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Scotsman.com
 
Monday, 19th November 2007

Scotland

The Scotsman Thu 15 Nov 2007

Recycling plastic is not as green as you think

IAN JOHNSTON

FOR many, plastic is one of humanity's greatest sins against the environment, a wrong for which only recycling can atone. In the past five years, recycling rates have soared as greater awareness of the harm plastic causes has spread.

In Scotland, about 7,963 tonnes of plastic were recycled in 2005-06, according to government statistics.

But this cannot be read as a simple record of achievement: saving the planet, cutting greenhouse gases, saving marine life and perhaps even making some money from something we would otherwise throw away.

Because just how much of an environmental benefit this recycling drive, led by our local authorities, actually achieves depends on the kind of plastic collected, where it ends up and what it is turned into.

In rare, worst-case scenarios, it can actually cause more damage than it prevents. In many cases, the environmental benefits could be far greater than they are if our businesses and consumers were geared up to use recycled material.

Instead of being turned into a higher-value product here - sensible in both environmental and economic terms - much of Scotland's plastic waste is sent thousands of miles across the world, often to be turned into something else, such as plastic toys, in the burgeoning economies of China and India, and then sent back.

A dense plastic bottle is one of the best things to recycle. According to an Environment Agency study, one can travel a total of 97,000 miles by sea or 1,950 miles by road on its recycling journey before this starts to become inefficient in terms of carbon emissions.

And Michael Collins, the principal consultant at a leading environmental consultancy, ERM, said: "The work we have done has shown you can transport plastics a pretty long way before you'd actually get to the point where you negate the benefits you get from recycling.

"Transporting it a couple of thousand miles isn't going to outweigh the benefits as long as the plastic is being used to displace virgin plastic."

However, he added: "The difficulty is when you are using recycled plastic as a replacement for a different material, such as timber. The embodied environmental impact in a piece of timber is lower than that of virgin plastic, so you are not getting the same benefit."

A study by ERM for the UK government found recycling both dense plastics and plastic film can produce more carbon than it saves if it is turned into a plastic alternative to wood, instead of reducing the market for plastic made from oil.

"Avoided burdens [carbon dioxide emissions] appear negative as the processing requirements of cleaning and reforming are greater than the offset burdens of wood production," the report said.

A government source told The Scotsman that analysing the pros and cons of recycling a particular product was a complex matter and something that had to be done on a "case-by-case basis".

But he said: "The best way of plastic recycling is to get the producers [a company or household] to segregate the material - high-density plastic has the best volume-to-weight ratio. Then take that to indigenous reprocessing and indigenous manufacture.

"The worst case would be to expend significant energy reprocessing waste to recover light-weight plastic, package that and send it by road to European manufacturers, who make recycled plastic, send that to China where they make plastic toys we don't really need which come back here."

Another issue is environmental standards in countries where recycled materials were taken.

"There are examples of old computer parts being exported to China where kids are sitting in the midst of bonfires of burning plastic, picking out diodes and electrical parts, and the plastic is then chucked on to a fire, producing a horrendous cocktail of chemicals. It's not just an environmental impact, it's a significant health impact."

Cameron McLatchie, the chairman of British Polythene Industries, the largest manufacturer of polythene film in Europe and a leading recycler, sends material to China.

"Most of it gets made into agricultural film and is used on fields in China," he said. Because of the trade deficit with China, container ships have plenty of spare space for the return journey to the Far East.

"One cannot argue with the export trade on environmental grounds unless you are going to take the product out there, recycle it and bring it back again," Mr McLatchie said. "If the waste we are sending to China is finding itself back in the UK, that's a serious environmental no-no. That's a bad carbon footprint."

He believes much of our plastic waste is too difficult to recycle efficiently. "Bottles, you can, as long as you don't have to send them too far in a lorry; plastic film, you need big volumes in one place to make it worthwhile," Mr McLatchie said.

"We need plans other than recycling to deal with most plastic waste. We need large domestic incinerators. If we are going to burn something, let's burn a renewable resource. The best renewable resource I can see in Scotland is rubbish."

Iain Gulland, of the Community Recycling Network for Scotland, stressed recycling plastic is almost always worthwhile and warns against those seeking an excuse not to sort their rubbish.

But he believes Scotland is missing an opportunity to use its own waste, utilising a cheap, readily available raw material, and achieving a greater benefit for the environment. "We're not actually doing enough to say, 'What are the opportunities to do something with that positively, here in Scotland', for environmental and economic reasons."

ALL THE WAY TO CHINA - AND BACK AGAIN

A TWO-LITRE, clear plastic bottle that once held a popular brand of fizzy drink sets out on quite a journey when it is thrown into a blue bin in Cambuslang.

It is first picked up by South Lanarkshire Council staff as part of the fortnightly recycling collection - the council recycles more plastic than any authority in the country, processing some 2,244 tonnes out of a Scottish total of 7,963 tonnes.

Shirley Clelland, the head of land and fleet services at South Lanarkshire Council, said: "We collect plastic bottles along with paper and cans - small plastic drinks bottles, water bottles and milk bottles - from 110,000 households on the collection scheme.

"We have got a contract with Viridor Waste Management and they take all our recycled material and put them through a processor, but I couldn't tell you what it all ended up being."

Once our bottle is delivered to Viridor, it is sorted and baled along with all the others - about half of the shipment is destined for foreign travel.

A Viridor spokesman said: "They go into either the UK market or overseas to the export market. The split varies from month to month, with the best price that can be got for that material.

"It's almost 50/50 at the moment, but that can go up and down. The export market is mainly the Far East, predominantly China and India, which is where the demand and best prices are. They are desperate for a good supply of good plastic material."

The company, one of the biggest recyclers, is aware of sensitivities in the UK about conditions in Far East factories and has inspected the facilities in the company of local-authority officials.

Much of South Lanarkshire's waste plastic that makes it to China will stay there, but our plastic bottle is destined for a different fate. Taken to a toy factory, it is moulded into an action figure and shipped, along with a whole regiment of others, back to the UK, just in time for the Christmas celebrations at a certain house in the outer suburbs of Glasgow.

Related topic

This article: http://news.scotsman.com/scotland.cfm?id=1805262007

Last updated: 15-Nov-07 00:35 GMT

Comments

1. Navvy / 3:36am 15 Nov 2007

Consume less should be the rule. Why buy bottled water? If our tap water is not good enough then sack Scottish Water.

The simplest way to consume less is to have fewer people. So why the obsession with growth? We can meet rising expectaton for the individual by sharing the same goods among fewer people. Our native ingenuity and technology should be directed to achieving this.

Not easy, but possible.

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2. Guga II, Rockall / 4:14am 15 Nov 2007

#1 Navvy. Why not bring back easily recycleable glass bottles, for everything from milk to soft drinks to bottled water for the yuppies?

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3. Boy Wonder / 6:50am 15 Nov 2007

Never liked drinking out of plastic. Bring back glass!!!

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4. Kate, Switzerland / 7:31am 15 Nov 2007

Bring back not only glass but flaggons of milk for catering purposes. Here, the restaurant in front of my house has its milk delivered weekly in flaggons from the back of a bogie - gate to table in the true sense and so much better!

I confess to having a plastic water bottle, which I use for the gym and refill from the tap.

Why do people in Scotland need bottled water anyway? There is absolutely nothing wrong with it, but we have the same blinkered views here sadly...

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5. scorchio, West of the Pecos / 8:00am 15 Nov 2007

On the issue of Scotlands tap water, sadly some of you are way off..it is rotten, full of fluoride and etc and now and again includes free shrimps.
I've yet to be convinced about some of the recycling that goes on, much of the product is "contaminated" and needs sorting out.
I for one would like to see the journey of one ton of recyclable plastic. How much it eventually costs to recycle it, and the carbon footprint on the process from day one, to completion.

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6. Niall Leighton, Perth / 8:34am 15 Nov 2007

"We need plans other than recycling to deal with most plastic waste. We need large domestic incinerators. If we are going to burn something, let's burn a renewable resource. The best renewable resource I can see in Scotland is rubbish."

While I can see the point of a lot of what McLatchie says, this is, er, rubbish. Waste is not a renewable resource, since the raw materials that go to make it up are not renewable.

All a policy for incinerators does is increase the demand for rubbish, giving the rest of us no incentive to lower our ecological footprint.

What we need is facilities here to recycle our rubbish into new things that we *need* (not want - need!) here. That would rebalance the environmental costs and balances in favour of recycling.

Incineration is the last thing we want to be doing with our rubbish.

Remember - refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle!

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7. Citylocal Fife, Citylocal Fife News Room / 8:41am 15 Nov 2007

The first thing we should do is recycle our Plastic PM and matching Chancellor and see if we can convert them into anything remotely useful.

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8. Harbinger, Fantasy Island / 8:52am 15 Nov 2007

Why these massive guilt trips about carbon emissions when they are not doing what is claimed? Has any one noticed that the climate hasn't been getting hotter, in fact it appears to be on the downturn? Temperatures declined from the late 40's to the early 80's in spite of rising CO2. The improvement in temperature to a more equable level happened over a very short time scale from 1987 to 1990, since then it's been more or less flat with odd exceptions.

Car boot sales would be lost without plastic bags, used and re-used time and time again. Take them away and you have to manufacture something else. Of course don't leave them flying around the countryside, or chuck it in the sea, that's just commonsense.

Yes, there should be a District Energy from Waste Plant near each large settlement, as in much of Scandinavia and if you find out the facts instead of falling for the FoE and Greenpeace campaigns, (lots of new membership subs when an incinerator is proposed), there is no problem.

This is target culture again, put it in a coloured box, plastic of course, and you have recycled it. Job done.

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9. John Blundell, West Yorkshire / 8:59am 15 Nov 2007

As someone who has spent the last 40 years in the plastics industry latterly trying to find aplications for recycled plastics. I would make the following comment. All the ecconomics and carbon footprint of recycling plastics are on the tranport costs and Ignore the energy cost of actually turning this product in to a usable form again i.e. pellet which I can tell you is not cheap and this energy has to be generated in power stations?
The article specifies incineration which is an excellent suggestion with correct flue gas cleaning electricity can be generated and sold in to the national grid reducing the amount generated from Coal and Gas this should be increased and reduce the amount going to land fill by 90%.

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10. just chat, london / 9:06am 15 Nov 2007

just like everything else the truth is slowely coming out yet again, remember the noise about renewable,
vehicle fuel? never mind the trees they cut down to keep their distilation going to make biofluel,

if i remember right to produce enough fuel to run a can for a year (10,000) they could produce enough food for 20 people n remembering the forrest they destroyed to keep the distilation virgin forest lost for ever

Man is greedy or shall i refrase some/most men are so greedy they screw it up for the rest of us BUT of cause of political unwillingness and corruption iin politics n the police is many problems that could be solved within days,

just like prostitution hell am an allient if the police could not either stop it or legalise it so them girls get protection from pimps drug pushes and VDs in hours they can stop it but CORRUPTION ALL AROUND! and us the ordinary people pay for it everytime,

same as drugs exacly the same thing police gets their cut politicians get theirs n people's kids get their lifes ruined! WE ARE DOING ALL WE CAN LESSONS MUST BE LEARNED the truth is our societies are run on lies deception and hypocricy the world over,

child molesters? all i hear is they have human rights,
how comes? they are not human they are not animals they are the monsters of this earth! and we are told by politicians n lawers they have rights!!!!!i don't hear anyone talking about the child's right or the parents that go thouigh hell everyday

we breed violence some child in kinder garden bites another n he gets a sweet from the teacher as the teacher can't punish the child so next time he wants a sweet he again bites someone n he has now learned from a very early age been bad pays!

the results we see everyday gang of thugs that we have helped to breed roaming our streets

incidentally i like to thank the Scotman for allowing us all to get things off our chests is NOT like that with other organizations! no sir they first vet your opinion if is NOT what they want to tell people is the country's opinion in the bin IT GOES ! the BBC included!

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11. BK, Cyberspace / 9:09am 15 Nov 2007

#7 no -that's beyond even the realms of the imagination!

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12. Scottish AND British, Edinburgh / 9:23am 15 Nov 2007

#7 I presume you are referring to Mr Salmond as our plastic PM, and Mr Swinney as the plastic Chancellor? Good analogy.

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13. jennifer / 9:54am 15 Nov 2007

6# niall
and we can add your remarks to Scotlands rubbish!!!

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14. Brad, Glasgow / 10:06am 15 Nov 2007

Would these ships be sailing empty to China (or wherever) otherwise though? They're resnding far more goods our way than we're sending theirs.

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15. The Zimster, Edinburgh / 10:14am 15 Nov 2007

I think the obvious answer is to use less plastic for packaging (and less packaging), and use more cardboard as it is both recyclable and biodegradable.

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16. Bluevoice, Dubai, U.A.E. / 10:27am 15 Nov 2007

Kate, #4. The water in Switzerland is as good as mineral water. The water in Scotland is not. There is still the problem of lead piping in Scotland, something that doesn't apply to Switzerland.

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17. Bobgradionicar, Germany / 10:50am 15 Nov 2007

2,3,4 & 9 Are all the better suggestions without a doubt although No.4 should not use too often this way without serious washing in between, it would be better with glass bottle or stainless steel (21/7), easier and environmentally better in use and not so easily damaged. I use though a machine washable specifically produced recyclable plastic bottle made & recycled locally.

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18. Rickie / 10:55am 15 Nov 2007

#4 Kate have to agree with #16, try some frothy Levenmouth water for example (note to environmental health - please do a spot check on this), stinks of chlorine (suspected of causing all sorts of stomach & associated problems) and so does the local treatment plant, that and the stench of hydrogen sulphide.
Not helped by the Fife recycling policy which ends up as landfill and not recycled at all.
I will give a thumbs up to the supermarkets for one thing in this - paper bags for mushrooms (seems to be all their for) but a thumbs down for not following t through to all the rest of the produce which plastic bags are still to be used for - now there's logic for you!

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19. barclaythedragon, Ripon / 11:04am 15 Nov 2007

Hi Brad,

Precisely and we should not be importing so much cheap produce from China. The human rights in China are such that I am not going to risk my comment here: but Chinese goods, often inferior in quality, have killed off our home grown British produce, in many ways. Make local and keep it local! No "recycling needed" would be good? We do not need all this packaging or disposable (or not) bags. Every one can make their own bags out of old cloth, or buy servicable whicker baskets from a local work shops. Engage in dealing with the problem and do not leave it all to government.

Best wishes,

Elizabeth

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20. Vlad Tepes, Snagov / 11:08am 15 Nov 2007

-8 Harbinger,
There is quite an interesting article about denial on the BBC at the moment, you should read it. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7081882.stm
Wish I could go to Fantasy Island; unfortunately it may soon be submerged... :-(

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21. Media 1, cape town / 11:37am 15 Nov 2007

The green campaigns around the world are a joke. There is nothing wrong with the way we are using the planet, nothing at all.

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22. truthsleuth, South of the Border / 12:54pm 15 Nov 2007

Yup Bring back glass bottles.
When I've binged on my pint I can 'glass' a few yuppies and pensioners. Bring back the old days you didn't have to buy a knife then.

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23. Kate, Switzerland / 12:55pm 15 Nov 2007

#16 Bluevoice in Dubai, the water in Scotland is mostly absolutely fine. I agree that there are certain urban areas where it is not so good, but it is absolutely ridiculous in Angus (where I come from and was last month) or in Perthshire to buy imported bottled water. Forfar tap water is sold in Starbucks in London with the Strathmore label on it...need I say more?

#21 Media, are you sure about that?

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24. Grandpa, Edinburgh / 1:02pm 15 Nov 2007

Any report on the future of energy (say BP) shows that about 165 Gt oil, 165= Gt gas, and 900Gt coal remain of known sources. We use this at about 10 Gt per year but the amount used pa increases by about 2%. At +2% pa fuel use doubles by 2042

Whatever happens the world is likely to burn ALL the presently known fossil fuel. Oil & gas will run out by mid century. So we need all the stuff we can burn. Thus we should incinerate all our rubbish and conserve valuable fossil fuel.

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25. internationalist, Edinburgh / 1:14pm 15 Nov 2007

#14 - yes they would indeed be returning with a smaller cargo. By filling empties with "rubbish" shipping companies ensure that containers are used in both directions.

How is the figure 97,000 miles by sea achieved ~ Felixstowe - Shanghai - Felixstowe =20,600 nautical miles

Incineration is not really an option, you are destroying a re usable material that requires use of a prime material (oil) to replace.

We have to get away from this disposable society - with bottles follow the Danish example and use reusable plastic bottles - they require less energy than reused glass bottles.

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26. Bluevoice, Dubai, U.A.E. / 2:24pm 15 Nov 2007

Hello Again Kate. I only wanted to stress that the pipes are not very good in Scotland, not necessarily the water. Strathmore water is, I am sure, bottled at the Quelle.

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27. Roy Forrester, Bloomsburg USA / 2:47pm 15 Nov 2007

Burn the rubbish and use the heat generated for all sorts of things. The technology is available NOW to reduce flue gasses emitted into the atmosphere to a minimal amount, much less for instance than that emitted by a standard car.

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28. Kentucky Bloke, Henderson, Kentucky USA / 3:54pm 15 Nov 2007

It's comforting to know that recycling mania is not just confined to Kentucky, but has invaded Bonny Scotland! I suggest that someone hire a good chemical engineer for advice. (not 80 year-old me).
A lot of recycling advice uses up more energy than it produces and produces even more poisons for the earth in addition to new materials which are more resistant to further recycling.

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29. Coraggio, New Jersey USA / 7:20pm 15 Nov 2007

Hi everybody
Why dont you recycle your own plastic bottles?
Maybe im just stupid but our recycable plastic etc are picked up every other week.
The Chinese ship goods to you and take back garbage cause we and you have nothing they want and the ships would go back empty. Thanks for listening.

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30. Arthur / 1:26pm 15 Nov 2007

16% of the cost of retail goods is packaging, usually plastic I would suggest that the big players in the field
re examine their packaging policies and use only minimum packaging where necessary. Until then I
would further suggest that the buyers usually us take a small knife shopping with us to remove the waste packaging for the supermarkets to dispose of, why should we have to dispose of their marketing materials.
Bear in mind that not all plastics are "bad" many of the more recently developed plastics cut down on the wastage of non or slowly renewable resources, but I cannot understand the logic of shipping our rubbish overseas for recycling only to reimport it in another form, surely we ought to be building our own recycling facilities.

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31. Arthur / 1:29pm 15 Nov 2007

23) 21) may well believe that he is not abusing the planet, but the 21) is as always perfect in every way
and We are unanimous in that.

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32. Caora Dubh, Croit sheasgair / 7:40pm 15 Nov 2007

Plastic is one of the most appalling pollutants. Very few plastics break down completely. Most evetually become very fine residues, that make their way into the food web. Many of these plastic chemicals and their "descendants" end up in things we eat, and the amount of such chemical residues in table fish, for example, is horrifying. If you can take an appalling shock, read:

http://www.bestlifeonline.com/cms/publish/travel-leisure/...

This article points out that there are 5 huge eddies the size of countries in the middle of the world's biggest oceans, that are filled with the plastic rubbish discarded by humanity. It takes days to sail through these rubbish dumps, which are just like the little whirpools of rubbish that you sometimes see in rivers, except on a gigantic scale.

Please avoid the unnecessary use of plastics, if another material will do, e.g. buy a woven reed, willow, or jute shopping basket - perhaps one made in the third world. Look for products made from natural materials rather than plastic, e.g, wooden building blocks, train sets and musical toys for little children, rather than plastic. Reuse plastic bags. And don't listen to cynical people who believe that one person doesn't make a difference. It takes just a single plastic bag to choke a sea creature to death, and it could be yours! Do all that you can to help the flora and fauna of this abused planet.

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33. Caora Dubh, Croit sheasgair / 7:42pm 15 Nov 2007

Whoops! That reference should have been:

http://www.bestlifeonline.com/cms/publish/travel
-leisure/Our_oceans_are_turning_into_plastic_are
_we.shtml

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34. Jwil, Lanarkshire / 7:44pm 15 Nov 2007

It used to be the case that a certain amount of material put to the rubbish dump was retrieved and re-used. Some people saw a use for it. Now everything that goes to a rubbish dump is the property of the council and is disposed off by one means or another, most going to land fill. I see no good reason why people should be allowed to remove material for recycling. For my own part I see a large amount of perfectly good timber, including softwoods and expensive hardwoods, being crushed which could be used for general woodworking. Also mature trees which have been felled by the council are being chipped. A few local authorities in the UK process this timber and make it available to DIY carpenters, cabinet makers and wood carvers to support their hobby. More could be done by the council in this vein.

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35. Caora Dubh, Croit sheasgair / 7:52pm 15 Nov 2007

#28, Kentucky Bloke: But by far the majority of recycling does not, and is good. If you don't recycle anything because a few things are bad to recycle, then you end up doing immense damage. So for those of us who don't have chemical engineers at hand, I suggest that we recycle everything that the council has made provision for.

Each of us can also avoid unnecessary packaging, e.g. I ask the people at fast food firms to give the food with the minimum of packaging, on a tray, and I eat it in the shop. It usually cuts out about 50% of the stuff thrown away. If you are really geared up you can even take a plastic (!) lunch box to a fast food outlet and ask them to put the food inside it for you. If they complain, tell them that they are saving on the cost of the packaging and making a bigger profit.

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36. Caora Dubh, Croit sheasgair / 7:55pm 15 Nov 2007

#36: My brother-in-law doesn't miss an opportunity to get his hands on such wood. When he sees trees being felled, he asks the workmen if he can take a log. He has never been refused. Go for it.

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37. Booger, Fife, Great Britain. / 8:43pm 15 Nov 2007

It could be worse.

http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=786048453686176...

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38. Niall Leighton, Perth / 9:18pm 15 Nov 2007

Harbinger #7

There is some evidence that temperatures declined during the middle part of the 20th Century. One possible reason for this is the high levels of anthropogenic particulate pollution in the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the evidence clearly shows a global rise in temperature, worst at the poles, roughly in line with predictions, except maybe a little higher than some scientists thought!

Jennifer #13.

You remind me of Perth and Kinross Council when they insist on having an incinerator built while refusing to even try to refute the evidence. In what way are my remarks "rubbish"?

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39. Martin C. Osment, UK / 8:35am 16 Nov 2007

The diversity of comments shows that people are genuinely concerned, but that the solutions must be driven by municipal/central government investment.

Defra reviewed some 99 new technologies in 2005, and 30 of thise remain in the current "waste new technologies 2007 update".

One of those, which has the first plant under way, is at www.evrs.co.uk - I suggest you follow the links - this achieves 100% recycling of all household & like non-hazardous waste, recovers the usual recyclates (metals, glass, etc.) and converts the rest into a new material, a sterile cellulosic fibre (SCF). This SCF can be used in the manufacture of wood-plastic composites, where it displaces wood flour and plastics. SCF also makes a good soil amendment, where it retains moisture, and SCF can be used a fuel, having a calorific value similar to that of medium coal, but without the emissions.

Downsides? It still has a carbon footprint, but no discharges to air, land or water, and no health hazards - check it out.

Martin

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