"If you live in Roubaix, you can't ignore the zero waste challenge"

Up until last year, when Roubaix was making the headlines, the news were rarely positive. The northern town, located almost on the border with Belgium and host to the international cycling race Paris-Roubaix, is one of the most deprived urban areas in France. But, recently, Roubaix has been getting a lot of media attention for its pioneering zero waste programme. And it may just be the beginning. On May 25th, Roubaix will find out whether it has become part of the 100 Resilient Cities pioneered by the Rockfeller Foundation.

Read my interview below with Alexandre Garcin, Roubaix councillor in charge with sustainability, aka Mr. Zéro Déchet.

How did you come with the idea of launching a zero waste challenge in Roubaix? 
During the local election campaign in 2014, litter featured really high in people's list of concerns. We thought we could invest more resources to improve street cleanliness. Another solution was to eradicate litter. Several towns in Italy had already implemented a zero waste policy. We thought "if Italians can do it, there is no reason we cannot". So we promised to launch a zero waste programme if elected. 

There had been similar initiatives launched in other French regions but nothing on this scale. 

When did the zero waste family challenge start? 
The family challenge - le défi familles, in French - started in November 2014. The aim was to support 100 families during one year in their efforts to halve their non-recyclable non-compostable waste. There had been similar initiatives launched in other French regions (in Grenoble and Nantes) but nothing on this time scale. Acquiring new habits takes time. If you decide to change your eating habits over a period of three months, you are taking the risk to fall back into bad habits straight after that. You won't if you decide to take one year to embrace a new diet. 

How did you recruit families? 
We recruited them via the council bulletin and local newspapers. We also got the word out via community organisations. In the end, we recruited 104 families. They were all very diverse in order to reflect the town's population. 

"It doesn't cost more money and it doesn't take more time",
says Nicolas, one of the participants. 

What kind of support did the participants receive? 
Each family was given some travel scales to weigh their waste. We also organised 14 workshops for them. The workshops were very hands-on. They were focused how on to make cleaning products at home, cook with leftovers etc. Families were offered very concrete solutions to the challenges encountered in their waste reduction challenge. (Families have also been using an app to keep track of their waste and sign up to workshops.)

Did some families drop out?
About ten families didn't finish the challenge, mainly because of some unexpected life events. They still intended to keep on reducing their waste, though. 

Have the zero waste families become waste reduction ambassadors in their communities?
Some of the families were already quite eco-conscious, others not at all. But all families have now become enthusiastic ambassadors. They've been sharing their zero waste experiences with their neighbours, extended families and friends. 
Those hundred families roughly account for 300 Roubaix residents, i.e. roughly 0,3% of the town population. It's very little. This year, we've enrolled another 100 families. So, all in whole, we've reached 600 people, i.e. 0,6% of the local population. If each of those people talk to 9 other people, the ball starts rolling and it becomes quite significant. 
In parallel to the zero waste family challenge, we've also engaged with local schools, businesses and public bodies, alongside community organisations and shops. Today, you cannot live in Roubaix and not be aware of the zero waste challenge. 

"I've done it essentially for my children", says Céline. 

Participants are proud of being more responsible consumers.

What have been the benefits for the families who took part in the challenge? 
They feel extremely proud. They're proud of their achievement and also proud of being more responsible consumers. There is also an economic benefit. Some families have regained some purchasing power. They have a better life since they started challenge. This is clearly the case for Andrée Nieuwjaer, one of the participants. She's our local Béa Johnson! (Béa Johnson visited Roubaix in March 2015.) She used to struggle on a 500 euros budget (about £400 or $570). Three weeks into the month, she couldn't make ends meet. Since she's changed her shopping habits, she only spends 300 euros per month. She is able to put some money aside for herself and her children. 

"We need more people to do it", says Maxime (left on the photo).  

There are also some zero waste shops in Roubaix now. How different are they from other shops? 
We've launched a zero waste programme for shops. The aim is to create a zero waste offer to answer the zero waste demand that we've created with the family challenge. About thirty shop keepers and restaurant owners have joined the zero waste ranks so far. They need to commit to reducing their waste and also inform their customers about waste reduction. It's not just a PR operation. We are working with each of those shop keepers to find some zero waste solutions for them. It's a great tool to reduce their costs. 

Roubaix council set up a dedicated zero waste website. How useful is it? 
It features a lot of useful information about waste reduction. The families who are taking part to the zero waste challenge are able to log into a private area. There, they can enter the weight of their waste.

The website features short articles by participants. 

Families have reduced their waste by 45% on average

What's the waste reduction aim of Roubaix for 2020? 
We want to double our recycling rate. We also want to reduce non-recyclable household waste by 30%. Zero waste families have reduced their waste by 45% on average over a period of one year. They proved that it's possible to do it. 

What's the cost of the zero waste programme for Roubaix council? 
As a whole, it costs 200 000 euros (about £157k or $227k). Half of it is financed by the council, the other half is covered by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME, Agence de l'Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l'Energie). 

Alexandre Garcin, councillor for Roubaix,
was inspired by Capannori in Italy

What are the benefits for the town?
There is a clear benefit concerning the image of Roubaix. Although it's only been a year and half since we've started implementing the zero waste policy, we regularly host delegations from across Europe. They want to see the zero waste family challenge in action. 
There is also a community benefit. The challenge has created connections between families and between other people and organisations across town. Building a circular economy at city level generates a lot of social interactions. 
As for the economic benefits, it will take a few years before we can assess it. Saying that, we can already detect some positive signs. Zero waste shopping generates savings for households. It also benefits local businesses. Creating a circular economy is beneficial to local employment. It creates new growth opportunities. 

You travelled to London in April to defend Roubaix' candidacy to the 100 Resilient Cities network. What difference would it make if Roubaix was becoming part of this network on May 25th?
Being resilient means being able to cope with a shock or ongoing stress. Roubaix has proved resilient in its recent history. The size of its textile sector has decreased massively during the second half of the XXth century. Adopting a zero waste policy is an integral part of increasing the town's resilience. Becoming part one of the 100 Resilient Cities would enable us to share our experience with cities across the world and speed up the zero waste revolution. 

Are there any other neighbouring towns which have started similar programmes of actions? 
There are other towns in France who have similar programmes - Miramas, in the South of France, for example. There aren't any towns in the North of France yet. But we are organising a zero waste conference on May 12th. It will bring together people involved in zero waste initiatives across the region. That will enable us to coordinate our actions to go even further. 

Alexandre Garcin is on Twitter (@AlexandreGarcin). 
If you want to find out more about Zéro Déchet Roubaix, you can visit the website here
For more details check out Zero Waste Europe. The Story of Roubaix is one the case studies that feature on their website.