Paper chase: Mixed motives at the Camden recycling centre

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Once every couple of weeks I load up my car with a heap of old newspapers and an alarmingly large collection of empty wine bottles and head off to the recycling centre in Jamestown Road, just off Camden High Street. I climb on to the platform and hurl my old Independents and Guardians into the skip with hundreds of other Independents and Guardians, then cross over to the bottle bank, where the 'green glass only' bins far outnumber the brown and white ones, and drop in all those empty Aussie cabernet sauvignon bottles, which shatter with a satisfying 'tish'.

Duty done, all that remains is to read the congratulatory blackboard message: 'Last month Camden recycled 136 tonnes of paper, equivalent to 2,333 trees]' Having replenished my sense of environmental virtue, I drive round the corner to Sainsbury's to start the cycle of consumption all over again. As I pick up a cellophane bag of ready-washed, microwaveable baby spinach I know I should really be buying it - loose and covered in mud and bugs - from the groovy organic greengrocers up the road but, to be honest, I can't be bothered. I like one-stop, supermarket shopping. It's quick, convenient and cheap(ish). But, as I worship at the temple of consumerism, I want to feel I'm helping to clean up the mess it makes. It's a bit like committing adultery straight after going to confession - you know it's wrong but at least you start with a clear conscience.

Last month Camden council released some impressive statistics: 3,222 tonnes of domestic waste were recycled in the year to March, representing nearly 9 per cent of the borough's total rubbish - double the average for London as a whole. This included 1,379 tonnes of glass, 153 tonnes of cardboard, 163 tonnes of metal, 23 tonnes of rags and 13 tonnes of plastic.

Some 1,640 tonnes of paper were collected, 'saving 28,000 trees from having to be chopped down', according to the council. It gives the impression that the citizens of a north London borough are saving a whole forest every year. Fox cubs can gambol beneath the oaks, free from the threat of chainsaw and bulldozer, because the people of Camden care enough to throw out their old Time Outs in the right direction.

But newsprint is actually made from the kind of spruce trees which girdle the earth at the latitude of Canada, Scandinavia and Russia, not from olde English oaks or tropical rainforests. And aren't trees for the paper industry replanted as fast as they're cut? So what's the problem?

According to Friends of the Earth, there still is a problem, because the loggers are still felling virgin forests in Canada and Scandinavia. In Sweden, they claim, 140 species of plants and animals face extinction if deforestation continues at the current rate. Benedict Southworth, of FoE, says: 'Old-growth forests are diverse habitats which have taken thousands of years to develop. Plantation forests are virtually sterile in comparison.' So recycling old newspapers is more than a gesture. According to Mr Southworth, there's plenty of scope for more: 'Your daily newspaper consists, on average, of 36 per cent recycled fibre, but it would be technically feasible to push the proportion up to 70 or 80 per cent.'

Another thing that bothers me, especially as I stew in a traffic jam, breathing photo-chemical smog on my way to the recycling centre, is that I may, by driving around with a boot full of last week's style sections, be causing more pollution than I'm preventing. Mr Southworth is reassuring on that score, too: 'Research shows that the person who drives four miles just to recycle a couple of bottles is a rarity. If you combine the trip to the recycling centre with a journey you would have made anyway (like going to the supermarket) you lessen the impact.'

The most right-on councils in environmental terms are those such as Kensington and Chelsea, and Wandsworth, which have 'kerbside collection' schemes in which householders sort waste and put it in colour-coded bags for dustmen.

But, as I rinse out another Kalamata olives can and plop it into my kitchen's recycling bin, I know in my heart that my motives aren't so environmentally pure. Mr Southworth admits, and a recent London Waste Regulation Authority report confirms, that it is the most prosperous boroughs which are most active on the recycling front. It's the olive-eating, wine-drinking, Volvo-driving classes who are most concerned about the environment, it seems. Councils in poorer parts of London, like Haringey and Tower Hamlets, get far fewer green stars than their more prosperous neighbours.

But it would hardly be fair to condemn those who consume least for being least consumed with concern about conspicuous consumption. The real answer to environmental degradation is for the rich - countries and individuals - to make do with less. Fewer cars, fewer foreign holidays, local rather than exotic fruit and vegetables, fewer dishwashers, cookers and freezers. The end of the consumer society, no less, and the horrific energy consumption and pollution that manufacturing and transport entail.

But that, guiltily, is the one thing we are desperate to avoid. We are, at bottom, more concerned with salving our consciences than with saving the planet. See you at the bottle bank.

(Photograph omitted)

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