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A Day in the Life of a BWRP Volunteer

De-nailing in the yard

It’s raining so I strip off my dripping waterproofs and hang up my bike in the bike room; a re-purposed office with green carpet tiles and suspended ceiling. This is our yard, shop, office and workshop in Bristol BS3 purchased through community funding. Three or four other bikes are here so I know who’s in today. Soon I see another smiling face as I walk through to the kitchen area “Hi, how was your ride in?” they ask. Straight away I am conscious of the common purpose that we share, and largely due to the co-operative status of BWRP, the egalitarian good humour in the question. I’ve been volunteering here for half a decade. As a semi-retired single man, it’s been a source of camaraderie and personal development. The sheer physicality is invigorating. I know and value wood and abhor waste so it matches my interests and ethics.

In the cloak room I put on my size thirteen boots, high-viz coat and trousers and reach for my gloves and hard hat. Out in the yard we congregate where our transport co-ordinator runs through the day’s schedule. By 9.20 we are trundling through Bristol in one of our three cage trucks. Their load capacity is around one tonne and we are heading for the northern outskirts in morning traffic. The cab interior is battle-scarred with caked mud and broken plastic dashboard trims. Discarded and tattered gloves occupy the door pocket while on the cab floor lie a crow-bar, webbing ratchet straps, a hand saw and bolt cutters. All or any of these may be essential to disentangle wood waste at a building site. The diesel engine makes a comforting hum as the driver shifts to a lower gear. This is an opportunity for a chat with the him. Subjects are diverse; recent experiences, weather, national events, personal dramas, music or a good book. Being a passenger in the elevated cab viewpoint is quite thrilling and although I’ve been a Bristolian for twenty-five years, I am excited to be taken down unfamiliar roads.

As we approach the housing development we pass scores of brand new houses. They are crisp like unwrapped confectionery. Some already have curtains and lights on. There is the show home and marketing suite. We are driving on tarmac. Gradually the view changes to half built scaffolded shells, then foundations only. The service road now seems to lead nowhere as huge lorries with enormous wheels block our passage. We wait. Now we are at the very quarry-face where piles of blocks, bricks, soil and plasterboard stand in well-meaning disorderliness. We see our destination. At a far corner of the site still bounded by hedged countryside and an ancient oak tree is a heap of pallets and sundry wood items. Many pallets are broken or disintegrating with protruding nails and amongst them a peculiar history of the site’s progression including defunct signage attached to peeling plywood, timber off-cuts and scaffolding planks. We play a game of assessing what’s re-usable and what we must take for chipping. Then we decide our strategy to carefully unscramble the precarious and hazardous problem we are presented with. I mentioned tarmac earlier. Well now we are in two inches of squelching mud so we throw down some boards as a pathway between the pallet heap and the van.

An hour later, rosy cheeked from hard work we close the rear cage doors of the truck and navigate our way through the mud, drive out of the housing development and head west through countryside and estuary farmland to the industrial sprawl of Avonmouth. We can feel the mass of our load in the cage behind us. We enter the enormous and viscerally thrilling recycling centre and after recording our vehicle weight on the weighbridge the driver manoeuvres the truck for tipping. It seems ludicrously small compared to the huge bucket tractors that prowl nearby like yellow dragons. Our addition to the colossal one-hundred-metre-long pile of wood waste seems miniscule. It’s a drop in the ocean. We carefully extricate and reload two sheets of ply and some pallets which we will take back to the yard with us for re-sale in our shop.

It is late morning and we arrive back at our premises. I help the other truck team to unload an interesting selection of timber from a domestic collection in central Bristol; there are clean timbers and sheet materials amongst the rotten decking. I put these straight into our racks ready for customer to browse and buy. The lunches that we each chose earlier, free to volunteers and provided by a local ethical takeaway arrive and we sit quietly munching and exchanging conversation.

After a walk around our large shop and covered de-nailing area to see what’s come in, I notice it is one-thirty. The afternoon has the same pattern as the morning but with a different collection destination, and there is time before the end of the day to dismantle some pallets and de-nail some timber. We even re-cycle the nails, collected from the yard floor with a magnetic broom. There is a satisfaction in seeing the full circle of incoming wood, its conversion into saleable items and its stacking in our customised racks as retail products. I cycle home in the dark, but at least the rain has stopped.

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