The visit, on July 27, led us to reflect on Pope Francis’s 2015 Encyclical Laudato Si and our relationship with Creation. Today, we produce vast amounts of waste, and disposing of it is a major challenge for our local authorities. Even if we try to live simply—for example, by reducing what we buy, refusing to use plastic bags, and aiming to recycle as much as we can—there are still some items that can only be disposed of through black bins. To find out what happens to Suffolk’s black bin waste, we visited the energy-from-waste facility near Great Blakenham, which uses waste as fuel to generate electricity.
Our visit began with a presentation and discussion about Suffolk County Council’s waste and recycling policies. The most environmentally friendly way to dispose of rubbish is by reusing or recycling it, but some materials, such as soft plastics, can’t be disposed of in these ways. Waste from Suffolk that cannot be reused or recycled is brought to the facility for burning at temperatures over 1,000 degrees centigrade. The heat released is used to convert water into superheated steam. Under high pressure, this steam drives a turbine to generate electricity. The plant exports around 20 megawatts of electricity to the National Grid—enough to power 40,000 homes.
Afterwards, we donned protective clothing for a tour of the site. First, we visited the waste reception hall and peered through a glass window at a colossal mound of dusty waste, waiting to be picked up by one of two grab cranes to be put into the furnace. Many of us felt this was the most disturbing part of the visit, vividly illustrating what is mentioned in Chapter 1 of Laudato Si about pollution, waste, and the throwaway culture.
“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (LS 21).
Especially troubling, and somewhat ironic, was the sight of an orange ‘Bag for Life’ on top of one mound of rubbish. After the tour, Sally reflected, “After seeing the mega pile of rubbish, I felt like never shopping again. It really brought home the importance of reducing as well as recycling.”
From there, we went into the area of the furnace and had an opportunity to peer in. We thought we spotted a Calor gas container among the flames—a stark reminder of the amount of recyclable material that ends up in our black bins. This was followed by a climb to the level of the steam turbine, to the area where gases are cleaned and filtered before leaving the site through the chimney.
Lastly, we saw what is left after the burning process: huge piles of ash and also metal objects, including a garden rake and the top of a tin of baked beans. Although they can be recycled, the metal is of a lower quality than if it had been recycled through a blue bin or at a recycling centre.
The visit led us to reflect on the amount of waste we create in the UK, ways of reducing it, and how we need to develop a deeper sense of personal responsibility for its disposal. Although the task is daunting, Sally pointed out, “Our individual actions and choices do have an effect. I’ve noticed more supermarkets have soft fruit and mushrooms in cardboard containers, for instance. We can also avoid packaging by taking our own bags to Suffolk’s great markets.”
Linda added, “The ‘4Rs of Recycling’—REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE—give us a simple checklist of how to behave on our many consumption journeys, from buying to disposing of what’s left over. Pope Francis’s teaching frequently reminds us that our individual actions can make a real difference in the healing and protection of our fragile planet. Each of us has a part to play in the solution to the current ecological crisis. For the sake of the next generation and the planet, we need to act.”
Laudato Si calls the world to discern and redefine what we mean by ‘progress’ in light of our growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity (LS 113), as our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values, and conscience (LS 105).
Progress is not about making a profit and having more material goods, but about a change of heart and mind.
“We need to move to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, learning to give and not merely to give up…moving away from what I want, to what God’s world needs” (LS 9).
Laudato Si calls for an Integral Ecology; this is not an easy concept to understand. While ecology is a biological term for a complex system of interconnected organisms and the environment in which they live, integral ecology recognises that the whole world is one interconnected system. This means that social and environmental problems are interrelated and require interrelated solutions.
“We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (LS 139).
Visiting the waste disposal centre caused us to reflect on our place in this interrelated system; some of the rubbish we saw could have been ours. Although it was good to see it being turned into electricity, it would have been better for the environment to recycle it or refuse to use it in the first place. Since our visit, we have all continued to reflect on the experience. Rereading Laudato Si, Alan was struck again by the need to respond to the signs of the times and the costs of not doing so.
“We are called to acknowledge our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation… to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God” (LS 8).
To find out more about the 2023 Season of Creation and its theme of “Let Justice and Peace Flow,” look at the website Season of Creation.
Journey to 2030 is a lay-run website helping communities respond to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor Journey to 2030.
The Colombians publish a guide to Laudato Si Catholic Climate Covenant.
CAFOD produces resources for young people and adults CAFOD.