IN 1992, WE MOVED TO FRANCE TO live in a village so small, it didn’t even figure on a map. Pre-GPS, we made our way to the closest large town and then bumbled from one set of daunting directions to the next: a farmer in the field waggling his finger in a general direction; a corpulent chef in a small Burgundian restaurant who wasn’t 100 percent sure; a woman in a café/hotel at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere who eyed me suspiciously. We eventually found the house in the middle of an orchard and called it home for a year.
There, in true American fashion, I separated my garbage. Compost was easy because the landlords from Paris had a substantial kitchen garden. I bought separate bins for the different items because I wasn’t quite sure how the system worked in France and stored them in the forbidding 16th century barn. Two months into our stay, the landlords arrived and saw the fruits of my labor
“Oh,” they said, “We don’t do that here.”
Dejected, I had to throw everything into the dumpster at the end of the lane.
Ironically, while I was going through the motions, a law called “The Royal Law,” was passed on July 13, 1992. It had been in the making since 1975. Under the auspices of the Ministry of the Quality of Life, it concretized three main objectives: communities are obliged to recover and recycle their waste and provide the equipment necessary to do the job; each community is responsible for household waste, but must follow the prescriptions of the Departmental Plan (one of the three levels of government below the national level; Departments, of which there are 96 in metropolitan France and five overseas, are territorial divisions of France); dumps and landfills must be closed with a new objective of waste storage centers.
This promulgation, coupled with the burgeoning European Union (EU) and international awareness, prompted recycling on the industrial level—with a delay, however, of 13 years before the first selective sorting center was born in Dunkirk. The EU directive stipulated that as of 2016, member states must attain a waste collection and recycling target of 45 percent. In 2012, this figure stood at 36 percent (compared to the United States at 34.5 percent). On the list of top 10 waste producing countries, France ranks seventh at 32.17 million tons of waste per year; the United States at number one produces 236 million tons. France is smaller than the state of Texas, so the math says we have a lot of waste, garbage, trash, etc.
The greatest challenge facing the French PREDIS (Regional Plan for the Disposal of Waste) is lack of public interest and participation. Pascal Trouilly, advisor to the Paris Administrative Court of Appeal, mused, “Is the duty to take part in the preservation and improvement of the environment a moral or legal obligation?”
The question is rhetorical, but puts perspective on the challenges faced by the environmental and recycling advocates. Regrettably, it appears motivation will have to be prompted by force of law.
Dealing with industry is relatively more practicable due to development and implementation of EU waste policy and legislation. Waste policy and management is as follows: prevention, preparing for reuse, recycling, recovery and, as the least preferred option, disposal, which includes landfilling and incineration without energy recovery. The emphasis in France is to promote the use of clean technologies. They encourage industry to reduce the quantities of raw materials wasted at the source, to limit the production of waste and therefore the risks of pollution. The treatment of waste must be prioritized accordingly with a view to its reintegration into the production process.
In the overall treatment of waste, more than 50 percent is recycled while only 14.3 percent is converted to thermal or electric energy via the much debated incinerator, 7.8 percent is incinerated without recuperation of energy and 12.6 percent is stored. I can attest to the fact that when France finally adopts a dogma such as recycling, it does so with bureaucratic zeal. The waste collection centers originally required a membership card. Realizing this semblance of exclusivity was compelling a certain percentage of the population to deposit its garbage in the wild, they eliminated the cards. The centers are today open six days a week with coordinators guiding the public to the various dumpsters: toxic, electrical, garden waste etc. Glass has its own containers found at various locations outside of the collection centers.
Homeowners are provided with two garbage cans: a brown bin for household refuse and a yellow bin for all things recyclable—except glass. Twice, my garbage has been rejected. Summer guests put empty wine bottles in the yellow bin and the garbage collectors must have heard them clinking when they lifted the bin from the sidewalk. “Rejected!” They slapped my bin with a large bureaucratic sticker that said “Rejected!” in French for all of my neighbors to see, showing that I was not conforming to the rules of garbage separation. The second rejection, for the same reason, was more amicable as they pulled the bottles out and left them on the sidewalk.
Now, let’s discuss dog droppings. France can be defined as a café society fond of its dogs. However, the two elements yield two undesirable consequences: excrement and cigarette butts. According to ConsoGlobe, a French company sharing solutions for the betterment of the environment, an average sized dog eats 361 lbs. of meat and 209 lbs. of kibble per year. It requires 43.3 m2 of land to produce 2.2 lbs. of meat per year, thus almost 2.5 acres. One acre can potentially use 135 gigajoules of energy per year. The bottom line: a dog’s carbon footprint is twice that of a 4.6L Toyota Land Cruiser driving 6,214 miles per year (not to mention the Greenhouse Effect resulting from dog droppings).
I have never known such an ardent culture of dog lovers. Paradoxically, there is a widespread disregard to curbing and/or picking up after “Fido.” Certain measures have been taken, such as anti-excrement patrols on scooters and fines of 68€ for unclean sidewalks in front of your dwelling/establishment.
Paris dogs alone produce 16,000 tons of excrement daily. The upside is that a dog is a veritable source of renewable energy. The invention of a machine that converts dog excrement into electricity has sparked interest and new legislation. I saw a billboard recently: “Let us be citizens and collect canine feces.” The machine, still in trial phase, could allow a city to convert its budget dedicated to the collection of excrement into a budget devoted to renewable energy.
An equally astonishing statistic: 30 billion cigarette butts are thrown on the ground each year in France, alone. If witnessed, a smoker can be fined 68€. Auspiciously, Antoine di Tomasso and Thibault Legrand, cofounders of the start-up Cy-Clope, have designed an ashtray, one meter tall with a 20-liter capacity, that can accommodate 10,000 cigarette butts. The objective is to facilitate shipment of the butts to Terracycle, a company dedicated to their recycling. After composting the tobacco and the ash, the cellulose acetate, which makes up the filter material, can be transformed into plastics used for insulation plates or industrial pallets.
France is committed to reducing plastic waste. Currently, plastic represents one of the major threats to our oceans. National Geographic reports that eight million tons of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year. The ocean provides 50 percent to 85 percent of the oxygen in our atmosphere. Most of this is generated by phytoplankton. Scientific American states that the phytoplankton population has dropped 40 percent since 1950.
Scientists believe that global warming and its effect on sea surface temperatures are to blame, but studies also show that the ratio of plastic to plankton in the ocean is 2:5. New studies show that zooplankton is ingesting plastic. This one vital piece of research shows the degree to which our oceans are in peril. This is the time to encourage environmental consulting services and research to understand how plastic ingestion will ultimately impact our food chain.
The sea won a few battles in 2016. The modern lightweight shopping bag readily adopted by a French culture that had always used baskets for shopping, was banned; and at the urgent request of Prince Albert of Monaco, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change voted to produce a report on the interactions between climate, ocean and the cryosphere.
Françoise Gaill, director of France’s National Center of Scientific Research said, “The oceans absorb 30 percent of carbon emissions and are capable of storing 93 percent of the heat generated by Greenhouse emissions. In this regard, the oceans play a major role in climate regulation.”
While in its Environmental Charter of 2004, the French Republic proclaims, “The future and the very existence of humanity are inseparable from its natural environment and the environment is the common heritage of human beings,” the grim fact is that France recycles only one-third of its waste. The general consensus: “Most people are willing to make an effort, but they are not encouraged by the government.”