Thinking outside the blue box on recycling

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In response to receiving a brown bin, blue box and some green bags, John writes a letter to Cherwell District Council questioning the rationale of recycling paper and calling for more practical environmentalism initiatives.

Dear Cherwell District Council,

Thank you for sending me the brown bin and the green bags and the blue box. It used to be so straightforward. I put the rubbish by the front gate and your efficient operatives took it away. But now I can never remember what is collected when.

I live in the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside because I appreciate its unspoilt rural environment. And I would be delighted to fill your blue box with waste paper if it helped preserve that environment. But I have been struggling to understand the rationale.

Most people save paper to save trees. When I was at the University of Oxford, we often laughed about the rainforests that were felled to service its committees. But we were joking. Paper is principally made from softwood trees specially planted for the purpose. If we used less paper, there would be fewer trees, not more, just as there would be fewer cows if we stopped eating them. And fast-growing trees are the most effective means of absorbing greenhouse gases.

Still, Sitka spruce are not beautiful. Plantations have spoilt some Scottish landscapes. But protectionism is at work here – these trees are subsidised. Most virgin paper comes from Canada and Scandinavia, where there is little other economic activity.

Mountains of discarded copies of the Financial Times are also an unlovely sight. But I mainly see them at the roadside, where overflowing blue boxes have been placed by people who, like me, have forgotten which collection takes place on which day of the week. As FT readers caught in the rain quickly learn, wet newsprint disintegrates into the same organic matter that is formed when trees reach the end of their natural life.

We are not running out of places to put old newspapers. Pressure on landfill comes from pressure to recycle, not the other way round. The main reason for the shortage of landfill sites is that enthusiasm for recycling blocks the use of landfill. All the material that you and others have been kind enough to send me has a curious tone, defensive yet strident. Since the obvious argument for recycling paper, tree preservation, does not stand up to scrutiny, proponents seek some other rationale for a policy they instinctively know is right. Apart from the landfill scare, they emphasise fuel savings. But this is a complex issue. There is not much difference between the energy requirements of recycled and virgin paper. And fuel for the latter comes largely from renewable sources, since damp and hilly territory is good for both trees and hydroelectricity. In any event, the quantities involved are small: the daily Financial Times consumes less energy than the light bulb you read it by.

When George Bernard Shaw said that an Englishman thinks he is moral when he is only uncomfortable, I am sure a picture of a man carrying a blue box of old newspapers down the garden path in the pouring rain was in his mind. Recycling is our penance for the material advantages of a consumer society. It is no more sensible to ask about its benefits than to inquire whether Hail Marys do the Blessed Virgin any good. The value of saving paper lies in the virtuous feelings it engenders.

Yet there is an economic issue – protectionism, once more. Recycling is an industrial process and, unlike most environmental issues, attracts the support of corporate lobbyists. Local authority waste collection subsidises British newsprint producers, which use the discarded material and may even be paid to take it away, at the expense of Scandinavian businesses that chop – and plant – the trees. So business interests and naive environmentalists find common cause; just wait to see their responses to this letter.

But we would be better served if the well-intentioned human energy applied to saving paper were directed to purposes of real environmental benefit. Just up the road, the Woodland Trust has worked with local naturalists to establish a new mixed-use plantation, with educational activities and pretty walks. This practical environmentalism makes our lovely countryside even more rewarding. I wish you would devote more resources to such initiatives, and less to hectoring circulars urging me to fish through my rubbish.

Please do not reply to this letter. I have a sinking feeling that your response will be on recycled paper.

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