|Swedes Trash Myth
2 March 2003
Throw away the green and blue bags and forget those trips to the bottle bank: recycling household waste is a load of, well, rubbish, according to leading environmentalists and waste campaigners.
In a reversal of decades-old wisdom, they argue that burning cardboard, plastics and food leftovers is better for the environment and the economy than recycling.
They dismiss the time-consuming practice - urged on householders by the Government and "green" councils - of separating rubbish for the refuse collectors as a waste of time and money.
The claims, which will horrify many British environmentalists, are made by five campaigners from Sweden, a country renowned for its concern for the environment and advanced approach to waste.
They include Valfrid Paulsson, a former director-general of the government's environmental protection agency, Soren Norrby, the former campaign manager for Keep Sweden Tidy, and the former managing directors of three waste-collection companies.
The Swedes' views are shared by many British local authorities, which have drawn up plans to build up to 50 incinerators in an attempt to tackle a growing waste mountain and cut the amount of rubbish going to landfill.
One deputy council leader in the south of England said: "For years recycling has been held up as the best way to deal with waste. It's time that myth was exploded."
A spokesman for East Sussex council, which plans to build an incinerator at Newhaven, said: "It's idealistic to think that everything can be recycled. It's just not possible. Incineration has an important role to play."
The Swedish group said that the "vision of a recycling market booming by 2010 was a dream 40 years ago and is still just a dream".
The use of incineration to burn household waste - including packaging and food - "is best for the environment, the economy and the management of natural resources", they wrote in an article for the newspaper Dagens Nyheter.
Technological improvements had made incineration cleaner and the process could be used to generate electricity, cutting dependency on oil.
Mr Paulsson and his co-campaigners said that collecting household cartons was "very unprofitable". Used bottles and glass cost glass companies twice as much as the raw materials, and recycling plastics was uneconomical, they said. "Plastics are made from oil and can quite simply be incinerated."
The Swedes said that glass mixed with household waste improved the quality of slag residue and could be used for landfill. Tin cans could be removed by magnets and sent for recycling.
The Swedes stressed that the collection of dangerous waste, such as batteries, electrical appliances, medicines, paint and chemicals "must be further improved".
They added: "Protection of the environment can mean economic sacrifices, but to maintain the credibility of environmental politics the environmental gains must be worth the sacrifice."
The Environmental Services Association, which represents the British waste industry, agreed that the benefits of incineration had been largely ignored. Andrew Ainsworth, its senior policy executive, said: "This is a debate that we need to have in this country. Recycled products have got to compete in a global market and sometimes recycling will not be economically viable or environmentally sustainable.
"In remote areas, for example, it would not be viable to transport waste long distance for recycling. It would make more sense to burn it locally and use the process to generate electricity."
David Lidington, the Tories' shadow environment secretary, said: "We have to look at these claims closely. Incineration is cleaner than it used to be, although there is still public concern about it.
"Britain's recycling rates are lower than most other European countries, so we can certainly improve there, but recycling is not enough."
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said incineration was "way down the list" because "it causes dangerous emissions, raises public concern and sends out a negative message about re-use".
In an attempt to reduce landfill the Government has told local authorities to recycle 30 per cent of waste by 2010, but admits that many councils are not on target.
A spokesman for Greenpeace said: "It's a nonsense to say incineration could ever be better than recycling. That would be a regressive step."
Sweden's Environmental Protection Agency said that it disagreed with the views of its former director-general. A spokesman said: "Recycling is a better option than incineration. It is a resource for new material. If you burn it, you cannot use it again.
"Incineration technology has improved, but you must separate waste or you will produce dangerous toxins."