Merchants cash in on waste recycling boom

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Paper recycling is booming spectacularly after years in the doldrums, thanks to the newsprint famine.

In Britain, the price of discarded newspapers and magazines has risen to about pounds 40 a ton. Only a year ago the waste-paper merchants, who gather and sort the material for paper mills, would pay nothing at all.

Councils which provide collection banks and charity and community groups who collect the stuff are cashing in, along with the merchants. Criminals are even stealing piles of waste paper collected outside offices in London.

Only the green-minded, paper-recycling public are not benefiting directly. There is no prospect of them being paid, but at least they have the satisfaction of knowing their old papers are not going from the local bank straight into dumps, as used to happen in some places.

"The price is illogically high but I mustn't complain - we're making profits for the first time in five years," Nicholas Francis, managing director of Bristol-based waste-paper merchants Clarfield Recycling, said.

A huge new state-of-the-art newsprint mill, the largest in the world, has just gone into production on the outskirts of Maidstone in Kent. It consumes old newspapers and magazines from all over southern England, and uses no virgin pulp from trees.

It took the owners, a consortium of Swedish, South African and Luxemburg- based corporations, years to pluck up the courage to invest pounds 250m in the project. The Government gave a pounds 20m grant - huge by British standards - largely because of the plant's recycling credentials.

Construction started during the paper-price doldrums, but now "there has been a dramatic and very favourable movement in the market," according to Donald Charlesworth, spokesman for the company.

Aylesford Newsprint will produce 280,000 tons of newsprint a year from this new plant, along with 90,000 from a smaller existing one. The 70 per cent of that total destined for domestic use is equivalent to one- eighth of Britain's total newsprint production. It will not only make the country more self-sufficient in newsprint (most is currently imported from Scandinavia and Canada) but sharply increase the overall recycled content of British newspapers.

Last year, their average recycled content was 24 per cent, according to the industry's Pulp and Paper Information Centre. The publishers have promised the Government to raise this percentage to 40 per cent by 2000. If they use the output of the new mill and other existing mills which take in waste-paper they can hit this target.

The waste-paper trade's main concern is that greed and short-termism will force prices too high and bust will again follow boom. Stability and long-term contracts are the keys to prosperity, said Mr Francis.