Currently, residual household waste (RHW) in France is either disposed of in landfill or incinerated. However, almost a third of this RHW is made up of bio-waste which, depending on the type, may have a water content of 60%-90%. When put into landfill, this organic part of RHW eventually ferments, leading to leachate generation in the soil and methane emissions. And if RHW is incinerated, this water-based organic content limits the calorific value of the output, contributing to CO2 emissions. That’s why instead of burying or incinerating bio-waste, it makes sense to remove it from the residual household waste stream and adopt a process for returning it to the soil, especially given the growing demand for natural organic fertilisers. This is the aim of source separation for recycling, which should become widely adopted by all bio-waste producers by 2025.
Since 2012, large-scale producers (wholesale distributors, food-processing industries, restaurant trade, etc.) have been forced to separate and recycle their bio-waste under the French government’s 2010 Grenelle 2 law on National Commitment for the Environment, which in turn implemented the 2008 European Waste Framework Directive. Initially, this only applied to producers exceeding 120 tonnes per year, but the threshold was gradually lowered to reach 10 tonnes per year in 2016. And soon, this source separation requirement will apply to all bio-waste producers, including both individual and communal properties. In France, the deadline for this requirement was initially fixed at 2025 by the French government’s 2015 TECV law(1). However, in May 2018 it was brought forward to the end of 2023 by the EU’s new “Circular Economy Package” legislation.
What exactly is bio-waste?
In the French government’s Environment Code, bio-waste is defined as “any non-hazardous biodegradable garden or park waste, any non-hazardous food or kitchen waste (particularly from households, restaurants, caterers or retailers) and any similar waste issued from food production or processing establishments”. But in practice, not everyone uses the term in the same way. Some think it applies only to plant-based kitchen and table waste (peelings, leftovers, etc.), while others extend this to include animal by-products (meat, fish/seafood, eggs, dairy products, etc.). And there are also those who include “green waste” (grass clippings, dead leaves, small prunings, etc.) already managed by local authorities.
How is bio-waste managed?
Bio-waste can be managed locally and treated in situ (i.e. domestic composting or communal composting for apartment blocks or at neighbourhood level). It may also be collected separately door-to-door or taken voluntarily to a central processing point (industrial composting facilities or anaerobic digestion plants whereby the digestate is returned to the soil). It is up to the local authority to decide which solution is best adapted to its area. Usually, a mix of solutions is adopted and different solutions implemented depending on the circumstances. Whatever the solution chosen, the crucial point is that as well as generating useful fertilisers for the soil, composting reduces the production of waste which needs to be processed and thus reduces waste management costs.
What are the different solutions?
Solutions exist for each of these different management methods. However, as their implementation needs to be adapted to the particular local context, it makes sense to start thinking about this now.
Equipment for domestic composting mainly comprises worm composters, garden compost bins (for private homes) and communal composting facilities (for shared accommodation, local neighbourhoods and small villages).
For separate collection schemes, residents need to have a dedicated organic waste bin and/or bags (preferably 100% biodegradable), whilst operators require special waste-collection lorries or dual-compartment lorries and local authorities must have access to an approved recycling centre.
It’s worth noting, however, that all these solutions need to go hand in hand with efforts to prevent bio-waste production, prevention being the topmost priority in waste management. Such actions include combating food wastage through measures such as encouraging shops and restaurants not to throw away unsold food, but instead to redistribute it under safe conditions.
“46kg/year per inhabitant: this is the average figure that bio-waste collections manage to divert when sorting instructions exclude green waste” (Ademe, the French Environment & Energy Management Agency)
Over a hundred French local authorities on board
While many European countries have had separate bio-waste collections for some time (e.g. Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland), around a hundred local authorities now provide them in France. On the back of these initial initiatives, Ademe has produced two guides to assist additional local authorities looking to get on board(2). These guides provide answers to the main questions frequently asked by local officials (e.g. frequency of collections, collection and transport equipment, traceability of bio-waste, cleaning and disinfection, as well as costs and restrictions) and offer a range of practical tips.
Bio-waste and health risks: what’s the real picture?
Due to the concentration of fermentable matter that bio-waste collection generates, the process can give rise to concerns surrounding health risks (namely the spread of pathogenic micro-organisms). Ineris (the French National Institute for Industrial Environment and Risks) recently conducted a study to identify and limit risks, both for the general public and for collection operatives*. While the risk to health generally appeared to be negligible, it could not be totally excluded in cases involving prolonged storage of bio-waste or compost handling. But according to Ineris, these potential risks can largely be prevented by respecting the set guidelines.
*Report from the study Risks associated with the separate collection and recycling of bio-waste by private individuals, December 2017
1) Law on Energy Transition for Green Growth of 17/08/15.
2) “How to successfully implement source separation of bio-waste – Recommendations for local authorities”, coll. Expertises, February 2018. And “Sorting at source and separate collection of bio-waste – Thematic summary”, coll. Clés pour agir (‘Keys for action’), February 2019 (ademe.fr/en/media-library).