Roubaix, a City of Riches

Mrs and Mr. Nieuwjaer, one of the Zero Waste family (Credit: Ville de Roubaix)

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!

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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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.