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Tuesday 4 January 2011
Europe ahead in treating waste
Calling plants that use heat to treat waste "incinerators" is emotive, as is putting "energy from waste" (EfW) in quotation marks every time this unpleasant fact needs to be mentioned. I am an ex-waste manager, but was always known to be decidedly lukewarm about a proliferation of EfW (the "dash for ash").
You missed salient facts. The UK uses EfW to treat 4.5 per cent of its waste: that figure is 32 per cent in Germany and 26 per cent in Denmark. In Holland, they are considering building a series of waste-fired power stations because, with the present volatility of energy supplies, a real energy- from-waste policy is a vital part of the power-supply strategies of many European countries.
High levels of EfW treatment have not produced any downturn in recycling: Germany's rate is 66 per cent, England's was 39.7 per cent in 2009-10.
The truth is that if the UK wants to end its dependency on landfill as its main means of final waste disposal, a mix of technologies is going to have to be agreed to. The UK has a huge distance to catch up. Now, every proposed type of waste-management facility invokes fierce local opposition, when building nothing, nowhere, never is not an option.
In Newcastle 10 years ago, we learnt that for six years, massively contaminated ash from the Byker incinerator had been spread on allotment footpaths and other public places, contrary to Byker's licence conditions.
The allotment site where I gardened was close to the incinerator and had received no deposits of ash. A soil sample revealed a dioxin reading of 1,310ng per kg and had the telltale pattern of dioxins from the incinerator. It can have come only from chimney emissions. In Vietnam, readings showed 900 ng/kg of dioxins in soil, believed to have come from the use of Agent Orange and associated with birth defects. Now the allotment site closest to Byker has been cleaned, at a cost of £2m. The incinerator no longer operates.
We don't know what damage to human health may have been caused. It may take generations to find out. But it is reasonable for there to be very real concerns about energy from waste incinerators, especially when they are so close to where people live and work which is required when providing heat for a district housing scheme, as was Byker.
With a little more thought in design and manufacture, more and more materials and products could be produced that could safely be re-used and recycled, so saving waste and energy. Food waste is best dealt with by anaerobic digestion, a natural process that kills all known pathogens, provides energy from waste and an end-product that can replace expensive and unsustainable fertilisers. Garden waste is best composted.
It doesn't require expensive treatments or long-term contracts. We don't need the waste fairies or the Emperor's new clothes, just a little common sense.
Protest songs not far away
David Lister asks, "Where have all the protest songs for students gone?"(Arts, 18 December). I suggest that the habit of spontaneous public singing was moribund before this generation of students came along.
Anybody can knock together suitable words for the occasion but without a common currency of strong, simple tunes they will never travel, and the "pop anthems" of today don't have that sort of tune. The ubiquity of the slogan "No Ifs, no Buts, no education cuts" shows that the protesters still have a good ear for what works.
As for the accusation that the folk movement is failing the protesters, he needs to get his ear closer to the ground. There are plenty of people writing sharp topical broadsides, but they don't have contracts with global recording firms or concerts at the O2 arena (though some can easily sell out the Albert Hall); and for some reason they don't get much airtime.
Leon Rosselson's classic "Palaces of Gold" is still depressingly appropriate, although the tune is too complex for the average mob; Steve Knightley's "Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed" would do nicely, or his tribute to the Thatcher government "Is there anything left in England (that's not for sale?)". I'm less familiar with Billy Bragg's back catalogue, but he's probably writing one as we speak.
Privatisation creeps into NHS
Lesley Cogan is quite right in warning about the privatising of the NHS (Letters, 1 January), which the present government is certainly trying to engineer, with absolutely no mandate from the electorate.
I was appalled when my local NHS surgery, where my wife and thousands of others have received excellent treatment over many years, issued a "Patient Newsletter" which was little more than right-wing government propaganda praising their NHS White Paper and announcing that our surgery has already joined forces with other practices in the area to form a "commissioning " (read purchasing) cluster called Cam Health Integrated Care.
If there has been any consultation with patients over this sweeping change, I have never heard of it. In the same newsletter they announced an open meeting about these changes as soon as 13 January, which suggests to me an attempt to rush through some kind of rubber-stamping of the process.
Of course, the word "privatisation" does not appear anywhere in the newsletter, but that will be an inevitable consequence of these GP-commissioning consortia as we move faster and faster to the completely discredited insurance system of the USA. If there are not mass protests about this, dwarfing what happened over the poll tax, future generations will condemn us for our ignorance and complacency.
Lesley Cogan seems to be worried that the NHS is using private hospital operators. I had two experiences of hospitals last year. The first was for a knee replacement operation at a privately operated hospital working exclusively for the NHS. The management of the whole process, from initial letter of invitation to see the consultant to the day of my discharge, was superb. Best of all, I was treated as a person rather than just as a patient.
By contrast, a visit to a local NHS-managed hospital was awful. I was shunted around as just a piece of furniture. The NHS process was inefficient, the appointments were messed up, there were hours of waiting around. In other words, all the normal stuff you expect from the NHS.
For all the money that is lavished on the NHS and its army of managers and bureaucrats, the process continues to be unmanaged, and patients continue to be treated more as pieces of furniture than as people. Let us have more private hospital operators, please.
Throat-cutting is humane
While I would agree with Henrietta Nasmyth (Letters, 30 December) that kosher and halal slaughter is quicker and more humane than the alternative quoted, she has made one slight anatomical error when she writes that, "as soon as the jugular was cut, the animal's strong heart pumped out all his blood in under a minute". She must have meant the carotid artery rather than the jugular vein but this may be a pedantic reservation.
But one point she could have made about why its "eye clouded in death even as the animal realised its fate", as anyone who has suffered a cut from a sheet of paper will realise; one becomes aware of the injury only when one sees the blood, not having sensed any pain from the incision.
In the case of a properly administered cut to the throat, insensibility intervenes even before the animal can realise what has happened, which means stunning has been achieved as an integral part of the slaughter. This contrasts markedly with the so-called humane stunning methods, such as the captive bolt or electric shock, which are often misapplied and have to be repeated, causing great pain and distress to the animal.
Martin D Stern
Nativity tales are allegories
Gospel truths that are certainly not ... what ? Not literally true, yes, as the authors – and their Jewish readers of the time – would have agreed (Letters, 3 January). Both Matthew and Luke were writing in the Jewish allegorical literary convention of Midrash.
The tale of Herod and his murderous intent is an allegory of Jesus as the new Moses, who was born not just for the Jews but also, hence the non-Jews bringing him birthday presents, for the Gentiles. Luke's census tale is concerned with presenting Jesus's birth as not being a challenge to Rome.
Unfortunately, the Graeco/Roman world to which Paul introduced Jesus was unaware of the Jewish literary convention and in translation from the Aramaic gave literal credence to the allegoric tales; that mistake has persisted to modern times.
W B McBride
RE must return to curriculum
Thanks for the informative yet entertaining round-up of this year's education news in "Riots, Reviews And Results" (30 December). Richard Garner mentions the absence of religious education (RE) as one of the core GCSE subjects in the new English baccalaureate, among many others absent from the Government's education White Paper.
But the article only implies that the absence of applied courses is a concern, when I would argue that RE is an equally important subject which should be considered for inclusion.
RE has increased significantly in popularity, with the number of young people taking RE at GCSE having increased four times over the past 15 years. Similarly, a study by the Religious Education Council reveals that 80 per cent of those aged between 16 and 24 surveyed in England and Wales thought studying RE promoted better understanding of different religions and beliefs, particularly important for young people in ever multicultural Britain.
RE is also a rigorous academic subject covering a broad range of subjects including theology, philosophy and anthropology. Hopefully in 2011, the government will recognise the subject's significance and have the sense to put GCSE RE back into its rightful place, at the heart of humanities.
Chief Executive, Premier Media Group, London SW1
Tested drugs kill 10,000 a year
About 250,000 people are admitted to hospital each year suffering from adverse reactions to drugs that have passed licensing requirements for safety and quality. Adverse drug reactions cause about 10,000 UK deaths a year, cost the NHS £2bn annually and tie up the equivalent of seven 800-bed hospitals at any one time.
In the face of such figures, the clampdown on herbal medicines on safety grounds would be laughable were it not that such legislation could effectively steamroller ancient and effective medical cultures out of existence. Why does this matter?
Alternative and traditional systems of medicine have an increasingly important role to play in the transition from the current technologically complex and highly resource-consumptive world to a world no longer able to support these levels of complexity and consumption. Efforts to ban the use of long-established, traditional medicines compromise the development of integrated healthcare systems, thus hampering the sustainability agenda and restricting the potential for improvements in public health.
Dr Delny Britton
Real benefits from HS2
I must take issue with Peter Draper's letter (31 December). It's true that the non-stop HS2 rail line is unlikely to affect Great Missenden, and it's unlikely to have much effect at Princes Risborough, but it is quite likely to be relevant to local travel needs of places such as Milton Keynes, Bletchley or Leighton Buzzard, which can expect more frequent fast trains stopping when the pathways are cleared for them by the transfer of non-stop trains to HS2.
After HS1 was opened to high-speed domestic trains, Meopham and Longfield in Kent gained extra and faster trains by adding extra stops there on trains that previously passed through non-stop.
H Trevor Jones
Royal Mail have sneakily changed the criteria for small business users, blaming the government's June Budget and the charging of VAT on certain Royal Mail products (report, 19 November). To counter this, their intention is to raise the International Contract limit for small businesses from £2,500 per annum to £10,000 per annum. This is monstrous. Many small, independent booksellers like ourselves will probably go to the wall as a result of this massive, spurious hike.
Simon G Gosden
I can claim experience of six years in Germany and 10 here in France, so I take issue with Mary Dejevsky's assertion (Comment, 29 December) that no one takes bird-feeding so seriously as the Brits. Mary is welcome to come with me on a tour of the garden shop, Point Vert, here in Matignon to see the bird-houses and tubs of fat balls, and to our local Super U to see the large sacks of bird-food on sale. The Germans love their wild birds, too.
David J Boggis
Perspectives on river quality
Little change in flows of filth
It's always pleasant to read good news at the year's end. Unfortunately, this tale from the Environment Agency (report, 31 December) that our rivers are "at their healthiest for over a century" isn't one of them.
The Agency has picked out a few charismatic river species (salmon, water vole, otter), selectively reported the truth about them, and ignored the bad news about water quality.
Although salmon have returned to the formerly filthy Tyne and Mersey, the Agency's own data show that across England and Wales the overall trend in salmon numbers has been downward since the late 1980s. Numbers in 2009 are the lowest on record.
Across the river system as a whole, government statisticians describe the Environment Agency's results as showing "little change" in river biological quality, "little change" from a very low base. Agency data show that 75 per cent of our rivers do not even reach "good" standard.
If you pour a bucket of rainwater into a barrel of sewage you can call it "cleaner" but you wouldn't want to drink the result. Many of the Agency's staff are highly dedicated and do sterling work to protect the environment, but to present such a distorted view of the degraded state of our freshwaters is both shaming and dangerously complacent.
Dr Jeremy Biggs
Director, Pond Conservation, Oxford
Fish stocks fall to hungry otters
Has Michael McCarthy not heard of the Kennet, once praised by anglers as the best river in England? Look at it now – little flow (abstraction), no natural weed growth, suspended matter in the once crystal-clear water and, the icing on the cake, it's full of red signal crayfish.
Mr McCarthy also talks about the Thames, but upstream of Oxford, fish-spawning grounds have been ruined by dredging, misguided idiots have introduced many otters around Lechlade with a devastating effect on fish stocks, and again this stretch is full of those crayfish.
Sadly, the Thames tributaries, the Windrush, Evenlode and Cherwell have gone the same way. Otters have all but wiped out some fish species. The Environment Agency recently stocked the Cherwell with barbel simply to feed otters.
Farmers forced to dump manure
Where the rural landscape is dominated by livestock production, pollution from farm wastes has long been a major source of below-par river quality. A major difficulty for dairy farmers is the storage and safe spreading of organic manures. They are often forced to spread manure under adverse conditions that cause run-off into rivers because they can't afford the heavy costs of increasing their slurry storage capacity.
This results in a bacterial sediment in river- and stream-beds which act as a reservoir of contamination and also affect the quality of coastal bathing waters, which has become worryingly common on the South-west coast and Wales.
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