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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

French Redesign Trash Burning

Air Date: Week of

Take a 12th century cathedral town, the newest technology in trash burning plants, combine them with the latest environmental standards plus the French aesthetic sensibility, and a unique incineration experiment is born. Sarah Chayes reports from Chartres.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Imagine a garbage incinerator. Yecch, right? Well, now think again. Think of an airy, modern building, planted in a wooded park with a view across wheat fields to a twelfth-century cathedral. No chimney, no noise, no smell. In France, where almost a third of all household waste is burned, a new generation of incineration plants combines the latest technology and environmental standards with a touch of beauty. Sarah Chayes reports.

(Machinery, a man speaking)

CHAYES: On the upstairs floor of a rusty building made of blue corrugated metal, there's a control room. Old knobs and dials with thick glass faces cover a wall. A workman sits at a swivel chair looking out an inclined window at a pile of garbage.

(A man speaks in French)

CHAYES: I'm mixing my trash, he explains, as he maneuvers a huge metal claw using a joystick on his chair. To hold down the temperature in the incinerator oven, he has to put older, fermented garbage together with the cardboard boxes that just arrived.

(Trash being moved)

CHAYES: This is the older incineration plant for the town of Chartres. As you pass through its entrails, acrid dust in the air burns your eyes. But not 100 yards away is its replacement. Workers are just putting on the finishing touches.


CHAYES: It's a sleek white building with a curved facade and an airy portico, a piece of architecture. Plant director Jean-Francois Nottin takes visitors on an enthusiastic trip, scampering up and down the metal staircases inside. He explains he went beyond what the district of Chartres asked for to win the contract.

NOTTIN: [Speaks in French] TRANSLATOR: Bidding for contracts like this turns on 2 points. The environmental quality of the garbage treatment, no pollution, no smell, no noise, and the aesthetic quality of the building. We don't make piles of junk like next door any more.

CHAYES: Elegant incineration plants like his are springing up across Europe. In France, it's partly due to a government policy aimed at reducing garbage dumps and landfills. This plant, called Orisane, filters and scrubs its smoke to capture 98% of its pollutants. Air inside is at a lower pressure than outside, so smells don't get out. It recycles its dirty water and even generates electricity. Nottin explains how the heat from the garbage furnace boils water and the steam turns a turbine.

NOTTIN: [Speaks in French]

CHAYES: The plant powers itself and will sell its excess electricity, about 80% of what it generates, to the French power company. But for Nottin, it's not enough to just avoid being a nuisance. He wants to be a positive feature in the Chartres landscape.

NOTTIN: [Speaks in French] TRANSLATOR: Incineration plants shouldn't be hidden any more, like something we are ashamed of. We live in an industrial world, and the treatment of our waste should be integrated into the life of the community.

CHAYES: Orisane includes a conference room for town functions. It's meant to be seen from the nearby Cathedral of Chartres, a breathtaking masterpiece of Gothic architecture.

(Papers being ruffled)

CHAYES: In his bright Paris office decorated with multicolored collages, architect Jean-Marie Schimpff flips through his drawings for the Orisane plant.

(Ruffling continues)

CHAYES: Schimpff admits it was a challenge to design an incinerator in the shadow of the cathedral. He applied discoveries in optical science often used for military camouflage to help the plant blend into the landscape. And beyond such visual effects, he also designed the incinerator to be an opera house.

SCHIMPFF: The Mayor of Chartres, during a town meeting, has been asking whether it could be possible to convert the installation when the furnace would be obsolete in, say, 25 years, into an opera. I first thought it was a joke, so I came to him later on and asked was it actually serious this question. I said, well, we shall invest in a building which we want to be designed with some particular cares to respond to the landscape.

CHAYES: So, an opera house it's to be, with a seating capacity of 2,000. The garbage pit is designed to become a perfect orchestra pit. Daniel Blervaques is the Mayor of Carrieres, a village just west of Paris, host to another new generation waste plant. He also thinks incinerators should be lovely.

BLERVAQUES: [Speaks in French]

CHAYES: He says environmental policy has to take into account the setting, too, so the architecture of these buildings is just as vital as the technical side.

(Mechanical sounds)

CHAYES: Inside the factory with its brightly-painted metal pipes overhead, much of the technical innovation is devoted to smoke treatment. Plant manager Serge Yvain points to where the smoke is raised in temperature and ammonia is injected to neutralize a toxic compound called dioxin.

(A man shouts)

CHAYES: Of course, all this care costs money. As classy as these incinerators are, this attitude is causing some concern in the French Environment Ministry. Patrick Fragman is in charge of pollution issues.

FRAGMAN: Many local communities tried to design big, very big centers for incinerating waste, since the service providers were saying we just build a big factory and you will get rid of your waste, make it go away.

CHAYES: The Ministry is glad these new incinerators are replacing the old, smoky ones, and there's a schedule to phase out substandard plants by the year 2000. But Fragman says incineration should not be seen as a cure-all. Recent measures, including fiscal incentives, are designed to reinforce slightly different priorities.

FRAGMAN: To set up recycling operations before trying to set the size of incineration or dumping. To have a real and fair balance between all those options, which are recycling, incineration, dumping.

(Loud machinery)

CHAYES: At the huge Chartres plant, Jean-Francois Nottin looks lovingly at the still-empty garbage pit. Two thousand six or seven hundred tons of trash it'll hold.

NOTTIN: [Speaks in French, laughs]

CHAYES: I want to see it full up to there, he says. People have to make trash, lots and lots of trash. Not exactly what the Environment Ministry has in mind, even if an orchestra could fit nicely in that same pit. For Living on Earth, I'm Sarah Chayes in Chartres.



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