Ratatouille Was A Documentary: A French Philosopher Dives Into The Paris Garbage Crisis
The ongoing strike of garbage collectors in France shows us why we try so hard to hide how much garbage we throw out. As trash piles up in the streets, philosopher Gaspard Koenig reminds us that it wouldn't be so hard to recycle and compost more of it.
PARIS — The strike of garbage collectors can be felt in many cities across France, but it is particularly impressive in the capital, Paris. After just one week, the streets have been invaded by mountains of trash, already estimated at more than 5,000 tonnes.
On some sidewalks, barricades of trash in torn-open bags have piled up above head height. In narrow alleys, the smell is unbearable. Rats are already enjoying an unexpected feast. As we know from Albert Camus’ The Plague, this is not a good sign.
Politically, it is possible that the increasingly unsanitary conditions will end up turning public opinion against the strikers — or at least, the boss of one of the largest French labor organizations, the CFDT, thinks it may. Let us remember the UK's 1979 “Winter of Discontent," when a strike that led to garbage piling up in the streets of London, contributed to Margaret Thatcher’s election victory the following spring.
The reality of waste
As we slalom through banana peels, dog food and leftover blanquette, it's worth asking why garbage collectors hold so much power over our lives. We have become dependent, unable to manage our own waste. An average French person produces almost 600 kilograms (1,322 lbs) of waste per year — a figure that is only increasing.
We close the trash bin lid and wash our hands off it.
Most of our current problem is organic waste, which makes up a third of our trash, according to Zero Waste France. We have a simple solution at our disposal: composting. There is no reason to truck our potato peels dozens of kilometers to be incinerated. We could simply let them decompose, thanks to the natural phenomenon of microorganisms. Wait a year and the waste becomes an excellent soil conditioner.
Thousands of earthworms work for us, munching our kitchen scraps.
Those who wish to accelerate the process can even buy a vermicomposter for their apartment. Many municipalities, including Paris, provide them free of charge. In a closed and odorless box, thousands of earthworms work for us, munching our kitchen scraps.
As garbage collectors' strikes continue in Paris, rubbish accumulates in the streets of the capital.
Glenn Gervot / ZUMA Press Wire
Waste as a solution
In the city, composting requires some collective organization, but nothing complicated in comparison to the dizzying logistics of daily garbage collection. Public parks and shared vegetable gardens are already used for this purpose. Other cities like Nantes have added composting facilities in some neighborhoods. And of course, collection of compost is also possible, like in the French city of Besançon, where it is done by bicycle.
According to the Ordif waste collection surveillance organism, less than 1% of household waste in the Île-de-France region is composted. But the practice is bound to become more widespread. On Jan. 1, 2024, all local authorities will be required to provide citizens with a solution for sorting organic waste. Hopefully, this will convince people to reduce their waste output by making it possible to charge garbage fees based on volume.
The main obstacle to this necessary evolution is not economic, but cultural. Raised in the cult of cleanliness, we do not want to see our waste. We refuse to understand its role in the cycle of life. We pay to dispose of it, even though recycling would be more convenient.
Let's combine modern hygiene with the rediscovery of a form of ecological rationality.
This denial also applies to our excrement. Paris and its suburbs were major market gardening areas throughout the 19th century because the city's "sludge" was recovered to fertilize vegetable gardens. In a recent interview with Thinkerview, agronomist and soil specialist Claude Bourguignon notes how the systematizing of waste collection and expansion of the sewer system deprived us of this precious resource.
Don't get me wrong: this does not mean returning to the time when people walking on the streets of Paris risked receiving a chamber pot on their heads. But knowledge and technology should allow us to combine modern hygiene with the rediscovery of a form of ecological rationality and end the fear of the garbage collector’s strike!