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6 zero-waste lessons from Paris

A visit to the French capital offers great lessons in how to make less waste.

This week I was a princess and got to go to Paris for a magical getaway. (A princess who offsets her carbon, of course – I did it here.) It was both a vacation and a chance to work on a personal project – but my TreeHugger heart never turns off, so naturally I was taking mental notes the whole time.

I couldn't help but compare the Parisian way to the convenience-culture of my beloved yet messy New York City, and to the United States in general. I can't say that these are universal truths found in all of Paris, but this is what I observed and it was inspiring to see a big city not filled with giant swirling whirlwinds of litter. (Which is what I saw when I got back home, alas.)

1. Swap the clamshell armor

berries paris© Melissa Breyer

The amount of protective packaging in The States is obscene; in Paris, even the more fragile fruits are sold in little cardboard boats rather than spaceships of PET plastic. I asked one fruit seller about waste and damage and he told me it wasn't a problem – which must be a benefit of a different kind of food system. If one is shipping giant loads of fruit across the globe to, say, my Whole Foods in Brooklyn, plastic armor may be necessary for protection. A more local food system is conducive to less packaging, not to mention tastier produce.

LESSON: Look for less packaging in the produce aisle or shop at the farmer's market if you can.

2. Rethink take-out food packaging

tart paris© A take-away pastry in Paris with minimal packaging. Photo: Melissa Breyer

In New York, most places selling a piece of pie to-go would place it in a foam or plastic box, which would go in a bag, with napkins, and at least twice as many plastic utensils than one would require. In Paris, all the baked goods we got – even slices of tart and pie – came wrapped in a simple piece of paper, handed over directly from the person working … no box, no bag, no napkin, no six forks and knives.

LESSON: If a shop doesn't offer minimal packaging, at least ask them to leave out the all the extras. Alternatively, bring your own container or make your own food …

3. Eat slower fast food

sandwiches in paris© Felix Lipov / Shutterstock

We walked 10 to 15 miles a day traversing the city, and we came across very few big fast food chains – which meant, that, unlike in New York City, trash cans were not spilling over with McDonald's bags and soda cups. But that's not to say that people weren't grabbing quick meals. Bakeries and shops all over have beautiful selections of simple, relatively inexpensive, paper-wrapped sandwiches that can be picked up for a quicker meal. Likewise, maybe not everyone is supposed to eat a croissant every day for breakfast, but for €1 you can grab a gorgeous croissant that comes in a small slip of paper; in terms of waste, it is much less egregious than all the packaging that would come with an American fast-food breakfast.

LESSON Look for alternatives to typical fast food, that comes with less waste.

4. Take a proper coffee break

Another thing that Parisian trash cans are not spilling over with is to-go coffee cups. I saw maybe five people on my whole trip drinking coffee while walking. At all hours of the day, cafes are filled with coffee drinkers either having a quick one in a ceramic cup at a counter or having a sit-down one at a table. Rather than the enormous and expensive sugar-caffeine concoctions that require a plastic-coated-paper bucket we are accustomed to in the U.S., Parisians drink small, affordable cups of coffee without waste. And it's not just for the leisurely. During coffee break time, on several occasions I saw whole construction crews gathered around a counter sipping little cappuccinos – and the cafes are prepared for quick turnarounds.

Paris is not alone in this, see: Why we need to start drinking coffee like Italians and Why we should all embrace fika, the Swedish coffee break.

LESSON: Slow down, drink a small strong coffee.

5. Hydrate like it's 1989

I didn't see anybody drinking water/soda/juice from a plastic bottle on the street. And thus, I didn't see any plastic water/soda/juice bottles filling trash cans or rolling around on the sidewalks. This is a mystery – how do people survive without hydrating every few minutes?? It reminded me of the olden days, before the invasion of the plastic bottle, when we would drink water at home and from drinking fountains or water dispensers or other various glass-and-water scenarios when we were out. Once when having lunch, a couple came and sat down at the table next to us, ordered two orange juices, drank the juice from the glasses, paid the bill, and left. Imagine.

LESSON: You will not die if you don't drink water constantly. If you are worried about it, use a refillable bottle.

6. Totes for tout le monde!

plastic bags© Emilija Miljkovic / Shutterstock

When I look at photos of old New York City versus current New York City, it's always the plastic bags that get me. It seems like at least half the people are carrying single-use plastic bags these days. And of course many bags escape and fly through the air like balloons (on their way to the ocean to murder sea creatures, presumably), or else they get stuck in trees where they live forever.

In Paris, I saw about three people with plastic bags – everyone else had all types of reusables. There were net bags, canvas totes, granny carts, and actual straw market baskets, among other solutions. You know why? Because France banned plastic shopping bags as part of a 2015 energy bill, and a ban on plastic produce bags went into effect in 2017. Seeing how effortlessly people use their reusable bags really makes one wonder about places in the U.S. that don't have bans on plastic bags, and even worse, have bans on plastic bag bans! I mean really, who's running the show here?

LESSON: Look French and carry a net shopping bag.

A visit to the French capital offers great lessons in how to make less waste.