Shortage leads to paper chase

Waste/ demand soars
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IN A MOVE that would leave career consultants shuddering, Christine Collister chucked a good job in the City to spend her days collecting rubbish.

The decision may not have been as foolish as it sounds: the price of waste paper has soared in the past year, from pounds 7 a tonne to pounds 70, making her nascent not-for-profit recycling business potentially far more secure.

A shortage of waste paper for recycling has driven prices to their highest level in almost 10 years, encouraging businesses, charities and environmental activists to cash in.

The dramatic 1,000 per cent price rise in the past 11 months has led to the first takeovers in the industry in five years. Recyclers are rushing to buy new bailing equipment while they can afford to do so. Schemes to get more people to hand over old newspapers are also appearing.

An unlikely rag-and-bone team, Ms Collister, 28, and her squad of eco- volunteers use a bright yellow, C-registered Freight Rover to pick up garbage from 250 homes in Islington, London, for pounds 1.20 a week each.

"It means lifting heavy bags and sorting through other people's rubbish," she said cheerfully. "I wouldn't want to pretend it's fun, but at least you're out in the fresh air."

The former computer programmer quit her City job because she did not approve of financial markets.

"I believe trading money to make more money for people who have already got lots is ethically wrong," she said. "I've always had a passion for nature, and I wanted to do something with my time that helped, not hurt, the people around me."

After seeing an advertisement for a researcher on kerb-side collection she joined the Islington Recycling Advisory Group.

Based on her business plan - which showed kerb-side collection would be viable if householders paid a small fee - Islington Waste Savers was launched at the end of October with pounds 1,000 in grants and loans from the council.

The business is housed in borrowed premises, and has to give the rubbish it collects to the council's recycling depot each day. But once it moves into its new home near the Angel, Ms Collister will be able to store the garbage then sell it to the highest bidder. It is scrap paper that will fetch the best price.

The British market for waste paper has been depressed for 10 years, partly because tipping is cheap, partly because the four main mills bought from cheap stockpiles on the Continent.

Booming demand in the Far East has revived the industry.Over the past year, economic recovery in the Orient eroded the German paper mountain asWestern demand picked up, causing shortages of newsprint and corrugated boxes.

Most paper waste from offices, shops and businesses is already being collected, so the only way to increase supply is to pick up more post- consumer scrap.

But traditional techniques, such as collection bins at supermarkets, catch only a fraction of the available paper.

Salter Paper Group has launched radio advertisements in London to persuade Boy Scouts and other charities to run paper drives. In the first two days, its Paper Caper campaign got more than 70 responses.

On a smaller scale, Dermot Kinsella, a former advertising salesman who wanted to start an environmentally friendly business, set up his own new- age rag-and-bone operation serving 1,000 homes in Haringey, London, in October after being discouraged earlier by low prices.

"When I first looked at it a year ago you couldn't give the stuff away. Now it's paying pounds 40 a tonne," he said.

Wholesale prices are even higher at pounds 70 a tonne, up from just pounds 7 in 1994, said David Symmers, spokesman for the Independent Waste Paper Processors Association. "Until this time last year there wasn't a waste paper company in the country that was making a significant profit, and several were on the brink of bankruptcy."

The waste paper market usually follows a 10-year cycle, with a nine- month boom followed by a long, hard slump. But Mr Symmers is optimistic prices will stabilise at a new, higher level. UK demand will get a boost this summer when Sweden's SCA opens a recycled newsprint mill at Aylesford, Kent.

"World demand for recycled product is set to double between now and the end of the century, from 95m tonnes a year to 200m tonnes," Mr Symmers said.