What are the rules about recycling in France?

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With campaigns like #plasticfreejuly and Environment Rebellion it seems difficult to believe that anyone could fail to be aware that there’s a climate emergency in full swing. Recycling has been happening for as long as I can remember, starting with bottle banks, aluminium cans and newspapers and moving on to plastics and metal, cardboard and compostable food waste. Where does France stand in the recycling stakes?

Photo of earth and recycling symbols
Image by annca from Pixabay

An early adopter of rubbish collection

Did you know that the word “poubelle” comes from Eugene Poubelle, the prefet of the Seine department, who invented the waste or rubbish bin in 1883. In fact, he was an early proponent of recycling as there were separate collections of rotting organic matter, rags and paper and glass in the Paris area. Despite this early start, in more recent years France has fallen behind its European neighbours. Waste separation started in the 1990s, but not everything is accepted. The country produces over 38 million tonnes of household rubbish per year, of which 35-40% is recycled and the rest ends up in landfill  or is burnt. However, selective waste collection has grown by 80% since 2000.

What are the plans for the future?

The European Union has set a target for recycling 65% of all municipal waste by 2035. France has set itself a higher bar, with the Energy Transition Law 2015 setting the goal of achieving this by 2025. Single use plastic bags were banned in France in January 2016 and the country will be the first to ban single use plastic plates, cutlery, cups and the like. A ban on these starts in January 2020, after which they must all be compostable or capable of reuse. Apparently, consideration is also being given to the re-introduction of the deposit system on glass bottles and the extension of it to plastic bottles. This would be like the system that operates in Germany and the Netherlands where almost 95% of glass bottles are returned.

Who is responsible for recycling?

As you’d expect in such a bureaucratic nation, there are a whole raft of regulations covering waste and recycling. In 1992 responsibility for rubbish collection was placed with the Communate of Communes in rural areas, or Services Municipaux in urban areas. It’s for this reason that you’ll find that arrangements vary from one area to another. For example, in our commune we have to take bottles, emballages and paper to the communal recycling bins, whereas a friend who lives twenty kilometres away has curbside collection of yellow recycling bags for all these types of materials. And someone else I know has their own yellow recycling dustbin. It’s a postcode lottery. In all areas you’ll find the dechetterie, a highly organized site with the focus on sorting and recycling. It’s here that you can take large items of rubbish, defunct electric goods, rubble, wood and green waste for composting.

What do the labels say?

Point vert recycling symbol
The Point Vert symbol

One sign that you will see on virtually any food-type product is the little green or green and black swirly dot, known as Point Vert. It appears on just about everything these days and I was surprised to find that it really doesn’t mean much. For years I had thought that this symbol meant the packaging could be recycled. No. It actually just means that the manufacturer makes a financial contribution towards the cost of collecting and recycling packaging. Pretty pointless really.

So, what signs to look out for?

The recycling symbols are fairly standard across Europe, as you’d expect with the Single Market. There’s a great website too, with English pages, that describe the whole recyclage process. I’ve seen the profusion of different labels described as a jungle of green labels, but there are five main symbols to look out for. Of course, the French do like to be different, so they do have their own symbol known as “Triman”. This is a little man and three arrows and means that the packaging or material can be recycled. France also uses other common signs – the Mobius Loop which means that the material can be recycled; the triangular symbol on plastic, together with the numbering system according to the type of plastic, the magnet signifying a recyclable metal and the alucan mark.

A look at some actual French packaging examples

In addition to spotting some of the symbols mentioned above, there’s a growing trend to add specific advice about the nature of the packaging materials under the guise of “Penser au tri”. Look out for the small text box which contains instructions about the materials. For example, film plastique a jeter – throw away with normal household waste; this is also sometimes phrased as ‘jeter avec les dechets’ with a black bag symbol. On a glass jar you might see, ‘capsule metal a jeter et Bocal verre a recycler’ meaning the metal lid should be thrown away but the glass jar can go to the bottle bank. So, the labelling is far from standardised, but with a little common sense it is possible to make a contribution to help France meet its environmental targets.

2 thoughts on “What are the rules about recycling in France?”

    1. Hi David, I’ve not come across biodegradable cling film. Some people use wax wraps – if you’ve vegan you’d want to source soy wax wraps, not beeswax. I use silicon lids on bowls, or just put things in a bowl with a plate over in the fridge.

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