the feeling is we’d like them to bed down here first.”

There does seem to be sense of pride about the improved environmental performance throughout the offices, and even the colleague on the reception desk knows about the current recycling rate and the 90% target.

The dramatic increase in recycling is a direct result of a far-reaching initiative launched by the Church of England in 2006 called ‘Shrinking the Footprint’. This set out a series of targets on carbon and sustainability derived from the Church’s ethical and religious framework, and a dedicated post was created which Cuthbertson took up in 2008.

“At that time the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, chaired the campaign, and he is still very much identified with environmental concerns and is a strong lead on the subject,” he says. “I think there was a moment of consensus that it was something on which we wanted to take a strong stand, and to do that it was necessary to have a full-time position. It wasn’t a very difficult decision to take, managerially.”

Cuthbertson practised as an architect for 13 years and originally joined the Diocese of London to run an expert committee advising on, and giving approval for, alterations to church buildings. He is acutely aware of the importance of use and reuse of materials through his experience working on refurbishment and alterations to historic buildings, including the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery.

So what made him change direction? “It was circumstances, really, sometimes you read the runes in the clouds, don’t you? When I was appointed there was a real sense of ‘coming home’. Not only does it have a major component which relates to building, but I’ve always had a strong interest in the environment going back to my student days.

“When I switched to what I’m doing now, I had rather a strong feeling of there being all kinds of things in the subconscious which needed to be taken off the shelf and dusted, which was a satisfying and unexpected experience. It doesn’t come to everybody.”

What he is confronted with now is a huge range of properties with a diverse range of ownership statuses. The diocese has around 2,000 buildings, including 480 churches and a similar number of both church halls and vicarages. There are around 150 schools and a smaller number of commercial properties, including housing for rent and business premises.

Traditionally, churches in England are owned by the incumbent – the vicar or the rector – who acts as the corporation sole. Although many vicars are now appointed on a salary basis, Cuthbertson says that, for practical purposes, a church is an independent representative.

This poses a particular set of problems when trying to monitor recycling rates because Cuthbertson has no direct authority, and it is the reason why there are not currently any diocese-wide recycling targets.

“That is important to realise. We don’t actually dictate how they run themselves; they are largely run by the appropriate church council. We provide advice, support and services of various kinds, and a certain amount of governance. My role is to be persuasive if we are promoting a particular view, such as recycling or saving energy and carbon.

“We don’t have direct control nor do we have an immense amount of direct evidence or information. There is a certain amount of reporting through annual returns, including energy consumption, but that would not for example include recycling rates.”

Cuthbertson has tried to tackle this problem by setting up a benchmarking system for churches to “probe more deeply”. This was developed with the help of two consultancies: Rickaby Thompson Associates, which came up with the benchmarking for energy and carbon matters, and Aardvark Environment Matters, which added the module on waste.

Aardvark EM also audited about 90% of churches in zone one, around 65 altogether, on energy efficiency, waste and recycling. This was paid for by fundraising efforts targeting city commercial funds.

“We have done audits on this for certain churches, but that doesn’t mean I can provide you with an average for the entire diocese,” Cuthbertson explains. “Information is traded between them and us on a confidential basis. Some of my time is spent fundraising, which has got more difficult in recent years. The grant we got for the audits was the biggest we have received for anything.”

The main waste stream from churches – or “what really fills the wheelie bins”, as Cuthbertson puts it – is packaging and bottles generated by events such as parties and wedding receptions. A high proportion of this will be fully recyclable, as will be the paper, plastic cups and plates that typically come from a church’s day-to-day operations. Along with First Mile, the diocese offices use another zero-waste-to-landfill company, Paper Round, which it recommends to parishes.

“Our approach is one of ‘ever widening circles’,” says Cuthbertson. “You start small and gradually spread wider to other properties and then peoples’ personal lives. Because what they hear in the pew should be taken home.

“It is fair to say we are less well advance in relation to recycling than we are in some other things. Therefore I think that, when we’ve bedded things down here, we can widen to our satellite offices and give better support to parishes and then see how they can feed back more information to us.”

The environmental message is being broadcast far and wide. The Church of England leads a worldwide communion and has stepped up its leadership on some very fundamental matters. Under its ‘Five Marks of Mission’ – key statements based on the teachings of Jesus that have developed over a number of years – it has warned against “unjust structures including the promotion of consumerism, the dominance of economic growth at any price, the accumulation of disproportionate resources by a few”.

“This has not gone unnoticed,” says Cuthberston. “It is about not consuming at all if one can help it. The whole word ‘consumption’ is loaded with negative meanings that we have to get away from.” With its bishops in the House of Lords, the Church of England has a voice at the top table of politics, although Cuthbertson is quick to say it tries to be equitable because church members vote for each and every political party. But the ‘Five Marks of Mission’ statements have raised serious questions about using capital “in a responsible manner” that does not create in equalities. Cuthbertson says the narrative of the circular economy fits in with this philosophy: “There is no point recycling unless you have a viable economic use for the materials that have been created from your wastes arisings. It is an essential part-and-parcel otherwise it wouldn’t work.”

So how much does the religion itself inform environmental and sustainability agenda? “There is a general perception among Christians that we’ve only woken up to this in comparatively recent times. But it seems obvious, really: Christians believe the world was created by God and that means we should take care of it and we shouldn’t be trashing it.

“It is also a humane [stance]; caring for the world is the environment within which human beings, animals and plants live. For the wellbeing of everybody it is right we should have to care for the environment.

“I don’t know if there is a patron saint for recycling but, clearly, for the environment it is St Francis of Assisi. He was very frugal – more about reducing than recycling, maybe.

“He was one of the reasons the current pope chose his name. The pope has taken a strong lead and that has had a very big impact. There is considerable unanimity between different religions – I often find myself on a platform with representatives of other faith groups including Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. It’s inspiring.”

However, translating the deeper theological ideas into action on the ground is hard work. Across the UK there are supposed to be environment officers in every Anglican diocese – there are some vacancies, few are paid and many are volunteers. But there is a national team that holds annual meetings to pool experiences and lessons learned. And although it may seem to an outsider that Cuthbertson is ploughing a lonely furrow, he says he never feels overlooked by colleagues and praises the strong corporate motivation and leadership.

“In relation to recycling, there is probably quite a lot of apathy in society at large, and a lot of people perceive it as something quite nice to do but really they don’t have the time to take the trouble in their daily lives. I wouldn’t like to claim we are entirely immune from that, but the established mantra from WRAP – reduce, reuse, recycle – is always on our lips.

“That was a pleasant surprise to me, so it’s not difficult to get up in the morning. I do feel very motivated.”

St Paul’s Cathedral

The cathedral has audited its environmental performance, including energy, carbon and waste. From this a range of recommendations were made, and there have been improvements in recycling and food sourcing.

St Paul’s Institute, which was set up to “foster an informed Christian response to the most urgent ethical and spiritual issues of our times” also takes a lead in education on environment and sustainability, running events with speakers such as archbishop Rowan Williams, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and Sir David Attenborough.

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