INTERNATIONAL: France Targets Hazardous And Office Wastes

New management approaches are solving two waste accumulation problems in France. One program collects household hazardous wastes in customized vans; the other recovers toner cartridges from offices.

Essone County, outside of Paris, has hired an environmental firm to dispatch two "kangaroo" vans to communities on market days. The vehicles have separate containers for battery collection, paints and solvents, neon lamps and expired medicines.

Weekly collections have been averaging about 660 pounds, including 60 pounds of batteries, countywide. Participation is encouraged through newsletters, a school outreach program and environmental club activities including the construction of a model to show citizens where household hazardous materials accumulate.

The collection vans are a variation of the "toxinette," a large trailer used in the Le Mans region of western France since 1992. Toxinettes stop at various collection points for a couple of days so that residents can dispose of their used paints, oil, batteries, cleaning fluids, aerosol spray cans and other household hazardous waste. Mobile collection schemes also have been reported in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, England and some German cities.

Recycling toner cartridges from printers and photocopiers has an enormous market, according to the French newsmagazine L'Express. With approximately 3 million laser printer cartridges being discarded each year in France, the present recovery rate is only about 5 to 10 percent. The United States reportedly recovers 40 percent. The recycled cartridges cost as little as 30 percent of the new ones, but with no loss in quality.

Seizing this opportunity, entrepreneur Serge Chagnoleau founded Handi-Terre (translated Handi-Earth) about two years ago to recover used cartridges.

Seven of the firm's current 20 employees are responsible for collection; the rest are handicapped workers who take the cartridges apart and clean them at a sheltered workshop in the city of Orleans, south of Paris. The firm then sells the cartridges to companies that reconditions them for resale.

One of Handi-Terre's collectors, Lionel Searles, begins a typical work day by making phone calls to potential donors throughout the region. Armed with phrases such as "ecology plus job creation," "help to the handicapped" and "free collection," he readily gains access to firms willing to cooperate with Handi-Terre. As Searles explained, his work is not a matter of selling something but enlisting support for a worthwhile cause.

As Searles' collection rate rises (see chart), so does the number of people employed. The baseline is 600 cartridges collected per month, which generates one job for dismantling and cleaning the cartridges plus two jobs for reconditioning work. The pay-off point begins at between 1,200 and 1,500 collections a month.

The network of participating firms is widening. Twenty-five large businesses have signed contracts, and national-scale enterprises are now indicating an interest, according to L'Express. Chagnoleau plans to meet a five-year goal of several hundred employees, and ultimately plans to expand his work force of 2,000.

In a country suffering from serious unemployment, viable businesses are welcome. Between 1990 and 1993, the ranks of the jobless swelled by more than 27 percent to more than 3 million, with more than 30 percent of whom had been out of work for at least one year.

Chagnoleau's next step is to create a company called Encre (Ink) to recondition the cartridges and then sell them directly. "Our calling is to propose an entire range of solutions to the treatment of information-age office waste," he said.