By Geert De Clercq
PARIS (Reuters) - A group of Paris restaurants is turning food scraps into biogas and compost ahead of a new law that will force thousands of French food outlets to recycle their organic waste.
Some 80 restaurants, caterers and hotels, including gourmet food company Fauchon and Michelin-starred Taillevent, signed up for a pilot project to collect their food waste, which is used to generate biogas and produce electricity and heat, as well as compost for farms around Paris.
The initiative, launched earlier this month, comes ahead of a tightening of environmental legislation that by 2016 will force up to one in five restaurants to recycle their organic waste or face fines of up to 75,000 euros.
France, which lags northern European countries in recycling, is driving efforts to turn organic waste into methane as it tries to reduce landfill, incineration and greenhouse gases.
Stephan Martinez of neighborhood bistrot Le Petit Choiseuil, who took the initiative for the project, said the collection anticipates the law but that participating restaurants are happy that someone collects their waste and puts it to good use.
"The positive response from customers about recycling is also a big bonus," said Martinez, whose 50-seat restaurant produces only about five tons of organic waste per year.
In his own tiny kitchen, cooks now put peelings and leftovers in transparent plastic bags that are collected every morning by quiet biogas-fuelled trucks.
Since 2012, France requires companies to recycle their organic waste if they produce more than 120 tons of it per year, but that threshold is gradually lowered to include not just supermarkets and agrifood firms, but also company canteens, hospitals and other collective kitchens.
Environmental services groups Veolia and Suez Environnement are investing in biogas-fired power plants to recycle organic waste from the likes of food maker Danone and grocer Carrefour.
From this year, recycling is required for anyone producing 40 tons of waste per year and from 2016 this will go down to 10 tons (some 33 kilos a day), which will cover restaurants with some 150 servings a day - about a fifth of all eateries.
"From 2016, the number of restaurants covered by this regulation will increase exponentially," said Herve Dutruel of Bionerval, which turns the Paris restaurant waste into methane and compost in a biogas plant in Etampes, south of Paris.
Bionerval, a unit of German biogas specialist Rethmann, runs four biogas plants in France, each with a capacity of 40,000 tons per year.
In huge tanks, bacteria turn waste into methane gas, which is burned in a turbine that generates two megawatt/hour of electric power - as much as a wind turbine. After methanization, the waste is further composted and turned into fertilizer that is used by farms in the region.
For now, the firm only handles some 5,000 tons of food waste per year from some 700 restaurants - mainly canteens and some demonstration projects in schools - but expects that volume to grow quickly in coming years. Bionerval plans to build two or three more biogas plants.
Specialists say France is way behind countries like Germany, Austria, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands, which have various systems of mandatory organic waste collection for households as well as restaurants.
Last year, some 100 New York restaurants signed up for a pilot composting program and former mayor Michael Bloomberg had announced plans to collect organic waste from households.
The Paris pilot project - whose 450,000 euro cost is financed by French environmental agency Ademe and restaurant union Synhorcat - aims to collect 200 tons of waste in the next six months and expects that more of Paris' 25,000 restaurants will join before regulation tightens.
Ademe specialist Philippe Thauvin said collection costs are estimated at about 200 euros per ton, with another 60-80 euros/ton for methanization.
"This is the first operation of significant size in France in this area," he said, adding that France is well behind northern neighbors when it comes to methanization.
Synhorcat president Didier Chenet said that once the Paris pilot has finetuned logistics, it will roll out the initiative in other French cities.
"Nobody sees this as a burden. It is an opportunity to give back to the earth what comes from the earth," he said.
(Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Louise Heavens)