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When recycling is a waste of energy

In a shattering glimpse of what most of us suspected was the obvious, a study commissioned for the National Society for Clean Air and Environmental Protection shows that the net collection costs for plastics for recycling probably exceeds £350 per tonne.

At the same time we are told that the distances travelled collecting and delivering plastics for recycling ranged from 120-272km, depending on whether the recycling scheme was a rural or an urban one. Equivalent distances for glass were even greater at 240-1270km.

The visitor from Mars may well be extremely puzzled by this behaviour. First of all he will have discovered that one of mankind’s main obsessions is to dig something out of the ground, turn it into something else and then subsequently bury it back in the ground again.

Then he will witness the extraordinary phenomenon of humans busily moving vast quantities of used and waste products from one part of the country to another… even ship them across the planet. Subsequently, the man may be seen burying them in the ground or dumping them in the sea or any suitably quiet place.

Very occasionally he might spot attempts to turn the waste into something useful again – a challenge that will stretch his imagination to its very limits. In the head-strong, headlong desire to recycle products, a practice which, when rigorously assessed, holds dubious environmental benefits, we are filling lorries up with rubbish and driving them around the country.

As anyone who uses the motorways on a regular basis will know, this is helping lead to ever greater congestion. Congestion leads to greater demands for ever larger motorways. Ever larger motorways result in ever more traffic, including more lorries carrying rubbish from point A to point B.

Surely it is time that we took a grip on reality and invested into waste incineration – including packaging materials – with safe, clean energy recovery to provide power and heating as many European countries have been doing for over 30 years.

We should also invest in serious industrial-scale composting facilities that would allow a much more intelligent use of landfill as a last resort.

To mindlessly drive lorries around the country in the naive expectation that recycling will cure all our ills does not address the problem, nor does it adequately reflect mankind’s capacity for inventive and realistic solutions.

John Webb-Jenkins is chief executive of the Institute of Packaging.