The history of recycling in France

With 48 million tonnes of household waste sent to specialist processing facilities in 2014, France is among the countries with the best recycling records. However, this was not always the case. Read about its history, from rag merchants to the first waste sorting centres, to find out all about recycling in France.T


The principles of waste recycling and management were first outlined in France in the 16th century, when King Francis I, after centuries of poor urban hygiene, introduced the widespread use of baskets to collect household waste. As the years passed, the first collection systems were implemented in Paris, Lyon and Caen.
The first public landfill sites were set up on the outskirts of cities, biodegradable waste was used as fertiliser in the fields, and the first recyclers travelled the streets of France with their carts. Called “chiffonniers” (rag merchants) or in a later, more specialist incarnation “ferrailleurs” (collectors of scrap metal), they collected and sold various materials from the Renaissance up until the 1970s. For example, old rags were turned into paper, rabbit skins into glue for use in cabinet making or marquetry, bones into matches or edible gelatine, and – much later – the first preserve tins into children's toys. 

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Bottles of plastic


With the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution came other new developments. Alerted – among other things – by Pasteur’s discoveries relating to bacteria, the French sought and found solutions for eliminating the health problems associated with urban growth and the emergence of new sources of waste.
The sewer networks were improved and transported waste to purification plants (rather than into neighbouring rivers). A government decree published in 1870 banned fly tipping, and in November 1883 the prefect of the Seine, Eugène Poubelle, invented the famous receptacle than still bears his name (‘poubelle’ being French for ‘bin’).  
This container enabled the first selective collections. There was one bin for rotting matter, one for scrap paper/rags, and another for glass, ceramics and oyster shells.
While not universally adhered to, at least these first recycling regulations existed, and were subsequently constantly revised. 


The two world wars of the 20th century changed the face of recycling in France. One of the effects of the wars was that people were forced to systematically recycle metals to make weapons, railway lines and munitions. The periods of reconstruction that followed the two armistices saw the emergence of new sources of waste, created then recycled by the construction industry. And because resources were scarce, the French often recycled some everyday objects themselves, such as old clothes and buttons. But after World War Two, the country went straight into the boom years, the so-called Trente Glorieuses. They would change everything.
At the height of these three decades of economic growth, as industrial output grew, French annual per capita waste production hit 250 kg in 1960. And this figure just went on rising in subsequent years, as consumption grew steadily. However, the new types of waste produced during this period also gave rise to new problems. So, after decades of systematic pollution of the oceans, the London Convention of 1972 prohibited the dumping of some hazardous waste, including industrial sludge and radioactive materials.
This new international awareness led, in France, to the enactment of a first act of parliament that would underpin all French environmental and waste management regulations: On 15 July 1975, local authorities became responsible for collecting and disposing of their residents’ household waste in approved facilities. But while this change gave rise to industrial-scale recycling, it was another thirty years before the first French selective waste sorting centre opened in Dunkirk.
In 1992, the Royal Act finally obliged French town councils to recover and recycle waste, henceforth regarded as crucial sources of energy and raw materials. Department-level plans were drawn up to regulate these treatment methods, and only final waste was sent to landfills. At the same time, the creation of the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) and Eco-Emballages, a private household packaging recycling company, also ensured that France – by coordinating, facilitating and encouraging routine waste recycling – entered a new era. Encouraged by these initiatives, recycling companies mushroomed and in the space of a few years revolutionised the industry's recycling methods and tools. This momentum continues to this day.



- Selective collection has grown by more than 80% in France since the year 2000. 

- On average, every French citizen pays €120 a year to have their waste managed.

- In France, rag merchants were for a long time called “rabbit skins” (peaux de lapins) because they collected the skins of animals eaten on Sundays.

- With 65% of waste recycled or incinerated, France is one of six European countries whose average exceeds 50%.

- The bones collected by the first recyclers were used, at the end of the 18th century, to make products as varied as buttons, tallow, glue, charcoal and gelatine.

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