A recyclable interview with Michel Kempinski

It was a very warm and sunny day at the end of March 2021, when we met the president of the SULO Group Michel Kempinski in Langres, France. We talked about “The City we´d love to live in” and the development of the Trilib, which is an innovative waste sorting station, developed in cooperation with the city of Paris to inspire more citizens to collect and sort their daily waste.

Monsieur Kempinski, what characterizes the city of today in comparison with the cities of the past, let´s say with the 19th century city or the cities of the modernistic period of the 20th century?

During the urbanization last century, we had a big move towards a few centers, which increased the process of urbanization. The big cities are getting bigger and bigger and the small ones smaller and smaller. More than ever we see this trend nowadays all over the world. Understandably all the people joining the urban centers want to have access to modernism and to the services and opportunities, that are supposed to be more accessible in the big cities than in the countryside.



It seems to be a very human desire to participate and therefore move to the metropolises?

Absolutely, but this movement has changed the face of our cities. It has created a lot of new extended construction in the surrounding, which has been added to the old historic centers. Because most of the buildings of this modernistic period of growth in the 60s and 70s are really poor in terms of quality we now face a big challenge and chance at the same time. Because huge parts are deconstructed this gives us the opportunity to build new buildings with new standards of comfort and sustainability, with new materials, better isolation, energy efficiency, so that we can be more cautious concerning the environment. In this sense many good things are going on. From my or let´s say our SULO point of view, the big challenge worldwide is that we have more and more people in these huge urban areas and that it’s our task to find new ways to collect waste. We have to bring new solutions especially for the big cities.



City planners are talking now about the 15-minute-city, which means that distances are reduced, and mixed neighborhoods align to a more human scale, essentially like in former times, but in a modern version. What are the main criteria for a human city, where humans really feel comfortable and safe?

I would say security and cleanliness. What we also need to have is a greener view with more trees, parks and green places. For sure, politicians in developed countries are focused on creating more green places for the people, so that the population is able to make sports, relax and so on. Because this is very important: health, safety, cleanliness.

“This is very important:
healthy, safety,

Do you think that it will be possible to integrate all the people in such healthy, safe and clean cities or do we see more gated neighborhoods in the future?

For me, as someone who has lived in Germany for a while, it has always been a big quality that I basically can walk safely around the city wherever I want to. Of course, it would be great to have this kind of cities in the future too. I don’t know exactly about the situation in Germany, but I know that in France we have big areas where you cannot go anymore, where we have big problems with security, because of drug dealers and clans fighting each other. These are fundamental problems, which are not so easy to solve. I wish that we don´t get a situation like in South Africa, where we have areas with fences around the houses, armed security and so forth. But I see that this development is a challenge for our society, at least in some parts of the big cities.



What do you think about the Smart City? Do you think Smart Cities will make life easier or is it more like something will be missing, like the human imperfection, when we have digital smartness managing our life?

It´s becoming more and more George Orwell´s world. 1984. I am not happy with such a vision of the world. I think everybody has the right to choose. If people are happy with that, ok why not. But for me it has something to do with freedom. Freedom means managing your own personal data and not placing every detail of your life at disposal for everybody. I think we have many possibilities and, in the future even more, to build our own way to live. Of course, we can monitor our food, when we are not at home, we can monitor the cooling or whatever. We can do a lot of things at distance, but for me it´s still essential to drive my car myself, whenever I like to. And I definitely don´t want my refrigerator to deny access, because I have already opened it five times a day or have eaten more than 2000 calories. (laughs) No, no, I don’t want this kind of world.



Maybe it would be a good compromise to take what makes sense and leave away what doesn´t make sense, and in the end to stay more independent from digital devices. Now I´d like to ask you a personal question. Which are your three favorite cities our places in the world?

My number one is of course Paris, because it’s my hometown and the most beautiful city in the world, also because of historical reasons. Number two is Polynesia. I love this quite place in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific Ocean, there I feel very close to nature. And if I should name another city, I would say London. I like it, because it is very typical in its architecture with not so many high buildings, except in the center. It is also very green and full of this special kind of London energy and creativity. Yes, I feel very good, when I am in London.



When you think of historic cities, in which would you have liked to live in the past?

Maybe in Florence of the renaissance. I appreciate the Italian cities in general: Florence, Rome and even Napoli are still nowadays very nice and beautiful cities. In historic times they were at the peak of modernization, with a great infrastructure and the comfort of thermal spas, restaurants and whatever you needed for a good and civilized life.



Are you optimistic about the city or do you think we should better move to the countryside? In other words, do you personally think it´s worth living in the city of the future?

For me not. Cities are part of my daily life, yes, but the rest of my time I prefer to spend in the countryside, close to the sea or the mountains. But of course, it´s always a pleasure to come back to the big city for cultural reasons, for going to the opera, theater, museum. I believe that it is important to feed our knowledge and feelings with artistic input. For this purpose, the metropolis is irreplaceable. I live in the city because it’s indispensable for me for many practical reasons but for sure I’m happier outside of the big cities.


One of the developments, which you have been a driving part of, a development, which can be understood in the context of the evolution of the city of the future, is the mobile waste sorting banks Trilib. Trilib has already been rolled out and will be implemented in the near future with about 1.000 stations all over the City of Paris. What was the intention behind it?

This is the same topic we have discussed before. As the density of people living on the same square mile increases, we have to find new ways to involve people in sorting their waste. When the amount of waste grows with the number of citizens it makes perfect sense to motivate them to collect and sort it, because then it doesn´t pollute the city and it can be recycled and used as a resource. This is what Trilib is standing for. By the way, Trilib is the exclusive trademark for Paris. It derives from “Tri”, which means sort in French and “lib” for liberty.

Michel Kempinski is President of the SULO Group.

After studying at the SKEMA Lille, he began his career as a journalist and editor-in-chief for economics and finance. In 1993, he became a technical advisor in the cabinet of the Minister of Economy, Economic Development, Trade and Handicrafts, Alain Madelin. After this detour into politics, he became editor-in-chief, then chairman and CEO of the Journal des Finances and served as chairman of the board of the Valmonde-Group. Then he joined Plastic Omnium as Deputy managing director, and President /CEO of the environmental division.

Since 2018 he is President of the SULO Group and an engaged advocate of the Circular Economy approach. During Nicolas Hulot’s term as Minister of Environment under Emmanuel Macron, Michel Kempinski has been working as French Abassador of Ciruclar Economy on a draft law on sustainability and environmental protection, which was passed by the French Parliament in 2020. Looking back, he recalls the 1 ½ year development phase: “Our task was to participate in the elaboration of the new law about sustainability and protection of environment. We worked on the global frame of the law to encourage all the initiatives to promote the reuse of plastics. So, it was very important for us to make this experience to push the recycling at SULO. Now we are able to produce 100% with recyclable material. Today you can see that big companies like Coca Cola or Nestlé promote the fact that their bottles are made of 50% recyclables. This is the new way. This is the new idea. And like Victor Hugo said, there is nothing more powerful than an idea, whose time has come.”

Is Trilib just a solution for Paris?

Oh no, only the name is exclusive, all other cities can have the same system, but it will be called Optri. We believe that garbage containers in general should comply with the design of the local architecture. With rusty, dirty steel containers like you can find them in many places in Germany for example you won´t inspire people to go there deliberately and sort their waste. The stations have to be nice objects contributing to the local architecture. That´s why we have proposed and discussed with the city of Paris a completely new way to optimize the sorting of waste, particularly the recyclables, by creating a clean and inviting station. A place in the city where you can rest or work, maybe with some plants and a Wi-Fi station or other benefits that attract people. Very important: our vision explicitly was to create a nice, clean object, not something ugly. Because if it’s ugly you don’t want to go there. But if it’s nice you feel more comfortable and in harmony, even more when it is close to your home.



Was Trilib made for the citizens of the neighborhood or for people who are passing through the city on their way to work, etc.?

For both of course, but in the first place for the citizens living close to the Trilib. We know that people living in a distance up to 100 meters go to the station, but if it’s a little bit further, they won´t. So you have to combine an inviting design with the tradition of the quarter and to distribute the stations in an intelligent cluster all over the city to inspire the maximum number of citizens to go there and sort waste. That´s precisely what the City of Paris is aiming at.



I heard it was a long way to develop it, you have assigned a renowned designer, a color design agency, commissioned behavioral studies and put around 10,000 hours of work into the development. Did you have a test period before you finally started?

We installed a pilot TriLib station on the Paris city hall terrace just directly under the Paris mayor office window. This took place during the COP21 event that happened in Paris in December 2015. The station got a lot of attention and the City of Paris was very happy with it, so they asked us to install Trilib in 40 places to check out the acceptance of the citizens. The City of Paris identified 40 representative places and collected data how the people used them.



What kind of data were this?

First of all, it was important to find out if and how much more recyclable waste was collected at the end of the day. But also, how the object itself was accepted. Did it get tagged? Did the people put all their waste around it? And so on. So, the experiment lasted more than one year. And the result was satisfying? In fact, it was very encouraging. Every one of the city of Paris has been convinced, that this kind of sorting is a very good idea, the urban sorting of the future so to speak. And they wanted to accelerate the project by finding the most appropriate design and developing the most efficient concept of collecting. Because you have to understand: there is the design, the box itself on one hand and the way to collect the box on the other.



And the result was satisfying?

In fact, it was very encouraging. Every one of the city of Paris has been convinced, that this kind of sorting is a very good idea, the urban sorting of the future so to speak. And they wanted to accelerate the project by finding the most appropriate design and developing the most efficient concept of collecting. Because you have to understand: there is the design, the box itself on one hand and the way to collect the box on the other.



Can you explain this a little more precisely?

From the very beginning we have been absolutely sure that with Trilib or in the future Optri we have to provide a global solution which integrates not only the equipment of the box but also the equipment and handling of the collection, which basically means the truck. We built a partnership with a company specialized in waste truck to develop the appropriate lifting arm which is guided by laser and is very precise in terms of moving and picking up the box. And more than this it´s also very, very quick. It takes only 80 seconds to collect one container. This makes the whole process very easy, because you have no trouble with the traffic behind the truck, not so much noise and so on. You have to consider the whole context if you want to provide a global solution, that is groundbreaking in all its aspects.



It seems as if there has been a real teamwork between SULO and the City of Paris? Both sides have been interested in realizing it?

Yes, we cooperated with CITEO. They financed big parts of the project at the beginning, at least the real costs, which the city of Paris had to pay for testing it and then to make the competitive negotiation contract, since it was a tender with a lot of competition. At the end it was not so easy, but I think we offered a very good interpretation of what Paris wanted.



So, it was not only the money but also the idea that was decisive?

Yes, I would say the idea itself, the well-grounded testing and above all the global approach made the difference at the end.



What were the main aspects of the global approach?

It was crucial not only to provide a container or a bin, but everything around the collection. With Paris we have a 7-year contract of maintaining, washing and repairing. Each time they send us an information about a problem, let´s say there is a tag at the Trilib in the Rue d’Artois, we have 24 hours to go there, to wash and clean it. Because of this obligation, the global approach is very demanding. We have to guarantee that the station is very clean, all the time. If it is not, people won´t go there. You have to see the whole picture if you want to be efficient. That´s also why it was so important to discuss with Marc Aurel, the designer we assigned, because we wanted to impose the spirit of creation to the recycling bank and to provide a nice product completely integrated into the Paris cityscape. There is some very particular urban furniture in Paris, like the Metro sign at the entrance of the subway, and we believe the Trilib should become a significant part of it.



Do you think this concept can be adapted easily to other cities?

Oh yes, absolutely, because if you offer a complete solution, the argumentation is getting much easier. Trilib, respectively Optri is not only design. If you sell just design, everybody can say I like it or I don’t like it. And you will see that the members of the city council are going to fight, saying I like it or I don’t like it. But if you provide a solution, it’s completely different. You can optimize, you can upgrade your eco report, you can save money, you can improve the daily life of the citizens. At the end, when you have all this kind of benefits and opportunities, you say ok, it´s a global picture, so I like it.



If you can provide so many good reasons and benefits, I guess it’s difficult for anyone to say no, right?

Sure. It´s the matter of the city to discuss whether the color should be brown, yellow or pink. But above all it is a global approach and I think this is what makes the difference. Yesterday we had a meeting with the president of one of the largest French metropolis. They have bought some of our Marti banks, but they also wanted to have further information about Optri. The first question was: “If I take a glass bottle, not plastic, but real glass, and throw it in, what about the noise?” Because everybody was worried, that it will be noisy when they place it in the center of the city. So, we brought a big Optri container full of glass directly to the city council to test it. Then the mayor threw the bottle inside the container and said: “Oh, very good, you have a special appliance to reduce the noise, so very good. Can I have one container in front of the City Council so that every politician of the communities around can come and try and listen to be convinced?” This is only a story, but it shows the complexity of what I called global proposal. We offer a complete solution, and this is very, very important, because this way Trilib or Optri is not just another new product.


Monsieur Kempinski, we wish you good luck with the Trilib and the further roll out of the Optri. It was a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much. It was my pleasure. Thank you.


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