The reality of living in the 21st century is tirelessly trying to find ways to reduce your carbon footprint or to just consume less in general. Under a capitalist system, the United States has become one of the biggest consumers of the world with the average American throwing out 4.5 pounds of trash per day. Reducing waste and conserving energy is something that most of us strive towards each day but it takes true effort and mindful consumption habits. Although France has also favored a capitalist oriented economy, the French have more obvious daily practices in order to reduce their energy consumption and waste generation. This article aims to draw specific comparisons between United States and French citizens in regards to their daily practices that care for our environment. It will discuss the irony of Americans’ spending more money to be environmentally conscious and how the French are able to spend less money to do the same. It will explore the different approaches to Ecology in both countries and moreover, the ways in which everyday life looks different in regards to consumption habits.
🌿Going Green : on the move
In certain cities throughout France that have a higher population have shared city bike programs, often referred to as ‘vélib.’ These bikes, depending on the city, are manual and/or electric. Within the bikeshare programs, there are various payment plans which are relatively affordable. There are typically options such as pay by the hour, a year pass, or a week pass which makes it accessible to citizens and visitors. The plentitude of bikes and bike docking points reduces air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions by gas-based cars.
The buses in France are mostly electric, instead of diesel fueled. There are plenty of bus stops scattered throughout cities at which buses arrive every five to fifteen minutes, depending on the route. Similar to the bikes, there are payment options for the bus that are affordable to the average resident. Providing affordable payment encourages people to take the bus or ride bikes because they are both reliable and quick forms of transportation. The frequency of buses, the numerous stops, and the fact that they are electricity-fueled prove the dedication in France to preserve energy.
In addition to various forms of public transportation, there is far more accessibility to electric cars at an affordable cost. At the FNAC, the popular electronic chain store in France, they display the Citroen Ami : it is a small two-seater car with many payment plans as low as 19 euros per month. France has developed a market of electric cars that suit the base model needs all the way up to luxury.
Public transportation use in the United States pales in comparison to that of France. Although public transportation options such as buses, trains, subways and trams exist in the US, their use is relegated to densely-populated urban areas with the resources and infrastructure to accommodate them: indeed, a report from the U.S. Census Bureau released in April 2021 shows that 70% of the United States’ public transportation users are from one of the country’s seven largest metropolitan areas. In the country as a whole, however, people rarely use public transportation (compared to the larger metropolitan areas): in 2019, only around 5% of all workers in the United States chose public transportation for their commutes. But on a positive note, many Americans choose to bike to work, thus reducing their carbon emissions and bike sharing programs are becoming more and more popular in cities in the United States. On the other hand 75.9% of commuters in the U.S. opted to drive alone in their personal vehicles. This shows that America’s city planning heavily prioritizes cars to bikes or pedestrians. With the country’s wide roads, easily accessible freeways, and social culture surrounding car ownership, the automobile has a stronghold on the American commute and culture. This prioritization is directly related to the popularity of automobiles in the country over the past century.
Transportation remains the top source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States with cars contributing a whopping 60% and freight trucks adding 23% to the already massive total. Cities in the United States have been attempting to encourage citizens to switch to electric or hybrid vehicles by offering tax incentives and building more charging stations. However, these vehicles make up less than 1% of the country’s 250 million cars. One maker of electric vehicles, Tesla, has made headway in enticing Americans to go green on the road. Unfortunately, the popularity of these vehicles is less for their carbon neutrality and more for the status that they provide: they are extremely expensive and carry the prestige of comparably-priced luxury vehicles. In comparison with the Citroen Ami, it is a much smaller size which makes it much more user friendly and easy to maneuver around a small city, like Toulouse. There is less of a prestige with this model of car but one can argue that the practicality of it outweighs the prestige of a Tesla.
🌿Going Green : At Home
At home, the French preserve energy on a regular basis. In most homes, there are no drying machines for laundry. Instead, the French air dry their clothing. This reduces energy consumption in a household significantly, especially when many households adhere to this norm.
Additionally, many houses and apartments do not have air conditioning. In the summer, the French open their windows to allow for an air current to pass through the house to cool it in the evening, through the night, up until the morning. In the morning, they close the windows and close the blinds so that sun does not go inside to heat the home up. This has proved effective for several generations but now with the increase of temperature worldwide, it proves to be more and more problematic. At home, another cultural tendency is to turn off the lights when no one is in the room or when leaving the room. Oftentimes, blinds will go up and they will use natural light to cut down on energy consumption in the house. Regarding water consumption, in the bathrooms, the toilets have two buttons: the smaller one is for less water and the larger one is for more water to flush. In the shower, the French take short showers; a shower is seen as a way to cleanse oneself rather than relaxation time. In addition, many people turn the shower off while applying shampoo or body wash and only turn on the water to rinse off. These habits around reducing energy and water lead to a lower energy consumption rate nation-wide.
On the other hand, living in an “eco-friendly” manner in the United States is a costly affair. Those with the means often install solar panels on their roofs, outfit their homes with “smart home” technology, or purchase an electric Tesla. Although these actions lower carbon footprint and are more sustainable, they are far too expensive in their current state to become the norm. Going green, though it is an incredibly important goal, is something that has become a trend in the United States for the privileged few who can afford it. American social culture has not adopted the necessary attitudes towards affordably lowering consumption. Although there are daily actions that could be taken such as shorter showers, less use of air conditioning and heating, cutting down on driving personal vehicles, and eating at restaurants less, many Americans are not willing to change their lives for the good of the planet.
In France, the food is grown differently. There are more sustainable practices such as decreased hormones in animals and less pesticides on plants. Their practices for conserving food are more energy efficient. Instead of putting food that is warm in the fridge, they will let it sit out until it decreases in temperature so that the fridge does not have to work as hard to cool the internal temperature down. The French’s approach to energy and food preservation decreases their consumption significantly.
At-home practices for sustainability in the United States, specifically those surrounding food, are lacking in comparison to those in France. While the entire world wastes around 1.4 billion tons of food per year, America is the largest contributor to this number with nearly 40 million tons per year. This number is estimated to be between 30% and 40% of the nation’s food supply. The causes of extreme food waste in the United States are complicated, however widespread misunderstanding of expiration labels is a large contributor. More than 80% of Americans discard consumable food because they fear foodborne illnesses will be present at the “sell by” date. In addition, the portion sizes at American restaurants are excessive and have doubled or tripled within the last twenty years. Of course, this contributes to food waste from either the restaurants themselves or from underutilized leftovers brought home and eventually to the garbage. The abundance of fast food in the U.S. contributes not only to food waste but also paper and plastic use and waste. To-go containers, overpackaging, and a lack of recyclable materials greatly contribute to waste generation in the country. However, even the packaging that could be recycled is often tossed in the trash. For a money-hungry country such as the United States, it is surprising that fast food companies have missed out on around 11 billion dollars in potential revenue from recycling their packaging.
Although fast food in the United States contributes heavily to the destruction of our planet, many turn to it for its cheap prices. Purchasing sustainably grown or organic food in America is 47% more expensive on average. These prices reflect the higher standards for animal welfare, avoidance of pesticides, and lack of GMOs. While many Americans would choose to eat sustainably, it is simply above their budget.
French and American aims at conservation accomplish similar goals with different motives. While observing French conservation habits through host living and living in Toulouse, it is clear that the French live a life that is synonymous with conservation, regardless of social gain.
This differs greatly from American ideas surrounding conservation. In the United States, a large amount of environmentally friendly choices come at great cost or follow current “trends”. Conservation is less of an environmentally friendly decision, and more of a way to continue to present as on trend. This is in part due to the price of energy in each country. Gasoline, for example, differs greatly in the US and France. In France, one gallon of gas costs $6.21 USD. The price of a gallon in the US averages at $4.09 USD. While gas prices fluctuate, these averages show the nearly two dollar difference in a gallon of gas between the two countries. It is more expensive to drive in France, and the culture of driving is much less apparent as a result of this.
Other daily practices surrounding conservation include minimizing food waste. The US is known for large portion sizes and operating in excess, and this is less of the case in France. One will find smaller portions in restaurants, and this results in less food waste overall. At home, saving food is extremely important. Dining in a French household has shown the lengths that the French go to minimize food waste, whether it is saving the last few bites of pasta from dinner or putting a lemon back in the fridge that hasn’t been juiced all the way.
Additionally, compost practices differ in the US versus France. In the US, an indoor/automatic compost machine can cost up to $400. While it is possible to create your own compost set up for the backyard, it is both time consuming and requires research and materials that many Americans are not willing to procure. Certain states have composting initiatives, but the US varies greatly state by state in composting efforts. In France, specifically Toulouse, the city finances composting initiatives. The city will finance an outdoor compost set up, which costs between 15-25 euros. This level of conservation is almost second nature, and definitely took a period of time to adjust to as an American.
Conservation practices are a part of daily routine, not something to be bought into in France. In the US, it is common for people to buy into conservation. Whether that is buying the latest Tesla model, a fancy (and overpriced) at home compost machine, or upgrading home appliances to be “smarter,” environmentalism almost always comes at a price. France seems to take smaller, more habitual steps to lead a life that is overall rooted in conservation, without having to buy the latest gadget to accomplish this.