Green in Paris

So I think I have used up my allotment of fossil fuels for at least the remainder of this year, or more likely the next decade. Why? My husband surprised me with a birthday trip to Paris last weekend.

Americans have a love/hate relationship with the French. So of course as an American and a “greenist,” I had to do some hardcore observations of Parisian “green” habits and compare them to what we do here. What I discovered from my four days in the “City of Lights” is as follows.

(1) Recycling
There is a recycling program in place in Paris, but I am not sure if the Parisians are interested. On some streets they have huge recycling bins for bottles and cans, but most of them were covered with graffiti (which happens to be all over the city). In the parks, they have recycling bags next to the the garbage bags but as you can see in the picture, recyclables are also placed in the garbage bag. On a walking tour the Marais, I asked our tour guide about how well Parisians recycle. She said they are horrible and during our tour she opened a recycling bin from an apartment building to show us what she meant. It was filled with recyclables and non-recyclables.

(2) Reusables
My husband and I went in a few supermarkets (which I love to do whenever I travel abroad), and outdoor markets and I think I saw maybe 5 people using reusable bags. The worst was in the outdoor markets where you can buy fruits, vegetables, meats, cheese, bread, fish, flowers and much more. The biggest one we went to was in Versailles, and everything was put in a plastic bag. Many did bring their own reusable totes but those bags were then stuffed with plastic bags. It appeared to me that they may use more plastic bags than we use.

(3) Transportation
Paris is a very busy city with lot of traffic. But I would not say that they have any more traffic then New York City. They do drive smaller, and most likely, more efficient cars (I didn’t see one Hummer or SUV) and many people ride bikes and take the subway. I think more people ride bikes in Paris then they do in Manhattan–but not as many as in Beijing. But the most ingenious thing that we observed in Paris was a bike rental system called Velib. The system began in July 2007, with 10,000 bikes, and now they are up to 20,000 bikes all over Paris. Riders can buy monthly, daily or hourly passes to rent bikes stationed at more than 1,400 automated stations across the city. A bike can be rented from one station and returned to another. From what we saw, and from the doubling of the number of bikes in use, it appears that the Parisians love the system. My husband and I wished we had more time to try it out. Its funny, the first few days in Paris we weren’t sure what these bikes were. Initially we thought they were motorized, then we didn’t understand the rental system. By the time we figured out what was what it was it was time to go. I wonder if this would work in NYC?

(4) Food
You should know that I have an obsession with food. Our trip to Paris had some gastronomic highs–the picnic in Versailles– and some lows–dinner at Chez Andre off the Champs-Elysées. So of course I had to find out where the French food comes from. I think this is a department that they really do better than we do. French farmers say no to GMO’s –they even strike and riot to oppose them on a semi-regular basis. None of the fruits or vegetables grown in France are from genetically modified seeds. NONE! We can’t say anything like that here. You can also find organic produce in Paris. We spoke to some butchers and they insisted that none of the meat is treated with antibiotics or hormones and that beef is grass-fed. One of the butchers we spoke with even made a stink face when referring to grain fed beef. I could not find anywhere on the internet to confirm or deny this so I have to take their word, for now. I did ask Shannon Hayes, a grass-fed beef farmer from Sap Bush Farms and author of The Farmer and the Grill and she said “It is my understanding is that not all meat in France is grass-fed. But a fair amount is. Quite often it depends on the breed – charolais beef, for example, is supposed to be exclusively raised on grass. When I was there I saw a lot of cattle grazed and fed in the barn – a model that is infinitely more sustainable than factory farms, but not, according to our strict definitions, grass-fed. The meat is also much more likely to be raised on small farms, not from confinement facilities.”

So what do I take from my trip to Paris?

1- Thank you Lewis…I didn’t thank you when I was there, but I’m thanking you now.
2- The food there was at times overrated, and at times sublime. The baguettes in Versailles were the best I’ve ever had.
3- We might do a better job in recycling, and in moving towards a bagless shopping experience, but I’m not sure.
4- The quality of the produce in Paris far surpasses what we have here. I was thrilled by the freshness and the quality and the shopping experience.
5- Four days is just not enough time to be in Paris, but we missed our kids, and wanted to come home.
What are some of your “green” international observations?

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About Melissa Goldberg

14 Comments

  1. Just wanted to point out that Paris is the MOST visited city in the world, so Paris may not be the best place to judge how French in general user the recycle bins. I think most of the trash produced in the city is produced by the tourists who most likely don’t recycle. On the other hand I can’t really testify what the French recycling habits are.
    Transportation … i wish we could implement the bike system like the one they have in Paris, I am afraid NYC is not a bike friendly city on many levels – from lack of bike lanes and disregard of bikers by other motorists to the humidity factor.
    One of my favorite things about France was the food, it’s really tasty and fresh. But it is worth pointing out that while the quality is higher, so are the prices. I was amazed how expensive the food, was even for the locals. On the other hand French don’t waste the food they had to pay the premium Euro for.

  2. Samantha says:

    My husband and I were in France and Spain about 8 months ago for our honeymoon and noticed some of the same things in Paris. I do think that a lot of the trash/recycling problems come from tourists or could just be a large city problem. We visited Nice and didn’t see the same issues there.

    One really great idea we noticed in our two Spain hotels was that the hotel room lights can’t be turned on unless the room key is inserted into a slot in the room. This also means that when you leave and take your room key with you, all of the lights in your room turn off. This is great for saving electricity and the hotels money.

    Another thing to mention is transportation, within and between cities. The whole two weeks that we were in Europe, we only used two taxis. Those two times were because we had just arrived into town relatively late and were feeling too lazy to figure out the local transit at the time. The rest of the trip we used trains to get between our locations and used buses and metros within the cities we were visiting. Major US cities usually have pretty good public transportation, but we have a major need for an upgrade in countrywide train access and support.

  3. I hate to sound disagreeable but I’m not sure four days was a long enough time to see how the other half lives. Of course, everyone’s got their eco-sins but comparing the “greenness” of Paris to New York works on an apples-to-ranges level.

    One of the reasons recycling has reduced in popularity here (in Germany anyway) is because the locals have uncovered some dirty little secrets in the industry: you’re essentially just sorting your plastic disposables out to be burned. It’s the same in the US – just that the plastics get sent to China first to be burned – but it’s made some here a bit disillusioned with the whole industry. On the other hand, the glass bottles are reused – and you pay a deposit to do so – so they’re not often ditched on the roadside and you don’t see plastic bags to collect them. In that way, the EU is way ahead of NYC (which charges a deposit but has a miserable return record).

    Velib as an idea was begun in other European cities and has now transferred to DC and Portland (and perhaps more US cities, just not NYC) and it generally speaking works well in Paris for the general population for a few reasons: petrol costs more, cars are more expensive, and the Metro doesn’t run late at night – when many of the riders need a way to get home after a few-too-many, one of the reasons the bikes are equally, if not more, popular in Lyon, which has less tourists. But Velib is also something to be found namely where the tourists are, which suggests that it’s not necessarily for the ordinary Parisians (though when we visited in December there were just as many tourists as Parisians riding around). Could you envision tourists biking around Times Square without problems? Perhaps Central Park but for a Midwestern-seeing-NYC-for the first time, as I once was, a trip down Broadway by bike is a deathwish.

    For more on the food issues, it might be worth looking at the subsidies offered to farmers in both the US and France, the EU’s rejection of GMO foodstuffs and tight controls on biodiversity (they’re currently holding a UN conference down the road here and it’s a hot button in the proceedings), and the emphasis that people in Europe put on eating local (hence the immense amounts of meat eaten in these northern countries, despite the poor eco record of raising animals for consumption). You’ll find the “expensive” products are still actually way way below what the market price should be. The US could learn a lot from Paris, even if the stuff we consider eco isn’t what it might be.

  4. Er…didn’t you notice the Paris Metro and RER – one of the most extensive and efficient urban and suburban transportation systems in the world? Without mass transit, no city can be green. If Paris has any green credentials, they come from a superb mass transit system. Wonderful as it is, it’s not as if the entire city is commuting on free bikes. At best they supplement the Metro, buses and rail. One of the reasons Velib works is the fact that the city has provided extensive bike paths (absent from most US cities). Another is that it’s paid for by tax payers – something anathema to us in the US. One final point – sure food in Paris is generally good. But there is just about no vegan food in restaurants at all. Tell them you’re vegan and they assume you’ll be happy with some lettuce. The French diet is neither earth friendly nor animal friendly.

  5. As an American and a vegetarian who just returned to the States after about 9 years in Paris, I’d like to add my two cents to others’ comments.

    Four days is barely enough time to recover from jet lag, much less understand another culture, but some of Melissa’s observations are accurate.

    Recycling in Paris has been slow in coming, and most recycling bins are also full of trash, whether in public places or apartment buildings–despite a posters and regular reminders from the city government about what to recycle and where to put it.

    The plastic bag issue is a huge problem and a relatively recent one; even 20 years ago, most people brought their own caddies and bags for shopping. Some supermarkets have done away with free bags, and the city of Paris has planned to eliminate free shopping bags at all stores (when is uncertain, as the plan has met with opposition from many stores).

    Velib has been a huge success in Paris (as in other French cities), and not just for tourists. Every year there are more bikes circulating in Paris, and the critical mass seems to be forcing some respect for them on the road. However, bike lanes have been built very slowly and taxis and motorcyclists are less than accommodating (I stopped biking after I got pregnant and will not take my toddler on my bike in Paris for fear of being side-swiped). Although Paris isn’t as humid as NYC, it’s rainy and chilly for most of the year, which isn’t very conducive to happy biking either.

    Finally, I love the food in France, although most market stalls don’t sell local products (especially in Paris–though there is a growing CSA movement). What’s more, it is difficult to be vegetarian and almost impossible to be vegan. The menus of many vegetarian restaurants make you feel as if you have to suffer for your choice, which reinforces the message of “regular” restaurants. Historically, French restaurants flourished thanks to the bourgeoisie, and meat was a sign of wealth. Although the first vegetarian restaurant opened in Paris in 1908, for many French people, eating only vegetables is a reminder of the scarcities of WWII rather than a choice.

    By the way, there are GMO crops in France. Currently, GMO foods must be labeled and are generally unpopular. The French Parliament is set to vote on Thursday on a law that would guarantee the right to buy GMO or non-GMO foods in France–and would also make it a crime for demonstrators to destroy GMO crops.

  6. This is all great info. I’m surprised by the French recycling (or lack thereof); it’s certainly not the same in London- a very touristy city too. My best friend lives there and I visited last Autumn and was shocked by both the curb recycling (meticulous, clean, and they even have compost pick up now!) and the availability of recycling containers everywhere. I’m a huge fan of London generally but am an even bigger fan of their amazing recycling. I have only been to Paris briefly, but I’m going to take the Chunnel and check it out when I go to London in July, and I’m looking forward to riding a Velib! Sounds like I may have to eat a lot of Indian/Asian food when I’m there though; that’s what I have to do in London, since traditional British food is waaaay meaty and also kinda gross anyway (sorry, I don’t mean to offend, I’m 1/4 English too, I just don’t appreciate the food at all! The beer however, is DIVINE. Looking forward to some Organic Sammy Smith’s at the pub!)

  7. Thank you all for reading and your comments.

    Yes the Paris subway is great and we used it to go everywhere. However, the NYC subway system is equally as good and very widely used so I did not feel if warranted mentioning. We also took the RER and found it to be pretty similar to NJ Transit or the Long Island Railroad. Both excellent mass transit systems in their own rights.

    One thing I forgot to mention, which Samantha reminded me of, were the lights in the hallways of our hotel were on a motion sensor. When the elevator door opened the lights would turn on which was a great way to conserve energy.

    While it is true that 4 days is not enough time to really see how Parisians really live, I do believe we got a decent flavor for the city. I don’t claim to be an expert, my post was a summary of my observations.

    I know that being a tourist dose not truly show the real workings of a city. But we did a few “non-touristy” things like walking into the supermarket and shopping at the outdoor market in Versailles. Our observations were consistent pretty much everywhere we went. And I would bet we were the only tourists in the supermarket.

    Regarding recycling and where does it go — I have had my suspicions about whether the materials we sort are really being recycled or just going in the trash in the US. I used to live in Manhattan and would watch the recyclables go into the recycling truck and get crushed…thinking “no way is that all going to be sorted and recycled”. I have searched for information on this, but have not found any to reveal the real deal. I think this is a good subject to do some digging into and may do some virtual dumpster diving to get the truth.

    I was under the assumption that there were no GMO’s in France. I just discovered in a story from the Agence France Presse (AFP) that stated “GM crops cover less than one percent of farmland in France” – To read this story use this link: http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5i5dIJWPgTCpDhOmApk4GtcXn3vow

    However, if French are requiring clear GMO labeling, they are doing a much better job then the US is doing. In opposition to what the Europeans are doing about GMO’s (having a loud and healthy debate) the U.S. government is pushing GMO’s at every turn on behalf US agribusinesses. As reported on Grist yesterday “A $770 million food-aid package proposed by the Bush administration may also aid U.S. agribiz, as the feds have slipped in language promoting the use of genetically modified crops in developing countries.” (http://www.grist.org/news/2008/05/19/gmo_aid/)

    And for those visiting Paris soon, you must check out, Fat Tire Tours Paris — it’s a must. My husband and I did a bike tour around Versailles gardens. We took the train (the RER) out there with the bikes and spent the day riding around. We had a picnic in the gardens, toured the palace and rode back. It was amazing. (http://www.fattirebiketoursparis.com/)

  8. One of the best things about the French people is that the food they love is far more local than you’d find in some parts of the world and it is not the mass-produced foodstuff that tends to have blandness bred into it. The French are also heavily subsidised to keep their rare breeds going.

    You’re right about the French knowing where their food comes from aswell… it is part of their pride to know the provenance of food and adds to their love affair with cuisine that the rest of us, more interested in quantity not quality, seem to have forgotten.

  9. Hi! I’m French and living in the South-West of the country, and, browsing the Internet found your site.
    First, I’m happy you enjoyed visiting our country. We are not always very good at welcoming tourists.
    Second, the butchers you met lied to you. Much to our regret, nobody can state that 100% of the cattle here is grass-fed.
    Third: We try. More and more people are concerned with ecology, sustainable development, and, being French, of course we speak out loud, go on strikes, say we don’t want to be an active part of the globalization process… but we tend to think we do a lot better than the rest of the World. Which, obviously, is not true.
    I am surprised by the freedom you have in the States to run your cars off vegetable oil for instance; here, it’s illegal. I just saw this morning the the US Posts now have reusable envelops! …
    I guess that if the whole world worked hand in hand, we could do miracles for our kids.
    Sorry if my English is not so good… I don’t really have a chance to practice it very often.
    Bye.

  10. Never forget that French secret service bombed the Greenpeace flagship rainbow warrior, and act of wanton murder and mayhem, in their lust for nuclear power. France has a seriously poor environmental record, both in their own land, and also in their former colonies.

    So no, France is not green, the French are not green. They are a murderous bunch who hates the environment and environmentalists.

  11. Well living in Paris and coming from Seattle,

    I have to say comparing the two cities, Parisians are horrible recyclers. The problem is that it’s not really in their culture to have concern for the environment.

    First off their outdoor markets: Not sure if you stayed long enough, but if you watched the end of the market, you will notice, a bunch of filthy garbage laying all over the streets which contains unsold fruits and vegetables, plastic bags, dirty food crates, and half eaten food people just drop on the ground. To which the city trashmen come and haul away all in one bin! No compost, no recycling of materials, nothing!

    Or for that matter you will find the rest being drained away in the sewers from the daily 30 minute water flood which is used to wash the streets. No sweepers!!

    2nd the recycling bins in the apartment buildings. Through my 3 flats’ experience Frenchies don’t really understand the sorting concept. I remember in one of my flats there was a boy moving in and he threw out all the cartons into the regular trash bin, to which I saw and scowled at him, and went ahead and put them in the recycling bin.

    On top of that I had an experience with a guardian of the a building who, because the recycling bin was getting full every mid week before it could be taken, she would go ahead and throw the recyclables in the regular bin because that went out days before the recycling men came, just to empty the bin!

    And the guardian now won’t even let me throw boxes in the recycling claiming it takes too much space and that I ought to just put it somewhere else on the street.

    In general:
    The regulations set on what can be recycled and what can’t is insanely limiting! You can’t recycle anything that has dirt on it. Hence if you have a dirty plastic, you must wash it first or they will consider it trash and put it in the regular bin for disposal. What people say is they don’t have the kind of machinery to process dirty recyclables. Waste of water..people!

    Also there are a lot of recyclables, even if they have the recyclable symbol and number on them, they just can’t recycle because they don’t have the resources to do it everywhere. You have to go out far outside the city or in the country to find those very large dump sites to recycle those special coded products. That is so sad!!

    And controversially, companies pay a fee to support the recycling foundation, which gives them a nice fancy special “recycling logo” on their product to make it look like they are green-friendly. But this is not a logo that says the packaging is recyclable, it’s just a logo that says they paid a certain fee to support the foundation.

    I remember when I was in Seattle we would get fined if we had too much trash. I think that would be a perfect idea for Paris. Considering all the problems the culture has on respecting the environment, where green is only a trend and not a way of real living, I’d say if this law was implemented, Paris may not have to thrive on tourism alone to bring in the money@!

  12. Even recycling has it’s issues. For many materials the final destination for recycling may be accross borders or even continents.

    I agree with gone green that the local tastes in Paris and France in general will have to become more common round the planet for a more sustainable future for all.

    The French farming community has also recently implemented a recycling policy which has lead to a five fold increase in the recycling of agricultural plastics.

  13. Hi All!

    I just moved to Paris this month and have also been surprised at recycling, trash collection in general. More than the recycling though is the use of plastics in everyday packaging/food takeout. While I think recycling is important so is reduction of the use of resources. Quite often I see single serving foods provided in elaborate plastic containers with no recyclable stamp in site.

    I am trying to learn more about “recyclage” from the websites and locate drop spots as neither my home nor office building have recycling bins.

    I will do here what I did in the US: reduce where I can (e.g. bring my own bags containers, refuse extra bags/utensils/cups), recycle, keep speaking with everyone I know about their habits and hopefully influence them to reduce, reuse, recycle and support these movements in their government and community.

  14. Great article and still relevant. Its refreshing to read this perspective on Paris especially from a green persepective

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