I want to tell you about my very inspiring visit to the local recycle-centre yesterday afternoon. Yes, I’m going to write about trash. Our trash. I hope you won’t leave this space, please stay, I promise you that it won’t get very dirty in here. The only thing that will hopefully stick on you, is some knowledge and insights.

Yesterdays visit was organized by one of the associations I’m part of and volunteer at. That association is called AVF – Accueil des Villes Françaises . If you arrive anywhere in France as a newcomer (french or foreigner), I can wholeheartedly recommend you to join your local AVF organisation. You will be introduced to many aspects of your new local environment in a very welcoming and active way.

Société de Tri ATHANOR

The recycle centre that we visited is the main recycle centre for Grenoble and the Gresivaudan area. It is situated the village La Tronche and it’s called ATHANOR. Technically my village doesn’t recycle and/or burn (all) it’s trash here. We have our own centre in a different city. But next year our recycle centre will merge with this one and we’ll be one big family. So the visit was relevant for me too.
And although this sounds like an irrelevant and very personal side-note, it’s not, I’ve learned. It’s important to know where your trash gets recycled or burnt, as it can really differ village to village, how and which things get recycled. In that sense the world wide web can be a confusing source of information when you want to figure out how to recycle your own trash. Now that I’ve said that, let me tell you what I’ve learned yesterday.

What to recycle or trash

When it comes to our local recycle and trash configuration, I think you could say that there are three broad categories of trash. There are the things that can be recycled in the recycle centre and are therefore collected as recyclables. These are mostly packaging materials, made out of plastic, paper, glass, or tin. My post will mostly evolve around this category.
But then you have the second category of things that cannot be recycled in the recycling centre due to their nature or size, but are collected and reused, recycled or moved on in the cycle via the different dumps or tips.
The last category of things are all those things that don’t fall in any of the two other categories and for now “can’t” be recycled and therefore are collected in our regular trash bins and are burnt. I’ve attached a marketing and communication leaflet of our local way of recycling trash below.

I know, I hear you think and wonder: “But where is the black gold?!? I thought this was a gardening blog?!?” And for those that don’t know what that color of gold means, it’s how we gardeners like to call compost. So what do you do with household waste, kitchen scraps? Is it also just burnt? Well, I specifically didn’t add that – what for me is a – fourth category, because for now, if you don’t have your own composting unit or if you don’t run your local composting endeavor, like some communities here do, you just throw your kitchen waste into your black plastic bag and it gets hauled away with all the other stuff.
As far as I understand, it doesn’t get lost in the system though. Somehow they know how to retrieve it out of all our trash and it gets separated and sent to a facility where it is fermented *yum, yum* and then distributed as black mountains around our valley. I’ve told you about this generous gesture before.
This way of collecting kitchen waste is of course a bit complicated and inefficient. So in a few years time, they will try to convince people to add one more bucket into their kitchen sink and collect the kitchen scraps directly into a separate unit. This way, composting will become a much more straight forward operation. So much on that.

How to put things into the recycling bin

While I also learned some things on what I can or can not recycle. My biggest learning moments evolved around how we should put the things that can be recycled into the recycling bin. Understanding the importance of how we should properly throw things away, can be only understood if you know how the separation process takes place. I can therefore highly recommend anyone, who has the chance to visit a recycling centre, to do so. It’s really insightful, without any exaggeration. Let me highlight a few things.

Not every factory will work in the same way, but many factories separate trash by throwing trash on an assembly line and then using form, color and material characteristics to separate them further. Initially by machines and later by hand.
In the case of the Grenoble agglomeration, paper, plastic and tins are all thrown in the same container and with the use of some smart engineering they are able to separate flat objects (mostly paper) from more voluminous objects (mostly plastic and tins) and this way the first separation of types of trash is done.
After that they are able to separate tins from the assembly line by using some kind of induction field, which makes tins fly up and fall into a separate collection bin. Iron gets magnetized out at the same time.
When it comes to plastics, they then have a computer that can separate plastics by color, or by translucents or matte finishing. This way they separate different plastics.

Anyway, I won’t go into too much detail on how this works, because I’m no expert in this field. But when you know and see how these things get separated by machines, it becomes clear that some things that we might do by habitude with our trash, might not be helping out the separation process.

What am I talking about? Well, we tend to flatten out our plastic bottles, so that we can fit more bottles in our recycling bag. Or we shred up our papers which makes them impossible to recycle or we make balls out of them, which makes paper look like plastic for sorting machines. By doing this, we complicate the recycling process, without knowing so. If you flatten out plastic bottles, they might end up with the paper, and by rolling balls out of your paper, you might be throwing paper away with the plastic.

And there is more. Tin foil apparently should be turned into balls before it is thrown into recycling bins. These machines use induction to pop up certain materials out of an assembly line, the materials that need to be popped up need to have some specific characteristics to work along with the process. Throwing away tin foil in a flat manner will make the recycling process impossible. So remember that, next time you throw away your cake foil!

And then there are people that stack up trash, perhaps also to economize on space. They put their plastic bottle in their tin can and then all in a paper bag and throw it away as such in a recycling bin. Not knowing that the assembly line will have a difficult time separating these things.

We saw these things happen, as we were standing next to the trash, the more we don’t follow the guidelines given to us, the more manual work the guys (yes, I didn’t see any women work there, dear feminists!) have to do. There are real people working away our trash with their hands because we aren’t properly separating our own trash.
They are not only working away our trash with their hands, they are also cutting themselves on trash that isn’t properly thrown away. That hurts and is totally unnecessary. And this doesn’t happen incidentally, but frequently.

It was all very eye opening to see, I tell you that. And I’m not even talking about the humongous mountain of trash that we looked at, that was only collected that morning in the little valley we live in. Because that’s another subject to touch on. And I don’t want to get too much into buying less packaging materials to reduce our trash output in this post. I really want to focus on explaining how trash recycling works and how we can be more respectful to the people who work with our trash with how we throw our trash away.

The big debate

Talking about reduction of plastics is an inevitable topic though when you talk about recycling. As we moved towards the end of the program and came back from the factory the information started to fall into place and we started to question things. Maybe the urgency of all this caught up on us as a group. Were we part of the problem? Could we be part of the solution? What could they do!? What could we do? We wondered if information about recycling could be spread in a better way? And then who was supposed to pay for the work of recycling all this trash?

We were told about experiments of trash collection and individually adjusted costs and how that worked out in some places and didn’t work in other places. Things were said about industries and how they sometimes try to comply with the system. And things were said about consumers that tend to have a conscious or unconscious preference for all things packaged. This visit ended with a heated debate, much later than we were supposed to. Debates always gives me energy, I think it was a sign that the subject moved us, which was good.

My take on taxes and choices

That energy stayed with me as I was driving – oh ecology – home with Eduard. My take on the big question was, that recycling or trash collection taxes should be there where it’s easy to collect for the governing bodies.
If that means that companies have to pay more or we in general have to pay more, that be it.

I do understand that our household will probably pay an unfair amount of money compared to people that put out much more trash. We put our general bin out at most once a month, where the trash collection is twice a week. And there are people that put their bin out twice a week, with the same amount of people in the household as us! But that’s ok, because for now it’s apparently impossible to let people pay for the exact amount of trash they throw out.

They’ve done tests and people who had to pay for their trash collection (in areas near here), tried to get round the system and threw away their trash everywhere but into their own bin. Call it human nature, or southern culture. Whatever it is, we have to deal with it!

In winter when our garden is non accessible due to snow our composting bins are fuller than our regular trash.

And then there was a big debate on why industries are always portrayed as the ones that are doing everything wrong, as studies show that individuals create the biggest amount of trash. I am all for personal responsibility. Honestly, you’ll find me preaching for freedom, choices and responsibility every chance I get. But, with this debate of doing ‘good’, I find that our individual choices are getting too complicated these days. And industries are often adding marketing fog onto our choices instead of clearing the sky up for making the ‘good’ choice.

There are no more clear ‘good’ choices. You have to put on special glasses, that turn off any marketing (like color, wording, form, size, price etc) to be able to turn off unwanted signals to your brain. And then with every purchase you have to make, you have to write down a long pro and con list. Who has time for that?

Research has shown that we have to make too many decisions in a day. What do we choose: an organic non sprayed apple, that didn’t kill the remaining bees on our planet, but is packed in at least three layers of plastic? Or do we choose the apple that comes without a polystyrene plate and plastic top, but was possibly sprayed with chemicals? And then during the rest of our 15 minute walk in the shop we make another 200 choices, hoping that they are the ‘right’ ones. And right for who? Our health, the planet, the workers, the animals, etc. How on earth did we end up thinking that this is normal?

I do want to believe industries have incentives (money) to become greener, but they have also incentives (money) to fog up our decision process and paralyse our brain while we are at it. Let’s try and stay sane all together and be aware that we can’t push away our responsibilities forever.

By we, I do mean we, not only industries. I mean we have to put effort in collecting and sending out the right information, we have to correct each other and as the lady of the presentation said, we have to inform each other.

And then in the end, there is nothing wrong in having no choice, when it comes to certain things. Making containers with tiny slits that only can fit in very specific items to prevent people from putting their old bicycles in paper recycling units, is totally ok. Let’s make it easier for each other, for our brains. Let’s not glorify all choices.

Other interesting facts

  • Pharmacies in France are obliged to accept all your old medication and used needles (like for diabetics). They provide you with special yellow buckets that they are obliged by law to take in again. These buckets get burnt directly with other (possibly dangerous) hospital material. There is no human contact with the trash like that. If you have an unwilling and lazy pharmacy, start going to another pharmacy and/or bring your yellow bucket yourself to a special place at the dump/tip.
  • Nespresso cups are difficult to recycle due to their form, contents and what not. To recycle these kind of cups they had to build a machine that could deal with such a specific product. Every time a producer comes up with a new product packaging and we as consumers start picking up on it in mass, the recycling facilities all over the world are confronted with a new riddle they need to solve.
  • Talking about riddles, as time goes by, they (recycle and trash collecting companies) are confronted with chemical outputs in their process that are totally new to them. Industry keeps on inventing, we keep on demanding and they are left with the residue of that. To give you an example: as far as I understood (because all was told in French, and that’s not a language I understand very well) those wet paper cleaning cloths you buy, when burnt along with other things, create a new kind of compound that appears to be very toxic and they don’t know how to get it out of their trash processing. Which is very worrying to them, but should also be worrying to us.

*apologies for the minor quality pictures, but I totally forgot to bring my big camera.