Roubaix, a city of riches

Circular economy helps families to get out of vicious circles and towards ever more fulfilment.


Alexandre Lemille

This article by Alexandre Lemille was featured in The Beam #10 – Local Heroes of the Energy Transition. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


“The fridge was always full before! Now it is always empty!” exclaims Mrs Deleporte, a nurse, mother and active member of the Zero Waste Program of the city of Roubaix, in France. This is how she makes her first point on the subject of abundance, so it doesn’t exactly make sense to me at first. That is until later that day when Mrs Nieuwjaer, a woman active in the service economy and representative of the Zero Waste Program, made the same remark, that it strucks me: refrigerators were invented to store food in the continuity of the cold chain of large retail and agribusiness companies. Refrigerators, it seems, no longer make sense for families who have a garden or who buy only fresh products.

A cornucopia 

After four years of gardening, thanks to a program of shared gardens that the city of Roubaix has put in place among its fellow citizens, Mrs Nieuwjaer produces so much produce that she has already started to redistribute her fruits and vegetables. Some are consumed fresh, another portion is frozen for winter or later consumption, and another portion is for the community. From her family to her neighbours and friends of the garden, everybody in her circle of relatives benefits from her gardening activity. “For example, I have too many tomatoes, so I share them with my kids, garden people or neighbours,” she exclaims. Mrs Deleporte has the same approach: “It brought us to sharing; what a pleasure to receive and share a meal,” she explains as I was sitting around the table at a meal she had invited me to on the spot before starting with the interview. The Zero Waste concept is rooted for people in Roubaix and it goes far beyond the simple concept of no-waste: it’s about profound generosity. 


Mrs- Deleporte - @ Ville de Roubaix Mrs- Deleporte - @ Ville de Roubaix

When in difficult times

Life has not always been easy for these families with limited financial resources. “When you are in trouble financially, you are no longer living the ‘real’ life, you are suffering and you cannot cope. That’s why we had to change something,” explains Mrs Nieuwjaer. The feeling of being alone in a difficult time, coupled with a certain embarrassment, makes it impossible for you to ask for help, she explained. “I lived in precarious conditions for 20 years, it was a nightmare. When I could not pay my car, one came to seize it. I almost lost my home because I had to feed my children over paying my rent. I had no other choice. I had to go to the Restos du Coeur (a French food charity) for a year to be able to bounce back while working part-time. With my husband, we found ourselves unemployed at the same time; he was in the metal industry and me in the textile industry. Since then, and it’s now been 22 years, I have been working as a cleaner for five different businesses. I have not seen much of my daughter growing up and my husband is retired. He was never able to find a job again, because today, you would have to know about robotics.”

Mrs Lancry’s story is another one of a life in financial difficulties, but her situation has recently improved. “I used to be very dependent on the social centre. I could not do anything without their help. Today, I take part in the activities of the very same social centre,” says Mrs Lancry after three years with Roubaix’s Zero Waste Program. “We were an average family. We always went to the supermarket to buy ultra-packaged products for the week. We were throwing out kilos of waste every month and we were even the kind of people who would throw bits of paper rubbish on the floor. Today, we are shocked when we think back to this lifestyle. Following the ‘Clean-Up Nature’ events organised at their two daughters’ school, Mrs Deleporte and her family realised 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. 

Political will mixed with citizenship inclusion

The Roubaix Zero Waste Program was one of the promises of the municipal majority in the 2014 elections. Their goal was to meet cleanliness issues 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: the citizens but also the administration, shopkeepers, associations, schools, businesses,” explains Alexandre Garcin, Deputy Mayor of Sustainable Development. “We realised there was, above all, a real expectation from the citizens. People want to get involved today, 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 represent the social diversity of the city and different levels of awareness when it comes to environmental issues, but they gladly give their time.

The city has provided the families with a hook scale to weigh their waste (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 consumption habits; here you can learn how to make your own cleaning products or cosmetics, why to switch to drinking tap water rather than bottled water, or even the benefits of using cloth diapers, buying in bulk, composting, and many other useful actions each individual can take to reduce their impact. After each of the 40 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’d only have to take it out every 10 years,” said one of the participants.

Mrs. Lancry - @ Ville de Roubaix Mrs. Lancry - @ Ville de Roubaix

A boost to the kickstart of the program

Beyond the theme of waste avoidance, it is the entire network of Roubaix citizens’ life that has been turned upside down. Changes are of course not made overnight, but with the exchange of good tips between families and with the trainings and other workshops that the city sets up, the changes are steady. The city just had to launch the platform, and the citizens accepted the challenge. “When you embark on this kind of experiment, you don’t know where that will bring you. But given your situation, you have nothing to lose. And then, after a year of workshops and exchanges, where you learn how to spend differently, sort better and compost, everything is set up.” 

We met Ms. Nieuwjaer on her terrace, which is covered with pots of all sizes, shapes and colours. Some cherry tomatoes here, a pot of over-sized tomatoes there, many other sorts of black, green, yellow or orange tomatoes in other places, there a pear tree, a cherry tree, potatoes, a laurel, some strawberries and carrots. Fruit and vegetables grow here in abundance between rainwater collectors, earthworm composter and compost bags made from coffee grounds. “You get the coffee ground 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 every square centimetre is functional. “After four years, I teach others.”

Families are now fuelling the program. “I explain to people how to make a shampoo.” “Me, I accompany and advise people in their shared garden.” “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.”

“Today we have a family project. We will ‘go green’. We can no longer do without nature anymore.”

Moving away from financial difficulties

Commitment to a Zero Waste Program and behavioural changes to less waste and more common sense are being made gradually, as this other participant explains: “Four years ago, I still had money problems. After I had paid my debts, every 15th of the month, I had nothing left in my account. I had big overdrafts with my bank and had to live with 30 euros a week for six people. My children did not have a piece of meat on their plate, they ate pasta. The first year, I had to solve our financial problems, so I could not buy in bulk right away. I started to reduce unnecessary expenses, pay rent and eat. The second year is when you pay your bills, you discuss a plan with the bank, and you start buying things in bulk. My technique for getting out of it was to divide the money we had left after the mandatory costs in four weeks. Operating like that, we had enough until the end of the month. The third year, problems with the bank faded, so we were able to buy more in bulk and install our bins on the balcony. The fourth year, everything was settled. Today, I have my food budget, I manage my jars, and there is no wastage: potato peelings are ideal for winter soups, for instance, so we froze them all for future use. In bulk, food is more expensive but it is better for your health. In the end we buy more responsibly. Doing your own laundry does not take a lot of time when you have the technique and it is 12 euros that are added to your little savings pot. The 1,50€ that you will not spend on buying three leeks because they come from your garden is again the pot that grows. At the end of those four years, I have no more worries, I have plenty to eat in my freezer, and I have everything I need. We eat healthier fresh vegetables and plates are normal size. We even manage to save between 100 and 150 euros per month, from 1000 to 1500 euros per year. We go to the parks and do outdoor activities with the kids. We do it not necessarily to save money, but we enjoy more time with the children every day. And most of all, our 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

“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,” said a Roubaix citizen. The term ‘Zero Waste’ is only the tip of the iceberg. What emerges from these families is a certain meaning to life. “Today I can save up, I’m happy about it, I can even say it’s pride.” All of the people I have met here in Roubaix told me about sharing, improved social living, better health and pride. Some even have life projects more in harmony with nature. “We eat better and have even lost weight: I lost 11 pounds in four years eating healthier, and my husband, who was 130 kilos, is down to 95 today.” 

The Zero Waste Program seems to have had an impact not only on health but also on wellbeing in general, and it has been empowering for the inhabitants of the city as some of the people here told me. “We have more friends,” explains one of the people here. “Since I’ve been on TV, people have been saying hello to me in the street,” says Madame Lancry. People’s attitudes have also 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 you are doing is great, you have given me the willingness to do something.”

More than anything, the program has brought a sense of community to the villagers. “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, it’s good for morale. We challenge ourselves to succeed in growing vegetables. We help each other, it’s the sharing. When you go shopping in supermarkets, it’s completely the opposite, you don’t talk to anyone, there is no connection.”

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

This great adventure in Roubaix is replicable all over the world. It needs a little bit of political will, and a few great individuals who will volunteer to challenge their community. Maybe it can start with you.

@ Ville de Roubaix
@ Ville de Roubaix


Alexandre Lemille, MBA, focuses on a societal model where humans are part of the upcoming circular economic framework, here they are considered nature – at the heart of the regeneration of the biosphere they depend upon to live – and, they are considered endless available energies that will aim at restoring a world at scale focused on human prosperity first thanks to material circularity.

This article was featured in The Beam #10 – Local Heroes of the Energy Transition. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.