Discarded wrapping paper, festive cards could fuel over 20 moon trips

If all the UK's discarded wrapping paper and Christmas cards were collected and fermented, they could make enough biofuel to run a double-decker bus to the moon and back more than 20 times, according to the researchers behind a new scientific study.

The study, by scientists at Imperial College London, demonstrates that industrial quantities of waste paper could be turned into high grade biofuel, to power motor vehicles, by fermenting the paper using microorganisms. The researchers hope that biofuels made from waste paper could ultimately provide one alternative to fossil fuels like diesel and petrol, in turn reducing the impact of fossil fuels on the environment.

According to some estimates 1.5 billion cards and 83 square kilometres of wrapping paper are thrown away by UK residents over the Christmas period. They currently go to landfill or are recycled in local schemes. This amount of paper could provide 5-12 million litres of biofuel, say the researchers, enough to run a bus for up to 18 million km.

"If one card is assumed to weigh 20g and one square metre of wrapping paper is 10g, then around 38,300 tonnes of extra paper waste will be generated at Christmas time," said study author Dr Richard Murphy from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London. "Our research shows that it would be feasible to build waste paper-to-biofuel processing plants that give energy back as transport fuel."

Co-author and PhD student Lei Wang, also from Imperial's Department of Life Sciences, said, "The fermentation process could even cope with festive paper and card which has been 'contaminated' with the likes of glitter and sellotape. The cellulose molecules in sellotape would be broken down into glucose sugars and then fermented into ethanol fuel, just like the paper itself. Insoluble items like glitter are easy to filter out as part of the process."

Dr Murphy added, "People should not stop recycling their discarded paper and Christmas cards because at the moment there is no better solution. However, if this technology can be developed further, waste paper might ultimately provide a great, environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels. There's more work to do to assess the effectiveness and benefits of the technology, but we think it has significant potential."