Zero Waste Planning: Recycling Movements in France and the U.K.

Date: 17 Jun 2004 | posted in: waste - recycling, waste - zero waste, Waste to Wealth | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Neil Seldman Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR)Washington, DC

June 17, 2004

In May, Neil Seldman participated in the Zero Waste: Unachievable or Realistic Target Conference, in Paris, and the Community Recycling Network 15th Annual: Catch the Recycling Bug Conference, in London.

The recycling movements in France and the U.K. are vastly different. Yet, due to European Union-wide waste management and end-of-life manufacturing directives, they may soon converge on a zero waste future.

In the U.K., recycling is at the classic economic take-off stage. Basic infrastructure and institutions are already in place; the decision to recycle has been made. Private and public capital is flooding into not only the sector focused on local government, but also at least 300 social enterprises. The Community Recycling Network (CRN), the country’s recycling trade association, is controlled by grassroots, mission-driven service and education organizations. In France, there is no comparable recycling infrastructure, yet the country is poised for fundamental change from the traditional burn-and-bury paradigm.


Four critical structural problems create a formidable barrier to a vibrant recycling economy in France:


  1. Solid waste policies are made at the national level of government, which undermines local creativity and initiative. 
  2. The packaging industry controls recycling, which prevents the development of a real market for secondary materials, and limits the amount and types of materials recycled. 
  3. Put-or-pay contracts with incinerators force communities to burn instead of divert materials, despite cost-effective alternatives. 
  4. Over 50% of the energy from co-generation and steam district heating networks within many cities comes from burning waste. Whereas New York City can convert its Marine Transfer Stations to accommodate recycling, Paris cannot so conveniently transform its incinerators into recycling facilities without replacing the source of energy. Thus, the current solid waste management system in France is addicted to waste incineration just as the U.S. economy is addicted to oil.

European directives, internal opposition to incineration, and an aggressive international Zero Waste Movement all signaled an opportunity for change. The Decentralisation and Initiatives Locales (DIL), a non-profit policy and technical assistance organization, took this opportunity, and coordinated the Zero Waste Conference to present the theory and practice of this alternative approach to the National Legislature. Led by Didier Toque of DIL, a delegation of technical experts from Canada, the U.S., Philippines, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.K. met with a number of government agencies for private talks. This was followed by a two-day public conference to enhance dialogue and understanding.

Initially, the dialogue between agency heads, Members of Parliament, and the Zero Waste Delegation was strained. French officials believed zero waste was too theoretical to address the problems they faced on a daily basis. Wasn’t recycling and incineration with electricity and steam recovery the formula for zero waste? However, when the details of operating systems from Toronto, Halifax (Canada), Boulder (Colorado, U.S.), Manila, Canberra (Australia), San Francisco, Wales, and Colchester (U.K.) were presented, a dialogue pregnant with opportunities ensued. Representatives from numerous jurisdictions throughout France expressed interest in pursuing zero waste options. Equally promising, national officials agreed with the principle of waiving existing rules, which would allow local initiatives to be introduced.

Parallel to these efforts, grassroots activists, through organizations such as M.D.R.G.F. Association Ecologiste, the French affiliate of the Global Anti-Incineration Alliance (GAIA), are pushing to ban new incinerators and phase out existing facilities.

United Kingdom

The Community Recycling Network (CRN) annual conference was exciting and motivating, especially when compared to the US’s recycling organization, which has long been under the control of the waste disposal and beverage industries. Mission-driven recycling and environmental organizations ran the event.

In the past few years, hundreds of recycling organizations have emerged and been embraced at the local level. They are dubbed “social enterprises” because they are fully integrated into the economic, environmental and social needs of each community. The process of transforming waste management into resource management is in full swing. Community market forces “are sneaking their way into the edifice of the industrial system,” stated Ray Georgeson, director of Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the U.K.’s national recycling market development agency.

These recycling-based social enterprises have introduced mobile education and game centers, personal collection vehicles, new contracting procedures, mandatory recycling for households and businesses, pay-as-you-throw schemes, and new funding mechanisms. The CRN Conference featured presentations by successful recycling entrepreneurs, as well as by government officials who have responded to the movement’s political and economic organizing. Myriad programs now channel capital and operating funds to local agencies. These include: the national disposal surcharge; Community Recycling and Economic Development Programme; National Procurement Strategy for Local Governments; Social and Economic Regeneration Fund; Department of Environment, Food and Agricultural Affairs; Clean Stream Fund; Future Builders Fund; Intermediate Labor Market Fund; and WRAP. In addition, recycling service contracts, training contracts, and purchasing schemes create an expanding market for recycling practitioners. One private firm doubles profits every two years.

Some of these resources have been used to finance Resource: A New Perspective on Waste, the highly professional non-profit journal of the U.K. recycling movement.

Mal Williams, director of CYLCH (Welsh for Circle), the Welsh recycling association, and a leader in the U.K. Zero Waste movement, says there might even be too much money available. He estimates that some 500 million pounds has already been spent on planning. Ben Max, CRN’s London organizer, also fears funds have disappeared without results, even as London’s recycling goals will rise to 60% by 2015.

Funds need to be used for industrial parks, industry-sponsored take-back programs, disposal bans, the expansion of infrastructure, and bans on impossible-to-recycle materials/products. Above all, CRN members are calling for investment in people, and in people-oriented resource management, to replace solid waste disposal.

Mayor Martin Winter of Doncaster, U.K. (population 300,000), is among the local leaders fully embracing the zero waste approach. He has engaged CYLCH to implement the city’s programs. ILSR has already identified a recycling-based manufacturer interested in building a new plant in one of Doncaster’s industrial parks.

Parallel to these efforts, Communities Against Toxics, an independent network of local organizations, is fighting against new incinerator proposals as well as phasing out existing incinerators, and thus is paving the way for sustainable management of resources generated in cities and towns.

The U.K. is in the midst of a wave of anti-incineration organizing, as 80’s America was just before the U.S. recycling movement took off. Also similar to the U.S., the U.K. recycling movement is moving towards the Zero Waste Paradigm, featuring waste elimination, clean production, maximum recovery, and community economic development.

The International Dialogue on Zero Waste

In August 2004, the discussions in France and the U.K. will be presented in San Francisco as an International Dialogue on Zero Waste. Over 100 zero waste practitioners will meet to define the zero waste paradigm. The event replicates the National Recycling Research Agenda prepared by ILSR and the California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA) in 1980, when over 120 recycling practitioners developed and presented the recycling paradigm in the U.S.

Richard Anthony will coordinate the event on behalf of the Global Recycling Council (GRC) of the CRRA, with support from ILSR and the GrassRoots Recycling Network. Representatives from France, the U.K., Canada, the Philippines, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Switzerland, Indonesia, and the U.S. will participate. More detailed information about the event can be found at

The document resulting from this event will be circulated internationally and presented at the Recovery, Recycling, Re-Integration 7th World Congress and Exhibition (R’05) conference in Beijing, China, in September 2005.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *