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Why This Man Is Walking Across France To Collect Garbage

 Herve Pighiera, recycling his way through France
Herve Pighiera, recycling his way through France
Caroline Brizard

AIX-EN-PROVENCE — Over the past two days, Hervé Pighiera has picked up 118 cigarette butts, 60 cigarette packs, 69 plastic bottles and 7.75 kilos of non-classifiable garbage, including a little dollhouse armchair made of wicker and plastic.

Pighiera is on a mission to clean roadsides. On July 12, this smiling fellow in a straw hat, with curly hair and a thick beard, left on foot from Aix-en-Provence, almost 800 kilometers from Paris, heading towards the capital. Since then, he has been collecting garbage and logging everything he picks up as a way to denounce the mountains of trash that our society produces. "I don't want to be one of those who knew and did nothing," he says.

So he walks, dragging a big bin behind him, filling it as he goes. With a few stops along the way, he plans to arrive at the Paris-Le Bourget conference venue on Nov. 30 for the COP21 United Nations Conference on Climate Change. He will come armed with firm beliefs and his harvest of damning statistics. "I collect on average 600 pieces of garbage every day, and even more when I get closer to cities," he says.

The roadsides are littered with all sorts of trash and sometimes odd objects that owners must have lost by accident. He's already found "a screwdriver, T-shirts, baby pajamas, a plastic watering can, a National Front membership card, pie-baking dishes, bolts, a pair of size 13 shoes, a phone, a condom — still in its packaging — and road maps," he enumerates.

A lifelong commitment

Pighiera's garbage-picking vocation started in childhood. "I used to go pick up mushrooms with two bags: one for the mushrooms, the other for the trash," he says. And growing up with an anarchist father who found Christian faith late, and a sister who became a geographer, his environmental awareness developed. Did you know, for example, that a single cigarette butt can pollute up to 500 liters of water?

"The walk is an excuse to talk about illegal dumps, nuclear energy, wind turbines and our un-eco-friendly lifestyles," he says. "We now have a duty to repair the damage done to the planet."

A trip to Latin America last year left him shocked at the omnipresence of unauthorized dumps, sometimes in the most beautiful of places, especially in Peru. "When I came back to France in February, I thought we should take advantage of the COP21 conference to raise people's awareness," he says. He worked on the project for two months, and after a four-day trial, he started his long march.

But Pighiera doesn't travel alone. Lola Orsoni, 24, handles the logistics. Slim, dark-haired and clearly determined, she just finished her studies in urban management. The two met three years ago at a couchsurfing event in Aix-en-Provence.

Lola is the other face of this project. She's the one driving the car and the trailer where they keep what's collected. She also picks up the bin bags that Pighiera leaves behind for her. They weigh them, open them and thoroughly inventory the content every other day for their statistics, before throwing it all in proper waste containers.

They aren't traveling to Paris via a straight line. The invitations, people they meet, camping sites where they're offered free night stays or restaurants offering them complimentary meals mean they're always making little detours. They also take advantage of their adventure to encourage people to fight against projects that threaten the environment.

Other breaks are more poetic, like their two-day stay at Guédélon, where a group of people are building a medieval castle using only ancient techniques. It's a joy to watch for Pighiera, whose real job is as a builder.

Publicity for the cause

The adventure has also visibly brought him some notoriety. A truck suddenly stops after passing us. The driver jumps out of his vehicle and says, smiling, "I recognize you. I saw you on TV." That was a few weeks ago, during the Tour de France, publicity that brought him many new supporters. After a quick chat, the truck driver gives him a bottle of coke and a pack of cookies "for the road," he says.

Pighiera and Lola resume their journey. His grabbing stick barely stops moving between the ground and the bin. "The plastic that's been left outside in the sun decomposes itself into little particles that are hard to grab and that stay in the ground," he says. Also high on his list of annoying waste are the energy shot bottles, which cyclists leave on the roadside.

Around him the French countryside with its freshly ploughed fields are spotted with forests here and there. Cows stare at him as he walks past. It's a beautiful day, and others like the truck driver stop to congratulate him and have a chat.

At noon, Pighiera and Lola stop in a small park lot. One by one, they empty the bags they've been filling since yesterday in the trailer. Gloves on, the two hurry to divide the waste into different buckets: cigarette packs, plastic bottles, and everything else that can't be recycled. "We keep record of the amount of garbage, the weight, the main brands, and we publish the information on our website," he explains.

They want to highlight the part that companies play. "The consumer is not the only one to blame," he says. "It's also important to point out the responsibility of the authorities and the manufacturers. The law could, for example, tax non-biodegradable packaging to force companies to use other materials and in smaller quantities."

The figures are indeed alarming. After 50 days and 862 kilometers, the two have collected a mountain of garbage: 272 kilos of non-recyclable waste, 103 kilos of glass, 137.5 kilos of metal, 51.5 kilos of recyclable plastic, 32 kilos of paper and 3,324 cigarette packs.

And they're not done yet.

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