August 04, 2010

Ideas from abroad

My last week in France. Every year, I judge my personal "eco-awareness" by how I react to green ideas abroad. This year, my eyes flashed on a few. Here is what I believe would be worth importing:

- TGV (High Speed Train). When a train can take you to your destination in a 1/3 of the time than a car would, it entices you to use the public transportation. TGV's have always been fast, but they now have allotted tracks, which means that they can go full throttle on their routes. When we land in France (usually in Paris), we take this super fast train to get to our final destination (usually the South of France). The trip takes 2hr40m (by car it would normally take over seven hours). How come the US hasn't caught up to this energy saving technology yet?

- Easy, Organized and Free “One Stop Shop” for Recycling (Dechetterie). Every town here offers ONE drop off point for such items as metal or building scraps, etc... The resident drives up to a selection of recycling dumpsters and dispose of his items, which are later picked up by local recyclers. Where I live, I need to drive three towns over and pay to dispose of such items, and the facility is organized in such way that I stress just thinking about a drop-off. Lesson: Simplify.

- Simple Wood composter: Lincoln Log like. You buy a bundle of wood slats, cut to interlock and mount into a square, and within minutes anyone can set up compost in their backyard. Not only is it plastic-free and easy to build but also easy to transport from the store to its rotting location. I just love the design. It is too heavy to carry with me on the plane, but I am just dying to do so. Anyone out there willing to copy the design and put them on the market in our Home Depot's?

- Package-free brooms. You pick a handle, then a head, both priced separately (if you own a broom with a good handle but a disfunctional head, you can also just change the latter, instead of the whole thing). You can play around with your options, the composition (e.g., boar, silk or synthetic) is indicated on the organized display, and the price tag is a simple bar code sticker on the item. I wish more things were sold this way in the US. As I heard in a recent ad for meat: "You pay for the meat, not the fat"... You pay for the item, not its packaging. Why would a broom need to be wrapped in plastic anyways? Isn't it meant to get dirty?

- Bulk in a large grocery chain (Auchan). That means bulk is more widely available and prices are low (think bulk at Safeway or Walmart, and not just Whole Foods). The selection of staples is not that of Rainbow (the San Francisco bulk mecca), since staples such as salt or flour were missing where I shopped, but the cereal, grain and pasta selection was exciting (better than my local bulk). I confess to also have bought my son's birthday present there. He and I have an affinity for the Haribo brand of candy (I never buy candy but I can't resist this is one). And since we have struggled to find it in bulk in the US (together scouting movie theaters in and around our county), pouring them freely into our reusable bag was a joy. BTW: In France, you can also find bulk in health food stores, Botanic (a home and garden store) and the local farmer's market.

- Service at the Cheese counter. You pick your cheese and they cut it for you on the spot. Easy for a reusable-container user. Contrarily to the toxic cling-wrapping practices in our cheese aisles, I believe that counter service favors not only our health, but also human relations (such as personal feedback and great customer service).

- Selling a product in a practical reusable glass container. Mustard here comes in a choice of measuring cups, kids tumblers (better than sippy cups) and high ball, double, or wine glasses... The idea of selling a product (such as a staple) in a much needed item (such as a drinking glass which often breaks) is ingenious. If I lived here, I probably would not bother making mustard at home and would instead buy our glassware assortment (and replacement) that way. Speaking of mustard: In Paris, the Maille store (next to La Madeleine) will refill your jar.

- The percentage of people bringing their reusable bags to the grocery store is the same as people not bringing their bags in the US. Here, if you forget your grocery bag, you have to buy one. It might only be $.10/bag, but charging for them is the quickest solution to the earth-damaging disposable grocery bag. For those of you living in CA, please sign the petition supporting the ban of single-use plastic bags!

- Wrapper around the baguette. Private bakeries sell fresh bread in even the smallest towns. Bread does not come bagged in intoxicating plastic but simply tied with a single, reusable/recyclable/compostable paper sheet (just big enough for a hand to hold).

-Bulk everyday wine. You bring your own container (any size) to the wine vendor, and fill your selection with a pump (gas station like). It is not only eco-friendly (saving bottles and corks) but also financially friendly (cheaper than bottles and thus a good incentive to go green). This is what I have been pestering my local wine region about (Sonoma and Napa). I have found something similar at Guglielmo, but they are far (we need to make a weekend out of it when we go), they refill only one type of red (which becomes tiring), and they do the refilling only during specific events. If more wineries offered the pump service, these problems would be solved.

I am not saying that France is all that, far from it. I have my frustrations here too, with unsustainable practices (the amount of SUV's increase every year), missing infrastructure (thrift stores as we know them are practically nonexistent) and bad products on the store shelves (such as disposable ice cube bags). But I think that we can learn from each other and share sustainable ideas.

Have you seen something abroad to reduce one's waste?