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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 May 2005, 19:05 GMT 20:05 UK
Is going green still worthwhile?
By Liam Allen
BBC News

An Environment Agency report has concluded that, contrary to popular belief, the choice over using disposable or cloth nappies makes little difference to the environment. Is going green still worth our while?

Recycling bins
Swedish campaigners claim incineration is better than recycling

The report found that, while disposable nappies led to hundreds of thousands of tonnes of landfill, the water and energy used for washing and drying them impacted on the environment in other ways.

Although "real nappy" campaigners disagree with the report's findings, many people will have been surprised by its conclusions.

One reader of the BBC News website said the guilt she had previously felt about using disposable nappies for her child had "eased somewhat".

'Burn it'

Last year a group of five Swedish campaigners, including the former head of the country's environment agency, claimed recycling was a waste of time and money.

Graph, BBC
The UK scores badly on recycling compared with the rest of Europe
In common with the authors of the nappy report, they turned popular belief on its head by stating that incinerating household waste, as opposed to recycling it, was best for the environment, the economy and the management of natural resources.

Collecting household waste was unprofitable because, for example, glass companies had to pay twice as much to recycle as they would pay for raw materials, they told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper.

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said recycling was a higher priority for the UK government than incineration.

Another widely-held belief about what is best for the environment was questioned back in March when a report in the journal Food Policy said locally-produced food was usually "more green" than organic food.

Organic farming was valuable, it said, but people could help the environment more by buying food produced within a 20km radius of their home.

The report's writer, Professor Jules Pretty, of the University of Essex, said local food was more important than green food because of the cost to the environment of transport.

'Bottle mountain'

In October a report by Forum for the Future said national recycling targets based on weight encouraged recycling of heavy materials like glass and newspapers.

It warned about the possibility of a green glass bottle mountain in the UK because of the "insufficient market" here for recycled glass.

It said one in three recovered green glass bottles, rather than being reused in the UK, was actually being exported.

With a number of commonly-held beliefs about going green being questioned, how can we be sure our actions are actually helping the environment?

'Excess bottles'

Environmental charity Waste Watch acknowledged, in the case of recycling, "anything and everything could be more efficient".

It sounds like a cliché but the best advice we can give is to act locally, think globally
Waste Watch
The excess of green bottles was "an extreme example", spokesman Stephen Webb told BBC News.

He said: "The reason for that is to do with the all the imports of wine and lager from other countries.

"We have a lot of green glass coming in but most of our producers use clear glass.

"There's an imbalance and there's only so much that can be done."

He praised the work of projects like the Waste and Resources Action Programme, which says the creation of new markets for green glass are "well on the way".

Green worthwhile

Mr Webb said the nappy report had "missed the point" that real nappies helped to minimise waste being sent to landfill.

He also disagreed with the Swedes, saying that incineration could eventually lead to finite resources running out.

He dismissed the idea that there were occasions when going green was not worthwhile.

"It sounds like a cliché but the best advice we can give is to act locally, think globally," he said.

"The lowest common denominator is to make use of what's available."

Targets 'hamper recycling effort'
13 Oct 04 |  Science/Nature
UK launches £10m recycling effort
27 Sep 04 |  Science/Nature

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