Welcome to a new series!!! Waste Wars is all about sustainable practices in places I’ve visited–and how they compare to what I know in the US! Travel is a great way to open your mind and learn about your OWN culture, as well as other cultures. This series will explore sustainability in daily life around the world, and what we can learn from the juxtaposition of our “normal” with another. Let’s go!
I recently returned from my semester abroad in Montpellier, in the south of France. I got to travel, learn a new language, make new friends, and eat large quantities of cheese–it was awesome. The whole trip, I was constantly comparing American and French culture in my head: how things were said, how food was served, how people viewed other countries, how the government works, and (still confused about this one) why everyone in France has a wall around their property. These are just a few of the thoughts that swirled around in my head as I learned to live in a foreign country.
And because I’m me, I was also thinking about sustainability. How does recycling work in France? Which country wastes more food? Which country uses more public transportation? After a while I thought, ya know, this would make a great blog post. So here we are.
And while I know the French have been champions du monde lately, let’s see how their lifestyle stacks up against the American one in terms of environmental impact! For each of the following categories, one point will be awarded to the greener country. Each category was chosen based on the things I came into contact with on a daily basis during my stay. All evidence for gaining points is anecdotal and based on my experiences. The one with the most points at the end wins. C’est parti!
1. Plastic Water Bottles – US: +1 point
The US wins for this one because most Americans can at least say they own a reusable water bottle, even if they don’t use it every day. It is normal to see Americans carrying around their own water bottles, especially students. For the normalization of a sustainable behavior, they get the point.
The French frequently buy those huge 1.5 litre water bottles instead of bringing their own (which is not very common), or to avoid drinking from the tap. Though France has excellent quality tap water, in the area I was staying the water tended to have a lot of calcium, so some people I knew avoided drinking it for health reasons.
2. Restaurant Waste – France: +1
France has their own distinct food culture on their side here. The custom is to sit down to eat, even if you’re just getting a coffee, and to stay for a long time. Eating in France is a social event–in the US, it’s often just to refuel and go. This means that it’s much much easier to avoid to go containers of any kind while in France. If you go to a coffee shop in Montpellier, your coffee will come in a reusable cup with a metal spoon, and any treat you order with it comes on a real plate. In the US, you have to specify that the coffee is “for here” in order to get a reusable cup (this rarely works outside of independent coffee shops) or bring your own to-go mug, and most pastries come in a paper bag. Sorry fellow Americans, but the French win this one hands down. Next time you go out, sit down to eat if you can, and act a little more French–the planet will thank you.
3. Food Packaging Waste – France: +1
France just barely wins this one. While both countries have plenty of chain grocery stores with lots of packaged food, in France there is generally less packaging on produce. Grapes for example, do not come in plastic bags in France. Shocking! Lettuce is also easy to obtain without plastic. Most towns have Saturday markets as well (similar to a farmer’s market in the US) where it’s easy to get fresh produce without packaging.
There is also a strong presence of bulk goods in France. Even at the tiny convenience store around the corner from where I lived there was a small bulk section with nuts, granola, and dried fruits. In most large cities, there were more than a few bulk stores as well. In Montpellier, there were FOUR. In the whole of the Capital Region, where I grew up, I know of about two.
Another cultural factor works in favor of the French here: they tend not to snack much between meals, so as a result of this lower demand they create less waste from snack packaging. Just sayin’.
4. Plastic Bags – France +1
In France, you have to pay for bags at all grocery stores. As a result, just about everyone brings reusables. Clothing stores and small businesses still tended to give out their own bags, but there was less pressure to take them than there is in the US. Sometimes when I ask for no bag at the store I still end up with a bag in my hand. No means no people!
I think this shows what an impact a plastic bag ban can have. This policy has really shaped the shopping culture in France, and it could do the same in America. I hope to see something similar happen in the US. One thing I will say: during my semester abroad, I never saw plastic bags floating around in the streets or stuck in trees.
5. Recycling – US +1
Finally a point for my home country! Depending on where you live in the US, recycling facilities can process plastics up to #6, and curb side pick up is pretty good. The adoption of single stream recycling has meant that it is even simpler for the American consumer to participate in recycling, though many still don’t. Many states in the US also have bottle return schemes to get people to bring in glass and aluminum.
In France, plastic, cardboard, and aluminum are picked up at the side of the road, and designated boxes in each neighborhood are reserved for glass recycling. Coming from the former system, I found the latter a bit cumbersome. I was always happy to walk my glass down the block to the deposit box, but I knew that would be a deal breaker for some who weren’t interested in recycling, and could keep some folks with reduced mobility from participating. Also, only plastics #1 and #2 are recycled in the entire country. And you know people are throwing all #1-#6 in the bin… As far as I can tell, France has no bottle deposit scheme at this time. (@Les français, vous êtes libres de me corriger si je fais des fautes!)
The US wins this one only because there tend to be more options and more widespread accessibility for recycling. As you may already know however, much consumer recycling is too contaminated to be recycled and goes to landfill anyway, and the number of companies buying plastics down the waste stream has dwindled since China stopped taking our crap.
6. Public Transportation – France +1
Public transportation in France is awesome. If you live in a decent sized city, you can easily get where you need to go on trams, buses, and on foot. Buses and local trains can take you to the smaller towns in the area, and even to the beach! The main train lines going between major cities have comparable prices to those in the US (read: expensive!) but they are generally well run and well kept, and the TGV (high speed train) puts Amtrak to shame. All trams and most metros were also handicapped accessible, quite the contrast to New York, where only a fraction of the city’s subway stations have elevators.
It must be noted that the age of the country works in France’s favor. Montpellier for example, was a big city in medieval times, so the entire old town, with its tiny streets and alleyways, has been blocked off as a pedestrian zone. America was built up at a time when the car was king, so as we move toward a more fuel conscious lifestyle, we must learn how to work with our existing infrastructure.
7. Smoking – US +1
Every French person who reads this is about to get mad at me, but it must be said. France has a smoking problem. I know, I know, it’s engrained in the culture, but that doesn’t make it less bad for the planet or your own health. And while the anti-smoking campaigns in the US have been controversial, they have been generally successful in keeping cigarettes away from children, and denormalizing the habit. Cigarette butts don’t break down easily, and contain nicotine, plastic and other toxins that pollute soil and waterways. At every beach I went to in France, I always found an unbelievable amount of them in the sand. Who wants to take their children to a beach full of cigarette butts?
It will be interesting to see what the impact of Juul and other e-cigarettes will have on smoking culture and the environment in both countries, but for the time being, the US pulls ahead in this category.
France: 4 US: 3
Well, France won this face-off, champions du monde confirmed. But who knows? Things could change in the future. I’ll just have to go back and eat more cheese to find out. Do you agree with how I awarded points? What other categories should I have included? What country should I compare next? Leave me a comment! Thanks for reading y’all.