From 1 January 2024, the French government made composting mandatory for every individual, household, and business in the country. Estimates say that 82 kilos of compostable waste is thrown away per person each year and the law could significantly boost the country’s feedstock pool for its circular bioeconomy.
We look at France’s circular initiatives to date and what the new law means for various businesses that draw on organic waste.
The new law
Starting from the first day of 2024, French households and businesses are required by law to separate their organic waste. From there, they must ensure it is collected from home or that it gets dropped off at a municipal collection point.
The scrap will go towards creating composts and fertilisers, designed to cut back on damaging chemical fertilisers used in agriculture. The government also has plans to use it for methanisation, a process whereby the methane escaping from decomposing organic waste is used to generate electricity or heat. This supports France’s energy transition law which aims for 10% of the country’s gas consumption to come from renewable sources in 2030.
To help households and businesses comply with the composting law, all local authorities across the country must offer collection bins for biowaste to all its residents. The Environment and Energy Management Agency (Ademe) has a budget of €100 million Euros to help local implementation measures.
Depending on whether public authorities choose to contract collection to the private sector, this law might be a boon to existing startups in organic waste collection. One French biowaste startup Green Phoenix is hoping to win public contracts from the Strasbourg public authorities to conduct city centre waste collection.
A similar enterprise is Les Alchimistes, a startup that has been collecting bio-waste from homes and businesses around 12 cities including Lyon, Nantes, and Marseilles via various low-carbon transport options, including a horse-drawn carriage.
The law goes some way to addressing the problem that France still burns much of its organic waste. An ‘incineration tax’ from 2009 was meant to combat this but contained a loophole that made incineration for energy recovery get a tax break. This made recovering and reusing material still much less economically appealing than burning for fuel – a far less efficient use for biomass than turning it into agricultural inputs or biomaterials.
Appetite for change
The Law Against Waste aligned broadly with France’s Economic Recovery Plan, aimed at sustainably boosting the French economy during and after the pandemic. Increased global supply chain disruptions in key imports like fertiliser and food after the Russian invasion of Ukraine only added to the appeal of strengthening waste valorisation.
Even before sustainable economic stimulus became a national policy priority from 2020 onwards, some local authorities and communities were independently setting up schemes for things like neighbourhood composting, indicating broad appetite for circular initiatives in the country.
For example, Besançon in eastern France had prior plans to collect bio-waste buckets from the city centre via cargo bike, a scheme they wish to extend to more residents in 2024.
After the Greens won local elections in Strasbourg, they implemented a sorting and collecting system for organic waste which they plan to scale up to more and more residents as time goes on.
One flaw in the compulsory composting law is that it lacks enforcement mechanisms, making compliance entirely voluntary in practice. The French government has not backed up these targets with a system of fines, for example.
Anticipating the criticism, the Ministry of Ecology toldBloomberg Green that the government plans “strong actions” to make sure the law has an impact, including a large-scale public information campaign this autumn to encourage participation.
NGO Zero Waste Europe also pointed out that less than one in three French people have access to local composting facilities. The quality and coverage of organic waste collection varies around the country, undermining the importance of robust and universal public infrastructure for scaling the circular bioeconomy nationwide.
How serious is France about circularity?
France already has a relatively strong track record on the circular economy. In fact, 2020 European data shows that France had the third highest rates of circular material usage in the EU after the Netherlands and Belgium in first and second place. 19.3% of France’s total material use consisted of materials that had been recycled.
The country has also shown commitment to organic waste management over the last ten years. Even by 2016, the country had outlawed supermarkets from disposing of unsold food. Food waste in the country decreased by 10% between 2016 and 2020.
2018 saw the first significant move towards a nationwide waste valorisation policy in the form of the French Roadmap for the Circular Economy. For biowaste, it proposed ambitious plans for how it could support agriculture, a significant part of the French economy. It emphasised the need to return all organic waste to the soil, including through fertilisers and composts.
The Roadmap also called for quality controls on biowaste-based farming inputs. It wanted to strengthen existing quality standards for circular fertilisers by making sure the final product does not become degraded through contamination with organic materials or lower quality biowaste. It also envisaged a labelling of fertilisers to point the consumer towards products from high quality recycled materials.
The document set out broad policy aims but implementation has proceeded through specific laws. One of these was the 2020 ‘Loi 2020-105’, the law against waste and for the circular economy. This is where the composting rules have originated.
This 2020 anti-waste legislation first made composting compulsory nationwide for entities producing more than 10 tonnes a year. This was extended in 2023 to any entity generating over five tonnes of organic waste per year. The recent rule for households to participate was the final step that made composting compulsory for all.
The 2020 anti-waste law does not just deal with organic waste, however. By 2026, it will ban plastic packaging from fruits and vegetables altogether to remove one of the biggest sources of plastic waste pollution in the environment – single waste plastics.
Will biobased businesses benefit?
Scaling the circular economy needs cheap and reliable flows of waste feedstock. One of the biggest barriers to this is cost. Since household and business waste are scattered across wide areas, it can be uneconomic for companies to collect and pool it.
This is a task that is better performed by national and local governments, which have the resources and infrastructural control to collect feedstock from wider areas efficiently.
Yet it remains to be seen whether the composting laws translate into growth of private circular enterprises more generally. The law makes no mention of using municipal waste for biomaterials and green chemicals, listing only biogas, fertiliser and compost.
Most of France’s bioeconomy is devoted to these more traditional biobased industries and the law is a boon for them. One example of a company set to benefit from the French government’s push to valorise its waste for agricultural inputs and bioenergy is Suez Groups, which has a BioResourceLab in Narbonne dedicated to researching methods of recovering waste for use in bioenergy, biomaterials, alternative fertiliser and molecules for green chemistry.
However, the composting laws will be less beneficial for circular waste startups diversifying into biochemicals for pharmaceutical and food applications. These include Hubcycle, which converts food and plant-based waste into raw materials for the food and personal care sectors. Applications are wide-ranging: fibres, food colourants, and plant-based meat ingredients. La Patisserie Numerique is another startup that draws on organic waste. Based in Paris, La Patisserie Numerique uses patented 3D printing technology to turn food waste into desserts. Businesses like this will still have to rely on their own means of sourcing waste.
Some think that the government moving into offering circular services will make it more difficult for startups, such as those working in organic waste collection, to justify their existence. Whether the interests of public and private circular actors will clash on the terrain of waste collection and management depends on how local authorities choose to implement the compulsory composting law.