12 Jul 2019 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Tapping trash for gold

It all started five years ago, when Coline Billon discovered the stunning natural beauty of Peru. Home to the ancient Incas, complete with colourful mountain ranges, exotic birds and crisp air at high attitude, Peru had given her a new perspective.

So, when she came back to Nantes, in France, she found that she was being much more aware of environmental issues in her urban city hub. Specifically, she began noticing the massive amounts of food waste being sent to incineration.  

When she investigated the issue further, 28-year-old Billon found that, globally, about 40 per cent of waste—including food—is openly burned. When incinerated, harmful toxins, furan and black carbon are released into the atmosphere.

She notes that a third of all food produced globally is wasted every year, and its disposal often contributes to air pollution, generating unnecessary emissions, in addition to representing wasteful practices.

Food scraps are discarded, but they can be turned into a rich resource. Photo by Ana Luisa Araujo.

UN Environment’s Sustainable Lifestyles Programme Officer, Garrette Clark, says: “Food waste is a key climate challenge and something we can all do something about. Wasting food has carbon impacts from the disposal as well as from the growing, processing and distribution perspective. Raising awareness and showing that change is possible it a critical first step.

“In addition to buying what’s needed locally, buy sustainably produced food, learn about practices and labels, talk about healthy and sustainable food with vendors and producers. Start an urban garden, school garden or kitchen garden. It is critical to support organizations, policies, programmes and people that promote more sustainable food systems.”

Unsatisfied with the status quo, Billon decided to start tackling food waste herself. Now, she is cycling around Nantes to find inedible food scraps and turn them into “black gold”—a rich compost allowing local farmers, gardeners and supermarkets to supply nutritious foods.

We spoke with Billion about her enterprise La Tricyclerie, to find out how she tackles food waste and creates new, valuable resources for the economy at the same time.

Coline cycles around Nantes finding inedible food scraps for “black gold”. Credit: Ana Luisa Araujo.

What inspired you to start up your enterprise?

When I came back from working in Peru, I noticed the huge amount of food we waste. I became interested in composting, and as I started speaking with restaurants and grocery shops, I realized they had no solution for their composting needs. In the end, I decided to combine these interests of mine with cycling—Nantes is a very bike-friendly city, and of course cycling has no environmental impact.

Have you seen an increase in the awareness on food waste issues recently?

I think so. For example, a wholesale market for food and vegetables has recently launched in Nantes that explicitly aims to solve the food waste problem that other markets have. In addition, a lot of other local and regional solutions to food waste are popping up, like an app which redistributes food waste at the end of the day, and other local collection projects.

What is your vision and goals for the future? How will you increase the positive impact you’re having?

Our two most important goals for the near future are to improve our existing activities and build a sustainable business model. This will probably involve outsourcing some of the composting, which takes up about half our time. Secondly, we want to set up training sessions to help others adopt our model and help it spread to other cities. We are working on developing a network of La Tricyclerie in different cities all over the country. This will significantly increase our impact and will hopefully also inspire policy change in the long run.

What is your advice for anyone wanting to tackle food waste?

Most importantly: eat local and organic food whenever possible. This not only cuts down on unnecessary emissions in transporting food, it also supports local growers and healthier ecosystems. Also, make sure you buy the right quantities and—if you can’t avoid left-overs—store them, freeze them, share them, don’t throw them out right away.

What is your advice for young people looking to start a business addressing our environmental challenges?

My biggest advice is to just try. I believe experimenting and adapting if necessary is very important to make things happen. In addition to that, exploit your networks. Don’t be afraid to speak to people and take their advice, especially from different backgrounds and different points of view.


The Young Champions of the Earth Prize is powered by Covestro. This year’s regional finalists have been shortlisted and the winners will be announced in September. Coline Billon is a Young Champions of the Earth prize changemaker. The prize is UN Environment's leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world's most pressing environmental challenges.