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How the French are burning garbage to heat homes

In a little more than a week, a recovering Paris will host world leaders for the next UN climate change conference. They hope to come to agreements on how to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Paris itself is innovating one way to reduce its carbon footprint – by turning garbage into electricity and heat. Special correspondent Lisa Desai has the story.

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  • LISA DESAI:

    Rose Burke and John Newman, an American couple that moved to France over 20 years ago, live in a three bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Paris. Most of their heat and electricity is powered by renewable sources, which was important to them.

  • JOHN NEWMAN, PARIS HOMEOWNER:

    The eco-friendly aspect of the building appealed at least to me. Why not try to live like the things that I care about?

  • ROSE BURKE, PARIS HOME OWNER:

    This is the first apartment he got excited about.

  • LISA DESAI:

    Excited that part of their heat and hot water comes from garbage. The process starts when they separate their recyclables from their non-recyclables.

  • JOHN NEWMAN, PARIS HOMEOWNER:

    So this is the garbage room. This is where we throw our garbage and recycling, and it's quiet right now, but sometimes you can hear this great whooshing sound of it being carried pneumatically away to the plant.

  • LISA DESAI:

    The tubes take the trash from John and Rose's building to a plant called Isseane, one of three facilities in greater Paris where garbage that can't be recycled is converted into energy, some of which the plants use to run themselves. Not all of the garbage comes in through the tubes; some is brought in by trucks from surrounding neighborhoods and towns. Until recently, Christophe Alferez oversaw the plant's operations.

  • LISA DESAI:

    How much trash is brought here every year?

  • CHRISTOPHE ALFEREZ, ISSEANE EFW PLANT:

    We receive 460,000 tons of waste per year in this facility.

  • LISA DESAI:

    The trucks empty the garbage into this pit, which holds 9,000 tons of trash. Then this machine picks it up and dumps it in a giant incinerator.

  • LISA DESAI:

    Ok, what's happening right now?

  • CHRISTOPHE ALFEREZ:

    This is the combustion room. It is heated to 1,000 degrees. This is where we eliminate the trash by burning it, and we also recoup energy from the trash through the transformation of water into steam.

  • LISA DESAI:

    The energy created by burning garbage heats up water running through a network of boilers and pipes and is transformed into steam. Some steam is converted into electricity. Most of the steam is sold to CPCU, a company that converts it into heat. A byproduct of this process is ash. Every year, 80,000 tons of ash from this plant is mixed with concrete used to pave roads and sidewalks all over Paris. The plant's director of technical services, Pierre Hirtzberger, gets a lot of questions about how safe it is to burn trash and if the emissions created during incineration, known as flue gas, are dangerous.

  • PIERRE HIRTZBERGER, DIRECTOR GENERAL TECHNICAL SERVICES, SYCTOM:

    We have flue gas that you have to treat, and we put a lot of money and technical equipment to make sure there is no impact on the health of the people who are living next door.

  • LISA DESAI:

    Burning waste seems to be a process that would create a lot of pollution. Is that the case here?

  • PIERRE HIRTZBERGER, DIRECTOR GENERAL TECHNICAL SERVICES, SYCTOM:

    The emission levels are as low as we can do it. There is a European legislation for the quality of the flue gas that is coming from this kind of facility, but in our facility we reach levels that are lower than what's the legislation ask us to do.

  • LISA DESAI:

    Isseane and the two other waste-to-energy plants produce 200,000 megawatt hours of electricity every year. That's enough electricity to power 40,000 apartments in France. The plants also produce the steam to supply 40 percent of Paris's heating needs, which is currently enough to heat 200,000 apartments, all 24 of the city's hospitals, and dozens of famous tourist sites and museums, including the Louvre. All that power generated by garbage saves 300,000 tons of fossil fuels and avoids the release of 900,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. That's equivalent to taking almost 200,000 cars off the road. Mark Barrier is the Managing Director of CPCU, the company that distributes heat from the plants. He says incineration is an efficient way to turn waste into a resource.

  • MARK BARRIER, MANAGING DIRECTOR, CPCU:

    The waste that you are disposing in the landfill will be there in 10 years, 100 years. Heavy metals and plastic and everything will be there. So using this kind of material being properly prepared in order to provide heat and to avoid greenhouse gas production, I think that's good, that's a good idea.

  • LISA DESAI:

    CPCU is exploring new ways to capture and recycle heat that would otherwise be wasted – heat emitted by data servers, factories, trains, and even sewage.

  • MARK BARRIER, MANAGING DIRECTOR, CPCU:

    All this wasted heat, I mean, if you don't reuse, you just burn fossil fuels, and then you increase the global warming.

  • LISA DESAI:

    The French government grants subsidies for first-time home buyers. But for those who purchase energy-efficient homes, like Rose Burke and John Newman, the subsidies are even larger. In their case, nearly 40 percent of their mortgage is interest-free.

  • ROSE BURKE, PARIS HOMEOWNER:

    A lot of new builds are going up as energy efficient, because they know that homeowners can get a break on their loan.

  • LISA DESAI:

    They also say their heating bills are lower. The only difference they've noticed is they can't raise the heat above 75 degrees.

  • JOHN NEWMAN, PARIS HOMEOWNER:

    You can't really sort of crank it up and live in a sauna; it's just not designed to do that. But it stays at a sort of level temperature nearly all year round.

  • ROSE BURKE, PARIS HOMEOWNER:

    I feel I'm part of the solution rather than continuing to be part of the problem. I guess we could always do a little bit better, but by buying this place I feel we're making a contribution.

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