But what actually happens to our industrial waste?

  • In business, we might work it out, but we never really know what happens next. Whether at our home, but also for business.
  • The second case is interesting because according to figures from the Ecological Transition Bureau Ademe, each employee annually produces between 120 and 140 kg of waste at his workplace.
  • However, the recycling rate for certain materials remains quite low. On the occasion of World Recycling Day, this Saturday, “20 Minutes” wondered why.

It is perhaps one of the greatest mysteries of our daily lives: recycling. We may sort our waste every day, but knowing where it goes afterwards is still very vague. A recent study du Guardian published in August revealed that recycling – especially of plastic – was a myth. The journalist highlighted a figure: of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced worldwide, the recycling rate was only 9%. Only everything that is not recycled falls into an obscure industry, that of waste. If they are not destroyed on site in Europe, the waste will be sent to Asia to find a new life.

But why can’t we recycle all our waste – which is sorted daily anyway by the sweat on the brow of every Frenchman? Take the case of companies, for example. According to Ademe figures for 2018, office life represents an average of 2.4 million tons of waste produced in France. Since 2016, companies with more than 20 employees are required to sort office paper. And in 2018, new categories of waste were added to these obligations: cardboard, plastic and cans. However, the recycling rate is far from 100%. This is 61% for cans and plastic bottles, compared to a recycling rate of 35% for waste paper.

A never perfect sorting

To better understand where our waste goes, go to a sorting center in Gennevilliers (Hauts-de-Seine), where 20 minutes met Constance Bachoud, director of Innovation, Circular Economy and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at Tri-o Greenwishes. This company acts as a kind of waste janitor. “We are preparing the work for the recycling industry,” Constance Bachoud sums up. If companies now have the obligation to set up recycling in their premises, the result is not always perfect. “Even though the employees are doing the best they can, there’s always a handkerchief lying around and it’s imperative that we have a material segregation.”

Waste is collected, weighed and sorted in this 2,000 m2 warehouse. On one side the plastic bottles, on the other side the cans. Then on, the towels. After sorting, the waste forms a column of pallet boxes and when a sufficient number has been reached, everything passes through an Artificial Intelligence machine with robot arms. Then everything is consolidated and takes on the dizzying shape of a column of one and the same material. The sorted waste then goes back to recycling plants across France.

The plague of plastic

So why are recycling rates still so low today? “For materials that are very old and that we have known for a long time – glass, metal, paper, cardboard – the recycling system is very, very well established,” explains Constance Bachoud. The hobbyhorse of recycling today remains plastic, which exists in various functions and forms. “The first benefit, at least for packaging, is to protect a product,” quotes the director of innovation. However, some packaging can sometimes mix different types of plastic, further complicating recycling.

Take the case of yogurt pots. Once they’re notched, the packaging is primarily made of polystyrene, a type of plastic that differs from bottles, for example. “A first challenge is that once it arrives at the sorting center, it goes through a set of machines. The yoghurt pot is quite fragile, if you swing it in all directions it will break. How do you get your yogurt pot if you have huge machines? And are we willing to accept the fact that we are withdrawing knowing that there are still many restrictions? asks Constance Bachoud. For the latter, there are still many investments to be made in plastic, which means “a major challenge”. If not the largest recycling today.

“Push the Regulatory Part”

However, in the coming years, the anti-waste law for a circular economy – says AGEC – is likely to change the situation. “We are going to see the development of reuse”, Constance Bachoud is delighted. After all, since January 1, 2023, restaurants and fast food are no longer allowed to serve their meals in disposable dishes… which could ultimately greatly reduce company waste.

But to reduce the environmental impact of companies and their daily waste, Constance Bachoud also advocates more legal frameworks. “We need to push the regulatory part on the collection issue, that companies really have an obligation to do this”. Then there could also be stricter controls within the companies themselves to check whether everyone is playing the game.

And the food industry in all this? Could they be forced to develop materials that are easier to recycle in the future? For several years now, they have been obliged to integrate more and more recycled materials. “Furthermore, like other European countries, France is subject to a plastic tax on plastic recycling. And since the recycling rate of plastic is not great, France paid a lot,” adds Constance Bachoud. Talks between the two sectors are still ongoing. “But it is very long,” regrets our interlocutor.

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