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Lille: City of the future

By Darryl D'Monte

The city of Lille on the French-Belgian border likes to describe itself as a 'Eurometropolis'. A major European industrial and services hub, the most interesting dimension of Lille is its greening. Lille is the only city in France to convert household waste to biogas, which is then used in public transport

Lille town centre

Mumbaikars may be surprised to learn that they have some things in common with Lille, a city on the French-Belgian border. For one thing, it has a sister-city relationship with India's commercial capital. For another, it was also the centre of a flourishing textile industry. The ruins of these red brick mills -- some still function -- dot the entire city; some have been redeveloped and gentrified, a la Mumbai too. But there the resemblances end.

Lille now likes to describe itself as a 'Eurometropolis'. Although the city itself has 1.1 million residents, this population swells to 1.9 million if you add those who live in the Belgian side of the urban conurbation. A look at the map tells you why Lille Metropole is distinctive. It is just an hour by fast TGV train from Paris; only 100 minutes from London; 35 minutes from Brussels; and is eminently accessible from Antwerp, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Cologne. This location gives it a special edge. In 2005, the Financial Times foreign direct investment magazine named Lille "the European city of the future".

Lille houses as many as 77 head offices of companies, 15 head offices of multinational companies and has a working population of 500,000 people. A fifth of these work in the industrial sector, and 72% in services. It is located in France's most productive industrial region, with a gross added value of € 7.3 billion in 2003. This is also the second region in France for inward investment -- after Paris. Investors are particularly attracted to Lille because there are 100 million consumers within a 300 km radius.

At the heart of this development is the innovative long-distance railway system, known as I-Trans. The four 'I's in this objective include 'interoperability' or compatibility between different rail networks -- national and international. Indian travellers are only too well aware, for instance, of the impasse between broad and narrow gauge systems. It is also aiming at 'intermodality' for freight and passengers, 'intelligent transport systems', and 'innovation for economic development'. Three of the world's leading railway equipment manufacturers are located here -- Alstom, Bombardier and Siemens. And, unlike its sister-city which has allowed its textile industry to perish, Lille has reinvented itself as a high-tech textile town as well as one that specialises in sports equipment.

'Eurolille', as it also likes to call itself, bid for the 2004 Olympics and, two years later, was designated the cultural capital of the European Union. Those in charge of the Lille Metropole Urban Community point out that in the 1960s, Lille was pockmarked with slums, associated with the declining 'old' textile industry. Now it has virtually undergone a metamorphosis and kept pace with the 21st century. Among other industries and services which it promotes are agro-food, health (pharmaceuticals and research) and biotechnology. It is also a major French finance centre, with banking, consumer credit financing and insurance. There are 800 'eco-enterprises' in the region, including recycling, air treatment, hospital waste treatment, and wind farms.

It is the greening of Lille which is, in many ways, its most interesting dimension. Lille is the only city in France to convert household waste to biogas, which is then used in public transport with a fleet of modern buses. The Urban Community has 85 communes -- equivalent to wards in Mumbai. The million-plus residents generate 700,000 tonnes of waste every year. The town -- similar to the dilemma faced by Indian cities -- was running out of suitable areas for landfills. Since 1992, citizens have been asked to separate their waste at home. As much as one-seventh of this waste is converted into biogas. But it took six long years to find a site for this plant -- largely due to the NIMBY factor (not in my back yard) which refers to people's psychological resistance to living with such a 'dirty' facility in their neighbourhood.

In 2000, the authorities found an agricultural site for recycling household waste but didn't know what to do with the biogas. The convention in France, and much of Europe, is to use the gas to generate electricity, which is then fed into the grid. Unlike most city authorities in this country, Lille held a public consultation, which is more than the token gesture it invariably is in the case of large Mumbai infrastructure projects. The final decision was to build a bus depot cheek-by-jowl with the waste management facility.

The organic waste recovery centre was completed last year and can treat 100,000 tonnes a year. After extensive trials, the first biogas plant should go on stream this month. It is expected to generate 4 million cubic metres of gas, which can power 100 of the 150 buses at the depot. This will provide a clean source of fuel -- just as Delhi has been the first city in the world to convert all its public vehicles to compressed natural gas -- and, what's more, get rid of a most troublesome nuisance at the same time.

Journalists from India were shown around the impressive facility recently. The engineers cite how the buses do not have a dedicated source of biogas but use a mix, since the generation of biogas, which is 95% methane, depends on the time of day. The plant is operated by a private company. It processes the fermentable component of household waste, which has been collected at the door. There is also green waste at recycling centres, consisting of grass and twigs from gardens, which is actually 52,000 tonnes a year in a green city like Lille: some 5,000 tonnes more than kitchen waste. There are small amounts of fermentable waste from municipal markets -- cattle markets in India are, similarly, an excellent source of cowdung -- and food waste from institutional caterers.

As the journalists saw, the bio waste arrives in huge containers in barges that ply along a canal, which is also an eco-friendly means of transport and one that is coming back into fashion in Europe. The containers are lifted by a gantry crane and transported by lorry to the transfer centre. Each truck carries one tonne of waste, for which the operator is paid € 65, which covers depreciation on the capital investment of € 75 million on the organic recovery centre. Interestingly, because of the resistance to garbage recovery centres, the authorities commissioned architects to make the facilities look ultra-modern and efficient, with bright colours and contemporary design in steel and glass, to make residents feel proud of these 21st century buildings in their midst.

The waste is ground, to render it easier to degrade, and transferred to a pre-composting plant where it is treated with oxygen, making it easier to digest. It spends 21 days in the digester, where it is separated into solid sludge and biogas. The former is converted into compost, which is an excellent fertiliser, and carried away by barge. The biogas, which consists of methane, carbon dioxide and water vapour, is purified to turn it into fuel for the buses. Since September 2007, when the organic recovery centre went into operation, the authorities have generated biogas that is the energy equivalent of 4 million litres of diesel a year.

As early as 1990, the Lille Urban Community decided to use the methane recovered from the fermentation of sewage sludge to fuel municipal buses. In 1999, it replaced a third of its municipal fleet with natural gas. By the beginning of 2007, 214 of the city's 338 buses were converted and the city plans to have its entire fleet of 400 buses powered by natural gas and bio methane by 2010. There is thus a 97% reduction in suspended particulate matter, 99% reduction in sulphur compounds and 70% reduction in nitrogen oxides compared to diesel vehicles. The use of biogas does away with smoke emissions being released into the atmosphere and also drastically reduces noise levels. In fact, the noise generated by a gas-powered bus is half that of a diesel bus.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a 2-3% increase per year in the amount of household waste generated. However, Lille has now stabilised its production of waste. The bio waste comprises one-seventh of the total waste of 700,000 tonnes a year. There are some 60,000 tonnes of directly recyclable waste, for which there are specially designated pick-up centres. This includes paper and cardboard, plastic, bottles and cans. Another 70,000 tonnes of bulky waste -- mainly packaging -- is sent to landfills. In France, most landfills generate methane; in Paris this is used to run turbines to produce electricity.

The Lille authorities concede that in the past they used to incinerate some of the waste, and traces of deadly dioxins which remain after such processing, were found in cows' milk in the area. They decided to adopt the precautionary principle and closed their three incineration plants, replacing them with an energy recovery centre which follows the most stringent European standards. They agree that it is because France and other industrial countries now have access to "global means of recycling" (a euphemism for dumping the waste in developing countries) that people have not been as conscious of the need to do away with cartons and other forms of packaging at the source.

They are trying to reduce the reliance on end-of-pipe solutions and muster the political will to convince consumers to "discard less, sort more, and process better". They haven't made much progress on the first objective, which is the prerogative of national governments rather than local authorities. To compound the problem, their neighbours in French-speaking Belgium are notoriously more profligate in their use of resources. For instance, it is fashionable there to drink bottled water, which is a thousand times more expensive than tap water which is of very high potable quality. However, there are glimmerings of change, with supermarkets accommodating special stands where certain goods are displayed in two different bags. One lot comes fully wrapped, packaged and branded; the other without these trappings is 10-12% cheaper, offering consumers the choice.

Lille Metropole now coordinates the Biogasmax Project, which is co-funded by the European Union. It has 25 public and private partners in Europe "to prove the technical reliability, cost-effectiveness, environmental and societal benefits of biogas fuels". It hopes to develop biogas fuel production in Europe and in the world, as well as involve universities and SMEs (small and medium enterprises) through setting up 'competitiveness poles'. The aim is to bring together all relevant stakeholders -- city and regional authorities, feedstock suppliers, technology providers from industry and SMEs, research partners and fleet operators -- to form a consortium geared to address the relevant issues of biofuels production and use in the most efficient and cost-effective way. The cities, industrial and research partners committed to Biogasmax International "should be actively innovative in terms of alternative fuels and energy efficient vehicles, particularly in the production of biogas for vehicle fuel". It therefore also welcomes international cities and stakeholders interested in acquiring knowledge about practical experience and results, so as to enhance the market acceptance of biogas as an alternative motor fuel and "jump" in the biogas fuel production initiative.

There is another thrust in the greening of Lille, which is the encouragement of public transport. Despite the Europeans' well-known love affair with the motorcar -- in Lille, 90% still travel by car -- the city has promoted the metro, bus and tram system. Only 1-2% use a cycle or walk to work. The metro, spanning 45 km, has existed since 1984 and the tram for a hundred years. The tram can run up to 80 kph, though its average speed is 35 kph; the bus has a maximum speed of 115 kph. Of those who use public transport, two-thirds choose the metro, which is totally unmanned, a tenth the tram, and 27% the bus. The ticket for a one-way journey by any of these three means of transport is € 1.25, which is cheaper than the € 2 its biggest neighbour, Brussels, charges.

The city is also making it more and more difficult for people to use cars, which is a policy honed by the local Green Party and the Left. Public transport is run by a private consortium called Keolis, which also operates in six other European countries and Canada. Half its operating costs in Lille are covered by the sale of tickets, and the rest by the Urban Community. To partly discourage the use of private cars, Lille provides 17 cars at six metro stations, which citizens can hire if they need to use one.

Lille also has a super-efficient water treatment station that treats the sewage of 350,000 inhabitants. It was built in 2003 for € 60 million and is run by Degremont -- a subsidiary of Suez, one of the two major French water companies, and among the world's biggest -- since 2005. It treats 36 million tonnes of waste water at an operating cost of € 3.3 million a year. Toxic chemicals and metals, from pesticides and the like (since northern France is heavily industrialised) have to be specially treated and disposed of. At the end of such treatment, as visiting journalists observed, the water is rendered clean enough to be let out into the nearby river.

InfoChange News & Features, June 2008