Dec 12th, 2018, 12:20 PM

France's Dirty Little Secret

By Signi Livingstone-Peters
Glass waste in a French recycling bin. Image Credit: Vjkombajn/Pixabay
As of 2018, only 25 percent of French waste is recycled, but the country pledges to halve its landfill waste by 2030.

Fernanda Sapiña, a 21 year-old resident of Paris, France, seems to have the perfect recycling habits in place: she is careful of what goes into each bin, and is aware of the three-bin system France offers in order to effectively sort waste within homes.

“It’s part of my responsibility to make sure trash is sorted responsibly,” Sapiña said. “I think it’s important to use the waste system in the way that it is intended for – not only that, but it’s important that every one of us does our part. We should not only be aware of what we’re recycling, but how we’re recycling.”

Sapiña is meticulous about the way she sorts her recycling, but claims that this is because she has easy access to it, “If all the tools to recycle properly are at my disposal, I don’t see why I wouldn’t use them,” she said.

Although Sapiña is aware of other campaigns that France has imposed in order to promote proper waste management, she is not aware of the “Pensez au tri”  ("Think about the sorting" in English)  campaign – a slogan plastered across numerous grocery store products, accompanied by a green arrow logo. Almost identical in nature to the universal recycling system logo, this logo has proved itself to be confusing: many of the French take the "Pensez au tri" logo to be referring to simple recycling. Therefore, many of the French end up recycling materials that should in fact be thrown in the trash. In fact, many French consumers seem to think it means the item’s wrapper is recyclable, when it is not.  As a result of this, of the two million tons of plastic packaging put on the market, only 700,000 tons are collected and sorted in waste centers. Of that, only 360,000 tons are recycled. On top of this, there is no French law that forces people -- and more importantly businesses -- to use recyclable packaging.

The Pensez Au Tri symbol can be found on the lower right on the back of this granola bag. The bag is in fact not recyclable, but many French confuse the symbol with recycling. Image Credit: Signi Livingstone-Peters

The fact that Sapiña is unaware of the “Pensez au tri” campaign is not surprising. In fact, the lettering is so small that it is incredibly easy to skim over when buying products. That, in combination with the misleading arrow is why many French, even if they are familiar with the campaign, recycle anyway, in turn contributing to the country's issue of poorly sorted waste. Despite this, the practice of recycling is deeply rooted in French history. Despite this, the country's long standing reputation for dealing with waste ineffectively does not parallel its rich antiquity. As of March 2018, less than 25 percent of plastic packaging is recycled – while the remaining 75 percent is incinerated in landfills, leaving France behind its other European neighbors.

This issue stems from a deeper problem: education. French consumers seem to think that plastic systematically equals recyclable. However, this is not always the case. As a result, waste in the country is poorly sorted.

“French authorities are aware of the problem and are now taking steps to improve waste collection itself,” said France 24 reporter Florence Villemont. This begs the question: why haven’t the numerous policies and campaigns from the last few years made a tangible difference, statistically, in the way that France recycles?

“Paradoxically, France developed the first, most ancient system of recycling.”

The principles of recycling and waste management in France are nothing new. In the 16th century, King Francis introduced the widespread use of simple baskets to collect general household waste after decades of poor urban hygiene. As time went on, similar systems were implemented in other northern French cities such as Caen, Lyon, and eventually Paris.

The first public landfills, some of which are still standing, were set up on the outskirts of the city in suburbs such as Le Plessis Gassot, a small town not far from Charles de Gualle airport. Most landfills still in use can be found North of the city – in suburbs such as Aubervilliers, Pantin, and Nanterre. Biodegradable waste was used as fertilizer in nearby fields and farms, and the first "recyclers" traveled the streets of Paris with their carts. Originally called “chiffoniers” or “rag merchants” in English, they collected and sold various materials starting from the Renaissance, up until the 1970s. Old rags were bought and turned into paper, rabbit skins were turned into glue, bones into edible gelatin and eventually old tins began to become recycled into children's toys.

Today the French waste management system is more advanced – waste recycling is currently done through designated yellow and white bins in which the French recycle paper, plastic, glass and metals in their own apartment buildings. However, many buildings do not have room for these bins, or they get filled up too quickly and items are recycled incorrectly. In turn, a lot of recyclable material ends up in either landfills or incinerators.

Most climate scientists agree that the primary cause of global warming is the “human expansion” of the  greenhouse effect, referring to what occurs when the atmosphere traps heat radiating from Earth toward space. Certain gases in the atmosphere – particularly those from cars and incineration in landfills – block heat from escaping into the atmosphere.  

“Direct greenhouse gas emissions resulting from Paris Region waste management are estimated at 2.3 Mt eq. CO2, (metro tons of carbon dioxide) which is about five percent of total direct emissions in the region,” according to ORDIF, the Ile-de-France Urban Waste Management Observatory. This is the result of CO2 gases released during the incineration of waste in French landfills, one of the main garbage treatment options in the region.

Not only does the incineration of waste produce harmful CO2, but rather than getting rid of, or recycling the waste, it simply changes it into a different form: ash.

“Selective collection of recyclables has a positive carbon footprint, linked to avoided emissions as secondary (recycled), rather than primary raw materials are used. An increase in selective collection therefore can have a double positive impact: reducing emissions produced during the treatment of residual waste, and increasing avoided emissions thanks to recycling,” according to ORDIF.

Landfill near Paris ,France. Image Credit: Pixabay/vkingxl

To try and remedy this, the French are constantly bombarded with "sensibilisation" campaigns by companies such as CITEO, as well as city and government-led campaigns to encourage them to treat waste more responsibly (cigarette butts, bottles, plastics etc.) – but Parisians are still not recycling properly.

These campaigns have received mixed reactions among the French – some might say that this is due to the stereotypical French arrogance, while others have said that the campaigns make them feel like children incapable of taking responsibility for their own lives and actions.

As Richard Lewis told Business Insider, “[the French] are immersed in their own history and tend to believe that France has set the norms for such things as democracy, justice, government and legal systems; military strategy, philosophy, science, agriculture, viniculture, haute cuisine and savoir-vivre in general. Other nations vary from these norms and, according to the French, have a lot to learn before they get things right.”

Despite the fact that the French system of governance is highly effective compared to many countries in the rest of the Western world, it might also mean that the French are used to having things done for them, which could potentially be part of the reason why, despite seeing numerous campaigns stating "Jetez vos mégots dans une des 30,000 poubelles de Paris!” ("Throw your cigarette butts in one of 30,000 garbage cans in Paris!"), cigarette butts are still widely littered all around the city. 

On November 28, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres encouraged leaders at the UN G20 Climate Conference to “set aside stubbornness” and instead “compromise to seal a deal on implementing the Paris climate accord. 200 countries will join in the Polish city of Katowice in an agreement, with the aim of setting a plan to move forward on the 2015 climate deal.

“Leadership is to understand that the agreement is the most important objective,” Guterres said.

Paris has joined 22 other cities and regions in a pledge to halve its waste by 2030, as a part of a global project called “Coalition C40 Cities.” The city signed a joint declaration to cut the amount of waste sent to landfills or incinerators by 50 percent – not only this, but to increase the recovery rate of waste (for example, composting or recycling) by a whopping 70 percent, compared to the 2015 rates.

“To reach the most ambitious targets of the (climate change) Paris agreement, we must urgently transform each aspect of our modern lives, especially when it comes to what we throw away.” - Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris

The C40 policy aims to reduce the total amount of waste by 87 million tons annually. If it works, this will drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas that would otherwise be emitted through the incineration of the waste. As Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris and president of the Coalition 40 Cities group mentionned, “To reach the most ambitious targets of the (climate change) Paris agreement, we must urgently transform each aspect of our modern lives, especially when it comes to what we throw away.”

However, France’s plastic problem is not only an issue of education, laziness or stereotype. Compared to other countries, France’s issue seems to simply be one of f inefficiency. In contrast, countries like Sweden, Norway and Germany, which is also part of the C40 Coalition, have among the highest recycling rates in the world. These countries have up to seven different bins to sort and recycle waste – whereas France has only three – giving citizens the option to throw away only  plastic, paper, cardboard, aluminum and plastic bottles in an organized fashion.

With only one type of trash can on French streets, plastic and glass often end up together and are not properly sorted. Image credit: Steven Depolo /Wikimedia Commons

                        “You sort, we recycle.”

CITEO, a French company located in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, boasts a logo that is in fact, seemingly emblematic of the whole crisis: “You sort, we recycle.” CITEO was created with the intention of developing more efficient solutions for sorting and recycling, as well as to reduce the environmental impact of packaging and paper. But how will the company achieve this ambitious goal?

TRI MASTER // Le parcours d'un emballage trié - épisode 3

A CITEO campaign video: "The course of a sorted package."

Frank Gana, the Innovation Director at CITEO, says he has two primary functions: the first one, “which is a common mission for all CDOs,” as he told Conseil National de L'Emballage, “is to help the company become more agile, inventing new business models, innovating, and digitizing.” The second one is more specific to CITEO’s mission: it consists in helping the whole sector in following the same dynamic in order to find – as soon as possible – economically sustainable solutions to environmental problems,” Gana said.

Put simply, this can be done through environmental taxes. “CITEO is an eco-organism”, Florence Villemont wrote for France 24. “In fancier terms, a government-backed, private company.” The company aids local authorities to finance the collection, recycling and sorting of waste. This non- profit company, formerly known as Eco-Emballages 1992, specializes in the recycling of certain waste projects from everyday consumer goods. They collaborate with more than 50,000 contributing companies– and are currently one of two French companies that are approved by the State or organize the recycling of household packaging. More recently, in 2017, Eco-Emballages merged with the company Ecofolio, responsible for the recycling of graphic papers, to give birth to CITEO. Now, CITEO is the leading player in France in regard to national paper recycling and packaging.

In France, companies pay an “eco-contribution”, otherwise known as the green tax. The green tax varies according to both the weight and the composition of the packaging. The pay scale is a huge incentive for companies like Coca Cola, Evian, or Danone to use recycled packaging. The less recyclable their packaging is, the higher the tax.

In 2016, CITEO -- under the aegis of Ecofolio -- launched the Circular Challenge , a competition aimed at identifying startups whose projects have the potential to provide solutions to environmental problems of their clients.The event has been held twice, and according to Gana, “Innovations that have been awarded this year tackle different issues on the value chain of circular economy and are in line with current societal trends: new outlets for plastic waste, improvement of sorting methods, out-of-home consumption and new materials, replacement of plastic cups.” In regard to packaging, a sector which CITEO attacks directly, Gana said that “startups that have reached the final do carry solutions that can potentially lead to significant changes in the sector.”

According to Gana, societal themes impacting the packaging world have emerged.

“The current trend of consuming more sustainably, which keeps all political, economic, and financial players and citizens busy, can be found in this competition,” Gana said.

This year, CITEO noticed a particular interest in the "zero waste" trend through projects aimed at reducing the quantity of packaging or improving their biodegradability.

“By simply sorting your packaging and your papers, you will participate in a value chain that can create a new economy, local, close to home, and respectful of the environment.”

Indeed, businesses must comply to compulsory source-sorting (process by which waste is separated into different elements) of bio-waste if they exceed a threshold, lowered to ten tons per year from 2016 onwards. In 2025, this obligation will apply to everyone in France, including households, as foreseen by the Energy Transition Law,” ORDIF reported.

On top of this law, CITEO has attempted to also address the issue of education on recycling practices in France, “By simply sorting your packaging and your papers,” their simple, aesthetically pleasing website states, “you will participate in a value chain that can create a new economy, local, close to home, and respectful of the environment.” They also include a complex sorting guide, which aims to educate visitors on how to properly sort their waste.

However, CITEO has not been successful in resolving one of the largest issues that France faces: cigarette butt litter. Despite her impeccable recycling practices, some of Sapiña’s other daily habits regarding waste are indicative of the rest of the French population. She, like many others, is a smoker,  and although the number of daily smokers in France dropped to 12.12 million last year from 13.2 million in 2016, that is still roughly a quarter of the population.

“On average, I would say my entire cigarette pack eventually goes to the floor,” Sapiña said. “I guess I actually do this consciously, because unfortunately it's easier just to throw them on the floor then going to find a bin or ashtray.”

Globally, cigarettes create to a 1.7 billion pounds of cigarette butt litter each year, and are the most common form of plastic litter in the world. One way or another, these butts end up in the environment. 30 million of these alone are from France.

“I am aware of some campaigns that the city of Paris has done – especially the ones on the side of the trash truck,” Sapiña said. She finds the message powerful, and has tried to be more conscious of her habit, especially since seeing those ads.

“They kind of bring light to the negative impact that I’m having by tossing my butts on the ground, especially in terms of the environment,” she said.

If all smokers follow the same habits as Sapiña, this puts an astounding amount of what is essentially toxic waste to the environment on the street. This is an issue that is largely skimmed over when dealing with solely the three-bin system, as thousands of cigarette butts litter the streets of Paris.

According to VeryWell Mind, “77 percent of people in a survey didn’t think of cigarette butts as litter". The white inside of cigarette filters is actually a form of plastic called cellulose acetate – a very slow-degrading material that can take anywhere from 18 months to ten years to decompose. On top of this, used cigarette filters are loaded with toxins, which inevitably leach into the ground and waterways, damaging fragile ecosystems and organisms.

“Going zero-waste was a way for me to contribute to the improvement of waste management in France without having to rely on people and policies.”

Liz Nguyen Son is a a French-Vietnamese Parisian resident and AUP Alum. For one month, she joined a movement that has been titled the "zero-waste trend", described as “A philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused.” The idea is to live a lifestyle that produces zero waste -- creating no waste that would otherwise go to landfills, incinerators, or eventually, the ocean.

“I think I just wanted to see how hard it would be to do. I also wanted to learn more about conserving our planet,” Nguyen Son said. "I know that I’m not the most eco-friendly person, unfortunately, but I at least wanted to be aware of the effects my actions had on our environment." Nguyen Son explains that her decision was based on personal reasons, and the way that Paris deals with waste and recycling did not factor into her decision in any way. “What was cool though, was that through my commitment to zero-waste, I came to learn that certain arrondissements also have compost stations,” she said.

Zero waste lifestyle– using glass jars instead of recyclable packaging. Image Credit: Creative Commons/Pixabay/FitnishMedia


Nguyen-Son is aware of France’s incineration problem. “If I’m not wrong, Paris has the largest incineration and waste sites in the country. But I also believe that we have been trying to improve our waste management for a while now. Whether or not that is going to be effective or not is entirely up for debate,” Nguyen Son said. “Going zero-waste was a way for me to contribute to the improvement of waste management in France without having to rely on people and policies.”

Even CITEO has recognized the zero-waste movement as potentially powerful.

“This year, we noticed a particular interest in the “zero-waste” trend through projects aiming at reducing the quantity of packaging or improving their biodegradability,” Gana said, who also pointed out that societal changes that support collaborative and functional economy appear through projects dealing with deposit and re-use. He mentioned the growing interest in the subject of “materials”, especially plastic, through projects aiming at improving recyclability and finding new ways of reusing plastic.

Things are looking up for France, though. By broadening the collection process, France hopes to improve it’s recycling statistics. Halving all landfill and incineration waste by 2030 is an optimistic goal, and certainly one that requires a complete upheaval of the current system that requires not only optimism, but a nationwide effort in combination with the modernization and extension of landfills and centers that produce waste.