When the City Sleeps

Amazed by the amount of organic waste produced by his restaurant, Stephan Martinez decided to tackle the problem. His company Moulinot collects and transforms the organic waste of more than 300 establishments in the Île-de-France region, a model that has seriously piqued the interest of politicians.

When the City Sleeps

Amazed by the amount of organic waste produced by his restaurant, Stephan Martinez decided to tackle the problem. His company Moulinot collects and transforms the organic waste of more than 300 establishments in the Île-de-France region, a model that has seriously piqued the interest of politicians.

" At Stephan Martinez's Petit Choiseul, the ambiance is that of a true neighbourhood bistro. Such places are rare pearls in Paris."

Sitting at the large hidden table on the first floor, next to the kitchen, Stephan passionately — and with self-deprecating humor — tells me about his adventure. It all started in 2008: surprised by the amount of organic waste that was produced in his restaurant at the time, he launched himself into the practice of composting and bought ten kilos of earthworms. Originally, it was almost a joke, but the guests got caught up in the game and the compost bin became the place's main attraction. Stephan saw the didactic potential in it and created the Moulinobox, a mini composter of which he's sold 3,500 units.

Stéphan Martinez fights against food waste
©Moulinot

It was a wonderful success that could have been enough to satisfy the restauranteur's conscious that good cooking is made from ingredients that come from a living soil. But for Stephan, more can always be done and better. He capitalized on the moment that Grenelle 2 was enacted, the law that requires producers of food waste to implement a sorting and valorization system for said waste. A progressive program, it concerned establishments that produced 120 tonnes of waste per year in 2012. In early 2016, it was expanded to those who produce up to 10 tonnes annually, which roughly corresponds to 500 covers per week.

In November 2013, Stephan tackled the task of organizing the food waste collection for 80 establishments located in the heart of the city — the 1st, 2nd and 8th arrondissements — there, where the logistics were the most complicated. It was pure madness. Today, and beyond all expectations, Moulinot, the company created by Stephan, has 300 clients of all types, from palaces to chain restaurants, as well as bistros and caterers. While the city sleeps, silent little trucks (which run on methane) pick up the organic waste that will be used to produce methane and soon also compost as a way to give the land back the nourishment it has given us.

©Moulinot

This was no easy task, even if Stephan has streamlined things. His understanding of the industry and his power of persuasion — and the constant monitoring of the sorting results — have been decisive. Identifying the simple yet efficient gestures to inculcate in kitchen brigades, finding where to store the sorting sacks in Parisian kitchens known for their cramped spaces... He had to find solutions case by case, with beautiful discoveries along the way, such as the use of transparent bags. Initially considered as a means to help the staff correct eventual sorting errors, they also led to a reduction in waste. Recognizing the recurring presence of certain products, the restauranteurs were able to save on their purchases, as well as their collection costs, which are calculated by weight.

Concretely, the food waste, which previously would have been sent to the incinerator, is brought to the methanation reactor where electricity and heat are extracted from it, as well as fertilizer rich in nitrogen and phosphate from the digestate, a technical term for the residue remaining after the conversion. In a little less than three years of activity, Moulinot has converted 5,000 tons of organic waste into 300,000 cubic metres of biogas — enough energy to circle the planet 150 times in a methane-powered car, to give you an idea of the magnitude — and 5,000 tons of fertilizer. It is a mere drop in the ocean of the 350,000 tons of organic waste produced in France by the restaurant industry, but it is a start and the model created by Stephan is already inspiring many policy-makers.

©Moulinot

Today, Moulinot is growing rapidly (21 employees, a logistics system that is developing in more complex and efficient ways). Like all start-ups, it is still trying to find its balance, but the financial data is positive. The City of Paris reports an average cost of 311 euros to treat one tonne of waste; at Moulinot, this cost has already passed under the 300 euro mark and everything that is collected is recycled.

The next step is the return of the Moulinobox, on a grand scale this time. A composting unit will see the day where, thanks to the work of earthworms, food waste mixed with green waste (leaves, branches... ) will produce humus. A humus of which agricultural lands are in desperate need in order to continue nourishing us after decades of productivist agriculture. The (virtuous) system comes full circle.

©Moulinot

When leaving this lovely meeting, I smiled at the idea that, for once, a discussion at the bar is actually in the process of changing the world. Add that to the fact that it was a discussion about the restaurant industry, no less.

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