Should you recycle this paper? Maybe not

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When you've finished with this newspaper, will you, a little smugly, take it to be recycled? Charles Arthur, Science Editor, discovers that some environmentalists now think you would be better to burn it instead.

A growing number of environmentalists who have carried out detailed economic studies of the costs of recycling - a practice that has an almost religious place in the greener lifestyle - believe it may be environmentally unfriendly.

"The higher you value the environment, the better incineration comes out," according to Matthew Leach, an energy policy analyst at Imperial College's Centre for Environmental Technology.

That's a startling thought, given that used paper is rapidly becoming a raw material: in western Europe more than half of newsprint is recycled, and the paper disposal business in Europe handles 130 kilograms (286 pounds) per head annually. Now Leach says: burn it - for instance in your fireplace. You don't speed up global warming, since 99 per cent of virgin paper comes from sustainable forests, not rainforest. And you can use the heat to save electricity.

This is not the sort of answer that consumers, who for years have been trained to obediently collect their newspapers and dump them at the local collection site, expect to hear. But it gets worse. Those local collection sites, and the few companies which in this country pulp the papers, are the worst model of recycling you can dream up. Instead, we should have kerbside collection, and recycling (or incineration) at as many locations as possible. Why? Because the fuel used by the lorries transporting it adds more to global warming than the process of making fresh paper.

"This debate seems to have become fashionable recently," said Marianne Grieg-gran of the International Institute for Environment and Development yesterday. "There have been scientific papers in the past four years arguing that recycling might not be the best solution."

There are some glimmers of reassurance. It is always good to recycle aluminium cans, because so much electricity is needed to extract the metal from its ore, bauxite. Saving electricity means saving fossil fuel. Recycling aluminium "saves about 95 per cent of the energy," said Amelia Craighill, of the environment department at the University of East Anglia. Glass recycling is less clear-cut - but recycling can make significant energy savings. So yes, recycle that wine bottle.

But paper recycling is less simple. Maybe it should be composted on a landfill - where the methane gas produced could be burnt for energy. Or it should be burnt outright. Or it might be recycled. The environmentalists are still arguing.

The European Commission though seems to have made its mind up already. Its 1994 directive on waste management insists that by 2001, 50 per cent of paper waste should be recovered and recycled. Perhaps someone should tell them about the debate.