Emily (yes, the one from the Netflix series “Emily in Paris”) would be shocked. Walking around the streets of Paris over the last week it has been difficult to avoid the sight and smell of mountains of rubbish heaped on the streets. The striking bin workers – in response to the French Government’s pension reform – made us all stop and think about how much waste we produce – and where it goes (or should go). There are currently over 7,500 tonnes of uncollected waste in Paris alone.
The volume of waste1 produced by households and economic activities collected by the public waste disposal service in Paris has doubled over 75 years, from 239 kg per inhabitant in 1940 to 485 kg in 2015. Household consumption and waste plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic, helping the city surpass its objective of reducing household waste by 10% compared to 2010. This totaled 403 kg per inhabitant in 2020 (which represents a drop of 16%), but it remains to be seen if the rubbish returns with a vengeance.
Paris is not the exception. It is the rule. Globally, cities produce 50% of waste. In 2019, OECD countries generated on average 535 kg of total municipal waste per capita per year – including commercial as well as household sources – equivalent to the weight of a polar bear. That is 40 kg more than in 1990, but 8 kg less than in 2000.
Even if municipal waste only accounts for 10% of the total waste generated, its management and treatment often require more than one-third of the public sector’s financial efforts to control pollution. With population growth, annual solid waste production is expected to increase by 70% between 2020 and 2050, generating more than 2 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent.
Strike aside, business as usual cannot go on. What we see in the streets of Paris in most cases are wasted resources; something that could have been used for longer, perhaps for another purpose or by another person. Sometimes waste can be avoided: we take, make and waste according to a linear system rather than rethinking, reducing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, repurposing. This is a circular economy approach which minimises waste and keeps material in use as much as possible.
In theory, Paris could divert 75% of its waste from landfill and incineration by reduction, reuse and recovery actions. It is estimated that Parisians produce every year 80 000 tonnes of potentially reusable waste.
The good news is that many cities are taking action. In Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Tallinn, Estonia, there are local repair and restoration centres, as well as facilities for sharing products among residents. San Francisco’s Zero Waste Program facilitates the reuse of city-owned surplus material within the public sector and donations to NGOs and schools. London supports local supermarkets and businesses to redistribute surplus food. The city of Groningen, Netherlands, launched a Food Battle to raise awareness on reducing food waste.
Paris was among the pioneering cities in defining a vision towards a circular economy. In 2017, the city adopted its 1st Roadmap, focusing on five themes: planning and construction; reduction, reuse, repair; support for actors; public procurement; and responsible consumption. The 2nd Roadmap was adopted in November 2018 to include new themes: exemplary administration; culture; events; sustainable consumption; and education. As part of its strategy, Paris opened 15 reuse centres, saving approximately 3,000 tonnes of waste from landfill and incineration each year. It also built public spaces using recycled material, set up a circular business district, promoted deconstruction instead of demolition, and much more.
Never waste a good crisis
To push their circular economy agenda, cities must walk the talk, starting with reducing public waste and acting as a role model for businesses and residents. They must engage with businesses, the social economy and residents – both to understand their behaviour but also to learn about new technologies and solutions. Finally, they must set – and track progress towards meeting – ambitious targets to drive change.
The current waste crisis has suddenly become very visible. But it is more than an inconvenience – it is a reminder of a much wider health and environmental crisis caused by our waste. Changing perspective on waste, transforming it into valuable resources is imperative. 30 March marks the International Day of Zero Waste. Let’s not waste the chance to make change happen!
For more on the OECD work on circular economy.
Read the french version of the article.
Oriana Romano is the Head of Unit, Water Governance and Circular Economy, Urban Policies, and Sustainable Development Division of the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities. In 2018, she initiated a Programme on the Circular Economy in Cities and Regions, which supports governments in developing and implementing circular economy strategies. She heads the OECD Water Governance programme, which she joined in 2013. Before the OECD, she was university lecturer in Environmental Economics at the “Centre for International Business and Sustainability”(CIBS), London Metropolitan University (London, United Kingdom) and the Department of Social Science of the University “L’Orientale”(Naples, Italy). She currently teaches “The Transition to the Carbon Neutral and Circular Economy in Cities ”at Sciences Po, Paris, France. She holds a Ph.D in “Institution, Economics and Law of Public Services”.