Roubaix, a City of Riches

When the circular economy, via zero waste, helps families to get out of vicious circles towards ever more fulfilment.

Article first published on January 19th 2020 in The Beam Magazine #10 on “Local Heroes of Energy Transition”

A Cornucopia

“The fridge was always full before! Now it is always empty!” exclaims Mrs Deleporte, a nurse in Roubaix, mother and active member of the Zero Waste Program of the city of Roubaix. It is on these terms that she tries to talk to me about abundance. It was not easy to understand at first, but when Mrs Nieuwjaer, a woman active in the service economy and representative of the Zero Waste Program, made the same remark to me, the sudden click was: refrigerators were built so that we can store food in the continuity of the cold chain of large retail and agribusiness companies. It no longer make sense for families who have a garden or who buy only fresh products!

I have too many tomatoes, so I share with my children, the garden people or the neighbours of bearings

After four years of gardening, thanks to a program of shared gardens that the city of Roubaix has put in place among her fellow citizens, Mrs Nieuwjaer produces a lot of vegetables and fruits so much that she redistributes them. In fact, one part is consumed fresh, another is frozen for winter or a later consumption, and a last part is for the community. Her circle of relatives: family, friends of the garden, neighbours. “For example, I have too many tomatoes, so I share with my kids, garden people or neighbours!” She exclaims. Mrs Deleporte is also in this approach of abundance but who expresses herself differently: “It brought us to sharing, what a pleasure to receive people and share a meal!” as I was sitting around the table at a meal she had invited me to on the spot before starting with the interview. So I knew what she meant! It seems that Zero Waste lives have a meaning in Roubaix and that this newfound sense goes far beyond the simple concept of waste that is no longer: profound generosity.

Difficult times

Life has not always been easy for these families with limited financial means. “When we are in trouble, we are no longer in real life, we are suffering and cannot cope. We had to change our atmosphere” explains Mrs Nieuwjaer. “The loneliness in the difficulty and a certain embarrassment do not make it possible to ask for help.” “I was in the galley for twenty years: I could not pay my car, one came to seize it. I almost lost my home because I had to feed my children. So sometimes I did not pay my rent, I had no other choice. I have been at the Restos du Coeur (French food charity) for a year to be able to go up the slope while working part time. With my husband, we found ourselves unemployed at the same time, he was in the metal industry and I in the textile industry. Since then, I have been cleaning up at five different part-time businesses for twenty-two years. I have not seen much of my daughter growing up and my husband is retired. He was never able to find a job because now you have to know about robotics.”

“Before I was very dependent on the Social Centre. I could not do anything without their help. Today, I participate in the animation of the very same Centre and the Project House” says Mrs Lancry after three years with the Zero Waste Program of Roubaix.

“We were an average family. We always went to the supermarket to buy ultra-packaged products for the week. We threw out kilos of waste or even threw our papers on the floor. Today, we are shocked when we think back to this lifestyle. Following the “Clean-Up Nature” events organized at the school of their two daughters, Mrs Deleporte and her family realized very quickly that they needed to change their way of living aligned with their values. The Zero Waste Program was there to reach out to them.

The Roubaix Zero Waste Program

This program was one of the projects of the municipal majority in the 2014 elections. The goal: to meet cleanliness issues not just by adding more means, but also by directly addressing the source of the problem: eliminating waste.

The city of Roubaix has chosen to implement a zero waste approach by relying on human solutions rather than technical solutions. “From the beginning, we understood that we had to involve all the stakeholders: citizens, administration, shopkeepers, associations, schools, businesses,” explains Alexandre Garcin, Deputy Mayor of Sustainable Development. “There was above all a real expectation of the citizens. Today, citizens want to get involved. They are looking for solutions to reduce their impact on the planet.”

The city has launched its zero waste family challenge at the end of 2014 by setting a 50% waste reduction target in one year. And very quickly, a hundred families volunteered. They are representatives of the social diversity of the city, more or less aware of environmental issues, but all very voluntary.

The city has provided them with a hook scale to weigh their waste — a weighing at least every two months is requested — and a list of workshops to which they can register freely and free of charge. Each workshop must provide a solution to improve the way it is consumed: make cleaning products, make cosmetics, drink tap water rather than bottled water, use cloth diapers, store fridge, buy in bulk, compost, and so on. After each of the forty proposed workshops, families have a concrete solution and the necessary equipment to implement it immediately.

I no longer have a trash bin at home. I generate 600 to 700 grams of non-recyclables a year. If I had a bin I’ll have to take out it out in 10 years.

A boost to the grabbing of the Program

Beyond the theme of waste avoidance, it is the entire organization of life that is turned upside down. Changes are of course not made overnight but gradually, as and when exchange of good tips between families, training and other workshops that the city sets up. It was enough for the city to launch this exchange platform for people to grab it. “At first, you do not know where that will bring you. Given your awkward situation, you have nothing to lose. And then, after a year of workshops and exchanges, where you learn to spend differently, sort better, and compost, everything is set-up.” “All thanks to the Town Hall because I was not in this before,” says Nieuwjaer, speaking about her shared garden on her terrace covered with pots of all sizes, shapes and colours. Here cherry tomatoes, over-sized tomatoes, here black, green, yellow or orange, there a pear tree, a cherry tree, potatoes, a laurel, some strawberries and other carrots. Fruit and vegetables in abundance between rainwater collectors, earthworm composter and compost bags made from coffee grounds. “You get the coffee marc in a big plastic bag that you close. It macerates for a year. You stir it from time to time and after a year you have compost for your garden. Earthworms love it!” Everything seems so simple on this terrace where all square centimetres are functional. “After four years, I teach others.” Mrs Lancry to clarify: “People think that it is about collecting waste. I explain to them that it is not so, and that it is especially a new way of living.”

We became normal people

Families are now fuelling the Program. “I explain to people how to make a shampoo.” “Me, I accompany them in their shared garden to advise them.” “We make laundry products at workshops.” “We collect newspapers from the parents of students to make briquettes for the fire in winter.” “There is entertainment in schools where we explain to parents the tips.” “I participate in debates or workshops with representatives of the City Council.”

Seeing financial difficulties move away

“Four years ago, I still had money problems, you had to continue to pay your debts, the 15th of the month I had nothing left on the account. I had big overdrafts with my bank and had to live with thirty euros a week for six people. My children did not have a piece of meat on their plate, they ate pasta.” Commitment to a Zero Waste Program and behavioural changes to less waste and more common sense are being made gradually. “The first year, you have to solve your financial problems, so you could not go to buy in bulk right away. You first need to reduce unnecessary expenses, pay rent and eat, that makes sense.” “The second year, you pay your bills, you discuss a plan with the bank, and you start doing some bulk. My technique for getting out of it was to divide the money we had left after the charges in four weeks. Like that, we had enough until the end of the month.” “The third year, problems with the bank fade, so you can do more bulk and install your bins on the balcony.” “The fourth year, everything was settled. Today, I have my food budget, I manage my jars, and there is nothing left in the plates. Peelings of potatoes are ideal for winter soups. Thus they are all frozen.”

In bulk, food is more expensive but it is better for your health. In the end we buy more responsible, thus less but better.

“Doing your own laundry does not take a lot of time when you have the technique and it is twelve euros that are added to your little savings pot. The 1.5 Euros that you will not spend on the three leeks as they come from your garden is again the pot that grows.”

“At the end of 4 years, I have no more worries, I have plenty to eat in my freezer. I have everything I need. We eat healthier fresh vegetables and plates are of a normal size.”

“We do between one hundred and one hundred and fifty euros of savings per month — so from 1000 to 1500 euros per year -. We go to the parks and do outdoor activities with the kids. We do not necessarily save money, but we enjoy more with children every day. Purchases are made differently: clothes are bought in the storehouse, we exchange between cousins, and so savings are made on food, clothing, household products, hygiene and even cosmetics!”

Another family explains: “Since joining the Program, our expenses have decreased by 15 to 20 percent. That’s the size of our savings today.”

An open door to accomplishment

But the term “Zero Waste” is only the tip of the iceberg. What emerges from these families is a certain sense of life found. All told us about sharing, improved social living, better health and pride. Some even have life projects more in harmony with nature.

“Today I spare, I’m happy, I can even say it’s a pride.” “We eat better and have even lost weight: I lost 11 pounds in four years eating healthy, and my husband was 130kg. He’s 95 kilos today. “The Zero Waste Program seems to have had an impact not only on health but also on well-being in general.” “We have more friends.” “Since I’ve been on TV, people have been saying hello to me in the street,” says Madame Lancry.

You have to have the character and the courage to do it, I was in misery, I had no choice. It can be said that ‘Zero Waste’ has brought me out of misery.

People’s eyes have indeed changed: “At first, we did not take the subject seriously. We laughed because we could not get away just because we avoided waste.” “Now a lot of people are telling us: Madam, what are you doing well, you have given me the willingness to do something.”

When we go shopping in supermarkets, we do not talk to anyone, there is no more connection.

“Before we were alone. Now, I have a lot of friends in the garden. In the summer, we bring coffee, eat and laugh together. We find people with whom to talk to each other, it’s good for morale. We challenge ourselves to succeed in growing vegetables. We help each other, it’s the sharing.”

And a family ending our discussion with a broad smile crossing their faces: “Today we have a family project. We will ‘go green’. We can no longer do without nature anymore.”

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